“I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery”
Laurantos, Sir Nicholas (Nick) (1890–1980)
Sir Nicholas (Nick) Laurantus (1890-1980), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 5 February 1890 on the island of Kythera, Greece, third of twelve children of Panayiotis Lourantos, contractor, and his wife Angeliki, née Marsellos. After seven years of schooling, Nicholas helped his father as an apprentice carpenter and blacksmith. Letters from relations overseas stimulated his desire to emigrate. When a cousin at Grenfell, New South Wales, offered to look after him, Nick and his younger brother George sailed for Australia in the Seidlich, reaching Sydney on 1 November 1908.
George remained there with friends. Nick began work in the Thermopylae Café at Grenfell for 7s. 6d. a week, with accommodation above the shop. He determined to learn English in three months and kept a dictionary beside his bed, constantly checking and memorizing new words. ‘I knew I was in a good country’, he later said, ‘and I wanted to stay here’. By the time he was naturalized in 1911 he had Latinized the spelling of his surname to Laurantos. He was then a short, good-looking young man with alert brown eyes and an outgoing personality. Frugal and hardworking, by 1913 he had saved enough money to buy the café in partnership with an American relation and to establish Laurantos & Co. He sent for George, who was to be a partner in many of his later business ventures.
In 1914 Nicholas Laurantos acquired the lease of the Albion Hotel at Young. At St John’s Anglican Church, Cowra, on 29 March 1920 he married Clare May Barker (d.1954), a 33-year-old housekeeper. Three hotels later, in 1921, he decided to try farming, and took his wife and baby daughter to a small wheat farm near Cowra. He chose a bad year and almost lost his money. In 1922 he moved to Narrandera where he acquired the lease of the open-air Globe Theatre, announcing his intention in the local newspaper ‘to show before Narrandera audiences the best and latest productions in the way of moving pictures’. The Globe marked the start of a successful chain of cinemas across south-western New South Wales which he ran with the aid of George and other family members whom he brought from Kythera.
After a brief stay in Greece, Laurantos returned to Australia to buy his first grazing property. It was running at a loss for almost six years before things took a turn for the better. In 1938 Laurantos bought Windella station near Narrandera; he later acquired other properties, including Lake Midgeon station which reputedly had the largest shearing shed in New South Wales. In a few years he was very wealthy. One of his managers said of him, ‘Nick was purely a financier but he did have this love of the land. His knowledge was such that he could look into the future and say, ”Wool’s going to be good, so we’ll grow sheep”, or, at another time, ”Wheat’s going to be good, so we’ll farm country”‘.
By 1951 he had purchased an additional two grazing properties – one in Hay and the other in Narrandera – and was shearing 28 000 sheep with a wool cheque of over $200,000 a year. His accumulated wealth from numerous business interests in rural New South Wales allowed him to enter the property market in Sydney on a grand scale. In 1957, he bought a 12-story building on Pitt Street valued at $500,000.
Laurantos went out of his way to advise young Greek immigrants and assist them financially. By breaking out of the café circuit and venturing into cinemas, hotels and grazing, and by being completely at ease in both Greek and Anglo-Australian society, he set an example for other Greeks: if they learned English, mixed with Australians and worked hard, they too could succeed. At the same time he felt that Greek immigrants should know and love their own language and culture.
In the late 1960s Laurantos became interested in the lives and experiences of other migrants from Greece, and in the preservation of Greek culture and heritage in Australia. He donated $250,000 to the University of Sydney in 1969 to establish a Modern Greek language department. Immediately following his Knighthood, this department was issued a name change as an acknowledgment of Laurantos’ legacy and standing in society. “The Sir Nicholas Laurantus Chair of Modern Greek”.’
Laurantos’ goodwill also extended to St Basil’s Homes, where another $250,000 was donated by him for the building of the charity’s hostel in Lakemba in 1975. Lourantos stated “it gave him great pleasure to make his donation to such a worthy charity”. The significance of this donation cannot be understated. It provided the necessary capital to finalise the purchase of the Lakemba property which was valued at $243,375. It also allowed the board to place a deposit on the purchase of another property in Annandale, where the second of its new hostels was to be built.
The laying of the foundation stone for the new hostel took place on August 23, 1975. Invited dignitaries included the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who had been kept waiting by Archbishop Stylianos for almost half an hour. In his official speech the Prime Minister praised Laurantos for his generosity, referring to him as “a great Australian with Greek ancestry”. He also praised the Greek-Australian community, their ancestry and their contributions to Australian society, which included the new hostel that was open to all Australians irrespective of cultural background, faith, and political affiliation.
The hostel was named in honour of Sir Nicholas Laurantos, its primary private sector patron. However, the completion of Lourantos Village would not have been possible if not for the substantial contribution of the Federal government, a $4 subsidy for every $1 the Charity raised.
By September of 1976, Lourantos Village was full and had a long waiting list.
At the first anniversary celebrations for the official opening of Lourantos Village, Sir Nicholas Laurantus was guest of honour. ‘Uncle Nick’, as the hostel’s residents affectionately knew him, commented that ‘it’s better to give than to receive’. At 87 years of age Laurantos reflected, ‘I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery’.
Soon after this celebration Laurantos offered to donate a further $250,000 in instalments to the charity for it to purchase properties adjacent to the new hostel in Lakemba as each came to market. At the board meeting of February 8, 1978, Laurantos had enclosed a cheque for $36,500 to the board to settle the purchase for one such property. It was the first of his promised instalments. Gradually these instalments helped the charity to acquire adjoining land, thereby expanding its operational base. In time this was to lead to the relocation of the charity’s headquarters from Ashfield to Lakemba, and to the development of additional facilities like the nursing home.
Appointed M.B.E. in 1977, Laurantos was overjoyed to be knighted in 1979 and described his investiture at Government House, Canberra, as the happiest day of his life. From 1968 he had lived in Sydney at the Masonic Club. A frail but stubborn old man, still fond of jokes and good company, Sir Nicholas died on 26 July 1980 at Greenacre and was buried in the Greek section of Botany cemetery. His only child Helen survived him.
- Select Bibliography
- Michaelides, Portrait of Uncle Nick(Syd, 1987), and for bibliography
- To Yofiri, 3-4, 1978, p 16
- Narrandera Argus, 17 Oct 1922
- Sun(Sydney), 10 Sept 1968
- Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Sept 1968, 31 Dec 1976, 16 June 1979, 28 July 1980
- naturalisation file, A1/1 item 11/17987 (National Archives of Australia)
- private information.