From Australia’s Jewish Past: Joseph Barrow Montefiore – a trader, land owner and one of the earliest free settlers

October 12, 2021 by Features Desk
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Joseph was born in 1803 in London, the youngest son of Eliezer and Judith Levi Montefiore.

Jacob Barrow Montefiore

By 1826 he had become one of the twelve ‘Jew brokers’ in the city of London, buying the privilege for £1500. However, being young and enterprising and with a desire for larger speculative ventures and, in June 1828, emigrated to New South Wales, with his wife Rebecca (Mocatta) and their two children.  Rebecca and Joseph went on to parent 11 other children.

His plan was to invest some £10,000 in the wool industry and the cultivation of drugs.  He applied for a grant of 5000 acres of land, double the normal grant and which required permission from London.  This was duly given, the land was in various parcels and was principally in the regions of Bligh, Wellington and Bathurst.  Joseph went on to acquire more land through his company – J Barrow Montefiore – and by 1838 owned 12500 acres, becoming a significant landowner in the colony.

Though a landowner, he never became an ‘agriculturist’ as he had originally intended. In partnership with his brother Jacob who was a member of the South Australian Colonization Commission in London from 1835 to 1839.  He made a large fortune in real estate, helped to found the Bank of Australasia – a predecessor of the ANZ Bank – and was one of the channels through which English capital contributed to the pastoral expansion and speculative boom of the late 1830s. Joseph was one of the sponsors of the bill, which became known as the Forbes Act of 1834, advocating interest rates free from statutory limits to encourage the flow of capital into the colony: ‘restrict the rate of interest’, he warned a sub-committee of the Legislative Council, ‘and you at once destroy the stamina of the colony’.  In late 1834, Joseph went to Melbourne, very soon after its establishment from Tasmania where he rented the house of John Batman, founder of Melbourne, and bought up several city blocks.  Following the Depression, the family business in Sydney went bankrupt with the London firm suspending payment in 1841 and Joseph returned to England.

By 1844 the Montefiore brothers, assisted by numerous friends and possibly the London Rothschilds, were back in business and Joseph decided to try his luck in South Australia. He arrived in Adelaide from London on 27 July 1846 accompanied by his wife Rebecca, nine daughters and two sons, two servants, ‘a harp, a piano and 300 packages’, and soon set up in business with his nephew Eliezer Levi Montefiore as importers and shipping agents. Joseph invested heavily in copper mines and served on the board of a number of mining companies, notably the Royal South Australian Mining Co. He was a member of the stock exchange, a committee member of the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce and an original trustee of the Savings Bank. In 1851 he stood for election to the East Adelaide seat of the Legislative Council as a ‘good friend of free trade and moderate, unhurried reform and an opponent of state aid’ but was defeated. True to the Montefiore tradition he retired from business when still in his fifties and in 1860 returned to London where he was active for many years as one of the founders and stalwarts of the Jewish reform movement.

Joseph Montefiore was one of the earliest free Jewish settlers in New South Wales and was active in Jewish communal life from the start. He was the first president of the Jewish congregation of Sydney upon its official foundation in 1832 and helped to secure a land grant for a Jewish cemetery in 1835. In 1847, together with Eliezer Montefiore, he pressed for a Jewish share in state aid to religion, by which means the evolving Jewish community of Adelaide wanted to assert Jewish equality in South Australia. Likewise in 1851, Joseph welcomed the General Education Act on behalf of the Adelaide Jewish Community.

Enterprising, urbane, and noted for his wit and memory, he was perhaps the outstanding representative in the Australian colonies of the richly endowed Sephardi merchants, financiers and London scholars, was instrumental in building a Jewish community.

He died on 8 September 1893 in Brighton leaving ten daughters and three sons, Rebecca having passed away on 29 October 1886.

The next in this series is the story of Jacob Barrow Montefiore

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