Centenary of Griffith

The Gras Family

Gras Family History

A lot is written and spoken of the Italian migration to the M.I.A. However, very little is said about the Spanish immigrants; so I would like to speak  about my husband's family who took up farms in the Hanwood area in 1916.  They were the first Spanish settlers to arrive in the area and were later joined by the Alvaro brothers in 1926 and Alf Nugan who worked for Tony's father Juan (John) when he first arrived in 1938/1939. 

The Gras brothers were from the north-east of Spain, an area known as Cataluna, which includes Barcelona up to the French border.  They were farmers from Villa de Tordera, a village north of Barcelona.  John left Spain in the early 1900's to seek a better life for himself, he first went to Cuba where he worked on a tobacco plantation.  He then decided to come to Australia and was among the first Spanish migrants to come to Australia, arriving in 1907.  John went cane cutting around Innisfail/Babinda districts (Queensland), then went to Moonee Ponds (Victoria), where he leased land and grew vegetables with another Spanish migrant.

By 1911 John was sufficiently confident of his prospects in Australia so he arranged for his brothers Segismundo (Peter) and his 8 year son Jaime (Charlie), Francisco (Frank) and their nephew Jacinto Girabal to join him at Moonee Ponds. Peter and Frank also came to Australia to make a better life for themselves.  However, Jacinto immigrated to avoid being drafted into the Spanish Army.  All the men paid for their own fares to Australia and had saved enough money for their return fare if they decided to go back to Spain. Frank's employer in Spain had offered to pay for his return fare if he decided to go back to Spain. 

John, Peter and Frank were all uneducated, not able to read or speak English. John and Peter were able to sign their names, however, Frank signed with a cross.  Peter, Charlie, Frank and Jacinto joined John at Moonee Ponds where they stayed for about 18 months.  Charlie went to school at Moonee Ponds for 12 months and on his first day at school, unable to understand or speak a word of English, at playtime the other pupils formed a circle around Charlie, teasing him and wanting to know his name nicknamed him Charlie and Charlie stuck. 

They were all going to go to Queensland to grow sugar but decided against it due to Frank's fear of snakes so they to Beverley Hills (Sydney) to grow vegetables where they leased a property from a man named Judd.  The property was known as "Spanish Gardens", situated on Belmore Road, West Hurstville (then known as Dumbleton).  They became friendly with some other Spanish immigrants who were growing tomatoes for a canning factory so Peter came to the area via train to Wilbriggie, then on to Hanwood via Mickey Cush. Peter took a look at the soil, filled half a 28lb. sugar bag with soil then took it back to Sydney to show his brothers and nephew and said "this is where the good soil is and this is where we must go to farm". John and Jacinto came to Griffith to apply for land while Peter, Charlie and Frank remained in Sydney. 

John, Peter and Frank were naturalised on 26th May, 1915 and on 7th April, 1916 they received notification of their rights to purchase farms.  Their applications were dated 19th July, 1916 and Peter and Frank were granted their farms; 15 and 2 respectively on 16th October, 1916. John farm 16 on 6th November,1916 and Jacinto Girabal was granted farm 1134 on 16th October, 1916.  The farms were all bush so they cleared the land, approximately 100 acres overall with axes, mattocks and shovels.  They railed tomato plants from Beverley Hills to Wilbriggie for transplanting at the Hanwood farms, they also grew vegetables and tobacco as there was a leaf drying shed in the area at the time.  All five men lived in a bag and canvas tent for almost 4 years with Frank doing most of the cooking.  Frank was known as the man with the cummerband as he always wore one. 

Peter worked for McWilliams Wines for extra income and he secured grape cuttings from McWilliams.  They also grew peaches, apples and prunes and to make ends meet, Charlies went working on farms in the Barellan/Moombooldool area for a few years.  Bagtown was the nearest town, so to save the horses strength for ploughing, the brothers used to walk to Bagtown for their supplies and bring them home in a sugar bag.  

John went back to Spain in 1920 and returned to Australia in 1921.  Frank returned to Spain in 1922 and married Maria Taberner whom he had known when he left Spain to come to Australia. Maria was about 16 when Frank first came out, Maria came from a poor family and she had worked as a house-keeper prior to marrying Frank.  Frank and Maria lived with John in a house on Farm 16 then John returned to Spain in 1928 and married Laura Culubret (apparently John had proposed to another girl in Spain and she refused his proposal).,within 3 weeks of meeting Laura she accepted his proposal.

Laura's mother had died when Laura was very young and her father, a night security guard with the railways had been killed by a train.  Laura had worked as a house-keeper for 12 months for a wealthy family but prior to marrying John she had been working as a machinist in a textile factory in Barcelona, she was originally from Girona, a town north of Barcelona.  John and Laura arrived back in Australia in December, 1928 and they lived in John's house with Frank and Maria on Farm 16.  Frank and Maria had Frank Schultz build them a new house on Farm 2 and that house is still being occupied to-day. John and Laura had their house on Farm 16 renovated and from then on the brothers managed their own farms.  Peter and Charlie built a corrugated iron house on Farm 15 where Charlie lived until he moved into Scalabrini Village. 

There were hard times, sometimes the cannery wouldn't take their peaches, severe frosts, heavy rains causing seepage and in 1933 Frank lost of his fruit trees due to seepage and was forced to mortgage his farm for 600 pounds and supported Maria and their children by growing vegetables and his few remaining fruit trees.  Frank and Charlie sold vegetables house to house and would often walk the horses home in the dark from as far as Yoogali.  Frank remembered the vegetable prices in his head as he was unable to read or write.  They used to water the tomato plants by walking between two rows with two buckets, watering each plant. 

There are also stories of mouse plagues, rabbit and grasshopper plagues and Charlie recalled a hailstorm two farms wide which stripped the canes off the grape vines and dented iron on a neighbours shed roof.  John and Laura had two sons, John who married Rita Barclay from Wagga, they now live in Darwin and had four children, and Tony who married Marlene Towns and live in Griffith and had two children.  Frank and Maria had two children, Marie who married Matt Marin (now deceased), Marie lives in Griffith, they had no children, and Frank (now deceased) married Amy Turner and they had four children.  Peter returned to Spain, his wife had died in childbirth in Spain and Charlie was his only child, Peter never remarried. Charlie married Jane Ray (now both deceased) and they had no children, Jacinto Girabal died of meningitis in 1920 aged 23 and is buried in Rookwood Cemetery.  

Tony and I went to Spain in 1991, there had been no correspondence between the famillies in the intervening years, we only had two addresses, one from Villa de Tordera and one from Mataro (north of Barcelona).  We ended up meeting 34 cousins and we think that is only the tip of the iceberg as apparently Tony's paternal great grandfather had 22 children from 2 marriages. We visited the farm where Tony's father grew up, went to Mass in the church where his parents were married in Mataro and coincidently, that was a celebration for couples who were married 25 and 50 years ago in that church.

The relatives we met didn't speak English and we didn't speak Catalun although most times they arranged for an interpreter although, sometimes my High School French lessons came in handy due to Cataluna being so close to the French border and quite a few words were similar to French, also I purchased a Cataluna/Engish-English/Cataluna dictionary, again very useful.  We were very warmly greeted by everyone we met and I still correspond each Christmas but unfortunately, their letters are written in Catalun and their writing is difficult to translate. 

We did try to contact family on Tony's mothers side but to no avail, however, several years ago one cousin came to Australia on business for the company he worked for and he contacted us. The result of our business card we had left with his father (although at the time he denied we were related).  We drove to Wagga to meet him and I wrote to him that Christmas but he didn't maintain the contact. We know Tony's mother had a sister named Mercedes and as far as we are aware she moved to France. 


Marlene Gras

(nee Towns)