From Australia’s Jewish Past: Abraham Benjamin – a family business in its one hundred and forty-second year – David Benjamin – a family business in Dunedin, New Zealand

June 28, 2022 by Ruth Lillian
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Abraham and his wife Theresa Falk came to Melbourne in 1865 by boat from Bristol, UK.

His father, a rabbi, had emigrated from Prussia and was associated with the Bristol Synagogue.  Theresa’s father was in jewellery, where Abraham learnt his trade and worked in Manchester.

In 1867 Abraham began a partnership through his father-in-law’s business, trading as P Falk and Company, jewellers, wholesalers and importers with firms in Birmingham, Melbourne and Adelaide.  Abraham became the manager of the Melbourne branch of the company.  In 1878 the partnership dissolved, and it was in 1880 when Abraham began trading as Benjamin & Company, with premises in Little Collins Street in the heart of the Melbourne jewellery precinct.

Abraham was very involved with establishing the St Kilda Synagogue, having served as its president three times over twenty-one years.  The family has in their possession a letter that Abraham wrote in 1908 to the then Directors of A Benjamin & Company telling them that in no uncertain terms were they to transact any business on the Sabbath.  This included any of the directors or shareholders or the staff of employees doing any of their duties.

After Abraham’s passing in 1913, the company was run by his three sons – Lionel, Julius and Maurice.  A daughter, Clara, also married a Benjamin from a different family.  Abraham is buried in St Kilda Cemetery.

From 1946 the company was run by Lionel’s sons – Frank and Ernest – following which in 1994, Frank and David (the sons of Frank Maurice Benjamin) became the owners and ran the family company for the next 20 years.

In 2014 Frank retired, and the business is now solely run by David Benjamin at 360 Little Collins St – a company having traded for 142 years at the same site.

‘This Benjamin family jewellery company has seen Australia become a nation, fight in two world wars, and survive the 1930s Depression, floods, droughts and fires. For their company to trade for more than one hundred and forty-two years in a competitive economy demonstrates the Benjamin family’s strong principles and work ethic through four generations of making jewellery in gold, platinum, silver, diamonds and precious gems for its multi-generational clientele’.

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David Benjamin

Olveston House

Interestingly, Abraham had a younger half-brother David who arrived in Melbourne in 1874, married Marie Michaelis and moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1878, where David, together with Marie’s brother, Frederick Michaelis, joined forces to set up and manage the Glendermid Tannery on behalf of Marie’s father.  This industrial business soon gave way to a music agency’s more artistic and profitable pursuits.  In late 1883 the Dresden Pianoforte Manufacturing Agency & Company (renamed the Bristol Piano Company during the First World War) was formed to meet the rising demand for musical instruments.

In 1885 David changed his name, by deed poll, to that used by his father’s family in Prussia – Theomin – while the city of Dresden, known for its musical instrument makers, lent its name to the new business.  By 1913 the Bristol Piano Company was one of the largest operations of its type in New Zealand.

In 1904, David had a thirty-five-room house built in Royal Terrace, Dunedin, named ‘Olveston’ after a village near Bristol where he had enjoyed holidays as a child. The house was filled with David’s collection of European and Oriental treasures in the coming years.

David was active in many aspects of Dunedin’s life.  He was a leading member of the Jewish community, contributed to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Royal Dunedin Male Choir, Dunedin City Sinking Fund (set up to free Dunedin from debt) and the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, where he was President in 1901 – 1902 and was its representative at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia and the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.

David passed away in 1933.  He and Marie are buried in the Jewish section of the Dunedin Southern Cemetery.  Dorothy, their daughter, left the family home –  Olveston’  – in her will and its contents to the citizens of Dunedin.



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