Who was the first free Jewish migrant to Australia?

May 11, 2021 by J-Wire News Service
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Australian history is divided on who was the first free Jewish settler.


Sydney 1816

Possibly it was Rosanna Abrahams, the daughter of convict Esther Abrahams who arrived in 1788, or maybe Esther Isaacs who arrived in 1816.  Perhaps it was Isaac Leo Lyon, who arrived, albeit incognito in 1809.  He was certainly one of the first free Jewish migrants, although he concealed his identity at the time.

Lyon’s story is connected to the early history of education in New South Wales. In the early years of the colony, there were hundreds of orphaned and destitute European children in Sydney, but few facilities to care for them. By 1806, nine public and a few private schools had been established; teaching staff being convicts or ex-convicts. Colonial authorities begged England to send qualified teachers and clergy.

The first trained teachers in either England or Australia were appointed in 1808 by the British government at a paltry salary of £60 per annum. One such was Isaac Leo Lyon.

Isaac was the son of Reverend Solomon Lyon, who ran the first Jewish boarding school in England and taught Hebrew to Cambridge students, as well as tutoring a number of English nobles and the upper classes. The family was well educated and Isaac’s sister, Emma, was the first Anglo-Jewish woman to publish a book of romantic poetry.

Unfortunately, Isaac did not stay in the Jewish fold and married a non-Jewish woman in 1808 and they set sail on the female convict transport ship Aeolus.  Sadly Isaac’s wife died on the journey.

Isaac arrived to a colony in administrative chaos. The orphaned boys’ school where he was to teach had not even been built. He was sent to Parramatta instead and, within ten months he was dismissed by government order due to ‘negligence and incapability, and later protested his innocence.

Isaac worked in Sydney for a short time and then returned to England via Norfolk Island.

On the journey, he acted as clerk to Captain John Reed; who provided a testimonial of his character when the former schoolteacher, back in London, petitioned the Colonial Secretary for compensation for his troubles.  While his petition was likely unsuccessful, his path thereafter was indeed quite the opposite of the profligate failed colonist.

He returned to his Jewish roots, marrying Hannah Levi in 1822 and published several books on Jewish prayer and Hebrew language.  He earned a living as a Hebrew teacher and became involved in communal Jewish life, founding a charity for impoverished Jewish mothers and establishing a lecture series aimed at ‘moral and intellectual improvement’ for working-class Jews.

Whether or not he was the first ‘true’ free Jew to arrive in Australia will probably never be known to any degree of certainty, nor did he contribute much to Jewish life in the colony. His story is yet another unique thread in the rich tapestry of Australia’s Jewish history.

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.


One Response to “Who was the first free Jewish migrant to Australia?”
  1. Gary Luke says:

    Another contender is Ann Bocherah, the free wife of Solomon Bocherah who was a Second Fleet convict arriving in mid 1790. Ann died in 1793 and was buried at St John’s cemetery in Parramatta. Her alter style grave momument is the earliest Jewish grave in Australia still extant in its original location. She was the second Jew to arrive free after Rosanna Abrahams, the infant daughter of Esther Abrahams born in Newgate prison.

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