From Australia’s Jewish Past: Sir Benjamin Benjamin – a Victorian community pioneer and one of the most notable Australian Jews

July 12, 2022 by Features Desk
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Benjamin was born on 2 September 1834 in London, the eldest son of Moses and Catherine. The family emigrated to Melbourne arriving on 29 December 1843.

Sir Benjamin Benjamin

Once finished school, he joined his father and brother Elias in the family business of M Benjamin & Sons – merchants and importers.   In 1857 Benjamin married Fanny, daughter of Abraham Cohen of Sydney and had nine sons and seven daughters. In 1864 he went into partnership with his brother-in-law, Edward Cohen, a tea merchant and general importer. Benjamin retired from business in 1878, with inherited wealth in the vicinity of £60,000. His father was said to have left an estate of some £200,000 as well as his uncle Solomon who made a fortune in Victoria before returning to London in 1854.

As an early affluent Jewish migrant family in Victoria, the Benjamins played a significant role in establishing the Melbourne Jewish Community, a role in which Benjamin won the respect and affection of his fellow-Jews. His longest and closest association was with the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation at the Bourke Street Synagogue where he was elected to its executive committee in 1860 and later had positions as a trustee, auditor and treasurer as well as president three times between 1875 and 1891.  In addition, there was hardly a Jewish organisation that he was not associated with or, a Jewish dispute in which he did not mediate. He was prominent in the financial management of the Jewish day school attached to the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, and was called as a Jewish witness to the Royal Commission on Education in 1882.  Benjamin served as a member of the finance committee of the Australian Jewish Herald, a trustee of the Jewish Philanthropic Society, the Jewish Aid Society and the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society.  His other interests in the wider community were the Hospital Saturday and Sunday Committee which he established and he was chairman of the Melbourne Sailors’ Home.  His wife was active in the organisation of the Austin Hospital for Incurables as well as the Jewish Benevolent Societies.

Like many other Anglo-Jews in Australia, Benjamin regarded civic and social service in his adopted country as a privilege and a duty. He became a Justice of the Peace for Victoria and New South Wales; sat on the Melbourne City Council (representing the Albert Ward) in 1870 and became an alderman in 1881.  He was elected Mayor and served a two-year term from 1887.  At the same time, he was a commissioner for the Centennial International Exhibition to celebrate a century of European settlement in Australia in 1888.

Benjamin was an observant Jew and he made sure that only kosher food was served at banquets and other mayoral functions.  Despite allegations that he spent public money too lavishly and gave expensive presents to Governor Lord Loch in order to gain a knighthood, Benjamin was rewarded with this from Her Majesty Queen Victoria in May 1889 for civic services in the centennial year.

Benjamin was the first mayor of Melbourne, the first Jew in Victoria to be knighted, one of the first Jews elected to the Victorian Legislative Council –  representing Melbourne Province from 1889 to 1892. As a politician he leaned towards conservatism, but ‘claimed to be as liberal as his opponents’ and ‘in touch with the interests of all classes’. In the 1890 election campaign he supported the Federation movement, intercolonial free trade ‘with a protection against the world’, an eight-hour working day and immediate amendment of the Companies Act ‘to place building societies and other companies under more strict supervision, and to give greater security to shareholders and depositors’.

Yet his role as a company director and speculator in land and shares was to make him the centre of controversy and malicious attack. Apparently, he had begun to speculate in land and shares about 1885. He seems to have been persuaded by partners of an auctioneering company to float the Imperial Banking Co in order to finance land transactions. It opened in 1886 with Benjamin and one other as its directors, giving personal guarantees to the Bank of South Australia for a £20,000 loan.  After the Imperial Bank was forced to close on 23 July 1891, a court investigation disclosed an embezzlement of nearly £20,000 by the bank’s accountant and a teller. At the investigation Benjamin pleaded with sincerity and truth that he had himself been duped and that he had never intended to deceive or defraud the public.

Benjamin was in an unenviable position. His heavy financial losses were not only incurred from the failure of the Imperial Bank but also from the bankruptcy of an engineering company of which he had become the first chairman of directors when the firm became a public company in 1888.  As a director of the Colonial Bank he was also involved in its failure. He may have also lost money through the collapse of another company – Country Estates Co Ltd – of which he and two members of the Legislative Council and four of the Legislative Assembly were major shareholders.  In all, he lost not only the £60,000 with which he started speculating, but accumulated additional debts of some £50,000. His creditors agreed to accept one shilling in the pound, and allowed him to continue to live at his home – ‘Canally’ in George Street, East Melbourne.  He was released from bankruptcy within six months.

The Bulletin called him ‘Bingy Bingy’ and attacked him for what it claimed was a ‘grossness of figure, lust for food, and a parallel greed for honour and prestige.’ These accusations, were vicious and unjustified. Benjamin was admittedly responsible, however unwittingly, for the financial ruin of thousands who trusted him. As mayor he may have been more concerned with the city’s expansion and with institutionalised philanthropy than with the individual poor, or with warding off the effects of the Depression.

It cannot go unnoticed that some of Melbourne’s achievements were begun or completed in his terms of office.  He did at least discern any attempt to retain what might be regarded as undeserved prestige.  Bankruptcy meant that he had to resign as a member of parliament, but he went further and resigned from all his public positions, including that of trustee of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation – although he retained his association with the Synagogue. He seems to have been motivated by a desire to do the honourable thing rather than by fear of embarrassment. He continued to devote himself to the many philanthropic organisations to which he belonged.  His own community accorded him a certain sympathy, despite his ‘misfortune’.

He died at his home in East Melbourne on 7 March 1905.  He was survived by his wife, seven sons and six daughters. The large numbers who attended his funeral showed that he had regained – if he had ever really lost – the respect of his fellow-colonists.  For his fellow-Jews, his death represented the passing of one of the community’s pioneers and one of the most notable Australian Jews.


Trove NLA – Newspaper article Page 12 – 16 September 1892

Australian Dictionary of Biography – article by Geulah Solomon – Vol 3 1969/On line 2006

Jewish Encyclopaedia – article by Joseph Jacobs and Goodman Lipkind

Wikipedia – Sir Benjamin Benjamin; The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation

Parliament of Victoria – Former Members Profile

East Melbourne Historical Society – The Land Boomers by Michael Cannon

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