From Australia’s Jewish Past: Mark Rubin and Abraham Davis

February 27, 2024 by Features Desk
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Mark Rubin, a pearl dealer and pastoralist – Abraham Davis – shrewd businessman and perhaps “a ghost’’.

Graham de Vahl Davis with a portrait of Abraham

Mark Rubin was born in 1867 at Salantai in the province of Kovno, Russia (Lithuania).  He was the son of Louis Rubinstein, a medical practitioner, and his wife Hannah.  He left Russia as a young man and lived for a time in Cardiff, Wales, before travelling to Sydney with very little English, arriving in December 1886, and settling in Melbourne in February 1887.  He worked odd jobs, including as a wharf labourer, before investing his savings in haberdashery, which he carried around the city in a wheelbarrow.  After acquiring a horse and buggy, he extended his business into country areas.  He was an opal miner and dealer at White Cliffs, New South Wales for several years.  He was naturalised on returning to Melbourne in January 1893. For a few years, Mark mined and traded the raw stone, but increasingly, he turned his hand and mind to the polishing and presentation of the unique gem. By the time he met and married Rebecca – daughter of Woolf Davis – in October 1895, he could call himself a jeweller. The couple had two sons, Bernard and Harold.

Abraham Davis with his son Gerald

Mark moved to Broome, Western Australia, which had become the centre of the pearling industry around the early 1900s.  He quickly became a leading pearl dealer, having purchased and managed a large pearling fleet.   It is not known why, but around 1901, Mark moved his family to London, although he continued to spend most of his time in Australia, visiting London annually for business.    He believed war in Europe was inevitable and that there would be more demand for wool than pearls.  Between 1912 and 1913, he invested in several large sheep stations, including de Grey and Warrawagine near Port Hedland, Western Australia, and Northampton Downs in Queensland.  He had also transferred his pearl-dealing business to London and Paris.

Mark died at Fontainebleau, France, on 6 November 1919, leaving his family a fortune.  His will requested that he be buried in the Jewish cemetery in Melbourne.  He had also requested that his family return to live in Australia and that his sons should marry without delay and take an active interest in Jewish communal affairs.   The running of the family business was left to his younger son Harold, who achieved fame as an art collector and philanthropist. His story will be told next week.

Mark’s brother-in-law, Abraham, was born on 16 December 1863 in Melbourne to Woolf and Rachel Davis.  He was the sixth of eleven children, the first-born boy, Moses de Val, having died in infancy.  Abraham attended the newly established Melbourne Hebrew School, which had opened in 1874 with ninety pupils. By its fourth year, it had become well supported, with two hundred pupils enrolled.  Even with an extended Hebrew curriculum, the school was known as among the best in the colony in all regular subjects.   Abraham excelled in Hebrew studies.  Woolf Davis had hoped that Abraham would follow in his footsteps with both his faith and lineage.  This was certainly not the case and in 1894 Abraham married Cecily a non-Jew, and unfortunately, they suffered the same loss as his parents when their first son, also named Moses de Vahl, died in his first year. Fortunately, they had two other children, Gerald and Dorothy.  Abraham’s faith was important to him and he became president of the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in 1899.

Abraham’s cousin Richard Rubin tells the story of the ‘Roseate Pearl’, which was a particularly large and beautiful specimen that a white pearler had found.  It was then stolen from him by another pearl diver and, in turn, had been stolen from him by two Chinese underworld figures who were later hanged for an unrelated murder.  The next owner died of a heart attack, and the next owner committed suicide after the pearl had been stolen from him.  In 1905, a man who traded in stolen pearls was murdered in Broome when negotiating to purchase the pearl, and, over the next few years, violence and death stalked anyone associated with the pearl.

Davis’s residence in Broome. “de Val”

Abraham, known to be a shrewd businessman, was working on behalf of his brother-in-law Mark, who had reportedly bought the precious pearl for the sum of twenty thousand pounds.  Abraham boarded the luxurious SS Koombana on 8 March 1912 in Fremantle for his voyage to Broome.  Unfortunately, this would become its last voyage, as the ship went down in a cyclone on 20 March 1912, and it is believed that the pearl went down together with the one hundred and fifty-seven passengers on board.  It became the worst civilian maritime disaster in Australia’s history.   The story goes as to whether the pearl is lying at the bottom of the ocean or, was the pearl even on the ship in the first place.  The truth will never be known.  Stories written over the last one hundred years say that the pearl was supposedly cursed.   Some say the ‘Roseate Pearl’ never existed and is just a fantastic urban legend.  There may have been one way to find out.  This would have been to ask the ghost of Abraham Davis, who appeared in the home, known as ‘’de Vahl,’’ which had been built by Abraham and later became the home of the Anglican Bishop  Gerard Trower.  He did not expect to find the house already occupied, claiming he had woken to find a ghostly figure illuminating his bedroom, dressed in the garments of a Rabbi.  Many others who have seen the ghost describe it as looking more like an affluent gentleman!

The tale of Abraham’s death was one surrounded by mystery, murder, suicide, and the curse of a pearl that might not have even existed.  The pearl, known for its magnificent size and beauty, has a history that is a little hard to trace, but suffice to say that where treasure moves, tragedy follows!

SS Koomban

The West Australian of 12 December 1911 and again on 30 November 2012, reports on the divorce proceedings of Abraham and Cecily due to Cecily’s desertion and misconduct with a Sydney commercial traveller.  It unfortunately became quite public with reports in most Australian newspapers   A decree nisi was granted on the grounds of misconduct.   However, the action taken by a divorced wife to have a decree absolute erased because the petitioning husband died before it was made was not proceeded with.  The summons was dismissed by consent.

Prof Graham de Vahl Davis, a former leader of the New South Wales Jewish community and grandson of Abraham, was interviewed by Greg Hayes, ABC Kimberley, Western Australia, on 9 May 2002.  In the interview, he played along and recounted with pride his family history and the legend of the so-called cursed ‘Roseate Pearl’.  He was quite amused by the whole thing and even posed for a photograph with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

The AJHS acknowledges the following references in the preparation of this story:

Australian Dictionary of Biography – John Playford; Wikipedia; The Story of the Roseate Pearl – Glam Mosher; The White Divers of Broome – John Bailey; Richard Rubin; National Library of Australia; Koombana Days – The Man Behind the Ghost – Ashley Hall; The Paranormal Guide – Cursed Pearl

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 that might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or

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