The chronicles of George Manuel, the first Greek settler in Australia – 1811

From the naval battle of the Nile, under the command of Lord Nelson, to the orchard farms of NSW

Newspapers have long been an excellent source of information when articulating historical events or portraying the stories of individuals. What follows is the narrative of a Greek named George Manuel or Emanuel, who by all claims, arrived at the colony of New South Wales in 1811.

The story commences with the death of the centenarian George Manuel on 22 June 1878 and follows the path of his life journey in the colony of New South Wales and beyond.

The following newspaper extract, which draws attention to George’s death, first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, 28 June, 1878 and reads:
“On Sunday, the 23rd June, there was buried at the cemetery, Castle Hill, by the Rev. Mr. Dawson, Wesleyan minister, George Manuel or George Emanuel, on whose coffin was inscribed the age of 101 years.”

A week later – 6 July, 1878 – another article of the same ilk pre-occupies the columns of the Freeman’s Journal NSW under the title “Death of a Centenarian” with the opening paragraph reading as follows: “George Emanuel, a Greek, died at Castle Hill last week of senile decay at the age of 101 years. The deceased had resided nearly seventy years in this colony.”

So, who was George Manuel or Emanuel, commonly known as “George, the Greek” or “Old George, the Greek”?

Old George’s death on 22 June, 1878, pre-occupied the columns of at least 10 newspapers in the then colony of New South Wales alone. The articles contain a wealth of detailed information, which when pieced together, craft if not a colourful but an amazing story that may well cause us to re-appraise the history of early Greek settlement in Australia.

In the case of George Manuel, we are fortunate to have access to a significant number of historical documents, including newspaper articles, that provide a credible argument in identifying “Old George, the Greek” as the first known Greek settler in Australia.

Judging by the two above newspaper extracts George Manuel was a long-time resident of Castle Hill and the Paramatta region (Cumberland County) who arrived to Australia in the early 1800’s. The NSW land records in 1839, refer to George Manuel as resident of Pennant Hill who purchased 30 acres of land in the region in January 1839. His name also appears as a resident of the Parish of Fields of Mars (near Parramatta NSW) in the 1841 NSW census; his occupation being that of a farmer and his status that of a free settler.

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New South Wales, Australia: Census 1841.

His death at the age of 101 and the fact that his age was inscribed on his coffin became a source of discussion amongst the print media of that era.
The Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate noted in one of its columns: “A death which merits a passing notice was registered at the Paramatta Court house during last week. A man named George Emanuel or Manuel, a Greek, whose age is stated to have been 101 years, died at his residence in Castle Hill.” (Date of publication – 5 July, 1878)

The registration of George Manuel or Emanuel’s death at the Paramatta Court House is collaborated by his certified death certificate issued from the NSW Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages (registration No. 1878/008716). Apart from verifying Old George’s age (101) and his years of residency in Australia (67 years), his death certificate contains other intimate details that became very much a subject of inquisitiveness for several journalists throughout the colony.

Married at 99

As George Manuel’s life story is disclosed, we learn that he arrived to Australia 67 years prior (in 1811) and that Old George married, for the second time, at the mature age of 99.

In The Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW), 6 July, 1878, the following was highlighted in a dedicated article: “A man named George Emanuel or Manuel, a Greek, whose age is stated to have been 101 years, died at his residence, Castle Hill, of senile decay. The deceased came to the colony sixty-seven years ago, and acquired some property in the neighbourhood of Castle Hill, upon which he resided for many years…”

The article continues with an unusual and extra-ordinary claim that “Two years ago, when his age was 99 years, he was married by the Rev. Mr. George, Wesleyan clergyman, to one Ann Nash, spinster, whose age is recorded as 70 years.”

Many of the articles printed on the occasion of George Manuel’s death focused on the benevolence of his wife Anne, who according to all reports married Old George, two years prior to his death. His death certificate clearly notes that he married Anne Nash at the age of 99. The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle on 3 July, 1878, refers to the matrimonial arrangements in a humorous albeit cynical tone, to portray the events.

“The lady (Ann Nash) we understand, states that she married the old gentleman to take care of him, as he had no person to look after him. Practical benevolence of this description is, we believe, somewhat rare; and it is to be regretted that the couple should have had their brief span of wedded happiness interrupted by the dread destroyer. It may be just as well to mention that the widow’s self-sacrifice has been substantially rewarded, as she has succeeded to the old man’s property.”

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Suffice to say that almost immediately after George’s death the mourning widow laid claim to Old George’s small fortune. The following public announcement appeared in the New South Wales Government Gazette – 28 June, 1878 in the Supreme Court of New South Wales:

In the will of George Emanuel, late of Castle Hill, in the Colony of New South Wales, farmer, deceased.
NOTICE is hereby given, that after the expiration of fourteen days from the publication hereof, implication will be made to this Honourable Court, in its Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, that probate of the last will and testament of the abovenamed George Emanuel may be granted to Ann Emanuel, widow of the deceased, and sole executrix named in the said will.—Dated at Parramatta, the 25th day of June, A.D. 1878.
Proctor for the said
Ann Emanuel,
George-street, Parramatta

The truth however is that George Manuel, by all indications, was a recluse and most likely, as the Cumberland Mercury points out, towards the end of his life Old George realised that he required someone to take care of him during his twilight years.

“He lived a solitary life – as a sort of hermit in fact – with the exemption of the times that he was visited by neighbours, and he was hospitable. Probably realising that it is not good for a man to be alone he, a couple of years ago, took to himself a wife, and since then has been well-taken care of.” (Cumberland Mercury – 28 June, 1878)

Old George’s widow was the sole heir to his estate. As a long-time resident of the then Cumberland County, George acquired significant property in the surrounding district and for many years he was known as an orchard farmer-in Castle Hill-selling his produce to the Sydney Market.

The following article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 17 February, 1862 refers to an incident which involved Old George that occurred in central Sydney during his daily work activities.

“On Saturday morning last a horse, attached to a fruit cart, the property of a man named George Manuel, a farmer of Castle Hill, while left unattended in George street, took fright and ran down the street till he reached Market-street, when he came violently in contact with a horse and cart belonging to Samuel Murrell.”

George was well known for his exemplary work ethic, and even in his nineties he continued to sell his produce throughout Sydney. It appears that in the summer of 1875, whilst George was carrying out his business as usual within the inner suburbs of Sydney the so called “Great Fires at Pennant Hills and Castle Hill” nearly destroyed both his abode and orchard farm.

“The apple trees had produced fruit already cooked. The house and premises of the owner of the property, narrowly escaped destruction, the usual occupant styled “Old George the Greek” – a man of nearly 90 summers, being at time in Sydney with a load of fruit.” (Cumberland Mercury-December 11, 1875)

On the road to Pennant Hills 1880s – Near George Manuel’s Orchard farm. Credit: JS Wigram, The Dictionary of Sydney

The devastating fires and his potential brush with death were certainly a cause for Old George to re-evaluate his priorities in life, and that perhaps it was time to retire in his 90s. The following year, in May 1876, we find “Old George, the Greek” at the alter solemnising his marriage to Ann Nash in the presence of the Wesleyan priest Rev William George.

Battle of the Nile

As for George Manuel’s life prior to his arrival to the Southern continent in 1811, we discover through an array of newspaper articles that his profession was that of a sailor. But perhaps George’s claim to fame was that he fought under Lord Nelson in the battle of Nile (1-2 August, 1798) and many another battles, most likely as part of Lord Nelson’s Mediterranean campaign in 1798.

The Sydney Morning Herald on 5 July, 1878, concludes its article on the occasion of Old George’s death with the following comment: “Manuel had been a sailor and had fought under Nelson at the Nile and other places.” The Australian Town and Country Journal a day later praises his war effort and contribution by declaring that “The deceased was an old veteran, having fought in several battles under our great hero Nelson.”

Shipwrecked in 1824

The colourful adventures of George Manuel however do not stop here. Upon arriving to the Colony of NSW, George Manuel continues his profession as a seaman. He joins the crew of the sailing vessel “Belinda”, which departed from Sydney in May 1824 bound for the sealing grounds South of Esperance Western Australia. The commercial venture for seal skins suddenly ended with the “Belinda” wrecked near Middle Island in the Archipelago of the Recherche on 19 July, 1824. The authorities believed that the Captain and crew of the vessel “Belinda” had all perished. Miraculously however George Manuel together with another twenty-five crew members of the “Belinda” survived the wreck. The crew of the “Belinda” remained on Middle Island until December 1824 and were rescued by the ship “Nereus”.

George Manuel and all the crew returned safely to Sydney in March 1825 together with merchandise in tow; which accounted for approximately 3500 seal skins.

Incarcerated twice

A few years later in November 1832 his name appears in the Parramatta Court of Quarter Session at which he was summonsed to appear for a misdemeanour. George Manuel, according to court documents, was charged with having feloniously received stolen goods, in this case a large quantity of tobacco to the value of five pounds. The penalty handed down for his crime, and as described by the court documents, was “to be imprisoned in His Majesty’s Goal of Newcastle and there kept to hard Labor for and during the time of twelve calendar months” The Newcastle prisoners’ records clearly note that George Manuel was born in Greece and that he arrived as a free settler to the Colony.

George Manuel’s brush with judiciary system however did not cease with the theft of tobacco and his one-year imprisonment at the Newcastle goal. In March 1863, George Manuel appears in the NSW Central Criminal Court for sentencing, having stabbed one Thomas Gibson with intent to do bodily harm. The Judge imposed the lowest sentence permitted by law and sentenced George Manuel “to hard labour on the roads for five years” to be reviewed at the end of a three-year period based on the prisoner’s conduct. Suffice to say that George Manuel was discharged from the Cockatoo Island Penal establishment after three (3) years due to good behaviour.

George Manuel’s legacy was so popular amongst the residents of the Parramatta district in so far that the Editors of the “Cumberland Argus” in November 1938 decided to reprint the original article referring to his colourful life in the newspaper’s sesqui centennial edition under the heading “Married at 99”.

NSW Cumberland Argus, 26 October, 1938.

In summary, it clearly appears that George Manuel was an established and a well-known identity in Parramatta region of NSW for many years. References from multiple newspaper articles together with Government documentation provide a credible argument that in fact George Manuel was most likely the first free Greek settler to arrive in Australia in 1811, arriving prior to any other documented early Greek settler to Australia.

Map of Australia 1832: Publisher: W.S Orr, Authors: John Dower & W.M Higgins. The dotted-line indicates George Manuel’s seal venture trip.

In search for a better life, George Manuel undertook the long passage to Australia. Despite the hardships and misfortunates that he was confronted with in a foreign land, he lived his life to the fullest until the grand old age of 101.

Costas Markos is a board member of the Greek Community of Melbourne. This is the first of a 10-part series on Early Greek Settlers which will appear in Neos Kosmos. For the above article the following references and resources were used: Australian Newspaper Archival Collection. Trove; New South Wales, Australia, Departing Crew and Passenger Lists, 1816-1825; Newcastle, NSW Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818-1930; NSW Registers of Land Purchases and Sales 1839; NSW census, 1841; NSW Criminal Court Records, March 1863; NSW Births, Deaths & Marriages; with thanks to: Kostas A., Kostas K. and Nikos P.