A distant relative
is recorded in the order of knights of St. John register in Malta (Johannes
Schembri, 1335) at a time and location when this was the Christian front-line.
There are family members resident abroad who are investigating the family
past to the middle ages through archives and the Internet.
Note: This research has recently
revealed the name of the first arrival, the great-grand father of Mary,
Alexander Schembri in 1830~60 (profession and place of burial still
unknown) and has revealed that the name is potentially Austrian in origin
(Schember), part of the Germanic migrations in the dark ages that crossed
Italy and Sicily to reach Malta.
The Schember and its derivative lines can be taken back to at least
1280, and well to the northern regions of Europe, by family researchers
based in Europe. And more recently (2005) these researchers have been
able to take back the family history to 1222, when the surname was von
Rhine, and the migration start point was at least North Germany, possibly
During the First World War, the English grand-father (Stelario, 1866-1924)
and his 3 brothers (Angelo, Anthony and Alexander) every 2 days had to confirm their presence by signing
at the police station. Being part of an enemy nation, the secular English
high school both for boys (Nişantaşı area) and girls
sok.) were closed, so the father George, uncle and cousins had to
go to French schools run by friars or nuns which were kept open. Schools
were reopened in the 1920s. Private lessons in the evening were given
here to recuperate their missing English.
The father of Mary, George (born 1903) was the Turkish representative
of the American oil company Texaco as well as running a warehouse in
Galata (Karaköy) and also inherited from his grand-father (also
George) the shipping company, George Schembri & Sons. These ships
also brought fresh fruit (bananas, dates, oranges etc.) from Haifa (Ottoman later British administered Palestine),
as well as goods from Russia and South Italy and the warehouses were
used as a point of unloading and storage before being sent out by other
merchants to points in Istanbul; the city that had the money. The ships’
crew were Italian and were chosen as they were more amenable than the
In that period shipping was largely in the hands of the long established
British families such as Whitall, La Fontaine whose offices were all
George bought a black car when he was 19 (1922 - a photo of a car from this period), a vehicle that even
the governor of Istanbul did not have at the time. His brother Anthony
bought his own car 2-3 years later and the pair were able to drive fast
in the streets of Istanbul which were empty except for trams. Their
fast driving exasperated the police who referred to them as the ‘mad
English’ [deli Ingilizler].
Mary’s mother was named Edmée Correnti, the first name being
French as her Italian father also had French blood, and Edmée’s
mother also came from a long established Istanbul Levantine family,
the Prussian German Kuthnicks.
Family fortunes declined with the confiscation of its two ships (named
George and Edwige) with their cargo at Batum [postcard
view] on the Black Sea by the Bolshevik Russians in 1925-6.
These ships were previously purchased from the White Russians escaping
with their final defeat of their armies in Crimea. They arrived as refugees
to Istanbul with these vessels. Mary still possesses photos of these
vessels, the latter of which was named after a family member.
Note: The ‘Cornucopia issue 28’
article, mentions that in November 1920, the desperate remnants of General
Pyotr Wrangel’s white army had just escaped with British help, from
the Bolshevik advance into the Crimea, from where 150,000 people, mostly
officers and their families, crammed into 56 ships that limped into
Constantinople. However the French kept the ships in exchange for billeting
some refugees in army camps in Trace and the Dardanelles. So these two
ships might have come to be sold to the Schembris via the French, who
were part of the Allied occupation army of the city.
Much property had to be sold together with their extensive collection
of antiques and furnishings bought over the years (except an oil painting
still in her possession – a body portrait of a child) against debts.
Mary’s father is then offered and accepts to work at the naval department
of the British embassy in Istanbul.
The various communities had their own associations in Beyoğlu [Pera],
Istanbul such as Teutonia in Tünel for the Germans, Union
Français in Tepebasi for the French. The still functioning
associations for the Italians were Operaia together with Casa d’Italia
at Tepebaşı, and the British social activities were and are
connected with the consulate
Note: From a web
site, we get the following dates of establishment for these associations,
l’union Française 1895, Teutonia 1847.
George’s application to fight in the Second World War was rejected,
as the bachelors were the first to be called up. In 1941 ahead of the
invading German army, the British consular staff from the Bulgarian
capital Sophia escaped by train and arrived in Istanbul. Amongst the
jumble of piled baggage that was waiting to be collected in the lobby
of the Pera Palace hotel was a bomb intended to detonate in the train
to cause maximum harm to the party. Exploding there [on 11-03-41
according to a web
site] it nevertheless killed 2 English secretaries one Gertrude
Ellis buried in the Catholic sector of the Feriköy cemetery, and
the other buried in the Protestant (probably named as Eleanor Teresa
Armstrong, on the cwgc web
site). During the Second World War there was a lot of intrigue and
spying activity in Istanbul by both the English and the Germans involving
agents and consular officials. Mary personally knows of 3 cases of suicide
of British consular or army staff (upto the rank of captain) following
personal shame after relapses in the safekeeping of documents. One of
the ‘exposed’ agents was a Yugoslav national working for the Germans,
but his disguise as a waiter in an Istanbul restaurant was clearly thin
as he even featured in local newspapers. Towards the end of the Second
World War, Turkey declared war on Germany, thus as allies many English
and American troops arrived in Istanbul.
Mary attended the English high school for girls where a minority of
the girls were English, the rest being Turkish and multinational. All
the teachers were single women and were English except the French and
Turkish teachers who were of that nation. Rules were strict and during
Mary’s time all teachers who were spinsters had to sleep at school.
These single lady teachers were on short-term contracts from England.
The curriculum was based on the British curriculum and great emphasis
was placed on discipline, gymnastics and sports. Mary remembers with
fondness some of the teachers such as Miss Hughes, teacher of mathematics,
Miss Cowlly the gym teacher, Mrs Sutherland the literature teacher,
Miss McConnecky for nature studies and Miss Jameson, singing.
Note: According to
p.126 the British high school for girls was founded in 1857 by an Estelle
Daisy Thompson, in 1963 had 194 (178 girls) students, and 24 teachers,
while the High school for boys in Nişantaşı was founded in 1905 by W.N.
Birks and in 1964 had 250 students and 25 teachers. These later were
handed to the government.
Two years into her schooling the family moved from their rented flat
in the smart Osmanbey district to Beyoğlu to make it easier for Mary
to get to school. In those days there were no buses and trams ran only
about once an hour, and even then overcrowding meant often waiting for
the following one. Mary’s family moved to the Aynalı Çesme
Street, just behind the British consulate, an area where a little community
of British residents lived. The flat they rented belonged to Mr Bonici,
a Maltese-English, who was famous in the city as a pedicurist and foot
specialist. Of the local residents Mrs Lemma remembers Mr Guaracino,
another Maltese English, who was in commerce. His two daughters Daisy
and Maud went to the same school as Mary. During the war years the majority
of the British residents in the city and all the Maltese centred in Cihangir, were moved by the British government abroad as
the Turkey was seen as a potential war zone, but the father of Mary
was definitely against this for his own family. Only a few of the families
who were moved to India or South Africa returned to Istanbul, some went
to England after the war, but most stayed in their new countries since
they had found work there.
Most Saturdays Mary and school friends, such as Cynthia Whittall and
Patricia Jackson, would go to the Beyoğlu cinemas of which about 10
existed, showing Hollywood films mostly in the original language. The
names of the movie theatres she remembers are Melek, Ipek, Saray, Lale,
Sümer, Yıldız and finally Alkazar that only showed westerns.
During the war the American film domination increased with uplifting
musicals. During springtime teacher organised picnics would sometimes
happen (one of which had to be rapidly abandoned with a sudden rain
Many of Mary’s school friends married the American soldiers and left
for the states. Compared with the polite but serious nature of the battle
weary British soldiers, it seems the jovial nature of the GIs was conducive
to these romantic liaisons. The young men also left for England and
elsewhere, thus all but ending the future viability of the Anglo-Levantine
community. Patricia Jackson married an American and still runs an extensive
kennel business in Virginia. Her father, John, was formerly the manager
of the British council in Istanbul, died around the 1970s-80s, and is
buried in the Feriköy Protestant cemetery.
The family had an extensive farm sold 1950/51 to the famous Eczacıbaşı
family, whose medicine factory on the site (around the present built
up neighbourhood of Zincirlikuyu, ~7km from Beyoğlu), led to their
prominence amongst Turkish industrialists. Mary has fond memories as
a child in this farm, set in the then beautiful rolling landscape, whose
tenants included surprisingly aristocratic Germans (Von Graff proceeded
by Sütte) who ran pig farms to cater for the local Christian taste.
Note: The name Sütte still
lives in the city with a string of popular charcuteries, though the
German connection seems to be lost even to memory, although they still
deal in pork products.
A beautiful setting then, the district was populated with gentleman
farmers such as their neighbour the Austrian Schlieblich family. Mary
only remembers this name well since her parents were on friendly terms
with the family, but she is aware the hinterland of old Istanbul was
scattered with many Levantine farms, run by gentleman farmers. The Schlieblich family grave can
still be seen in the Protestant Feriköy cemetery, near the wall
in a corner in the shape of a small chapel, and Mary believes the family
has died out. The name for the modern built up quarter of Feriköy
also has Levantine origins as it was the site of the farm of the French
lady, Madame Férri, who was of an earlier generation, a person
Mary’s mother-in-law knew well.
Mary also has happy memories of land her late husband’s grandfather
had bought in Tarabya, on the hill
overlooking the beautiful bay on the Bosphorus. Mary remembers the idyllic
place had fruit trees and fresh water springs she drank from, however
the sons didn’t care for the land as much allowing for squatters gradually
to move in and by the 1960s it had become a full shanty town [gece
kondu] thus the land was lost to the family.
Major Arthur Whittall from the major English merchant shipping family,
acting as the pillar of the British community in Istanbul, allowed the
socialising of British soldiers with the single women of the British
community but by checking, determined any other relations with the mixed
native population. When this was found, this led to the soldier being
sent to a far posting (Egypt or India) the following morning, thus preventing
the possibility of an unwanted marriage. Despite this, with so many
British soldiers stationed around the world, special boats had to be
commissioned to bring to England wives of many nationalities with Greece
providing a generous share. This led to protests from England including
mothers of these amorous soldiers. Full demobilisation took a few years,
at least in Istanbul.
When the war was over the father of Mary was transferred to work with
the petroleum company Shell, where he worked until 1954 and died a year
Arthur Whittall retired from the army and left for England in 1957/8.
Cynthia his daughter married an Englishman and had 3 children, but died
relatively young of cancer.
Note: Mrs McKernan’s Whittall
family tree informs us that Arthur Whittall OBE was employed by the
Foreign Service in Istanbul and his only daughter Cynthia Margaret (1929-76)
married a Norfolk farmer.
Mary remembers with affection the two Anglican chaplains, Ft. Hutchingson
during the 1940s and Ft. Piper during the 1950s respectively and was
also a member of the church choir.
Shops along Beyoğlu (La Grande Rue de Pera) were mostly foreign
owned, such as Passage Karlman (German – mixture of shops in an arcade),
Motola (Italian? – jewellery?), Baker (English – multi-storeyed with
clothing for men, women, children & school uniforms), La Jeunesse
(French – bags, gloves and umbrellas), Diamanstein (German – jeweller
near the Dutch embassy that still exists), Bazaar de Bebe (French),
Bon Marché (French – toy shop, closed in the 1980s), Nakamura
(Japanese – ornaments and toys), Sütte (German – pork, ham &
sausages). The minor shops elsewhere in Istanbul were mostly Greek owned,
particularly in the quarters of Pangaltı and Kurtuluş (Tatavla).
The general language spoken between foreigners was French. There existed
many aristocratic families from different nations.
In the night of 6-7th of September 1955, Mary’s husband Tony’s shop
(foreign cosmetics and accessories boutique) in Osmanbey only escaped
destruction by the mobs through the intervention of taxi driver friends
across the street, so the mob turned their attention to the Turkish
lamp shop next door (Ali bey) which was looted. Tony had prior knowledge
of events so had shut his shop early. Two days later when Mary visited
Beyoğlu she saw all the shops, including Turkish owned, looted
with their goods scattered across the street with no place left to step.
Events had quickly overwhelmed the police on the ground, and the army
still patrolled the wrecked streets - views. Jewellers such as Franguli, Saryan
and Adler received their full share of loss and after the events, the
first two stayed in business for a short period, while Adler moved to
In 1964, Mary lost friends through the forced deportation of Istanbul
Greeks who were only given a few days notice. Whole families were taken
away by planes arriving from Greece and people could only carry with
them minor possessions and a set amount of meagre money (~22$). Since
they could not come back, only those who had friends to trust could
sell their houses and have the money sent. Now these people and their
children are able to pay nostalgic visits to their old houses.
One of the few ‘old guard’ shopkeepers from Beyoğlu, the Maltese
descendant Madame Conchita now 92 years old (2001), still runs her made to
order women’s dress shop now in operation in Vali Konağı caddesi,
Nişantaşı. Despite her age she has lost nothing of her
energy, remodelling her always innovative shop displays and window.
She makes yearly trips to Paris to track the latest trends in fashion
and fabrics together with forays to visit her daughter in the USA. Chauffeur
driven from her house out in Yeşilköy
(~40 km away) she does not miss a day in her shop and her upper crust
clientele have remained loyal to her over generations. To ensure neither
her reputation is affected nor people make the wrong choices, she can
be brutally honest in dissuading people from their choices.
Remincing on the old Levantine community of Istanbul [examples of British / Catholic scenes of earlier times], and going over
the many anectodes and gossips still very much alive in her mind, Mrs
Lemma comments as she looks around the modern city, ‘its almost as if
they never existed’. She very much regrets the loss to the city of this
proud and cultured community, and the almost total degredation of the
scenery to the urban sprawl of the
last 50 years; the charm that brought many to these lands seems to be
lost for good.
Notes: 1- Mrs Lemma’s late husband
Tony’s great-grandfather arrived in Istanbul at the invitation of the
Sultan at the time and was employed to paint the ceiling the royal palace
of Dolmabahçe and mosques. He was Carlo Maulini from Italy
and his daughter Catherina married into the Lemma family that came from
the town of Potenza in the southern Italian province of Basilicata.
Catherina had 3 sons, who were involved in a major wrought iron concern
in Kurtuluş [Tatavla]. Mr Maulini was obviously invited by the
sultan Abdülmecit I (reigned 1839-61) as the date of construction
of the palace of Dolmabahçe, (1844-1853, officially opened in
1856) falls within his reign. The palace was to be the new residence
of the next 7 sultans of the Empire, built with the aim of emulating
the rococo style of palaces of European monarchs such as that of Versailles.
This palace used the best imported materials and accessories of the
West, a folly at a time of economic strain in the crumbling empire,
a debt that was further augmented, making the Jewish and Levantine bankers
of Constantinople even more powerful. This debt with interest was finally
paid-off in full in the republican era shortly before WWII.
2- Click here for simplified family tree.
3- Tony Lemma’s father Carlo was born in Alexandria in Egypt, an accident
in history caused by the eviction of all Italians in Constantinople,
by the government incensed by the Italian occupation of the former Ottoman
dominion of Libya in 1911. Like many Italians when conditions favoured
they returned to Istanbul to take charge of their business again. As
a strategic concern, the works had to suffer the indignity of German
occupation during WWI followed by the British during the occupation
following, where their former guards became the new prisoners.
4- Unfortunately, Mrs Mary Lemma died in 2009 aged 86 and is now buried
in Italy... God bless her soul.
interview date 2001-4