From Australia’s Jewish Past: Judah Solomon –  Convict to Businessman

August 10, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Judah arrived in Hobart in 1820 from England, together with his brother Joseph, as convicts for “receiving stolen goods”.

The Temple House

Judah was in his early forties, married with eight children, and his wife Esther pregnant with their ninth child remained in England.  Judah was a convicted criminal and it was not unusual for the wife not to accompany the husband.

Joseph’s life in Hobart Town was very much an upward trajectory – from convicted criminal to wealthy businessman.  He was granted a ticket-of-leave – a bit like being “on probation”, establishing a general store, initially with his brother Joseph, and importing everything from soap, tea, double Gloucester cheese, silk handkerchiefs, gentlemen’s fine shirts, to snuff boxes for the colonial elite.

Within five years of his arrival, Judah was living in and operating the business from a large, Georgian style, stone residence with over twenty rooms. It was located right in the middle of Hobart.  This house would be the centre of the family’s life for almost a century.

Joseph moved to northern Tasmania in the late 1820s, and Judah continued to grow a very prosperous import business.  Judah also invested in property, both in and outside Hobart, and became one of the wealthiest men in the small Hobart Colony.

The boys had been brought up as Orthodox Jews in the small Jewish community of Sheerness, in the north-east of England and married Esther in the town’s synagogue.  However, in Tasmania, the brothers took different paths – Joseph gave up his faith and married in an Anglican church and, in contrast, Judah was heavily involved in Hobart’s small Jewish community.  One of the large reception rooms in his residence was used for services – the house was known as Temple House as early as the 1830s.

Judah served as Treasurer of the Hobart Congregation when it was established in the early 1840s. He donated part of the large Temple House garden to build a synagogue when the Governor refused to give the Jewish community a land grant. The Committee, whose president was a free settler named Louis Nathan, accepted tenders from two Hobart companies to build and fit out the synagogue. It was consecrated in 1845 and is the oldest operational synagogue in Australia.

Judah’s personal life was not just complicated – it actually became a problem.  When Judah moved into Temple House, a young woman named Elizabeth Howell moved in as well, presenting him with a son Joseph in 1826.  Elizabeth would be Judah’s de facto spouse for the rest of his life.  However, as is known, Judah still had a legal family in England and he maintained contact with them.  In 1828 his eldest son Isaac arrived and, a year later his youngest son, to work with him in the family business.

The Solomon/Benjamin family

In 1832, Esther arrived, now in her mid-50s, along with three of their daughters.  Although Judah had left England 13 years before, Esther was hoping to resume her role as Judah’s lawful wife.  Judah was not interested and the couple fell out completely.

Esther had no intention of simply fading into the background. She sent petitions to the Governor about her husband’s “immoral behaviour” and begged him not to grant Judah a free pardon.  Esther apparently feared that with a free pardon – he had received a conditional one – Judah would return to England and divorce her in a Jewish court.  Interestingly, Judah was never given a free pardon and was still officially a convict when he died, although having lived a very prosperous life.

One of the daughters, Lydia arrived with her mother and husband – Henry Benjamin  – and two young children.  The family lived in Hamilton, a town north of Hobart, where Henry ran a local inn – and four more children arrived.  Overall on Esther’s side of the family – 26 children were brought up in Tasmania.

One of the children, Samuel, at the age of 13, began work in the business at Temple House, then furthering his business career in Australia and overseas.  He returned to Hobart in 1894 with his wife Fannie and three children, mainly to claim his inheritance which included Temple House something like $6 million in today’s money.  His benefactor was his grandfather Judah’s so-called “illegitimate” son, named Joseph.  It was Joseph who had inherited most of Judah’s fortune.

Joseph and his wife’s two children died in childhood, and Joseph had no direct heir, which is how Samuel came to inherit.  Samuel lived at Temple House for over twenty years and was the family patriarch, living the life of a city gentleman.  He grew azaleas, chrysanthemums and other flowers.  The local newspaper called him “the most ardent floriculturalist in the community”. In the broader community, Samuel became a prominent figure, serving as an alderman and justice of the peace.  Fanny and he were involved in community and charitable organisations.

Samuel succeeded his half-uncle Joseph as President of the Hebrew Congregation. He helped to restore Hobart’s Jewish life which had been in the doldrums in recent years.  He personally contributed to the employment of a rabbi named Isack Morris.

Unfortunately, as Samuel was highly opinionated and did not get on with everyone including the Rabbi and the pair fell out so badly that Samuel resigned as president of the congregation. He only resumed the presidency after Rabbi Morris left Hobart.

Samuel died in 1926, just over a century after Judah had arrived in Hobart.  This really brought an end to the Solomon/Benjamin family’s very close involvement with Jewish affairs in Hobart as well as Temple House which had been sold a few years earlier to the YMCA.

Judah Solomon’s huge gravestone dominates the Solomon/Benjamin family vault, indeed the whole Jewish section in the local Hobart Cemetery, as well as many of the other family members.

There are now nine generations of this family in Australia and the writer acknowledges this story came via Beverley Hoope, the great great great granddaughter of Judah Solomon on her mother’s side.  She advised that Temple House was restored to its former architectural glory in the 1990s and is now part of Hobart Police Department.

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 www.ajhs.com.au or its Facebook page.

 

Comments

One Response to “From Australia’s Jewish Past: Judah Solomon –  Convict to Businessman”
  1. Janet Sernack says:

    My mother Nita Davis, was also a direct descendant of Judah Solomon, his daughter Louisa Solomon, married John Davis, their son, Phillip Davis married my great grandmother, Leah Cohen, whose son, Edward Asher Davis, was my mother father. Would love to connect with Beverly.

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