Aphrodite and the Dragon

Aphrodite and the Dragon

Genealogist Anthony Adolph explores Theo Paphitis’ roots in Cyprus, and how the country’s history affected his family

Header Image: James Stroud/courtesy of Theo Paphitis

Anthony Adolph, professional genealogist

Anthony Adolph

professional genealogist

Theo Paphitis has become a household name through his appearances on the BBC TV series Dragon’s Den, where inventors and small business owners pitch their ideas to a panel of multi-millionaire investors. Theo has also run a series of successful companies including Ryman, Partners, Stationery Box, Red Letter Days, La Senza and Contessa. He was chairman of Millwall Football Club for eight years, during which it won its first ever FA Cup final.

But though he is famous in Britain, Theo Paphitis is not from Britain. Though a multi-millionaire, his wealth is proudly self-made. And most interestingly, from a family history point of view, his real family name wasn’t even Paphitis.

I met Theo in his office in Wimbledon. Passing a branch of Ryman on the way from the station, I spotted a cheery cardboard cut-out of him training for Sport Relief. His office foyer was tastefully dotted with products that seemed familiar from Dragon’s Den – a teddy bear-cum-voice recorder, and a pair of decorative wellington boots.

Theo in Cyprus, aged five
Theo in Cyprus, aged five

He was immediately familiar from the television, though a greater presence in real life – a slim, olive-skinned man exuding health, success and confidence, immediately friendly, and clearly extremely interested in his family history. He had already made a good start. And, as ever in family history, what he had found out had not been entirely as he had expected.

Names are the key to everything in family history and from Theo’s name it was clear that his origins lay somewhere in Greece or the parts of the world which the Greeks colonised. In fact, his family were Greek Cypriots, from the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, the island famed as the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Theo was born in Lemessos (Limassol), one of the island’s main port towns. This much he knew, but when he applied for a passport as an adult he was surprised to discover that he had been born there on 24 September 1959 – surprised, because he had always thought his birthday was 25 September. Unlike most British families, his Cypriot family made very little fuss about birthdays, so his misapprehension about his birth date had simply gone unnoticed.

A greater surprise awaited Theo as he delved deeper into his past, as he describes in his 2008 autobiography, Enter the Dragon. His family’s surname was not Paphitis at all – it was Charalambos.

Or was it? In Britain, we are used to surnames having been fixed and hereditary for a very long time, maybe for up to a thousand years. But until very recently many Greek families, and their Greek Cypriot cousins (and many Welsh families too, as it happens) gave their children a patronymic surname derived from their father’s Christian name. So the son of Theodoros would be surnamed Theodoros, and the son of Charalambos would be surnamed Charalambos.

In Britain, we are lucky in being able to find out virtually anything we want from public records, but the records for Greek Cypriots are so scant that family knowledge becomes irreplaceable. Until Cyprus became independent in 1960, Cypriot births, marriages and deaths were not registered officially and, while baptisms, marriages and burials were performed constantly by the Greek Orthodox Church, it was down to each priest to record these. Many did not and some of the records kept by those who did are now missing – that certainly seems to have been the case with the village where Theo’s family came from.

Luckily, Theo was able to wheedle the information he needed out of his tight-lipped father, Charalambos ‘Bambos’ Paphitis. Although Theo was born in Lemessos, his family had come from Lysos, a small town in north-west Cyprus, some 20 miles north-east of Paphos, on the edge of the pine-wooded slopes of the Troödos Mountains.

Theo with his brother Marinos and their parents in Venice, during their journey from Cyprus to Britain

The name Charalambos comes from St Charalambos, a third century AD martyr from Magnesia on mainland Greece, who was famed for the dreadful torture he endured before he died. His feast day is 10 February.

Doubtless an ancestor of Theo’s was born on 10 February, so received the name of Charalambos. Ever afterwards his name was passed down in the family, as Greek families stick faithfully to naming patterns – the oldest son after the father’s father and the oldest daughter after the mother’s mother; then the second son after the mother’s father and the second daughter after the father’s mother, and so on.

Generation after generation, the name passed down in the family until, in the 19th century, a man from Lysos called Charalambos, and his wife, both died mysteriously on the same day. They left an orphaned son Theodoros Charalambos, ‘Theodoros son of Charalambos’, our Theo’s grandfather. That young Theodoros was sent off east across the mountains to a distant relative who was a tailor in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia.

Theodoros Charalambos worked in the tailor’s shop in Nicosia from the age of nine onwards until one day, when using a big iron filled with hot coals, he spilled coal on the shirt he was ironing and ruined it. The tailor thrashed him mercilessly and he fled, never to return. His journey took him south, until he smelled briny air and found that he had arrived in the southern coastal city of Lemessos.

Troödos Mountains
The Troödos Mountains above Lysos Anthony Adolph

Not all the Cypriots hated the British (see boxes on Cyprus’ history). When Theo’s 16-year-old grandfather Theodoros Charalambos reached Lemessos, he was befriended by British soldiers, and became a driver for them. He settled there and enjoyed the same job for the rest of his life. Once, Theodoros even acted as chauffeur to King Farouk of Egypt, who had gone there for an official visit and even signed a letter of thanks to his driver when he left.

Theodoros wore a very fine pair of high, well-stitched leather boots that are now hanging in a restaurant in Lemessos as a picturesque relic of old Cyprus. Theo was shown them, much to his surprise, on one of his many visits to Lemessos.

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Theodoros married Xanthi, whom Theo remembers as a very old woman, sitting on her veranda in Lemessos, drinking half a bottle of brandy every evening. Their son was Charalambos ‘Bambos’, Theo’s father.

Bambos inherited the same job of driving vehicles for the British army. He married Yianoulla Georgiou, whose father Georgios was the hearse-driver and verger at Agios Nikolas in Lemessos. Georgios’ wife Elathe continued ancient traditions of fortune-telling believed to go back to the priestesses of Aphrodite herself. She would heat lead in a ladle, and then pour it into a pan of water held over the subject’s head. The contorted pattern in which the lead solidified resembled the twisting pathways of the mind and, by reading what she saw, Elathe was able to provide her patrons with comfort and courage – perhaps just as effectively as any modern therapist or psychologist.

churchyard in Lemessos
A churchyard in Lemessos (Limassol) Cyprus Pictures

In 1960, Britain finally relinquished its rule over most of Cyprus. Two areas, as it happens, still remain British – one on the arid Akrotiri peninsular, immediately south of Lemessos, and the other a few miles to the west at Dhekelia. The Union Jack still flies there and rows of peculiarly British council houses, built for the squaddies, sit incongruously in the eastern Mediterranean countryside.

When the British administration of the island was handed over the fledgling Republic, people such as Theo’s father Bambos, who had worked for Britain and enjoyed British protection, felt very vulnerable. He gratefully accepted the offer of British citizenship, and told his family to start packing.

Ever since Theodoros had come to Lemessos, he had been known, like most people from the far west, as Paphitis, ‘from [the region of] Paphos’. So when Bambos’s passport arrived, and he and his family boarded the ship for Liverpool, he found he had become, officially, Charalambos Paphitis.

In 1966, an “old Italian rust bucket” of a ship, as Theo described it, completed its voyage from Cyprus to Liverpool. The six-year-old Theo Charalambos – now called Theo Paphitis – was ready to begin his extraordinary career.

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