Levantine Heritage
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Rose Marie Caporal | Alessandro Pannuti | Ft Joe Buttigieg | Mary Lemma | Antoine ‘Toto’ Karakulak | Willie Buttigieg | Erika Lochner Hess | Maria Innes Filipuci | Catherine Filipuci | Harry Charnaud | Alfred A. Simes | Padre Stefano Negro | Giuseppe Herve Arcas | Filipu Faruggia | Mete Göktuğ | Graham Lee | Valerie Neild | Yolande Whittall | Robert Wilson | Osman Streater | Edward de Jongh | Daphne Manussis | Cynthia Hill | Chris Seaton | Andrew Mango | Robert C. Baker | Duncan Wallace QC | Dr Redvers ‘Red’ Cecil Warren | Nikolaos Karavias | Marianne Barker | Ümit Eser | Helen Lawrence | Alison Tubini Miner | Katherine Creon | Giovanni Scognamillo | Hakkı Sabancalı | Joyce Cully | Jeffrey Tucker | Yusuf Osman | Willem Daniels | Wendy Hilda James | Charles Blyth Holton | Andrew Malleson | Alex Baltazzi | Lorin Washburn | Tom Rees | Charlie Sarell | Müsemma Sabancıoğlu | Marie Anne Marandet | Hümeyra Birol Akkurt | Alain Giraud | Rev. Francis ‘Patrick’ Ashe | Fabio Tito | Pelin Böke | Antonio Cambi | Enrico Giustiniani | Chas Hill | Arthur ‘Mike’ Waring Roberts III | Angela Fry | Nadia Giraud | Roland Richichi | Joseph Murat | George Poulimenos | Bayne MacDougall | Mercia Mason-Fudim née Arcas | Eda Kaçar Özmutaf | Quentin Compton-Bishop | Elizabeth Knight | Charles F. Wilkinson | Antony Wynn | Anna Laysa Di Lernia | Pierino & Iolanda Braggiotti | Philip Mansel | Bernard d’Andria | Achilleas Chatziconstantinou | Enrichetta Micaleff | Enrico Aliotti Snr. | Patrick Grigsby | Anna Maria and Rinaldo Russo | Mehmet Yüce | Wallis Kidd | Jean-Pierre Giraud | Osman Öndeş | Jean François d’Andria | Betty McKernan | Frederick de Cramer | Emilio Levante | Jeanne Glennon LeComte | Jane Spooner | Richard Seivers | Frances Clegg
A descendant of an Anglo-Levantine family who have been in Istanbul since the mid 19th century at least.

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 Sweden.

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 (Galatasaray, Tomtom 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 British.

In that period shipping was largely in the hands of the long established British families such as Whitall, La Fontaine whose offices were all in Galata.

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 at Galatasaray.

 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 book reference 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 squall).

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 later.

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 Athens.

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.

to top of page interview date 2001-4