Oyster Saloons were the turn of the century Australian Fish and Chip Shop. The Comino Brothers were prominent in establishing the industry.
Athanassio Comino (1844?-1897) and John Comino (1858?-1919), oyster merchants, were born on the Ionian island of Kythera (Cerigo), Greece, sons of Demetrio Comino, farmer, and his wife Agapy, née Menego. In 1873 Athanassio arrived in Sydney, probably as a crew member on a sailing ship from New Zealand. For a time he worked in the Balmain colliery, but by 1878 had started an oyster saloon at 36 Oxford Street. About 1882 he took up the lease of an oyster bed at Onions Point, at the mouth of the Lane Cove River, which he used to revive New Zealand oysters. But it was a short-lived, unremunerative enterprise and by 1886 Port Jackson was closed for oyster leasing. In 1884 he had leased 2000 yards (1828 m) of foreshore on the Evans River, on the north coast. That year John arrived in the Potosi and in 1885 applied for oyster leases on the Bermagui River. Despite fluctuations in the industry’s prosperity Athanassio remained in business. John was described as a mechanic in bankruptcy proceedings in 1892 when he was found to have unsecured liabilities of £160; he was discharged on 5 September 1895.
The Cominos had arrived at a time when the New South Wales oyster industry was unregulated, with unsuccessful attempts by the government to legislate for an orderly system. Gradually the method of dredging for natural oysters gave way to cultivation and organized harvesting. Athanassio reached a prominent place in the industry. He never married. Aged 53, he died of a strangulated hernia on 30 December 1897 at Darlinghurst, leaving an estate valued for probate at £5217 to John and to nephews and nieces.
Inheriting from Athanassio the title, ‘Oyster King’, John applied a formidable business aptitude to orderly expansion. In 1898 he was naturalized. With several others he was responsible for raising funds to erect the first Greek Orthodox Church in Australia, Holy Trinity Church, Surry Hills, where on 6 September 1901 he married Anna Phocas, born in Rhodes, Turkey; her father Seraphim Phocas officiated. At the time of his marriage John was living at Randwick; later he moved to Coogee. As chain migration brought more Kytherans, he was a mainstay of the Greek community in New South Wales, at the centre of a complicated web of family and business activities, owning and supplying restaurants, oyster saloons and fish shops. The Fisheries Act of 1902 reformed the oyster industry, forcing lessees to make improvements or suffer confiscation. Comino held numerous leases along the New South Wales coast. About 1906 he entered into partnership with three other large oyster merchants, Frederick John Gibbins, Charles Edward Woodward and John Moriarty, and the firm, known as Woodward, Gibbons & Comino, dominated oyster marketing in New South Wales.
In 1916, under the supervision and probably at the expense of Comino, Life in Australia was published. In the Greek language, it extolled the opportunities available to Greek immigrants and listed some of the 625 shops allegedly owned by Greeks in Australia ‘Apart from 5 shops owned by Cominos, ten others owned by different individuals traded under the name of Comino and it is probable that in some of them John Comino owned a share’. By 1919 there were ‘Comino’ oyster saloons in Parkes, Maitland, Armidale, Gunnedah, Moree and Katoomba. For a time all Greeks in New South Wales were commonly known as ‘Comino’.
John died of pneumonic influenza (Spanish flu) at Belmore Road, Randwick, on 21 June 1919, leaving to his wife and four sons an estate sworn for probate at £31,872. The Cominos were the pioneers of Kytheran migration to Australia and it is estimated that by the late 1930s well over 3000 had come, mainly to New South Wales, from this one Greek island.
C. A. Price, Southern Europeans in Australia (Melb, 1963)
Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1883-84, 11, 519, 559, 1885-86, 2, 901-02
Journal (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1887-88, 4, 751-57, 821
M. P. Tsounis, Greek Communities in Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1971)
bankruptcy papers (State Records New South Wales)
registers of certificates of naturalization, 1849-1904 (State Records New South Wales)
Chris Cunneen, ‘Comino, John (1858–1919)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/comino-john-6320/text9727, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 November 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981