From Australia’s Jewish Past: Jacob Levi Montefiore – a mover and shaker of the times

November 2, 2021 by Features Desk
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Jacob, born in 1819 in Barbados, was the son of Isaac Levi and Esther, and the brother of Eliezer Levi Montefiore.

Jacob Levi Montefiore

He travelled to New South Wales in October 1837 to join his uncle Joseph Barrow Montefiore.  He was well educated, wrote plays including The Duel which he translated from the French and which was performed in the Theatre Royal in 1843.  His operatic libretto, John of Austria, was set to music by Isaac Nathan and performed in 1847.  In 1844, after a short visit to England, he joined as a partner at Montefiore, Graham & Co. and soon opened a branch in Brisbane followed by another in Melbourne where Jacob’s brother Eliezer took charge. The company also acquired 270,000 acres of leasehold in the districts of Gwydir, New England, Moreton Bay, Wellington and in 1861, they were all transferred to Jacob Levi Montefiore as the partnership dissolved.

Jacob was fascinated by political economy, and in 1853 became Chairman of the Committee which opposed Sir Charles Wentworth‘s Constitution, which led to a lifelong friendship and sometimes creditor of Sir Henry Parkes.  (Sir Henry Parkes was known as the Father of Australian Federation) In May 1856 he was nominated to the Legislative Council. In his pamphlet, A Few Words upon the Finance of New South Wales, addressed to the members of the First Parliament, he advocated a tax on unproductive land to encourage farming, reduce land speculation and provide revenue; he also recommended a central or national bank and a railway from Sydney to Melbourne. In 1861 he published Catechism of the Rudiments of Political Economy, ‘an unanswerable defence’ of free trade and following a public meeting in support of free trade, in 1864 be became President of the Free Trade Association.

Being idle was not part of his constitution and between 1855 and 1857, Jacob was a director of the Bank of Australasia, a committee member and then Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, a director of the New South Wales Marine Assurance Co, a magistrate and member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, followed by the 1860s, when he was a founder and chairman of the City Bank; the Pacific Fire and Marine Insurance Co, a director of the Sydney Exchange Co., the Australian Gaslight Co., Mutual Life Association of Australasia, the Sydney Sailors Home, and numerous coal, gold and silver mining companies.

Interestingly enough, he also found time to be the Belgian Consul, and, assist in planning the public reception for the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh which took place in 1867.

A member of the Jewish congregation from his arrival in the colony, Jacob had advocated the claims of the Jewish community for a share in state aid to religion in 1845. In 1868 he secured official recognition by the Council of Education of the Sydney Hebrew Certified Denominational School despite opposition.

In 1876 he was a representative commissioner for Philadelphia and Melbourne Exhibitions and following a farewell banquet hosted in his honour by the Chamber of Commerce, he returned to London.  Whilst there, he became a director of the Queensland National Bank and the Queensland Investment and Land Mortgage Co, followed by his joining a syndicate that offered to lay a submarine cable between Java and Cape York, the profits to be divided between the syndicate and the New South Wales Government. This, however, was too costly a project and never went ahead.  Jacob was also a member of the Australian Transcontinental Railway Syndicate which planned a railway from Roma Queensland to the Gulf of Carpentaria in return for a land grant of 10,000 acres.  This plan was raised twice in Queensland Parliament in 1883 and defeated twice. In 1880 Montefiore served on the London Commission for the Sydney International Exhibition which he had promoted.

During his time in London, he served on the London Commission for the Sydney International Exhibition which he had promoted.  Jacob repeatedly asked Sir Henry Parkes to appoint him Agent-General for NSW, his plan having to take advantage of cheap money and consolidate all ‘the debits of NSW into a permanent funded stock’.  This was not to be.  His final correspondence to Sir Henry Parkes was to let him know how very much he missed ‘that country of his adoption’ and wrote as follows:- ‘It may be you are right that I could have been more useful out there than I can be here but I am afraid that the callings of ambition are in some degree the prompters for here I am lost among the millions and to court public favour is rather too costly an experiment’.

Jacob died from heart disease at his home in London on 24 January 1885, leaving his estate to his wife Caroline Antonine Gerardine Louyet, whom he had married in London in 1851.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or its Facebook page

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