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Michelides, Peter Spero (1878–1966)

by E. R. Joll

This article was published:

Peter Spero Michelides (1878-1966), tobacco grower and manufacturer, was born on 3 June 1878 at Castellorizo, an Aegean island near Turkey, son of Spero Peter Michelides, retired captain and storekeeper, and his wife Jasmine, née Hatzipetro. At 17 he went with his family to Cairo where, without formal study, he mastered six languages as well as Greek. He was apprenticed for a year to a tobacco-manufacturer. In 1901 Michelides migrated to Western Australia intending to establish tobacco production. He was a waiter in the Perth restaurant of compatriot John Doscas who, in 1904, lent him money to buy a few bales of Turkish tobacco and a hand-operated tobacco-cutting machine. Until 1924 Michelides was also part-time customs interpreter and administered the dictation tests in European languages devised to exclude non-white immigrants.

Operating from one room in Murray Street, Michelides worked twelve hours daily, hand-making cigarettes and canvassing hotels for orders. His younger brother Michael joined him in 1905 and the rest of their family next year; the venture flourished and orders from Government House raised its prestige. On 8 August 1911, in the district registrar's office, Fremantle, Peter Michelides married an Englishwoman, Ethel Pearl Freeman Dodd; they had three daughters and three sons. In 1913 Peter visited Greece.

In World War I his acceptance of honorary consulates for France, Spain and Russia indicated strong pro-allied sympathies. Wartime orders helped his business to a prosperity that accelerated after the peace. In 1921 a public company was formed, a factory was opened in Roe Street and city retail outlets were bought. Michelides Ltd's President cigarettes, Luxor tobacco and RizLa cigarette papers (made under licence from a French firm) became household names. Early attempts to grow tobacco at Waroona had been unsuccessful but, following a study trip by Peter to America in 1931, growing began on an increasing scale at Manjimup and Pemberton. By World War II the company had about 1000 acres (405 ha) under crop, more than two-thirds of Western Australia's production. In 1939 they built a new factory.

In the mid-1950s Michelides Ltd experienced a set-back, although it was claimed to be Australia's third-biggest tobacco manufacturer, employing 400 men and girls making a million cigarettes a day. Overseas companies promoted 'king-size' cigarettes with special packaging and filter tips, which required a leaf darker than the local product. The company lost money until sold for £78,000 in 1960 to an Adelaide firm. Plantations were disposed of and diverted to other crops.

Michelides's consular services—he also became Greek consul—earned him French, Russian and Greek decorations notably, in 1940, the silver cross of the Royal Order of George I of Greece. Small-framed and courteous, he remained active and alert in old age. His scholarly mind, independence, and charisma as a speaker had made him a leader in Perth's Greek community; in 1924 his mother was invited to lay the foundation of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral for which he had raised considerable funds. Michelides's multilingual library, evidencing his interest in history and philosophy, was a retreat in his charming home at the foot of Mount Eliza, overlooking Perth Water. Survived by five children, he died there on 17 November 1966 and was buried in the Greek Orthodox section of Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at $80,156.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Wilson and J. Graham (eds), Western Australia's Centenary, 1829-1929 (Perth, 1929)
  • Western Australian Mining and Commercial Review, 2, no 9 (Nov 1937)
  • People (Sydney), 29 Aug 1951
  • West Australian, 18 Nov, 24 Dec 1966, 21 Feb 1967
  • A. O'Brien, The Life and Work of Peter Michelides (typescript, 1968, State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

E. R. Joll, 'Michelides, Peter Spero (1878–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/michelides-peter-spero-7566/text13205, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 29 June 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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