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Story: Coory, Shirefie

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Coory, Shirefie


Businesswoman, matriarch

This biography, written by Dorothy Page, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Shirefie Lettoof was born in the village of Bsharri, on the western flank of the Lebanon Mountains, probably in 1864 or 1865. She was a member of the Fakhry tribe whose roots are thought to lie in fourteenth century Iraq. Her parents, Peter Lettoof and his wife, Mary Lahood, were peasant farmers. Nothing is known of her education, although she could write in Arabic and was brought up in the Maronite Christian faith of the region. Shirefie Lettoof married Anthony Coory, probably in 1880 or 1881, and about three years later, with their infant daughter Jamelia (or Amelia), the couple joined Shirefie Coory's two brothers to seek their fortunes in Australia. Among the first Lebanese to reach Australia, they established a wholesale and manufacturing business in Melbourne. Shirefie Coory was actively involved: she went on sales trips to the boisterous mining settlement of Broken Hill.

About 1892 the Coorys sold their share of the business and moved to Dunedin, which they had already visited in the course of a trip around New Zealand. The reasons for the move are obscure, but it seems likely that Anthony Coory was proving to be an unacceptable partner to his go-ahead brothers-in-law, and that Shirefie Coory, always a dominant personality, had quarrelled with them.

In Dunedin the Coorys joined a small, close-knit Lebanese community in Walker Street. Formerly the haunt of derelicts and prostitutes, and still dotted with Chinese smoking and gambling dens, Walker Street was avoided by establishment Dunedin and provided cheap housing for the Lebanese migrants. Almost all were from the Bsharri region, most from the Fakhry tribe. Maronite Christians by faith, they fitted into the religious life of the Roman Catholic St Joseph's Cathedral. The men, almost all hawkers, were often away for weeks at a time; the women kept their simple houses scrupulously clean and formed a network of mutual support. The Coorys first opened a fancy-goods store, then moved into importing. Shirefie also set up a workshop where Lebanese women, many of them expert seamstresses, would make shirts and aprons for the hawkers to sell. On 14 April 1894 Shirefie and Anthony became naturalised British subjects.

The Coorys were regarded as wealthy. Shirefie Coory, aristocratic in bearing and always beautifully dressed, rode in a hansom cab. Unlike most of the other Lebanese women, she spoke good (if heavily accented) English and had contacts outside the closed Lebanese community. Shirefie Coory soon became a woman of influence: an adviser to younger women, someone to help new migrants settle in. She invested in property in and near Walker Street. The first lot, purchased in 1907, was a quarter-acre section where 15 dwellings jostled for space. Most of the tenants were bachelors and Shirefie Coory had no qualms about sending packing any women she found visiting them. This prosperous phase was not to last: Anthony's generosity with credit to the hawkers put the couple into debt. Shirefie then joined her husband hawking with horse and cart through South Otago and Southland; she continued alone when he retired in 1915.

Jamelia, the only child of the marriage, had married the prosperous Gabriel Farry in 1899 and returned to settle in Bsharri. After Gabriel Farry's sudden death in 1915 left Jamelia Farry and her four children isolated and impoverished in enemy Turkish territory during the First World War, Shirefie Coory managed to renew contact. She put together enough money to bring the family back to Dunedin in 1923, lodging them in one of her tiny Carroll Street (formerly Walker Street) houses. Her two older grandsons, born in Dunedin but returning as teenagers and family breadwinners unable to speak English, benefited greatly from her business acumen. She set them up as hawkers, choosing stock for them – toiletries and fancy goods – and even accompanying the older one on his first trip. She put money into their souvenir stall at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition (1925–26) and combined with them to buy a big house in Stafford Street where the extended family could live together and take boarders. She would later buy the houses on either side.

Shirefie Coory never lost her zest for selling: when her family first came back, she used to take nightwear, delicately embroidered by her grand-daughter, round people's homes. Many years later, when her grandsons had settled with their own families in Gore, she would go down on 'business trips' selling fancy goods house to house from a pram. Neither did she lose her dynamism. Her great-grandchildren remember her, children all around, running her rosary beads through her fingers as she told stories of Lebanon.

Shirefie Coory survived her husband, who died on 3 February 1943 when he was 101 years old, and her daughter, who died on 16 September 1944. When she died in Dunedin on 18 March 1950, she left substantial urban properties to all four grandchildren, and an enthusiasm for commerce that would run strongly through subsequent generations of her family.

How to cite this page:

Dorothy Page. 'Coory, Shirefie', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2c31/coory-shirefie (accessed 18 April 2024)