A strong resilient family overcomes the racism of 1950s Brisbane 47

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joes-milk-bar-coverHow many of us know someone, or have a relative, named Joe. This isn’t their real name, but, being Italian, this is the name they’ve gone by in Australia.

Joe’s Fruit Shop & Milk Bar author Zoe Boccabella tells the story of her grandfather‘s fruit shop and milk bar that once stood at the corner of Ann and Wharf St in Brisbane. But she tells more than that. She tells the story of a strong and resilient family, the story of a city which has lost many of its gracious old buildings and some stories from part of our past we prefer to forget.

Joe’s name was not Joe but Annibale. Zoe Bocabella takes us to the Italy of World War 11, to young resistance fighters, to families who had separated just before war broke out so the men could earn money in the canefields and have their families join them. Life was hard for the women left behind. Both her grandparents came from this background but lived quite different lives in Australia till they met, fell in love and married.

Before this fairy tale could take place, Joe spent some time in an internment camp hidden out in the bush. When the family tried to place this camp, most official traces had been erased. This was not a situation the government wished to acknowledge. While the camp was not cruel, it was pointless.

The racism that the young cane cutters encountered was real. They were called names, discriminated against in the workforce in terms of being employed and being paid. There were language and social barriers. The young men worked on orchards and many tried to establish farms of their own. As Catholics, they also encountered discrimination in a largely Protestant Australia.

As Zoe Boccabella traces her family history, she encounters the difficulty of finding the buildings of 1950s Brisbane. So much had been insensitively razed.

The story of how the young couple worked hard juggling their young family, improving their business, helping others, is an inspiring one. It is also a book that leads to reflection on the way Australia has treated successive waves of migrants and to what extent we have cherished our brief built heritage.

Joe’s Fruit Shop & Milk Bar, by Zoe Boccabella – click here to buy from Dymocks

Also available as an eBook from Dymocksclick here


Vivienne Beddoe

  1. but when ppl migrated to Australia years ago they mixed with us never ever trying to change our country into being like theirs.. they all worked hard unlike the ones of today

    5 REPLY
    • So true Cheryl, they were also non violent Christians, they had the same beliefs as ours.

    • Cheryl spot on mate, and thats the difference mate……….. the government had rules back in the early days and we were much happier to lean from one and other……..the new generations that are coming in seem to take from us ……………….In our public hospital their given jobs over our people and allowed to were their clothing and not uniforms (I have witness this of late in sydney lady in their dress code)

    • and we got along ok.. even learnt how to cook their way… but today who wants to mix with these moslimes??? not me

    • I rememeber during the warmer months when MY grandparents were alive they used to have nights when all the ppl in the back lane would get together and each one bought a plate or two and shared it.. all the kids got along adn so did the parents…

    • even Mr and Mrs Rosenbone joined in they were Jewish ppl very nice and even let me know they knew i was pinching the figs off their tree which was over hanging into the lane way…lol…. MY Grandparents were English and Grandmar would take them scones which she had made … then would then give us some Jewish food to eat.. no arguments we all got along fine

  2. My mother’s younger sister married an Italian in UK in the early 60’s. There was still a lot of racism around with people calling them cowards and traitors because of what happened in WW2. He brought his parents and sisters over a few years later and they all worked hard and did quite well for themselves.

    1 REPLY
    • I grew up in the 50’s I don’t remember any racism. Sure we had names for all the nationalities but there wasn’t anything meant by it. We called the New Australian’s names they called us names, they taught us to play soccer (wog ball) we taught them rugby, we all played together and squabbled amongst ourselves as kids do. We laughed about Italian Tanks and Ships, certainly but when we said things like our Scrap Iron Flotilla chased you allover the Mediterranean, there was a quick answer , Yes but you couldn’t catch us……..We did the same to everyone, with the exception of the Americans, only because there weren’t any….There was no victimization. Some childhood friendships have lasted a life time…

  3. My husband’s grandfather was born in 1869 to parents that had immigrated from Italy. So Vic is third generation Australian. Italians were hard workers and mostly Catholic. They didn’t get, or expect handouts. They traded and bartered with other Italians for time and material to build their homes and businesses. They came with an attitude that they would succeed. They were not here to convert us to their way of thinking, or to object and frown on our way of life. They did not live in ghettos, or take over suburbs. They didn’t build huge monuments to their alien religion, cover their faces, mutilate their daughters, sell them to old men, or raise their sons as if gods. There is no comparing Greeks and Italians with the latest so called immigrants. If this make me a racist, then thats okay. I believe I’m telling it straight.

    8 REPLY
    • You are so right Mary . We came from the UK in 1974 , and we would not believe the formalities we had to go through. Health checks, birth and marriage certificates, search of police and financial records, etc, all this before they could us we were welcome to live here but had to pay our own fares. W came and happily ads oped it the Australian way of life. No one we knew, no matter what nationality were on the dole or expected hand outs. What pele did not have they saved up for or nought second hand. I know so many people now who have arrived from other countries who never work unless it is cash in hand, and they also claim financial assistance. Times have indeed changed

    • Jean, we were £10 migrants. Did it tough, lived in a migrant hostel for 18 months, rented a house in Brunswick, finally bought a house around the corner. All my brothers and sisters worked to contribute to the running of the house as I did when I started working. We all did well, married and reared families. All our kids and their kids have worked and reached levels of success I never dreamed of as a kid. Now we have 3 great grandchildren, with another due on Monday! So, I feel we have contributed to Australia , a country I’m proud to live in.

    • We arrived in1970 with little money and had to start over with no help from anyone but we worked and saved educated our kids who have also worked hard. We did it without asking for dole which we would not have been eligible for paid private health or you had to pay all the bills. Time we went back to no handouts to newcomers.

    • Agree Valerie foster completely. Too many of them are working cash in hand and collecting money from social services. life

    • Just a little aside….both of Vic’s grandfathers were Italian, both married Irish girls, so as I’m Irish I keep telling Vic he is too! Then I tell my kids they are Irish Italian and only Aussies by an accident of birth! That gets them going! They are so proud of their heritage, but extremely proud of being Australian. One son married a girl who already had children, one of which is severely disabled due to a metabolic disorder. He does get help for her from the government, but he has a good job and works hard. He loves Georgia as if she is his own daughter. She wasn’t meant to live very long as her brother passed at 14 months from the same illness. Son snd daughter in law have now been married 18 years and Georgia is 20. The other 2 daughters he helped raise now have families of their own. Life is challenging, but wonderful.

  4. Vivienne Beddoe what a wonderful review, and how appropriate that book is in today’s climate. People forget racism has been in this country for a long time , starting with the immigrants who came after WW2. And who knows it may been there before that, I was not alive then and we are seeing it happens still today with the Muslim community much to Australia’s shame

    2 REPLY
    • it always stuns me when I look at the last names of these loud mouthed racists, they are the same foriegn sounding names that were scorned and derided here and now they are doing the same thing to others

    • The biggest difference, surely is that no previous immigrants have threatened wholesale slaughter of the host country’s citizens.

  5. You didnt have to be Italian or Greek to feel the full force of racism. Im English, we coped it plenty!And this was in the 70’s

  6. Thank God the Italians did come to Australia as I am married to one of their descendents. I love their history and yes they surely did work hard.

  7. This sounds a good read, Vivienne. I will certainly get a copy.
    Although Tasmanian, I spent the 1960s in Brisbane. In our suburb, Windsor, we had a true ‘League Of Nations.’ Neighbours on either side were German and Italian; across the street were Poles and Russians; a couple of doors down, another Italian family and, next to them, Greeks. It was a fantastic community, everyone prepared to share with everyone else. The Germans and Poles had a bit of initial ‘standoffishness’ but even that went by the by with time as they realised they were in a new country with a new life ahead.
    Funniest thing about it was old Bert who lived a bit further along the street. He told me one day that we were all foreigners. When I laughed and said I was from Tassie, he said yeah, but that’s overseas, too!

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