French-Speaking Swiss in Australia – Then and Now

Although greatly outnumbered by their German-speaking compatriots these days, French-speaking "Romands", as they are called collectively, were the first immigrants from Switzerland to settle permanently on the Australian continent.

A first Swiss community in rural Victoria

In 1839, the future governor of Victoria, Charles la Trobe, arrived in Australia with his wife Sophie de Montmollin, who came from Neuchâtel. Soon after that, other French-speaking Swiss settled near Lilydale and Geelong and established some of the first vineyards in Australia. In Queensland, the versatile Henry Alexis Tardent grew wine, as well as working as a journalist and author. He came from canton Vaud, as did the landscape painters Nicholas Chevalier and Abram-Louis Buvelot, who visited Australia during the 19th century.

"Short in stature but large in optimism": Etienne Bordier

A citizen of Geneva, Leonard Etienne Bordier came to Australia in 1849 with great ambitions. Together with two partners, he tried to make a living raising cattle in northern New South Wales but abandoned the venture after some two years. His experiences on the land are vividly described in his diary, published after his death. After returning to Sydney, Bordier had four wooden cottages erected in the emerging suburb of Hunters Hill. Unable to find buyers for the houses, he sold the entire estate before leaving Australia a disappointed man. These days he is regarded as a pioneer in the history of Hunters Hill, and one of his cottages, appropriately called "The Chalet", is preserved as a heritage building.

"A mosaic of music and manufacturing": The brothers Wunderlich and Jacques Albert

The industrialists Otto, Ernest and Alfred Wunderlich were born in London, but grew up Vevey in canton Vaud and were proud of their Swiss roots. After moving to Sydney, they founded the Wunderlich Patent Ceiling and Roofing Company, whose products can still be seen on many public and private buildings in Australia. In their separate ways, all three contributed actively to Sydney's cultural life; Alfred, who loved the French language, was honoured for his services to the Alliance Française of Sydney. Another French-speaking entrepreneur who arrived in Sydney towards the end of the 19th century was Jacques Albert from Fribourg. Although a watchmaker by trade, his love of music led him to embrace the music business; the company he founded went from selling song-sheets and mouth organs to managing rock bands and producing film music and still exists today.

The Cercle Romand in Sydney

Some people may think that the Swiss community in Sydney has two official languages: English for formal purposes and "Schwytzerdütsch", the Swiss-German dialect, for informal communication. However, the members of the Cercle Romand, founded in 1978, have steadfastly maintained the use of French, Switzerland's second national language, in both spoken and written form. At the same time, they preserve the culinary traditions of the French-speaking Swiss by cooking delicious fondue or raclette at some of their functions.

A new Swiss tennis champion

Stanislas Wawrinka, who played so brilliantly in the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park, was born in Lausanne and lives near that city. Vivent les Romands!

(The information in this article, and much more, can be found in the book "The Swiss in New South Wales: A History", and can be purchased here.

Article written by Bettina Boss

President, Swiss Historical Society

Join in the Cercle Romand Sydney via or on Facebook, search for "Cercle Romand Sydney". For any questions about events and gatherings, please do not hesitate to contact Marcel Diebold on 0417 247 933.

Anne Resplendino

President, Cercle Romand Sydney

Photo courtesy of Anne Resplendino. The Cercle Romand Sydney celebrates their 30th anniversary in 2008, in Camden, NSW.

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