From Australia’s past: Moritz Michaelis – a true mensch in every sense of the word

April 19, 2022 by Features Desk
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Moritz was born on 8 November 1820 at Lügde Hanover Germany.  His father was a learned and enthusiastic Talmud scholar.

Moritz Michaelis

Moritz received a good general and religious education and, was encouraged to study medicine but, unfortunately, after one year the funds ran out and he began a four-year apprenticeship with a merchant company.  From there he moved to a Cologne linen merchant and soon became the manager.

In 1843 he moved to Manchester UK to a soft-goods company called Sampson & Leppoc, where he won rapid promotion.  On a trip back to Germany in 1848, he made a decision to emigrate to Australia where he understood the climate would be better for his health, having suffered from Manchester’s air pollution.

Prior to leaving Germany in 1853, Moritz married Rahel Gotthelf, daughter of his sister’s husband and together they travelled to Port Phillip, Victoria.   In the course of time, fourteen children – six boys and eight girls – were born with three, unfortunately, dying in infancy.  They spared no expenses with the children’s education – the sons being educated at Wesley College.

For religious instruction, the children went to St Kilda Hebrew School, while in his own domestic circle, on Sabbaths and festivals, he taught them by example the practice of those rites and ceremonies which contribute to the happiness of the Jewish home.

Surrounded by gold mania, Moritz set himself the limited ambition of being ‘a well to-do man’ in ten years with his friend Adolphus Boyd.  The two established the Australian branch of Sampson & Leppoc on the corner of Elizabeth and Flinders Streets.  Adolphus also began a business in Richmond and, within a year, Moritz had to return to England for more goods, of which he was to sell £25,000 worth at one auction.  In 1855 Michaelis and Boyd broke with Sampson & Leppoc, moved to Collins Street and with a capital of £15,000 the two signed a five-year partnership agreement. Adolphus returned to England to manage the fortnightly shipment of goods and, except for £10,000 lost through a dishonest employee, the firm prospered and their agreement was renewed in 1860.  The end of the American Civil War lowered the price of cotton goods and, returning from a trip to Europe in 1864, the company was not able to survive and the partnership was finally dissolved in 1867.

Moritz had already joined his nephew, Isaac Hallenstein, who in 1864 had bought a tannery and leather-goods plant at Footscray and the company became known as Michaelis Hallenstein (later Michaelis Bayley).  The company grew rapidly and in 1878, a branch was opened in New Zealand.  The company pioneered the glue industry in Australia and was the first to produce gelatine.

Moritz and his partners were known for their energy and enterprising spirit and, in particular, Moritz was known for his fair dealing in all transactions, his courtesy, natural tact and kindness to all he worked with.  In time, other members of the family joined the ever-expanding business which grew to be one of the largest tanneries in Australasia, with branches in various centres as well as supplying to a number of countries.

Having done so well in business, Moritz commissioned an architect – Alfred Kursteiner to design a two-storied, 18 room mansion for his family in Acland St St Kilda – known as Linden.  Moritz then commissioned the curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens to design an extensive garden setting for his house.  Linden remained the family home until 1957.

Moritz had many interests and though, never seeking public office, vigorously supported the liberal reform movement and for years was acting consul for Prussia.  Fascinated by mechanical inventions he financed several and was also involved in salvage operations. He loved music and plays and frequented Melbourne’s early theatre.

Interestingly enough, Moritz did not continue to practise the orthodoxy of his childhood and often visited the Unitarian Chapel where the minister was ‘a very clever preacher’.  However, his love and greatest interest was with his family and he went on to establish himself within the community, being active in the East Melbourne Congregation, supporting in whatever way was required and helping his friend, the late Rev Moses Rintel, establish a new congregation.  He was one of the founders of the St Kilda Congregation and, up to the time of his death, its warmest friend and most liberal supporter.  He also occupied a seat on the Board of Management of the Philanthropic Society.

He was one of the most generous contributors to charitable organisations, always ready to give generously in time and financially to help human suffering.   This extended to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, when he provided a company donation of £500, to assist with a large debt the hospital had incurred.  Later, following his wife’s death in 1901, he donated £1000 for equipment to the Children’s Ward at the Alfred Hospital. It was a tribute of love and affection in her memory.  The ward remains known as the Michaelis Ward, and, on one of its walls is inscribed  – in Hebrew and English – “Honour thy father and thy mother.”

In 1901 his health declined and his rheumatism worsened and he died at Linden on 26 November 1902, survived by seven daughters and four sons. He was widely mourned as a man of great honour ‘who would do good by stealth and blush to find it fame’.

He was a true mensch – he never sought or looked for recognition for all his achievements.  His education, business operations, philanthropy and upright character would have eminently been perfect for public recognition but,  for him, he was satisfied to do good wherever he could without “courting the applause of the world”.  Future Michaelis generations can be extremely proud of Moritz and the legacy left.

Note:  Moritz published Chapters from the Story of my Life in 1899

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 its Facebook page.

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