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Petersilka, Augustin (Gus) (1918–1994)

by Nicholas Brown

This article was published online in 2019

Augustin Petersilka (1918–1994), café owner, was born on 20 July 1918 in Vienna, son of locally born Rudolf Petersilka, businessman, and his wife Josefine, née Pospisil, born in Bohemia (Czech Republic). While at school, Gus was encouraged into hospitality by his father, who ran a restaurant in Vienna. He was assistant manager (1934–38) of a farm supplying hotels while enrolled in a commercial course by correspondence. Rudolf’s socialist politics also influenced Gus, who ran food for the Republikanischer Schutzbund (Republican Defence League) during its February 1934 uprising. Following Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938, Rudolf, who was Jewish, was forced into a labour camp, while Gus ‘disappeared’ into the Alps, where he lived by tending livestock. His encounters with arbitrary violence at the end of World War II sharpened his conviction never ‘to fail to speak up for what I believed in’ (Farquharson 1994, 21), while his association with Allied investigations into collaboration, as an employee of the United States military, firmed his desire to seek a future outside Europe.

In October 1950 Petersilka arrived in Sydney, joining his elder sister Else, who had migrated with her husband two years earlier and settled at Willoughby. Their parents followed the next year. Petersilka also applied for entrance to Australia on behalf of his wife Amalia, née Circa, a shop assistant he had married before leaving Austria; the application was approved, but she never emigrated. Finding Sydney ‘primitive,’ he headed ‘outback’ (Petersilka 1994, 15), managing the dairy herd at O. R. Falkiner’s Boonoke station, north of Deniliquin, New South Wales. Alone for long hours, he wrote intensively about his wartime experiences, but destroyed this work. Moving into timber cutting, he was based at Echuca, Victoria, until injury brought him back to Sydney. While convalescing, with a job delivering dry cleaning, he wrote an ambitious film script, ‘Pro Patria,’ set on a Luftwaffe airbase and expressing his conviction that ‘peace and liberty cannot survive without sacrifice’ (NAA A1336). Divorced from his first wife, on 23 December 1959 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, he married Maureen Cecilia Montgomery, a secretary.

The Petersilkas moved to Canberra in 1961, Gus having been impressed by opportunities in the rapidly growing city while visiting friends. He was naturalised that year. Working as a hardware salesman, he was active in the Austrian-Australian Cultural Society, providing local audiences with foreign-language theatre and film. In 1965 he borrowed funds from the developers of a new retail court at Manuka to establish a café. Supporting live music and poetry readings, the Thetis Court Café proved popular, particularly with younger patrons. Other retailers were less happy with late-night dancing and the proposed staging in 1968 of ‘Viet Rock,’ an anti-war musical. In 1969 Petersilka established a theatre-restaurant adjoining the capital’s new performing arts centre, but was impeded by restrictions on selling alcohol after midnight. His determination to transform Canberra from ‘a large museum which closes down at night’ (Canberra Times 1966, 6) would face continuing obstacles.

Petersilka’s most sustained campaign centred on his next enterprise—‘Gus’s Café’—which he leased in 1970 with the intention of providing pavement service on a European model in the city centre. The Department of the Interior initially opposed such provision, and then imposed restrictions that Petersilka disregarded. In a series of confrontations, authorities confiscated tables, umbrellas, and canopies, leading to public demands for their return. With a sharp eye for publicity, Petersilka similarly protested at rent increases, barricading himself against sheriffs. His frustration led, in 1978, to a venture in nearby Queanbeyan, New South Wales, providing ‘old-fashioned’ service in a converted mill: it was not a success. Selling his city café in 1982, he returned to Vienna in 1984, marrying Andrea Bees-Costin while there. But he was back the following year, declaring ‘whatever shortcomings Canberra has, its good points outweigh them by far’ (Longhurst 1985, 2).

Beyond business, a prolific stream of letters to the Canberra Times conveyed Petersilka’s advocacy for many causes. With tenacity, high principle, and teasing humour, he opposed—among much else—the fluoridisation of Canberra’s water supply, the introduction of poker machines, and the use of napalm in Vietnam. His concern with ‘profiteers’ encompassed causes ranging from health (he inserted his own cancer warnings on the cigarette packets he sold) to ‘moral pollution,’ including opposing the liberalisation of access to pornography. Complaining of a loss of ‘self-discipline,’ he called for the reintroduction of national service in 1978. Towards the end of his life, he criticised homosexual rights campaigns as a challenge to the ‘social fibre of western civilisation’ (Canberra Times 1994, 2).

Short and dapper, Petersilka had an appetite for controversy that made him a figure of affectionate regard in a community keen for personalities. He was named Canberran of the Year in 1978. Translating that appeal into politics was more challenging. In 1970 he sought election to the Australian Capital Territory Advisory Council, committed to increasing community engagement; in 1979 he ran as an Independent candidate for the House of Assembly, promising ‘sit-ins’ against over-regulation. Both campaigns were unsuccessful. Opposing the introduction of self-government through the 1980s, he judged the ACT had already developed effective forms of citizen participation.

In several enterprises, Petersilka continued to test the market for, and regulations around, his ideal of hospitality. He was famed for his cosmopolitanism and generosity perhaps more than for the catering at his premises. His last venture was Café Augustin, a smoke-free venue in the city specialising in Viennese cuisine, which he established in 1991. News of his final illness in 1994 brought tributes to an enigmatic ‘Canberra institution.’ He died of cancer on 23 October 1994 at Woden Valley Hospital and was buried in Queanbeyan lawn cemetery. Divorced three times, he was survived by Ding Shu Jian, whom he had married in Canberra on 12 March 1992. A street in the Canberra suburb of Gungahlin is named after him and a plaque commemorates him in the ACT Honour Walk. ‘Gus’s Café’ was placed on the ACT Heritage Register in 2011.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘City Called a Big Museum.’ 30 December 1966, 6
  • Canberra Times. ‘Good Morning: May I Spoil Your Breakfast.’ 27 March 1994, 2
  • Canberra Times. ‘Stronger Voice in ACT Affairs.’ 4 September 1970, 10
  • Farquharson, John. ‘The Little Emperor.’ Canberra Times, 2 October 1994, 21
  • Longhurst, Frank. ‘Wanted: A Green Party for Canberra.’ Canberra Times, 27 April 1985, 2
  • National Archives of Australia. A1336, 57783
  • National Archives of Australia. SP244/2, N1950/2/12092
  • National Archives of Australia. SP244/3, N1950/3/9481
  • Petersilka, Gus. Interview by John Farquharson, 1 September 1994. Transcript. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nicholas Brown, 'Petersilka, Augustin (Gus) (1918–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/petersilka-augustin-gus-1555/text36272, published online 2019, accessed online 11 December 2019.

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