Geographic Origins

The Republic of Bulgaria is in south-eastern Europe. It is bordered by Romania to the north, the Yugoslav Republics of Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea to the east.

History of Immigration and Settlement

In 1891 there were an estimated 14 Bulgarian immigrants living in Australia. It is not known if any of these people resided in South Australia.

The first organised group of Bulgarian immigrants arrived in South Australia in November 1907. The 30 men who landed at Port Adelaide were among 100 Bulgarian males who migrated to Australia because of economic difficulties in the Veliko Tarnovo district of Bulgaria.

A group of Bulgarian South Australians bought cheap swamp land in Fulham and used their traditional Bulgarian horticultural skills to drain the land and establish the first market garden in the area in 1912. In the same year another, smaller group of Bulgarian men arrived in Adelaide. One of these immigrants, Vasil Dinoff Staiff, recorded his experiences and those of Peter Doceff and Dimo Kaneff in a diary.

Vasil Staiff and Peter Doceff initially settled in the Lower Murray area. They worked as itinerant labourers on fruit blocks on the river flats near ‘Old Tailem Town’. They then worked at Mypolonga.

In 1914 Vasil was joined by his wife Tasha and their children. Floods caused the family to move temporarily to Broken Hill, where Vasil worked in the mines with Peter Doceff and Dimo Kaneff.

By 1915 Vasil and Peter Doceff had moved back to the Murray Bridge area. Vasil and his family took up market gardening at Woods Point, south-east of Murray Bridge. Peter Doceff had a market garden in Wellington near Lake Alexandrina.

During the 1920s Dimo Kaneff left the Broken Hill mines and moved to Wentworth, where he established a market garden. In the early 1930s he bought land for a market garden in Seaton Park. His wife, Nell, and their children, Stephen and Mary, helped him run the garden.

In 1923 the Staiff family sold their property at Woods Point and settled at Long Island near the Coorong. At this time Vasil Staiff and Peter Doceff grew mainly cabbages and cauliflower. The vegetables were packed in hessian bags and transported to Adelaide and rural markets. In 1938 Vasil Staiff and Peter Doceff became the first market gardeners in South Australia to grow tomatoes commercially. Vasil’s sons, Jim and Elliot, joined him as partners. In all, the family had over 30 glasshouses that were used to produce tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicums for markets in Adelaide and interstate. Peter Doceff, his wife and their three children later settled in Jervois. Peter served for some years as Mayor of Tailem Bend. The Staiff family continued market gardening at Long Island until the 1980s.

Following the Bulgarian arrivals of 1907 and 1912, a small group of Bulgarians settled in South Australia between 1929 and 1933. Like earlier arrivals, the Bulgarian immigrants of the Depression years came from poor villages in the Veliko Tarnovo district, in particular the village of Strahilovo. Many of them worked as miners or woodcutters, and quite a number later established market gardens in Fulham, Lockleys, Seaton and Morphettville. By 1947 there were 234 Bulgarian-born South Australians.

The next group of Bulgarians came to South Australia in the aftermath of the Second World War. They fled Bulgaria after the Soviet Union invaded the country on 9 September 1944 and Bulgarian Communists seized control of the government. A small number of political immigrants travelled privately to Australia via Turkey and Lebanon. The majority, however, came to Australia as Displaced Persons (DPs).

The Bulgarian men and women who emigrated as DPs between 1949 and 1954 had to fulfil two-year employment contracts with the Australian government in return for their passage to Australia. They were employed in essential services as labourers or domestics. After their employment contracts expired they were free to pursue their chosen careers.

By 1961 there were 458 Bulgarian-born South Australians. In the 1960s they established a second tomato-growing settlement in Virginia. In 1988 approximately 45 Bulgarian South Australians cultivated tomatoes in the area.

Since the fall of Bulgaria’s communist government in 1990 more immigrants from Bulgaria have arrived in South Australia. The established Bulgarian community has assisted them to resettle by fundraising, collecting clothing and furniture, and providing accommodation.

Community Activities

Before the Second World War, Bulgarian South Australians met for informal social gatherings, or to commemorate national anniversaries in large sheds on market garden plots in Fulham. Eastern Macedonian South Australians who had lived in areas acquired by Bulgaria in 1913 also attended these gatherings. A number of people had brought traditional musical instruments with them from Europe on which they played distinctive Bulgarian tunes while the community danced the horo and the rutchenitza.

In 1949 George Lazaroff, Jack Boteff and Marin Marinoff organised the Bulgarian community into an official body, the Bulgarian Educational and Friendly Society. J E Boteff, M G Marinoff and D Mancheff were the society’s first executive committee. After a period of consolidation and fundraising, the society built a large community hall which was opened in 1958. It featured an expansive, beautifully decorated central ballroom, which is now leased to a caterer. The society used a section of the building with bar, dining and recreation facilities. Its contract with the caterer specified that the society had exclusive rights to use the central hall on national anniversaries.

The main cultural and historical days commemorated by Bulgarian South Australians are Vasil Levsky Day, Martenitza, Liberation Day, Christo Boteff Day and Bulgarian Alphabet and Cultural Day.

Vasil Levsky’s life is celebrated on February 19. He was born on 18 July 1837 in Karlovo, now called Levskygrad. In December 1858 Vasil entered a monastery and became a deacon the following year. After missing an opportunity to study at a Russian monastery, Vasil became increasingly aware of the hardships Bulgaria experienced under Turkish rule. Perhaps his thwarted theological ambition fuelled his desire to liberate Bulgaria. In 1862 he borrowed a horse and rode to Belgrade, where he became involved in national revolutionary street fighting. He earned the name Levsky, which means lion-like, after a colleague witnessed Vasil leap during military training. Vasil organised over two hundred revolutionary committees throughout Bulgaria. Called the ‘Apostle of Freedom’Vasil was captured by the Turks, betrayed, and hanged on 19 February, 1873. On February 19 Bulgarian South Australians commemorate Levsky’s life with a special radio program.

Martenitza is celebrated on 1 March. It heralds the turn of the seasons from winter to spring in the northern hemisphere. 1 March is also the date that Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV signed a peace treaty in 681 recognising the first Bulgarian state. On Martenitza Bulgarian South Australians send each other greeting cards decorated with red and white tassels.

The liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Turks is celebrated on 3 March. On this day in 1878, Turkey signed the Treaty of San Stefano creating the third Bulgarian state. Although the July 1878 Treaty of Berlin reversed most of the Treaty of San Stefano, Bulgarian South Australians recognise 3 March as a crucial date in the struggle for independence after nearly 500 years of subjugation. The anniversary of the 1878 liberation is commemorated with historical speeches and a community dinner-dance.

Christo Boteff Day is celebrated on 2 June. He was born on 7 January 1849, in Kalofer. Boteff edited and published a number of revolutionary newspapers and is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s leading poets. He was involved in the abortive 1875 Stara Zagora Rising and led an armed detachment that hijacked an Austrian riverboat during the May 1876 Uprising. Boteff was fatally wounded in battle on 2 June 1876. Bulgarian South Australians commemorate his life with speeches and recitals of his poetry on Bulgarian radio hour.

Bulgarian Alphabet and Cultural Day is on 24 May. This is the Feast Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who are regarded as both religious and cultural figures. Their Saints Day is a celebration of learning, language, faith and culture. On this day Bulgarian South Australians hold a community meal with historical speeches, poetry readings by students of the Bulgarian school, folk dancing and singing. 

Throughout the 1960s Bulgarian Orthodox South Australians celebrated Divine Liturgy at their community hall whenever interstate priests could visit Adelaide. Towards the end of the decade the Bulgarian community began to plan a permanent church. Petko Kopcheff and Todor Hadjiivanoff were prominent in organising the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church of Sveta Petka, Saint Petka, which was consecrated by His Eminence Metropolitan Josif of New York in 1975.

The patron saint of the church, Sveta Petka, was born in Epivat in Trakiya on the Sea of Marmora in the eleventh century. After the death of her parents she abandoned her wealth and position and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For many years she lived as an ascetic in the Jordan desert. She returned to Epivat to die. As no one recognised her, she was buried as a stranger outside the town. Several people had visions of her imploring them to bury her properly. It is reported that a number of miracles took place. In 1268 the Bulgarian king, Ivan Assen ordered the relics of Saint Petka to be transferred to Tirnovo, the Bulgarian capital.

In South Australia the Feast of Saint Petka is celebrated with cultural performances and dancing in the main hall. Both nominal and devout Orthodox Christians join in the celebrations on Sveta Petka’s Saints Day and acknowledge the church’s historical role as teacher, protector, repository of culture and fighter for Bulgarian independence.

In 1986 Bulgarian South Australians contributed to ‘Textile Traditions’, one of the first Migration Museum exhibitions. This exhibition, held between April and August 1986, was a joint project with the Jubilee 150 Families, Religion and Cultural Communities Executive Committee. Material loaned by Bulgarian South Australians included a Khelim rug from Ciprovci, a woven bag from Troian, a hand-loomed nightshirt from Kesarevo and a hand-embroidered man’s costume from Severna, Bulgaria.

Today the Bulgarian Educational and Friendly Society has many members. Bulgarian arrivals since the fall of the Communist government have reinvigorated the existing community in South Australia. The society has formed a youth dance group and a cultural school to augment cultural life beyond social gatherings on Wednesday afternoons and weekends and the thriving ladies auxiliary. Former president Sava Savoff, who gave over 20 years service to the society, was awarded the Order of Australia in the Australia Day 2002 Honours. 

Irene Krastev, (born 1925 Haskovo, Bulgaria, died 2000, Adelaide, South Australia), migrated to Australia in 1949 as a Displaced Person (DP) after spending time in refugee camps in Europe. Irene settled in South Australia in the early 1960s where she actively and constructively participated in many areas of public life on a voluntary basis. These included local government, horticulture, health, business, housing, aged issues, ethnic affairs and women’s affairs. Irene Krastev received the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in the 1996 Australia Day Honours for her service to multicultural groups, the Bulgarian community and to the aged.

Organisations and Media

  • Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church of Saint Petka
  • Bulgarian Educational and Friendly Society
  • Bulgarian National Front, an anti-Communist organisation, founded by Ivan Docheff in Germany in 1947
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Program
  • Radio programs were first broadcast by Mary Marinoff, Victoria Zabucovec, Ivan Dencheff and Marin Marinoff on 5UV in 1977


The 1981 census recorded 392 Bulgaria-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 358 Bulgaria-born South Australians. 724 people said that they were of Bulgarian descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 324 Bulgarian-born South Australians. 475 people said that their mothers were born in Bulgaria, and 675 that their fathers were.

According to the national overview 1996 census there were 2256 Bulgarian-born Australians, of which 372 lived in South Australia.

The 2001 census recorded 384 Bulgarian-born South Australians, while 858 people said that they were of Bulgarian descent.

The 2006 census recorded 340 Bulgarian-born South Australians, while 934 people said that they were of Bulgarian descent.

The 2011 census recorded 351 Bulgarian-born South Australians, while 965 people said that they were of Bulgarian descent.

The 2016 census recorded 315 Bulgarian-born South Australians, while 1,008 people said that they were of Bulgarian descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

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