By Ismail Veli……
Unlike today, the conditions prevailing in Cyprus in the 1920-30’s was a Cyprus that would be unrecognisable to the youth of today.
The so called ”good old days” of our grandparents is nothing but a statement of nostalgia not born out of reality to the real conditions. Life may have been simple on the surface but the immense suffering, lack of sanitation and proper medical facilities, not to mention large scale illiteracy was the norm. Photos of the period look nostalgic, and the natural beauty of the island is and always has been apparent, but go beneath the layers of nostalgic images and dig for a little understanding and the picture that emerges is immense poverty and deprivation and another Cyprus begins to emerge from the misty clouds that cover our vision of the past.
The total population of Cyprus in the 1931 census was only 347.959, but a close look at the professions, gives us an insight into the way of life. Sadly blindness, infant mortality, disabilities and even Leprosy was still a well known disease (for want of a better word) to the people.
It’s well known that agriculture and animal husbandry were common professions. Out of the total population given above the breakdown is as follows
116,246 Children under the age of 15.
87,587 Without occupation
8,168 Unproductive/unknown occupations.
1,072 Prisoners or insane.
This left only 134,279 in work. The chief occupations were
34,546 Farmers and cultivators
22,654 Ploughmen and agricultural labourers
Half the working population therefore was employed in farming and sheep herding.
Strangely servants were sought after and this made up 5.212 of the working population. People working in mining totalled 3.197, sadly they often worked in atrocious conditions with little or no regard given to safety. Weaving and lacing was an important profession which gave many women an opportunity to earn a little money in the safety of their own homes, the profession employed 9,301 persons.
Sadly only 1,938 were in the teaching profession. Though low it showed a steady growth over previous years. Many villages had only the most basic of schooling but were starting to improve. The famous Cypriot coffee shops only employed 1,671. Practically all being proprietors. Unlike today restaurants were scarce as waiters numbered only 510 on the whole island. There was an element of snobbery in the well to do however as 1.066 chauffeurs were employed. Shoe making was an important part of the light and small industry as this profession recorded 3,608 employees. In fact many Cypriots who originally migrated to the UK entered this industry in large numbers. Many shoe machinist family companies were thriving in London from the 1960-80’s until this industry was decimated in the mid to late 1980’s.
The so called ”rag trade” in the UK also offered immense potential to early Cypriot migrants to make use of their skills in this industry. In fact many Cypriot women often worked long hours at home and looked after their children at the same time. Again with the decimation of this profession and second/third generation Cypriot girls’ preference to move on with this type of work means that this particular skill that was popular in Cyprus has all but been forgotten. Women in Cyprus no longer enter lacing as it’s no longer profitable.
Another sad aspect of Cypriot life was that while illiteracy in the male population stood at 40.91% in females it was a whopping 67.58%. Sadly 511 were registered as insane, while another 100 had Leprosy (55 men, 45 women) of these 91 were kept in an asylum in Nicosia. The greatest tragedy for these poor sufferers was that they were completely shunned by their families. In fact the British believed Leprosy to be much higher as many were not only fearful of being thrown out and disowned by their families but were also ex-communicated from the church. People wrongly assumed this was a contagious disease or one cursed by God. So much for the gentle and caring nature of our Cypriot ancestors. In the final analysis let’s all thank our lucky stars that the dreadful way of life which we consider to be nostalgic has been buried in the annals of history.