(Presented at the May 17 meeting of the SA Council of Christians and Jews by Merrilyn Ades)
Emanuel Solomon arrived in Australia at the age of 18 on the ship Lady Castlereagh, with his younger brother Vaiben Solomon, as convicts in 1818. Both had been convicted of larceny and transported to the colony. After serving their sentence of 7 years, Emanuel married fellow convict Mary Wilson in 1826. She had also been convicted of larceny and sentenced in the Old Bailey with life imprisonment.
With the arrival in Sydney of the brothers’ parents and many family members, Emanuel and his brother Vaiben set up a business in Sydney as merchants, until Emanual left Sydney for Adelaide in 1837 where he solidly established himself as a respectable citizen.
The brothers had accumulated property and land in Sydney and Bathurst but Emanuel bought a share in a South Australian land grant and became the resident partner in Adelaide for the company with most of the trade carried between the two cities by their brig the “Dorset”.
They employed their nephew Judah Moss Solomon to work on the Dorset back and forth from Sydney to Adelaide.
We don’t know what happened to Emanuel’s first wife, but at the age of 44 he married his second wife, Cecilia Smith, Given that Cecilia was an Irish Catholic from Cork, they were unable to be married in a synagogue or a catholic church so the autumn ceremony took place at a Presbyterian Church. By that time, they had more than one baby and eventually, Cecilia bore Emanuel two boys and four girls, amongst them Elizabeth, who married her first cousin; Julia, who eloped in 1864 and became the matriarch of an important Darwin dynasty; and Rosetta, who married the proprietor of the Monster Clothing Palace in Hindley Street, Adelaide. There were multitudinous grandchildren.
The same year that Cecilia died, 1852, he married Catherine Abrahams, who was a 25 years old Jewish girl (they had seven children) .
Through the financially disastrous years of the early 1840s, Solomon was one of the few businessmen who maintained faith and held firm in the city, and noting that the city had no theatrical or dramatic performance hall, he built his Queen’s Theatre, the first purpose-built theatre in the mainland colonies. It opened with a performance of Othello by a Sydney company in January 1841 and crowds picked their way through the mud of the streets to get there. Emanuel Solomon did everything he could to encourage the enjoyment of entertainment in Adelaide, outlaying large sums of money with little return; but by the end of 1842 – the year that South Australia became just another Crown colony – the theatre had to close.
On behalf of the 48 Jewish citizens living in Adelaide in the early 1840s Emanuel applied to the government for a grant for a synagogue on the same footing as his Christian brethren, but there is no reference to a grant being given in the following years for a synagogue to be built. He had built a tavern at the side of the Queen’s Theatre, where weekly religious services were held and on 10 September 1848, 44 Jewish men met at Emanuel Solomon’s Temple Tavern and agreed to form the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation and eventually build a synagogue.
The grand sum of £5/7/3 was collected for the purpose of rendering assistance to the poor and needy and Emanuel founded the Adelaide Hebrew Philanthropic Society in 1852 for the purpose of supporting Jews in distress or needing monetary assistance.
A collection was then taken up for a permanent place of worship from which £103/4/0 was received. It was proposed at that time that the sum expended for the building of a synagogue not exceed £400. The land was purchased, and consecration of the first synagogue in SA was held on 5th September 1850. At the consecration, a toast was proposed to Emanuel Solomon for obtaining a grant from the government for a section of the West Terrace Cemetery for the burial of Jews. Emanuel then donated 21 guineas for the purpose of hiring a rabbi or minister as that first number of 48 Jews in Adelaide in the early 1840s grew to 360 by 1860.
Solomon developed property on blocks in the city and was a shareholder and board member of the South Australian Mining Association, involved in the Burra copper mine. Later, as citizens drawn by Victorian goldfields left Adelaide, he subscribed to a fund for exploration for gold in South Australia. The region, however, proved all-but devoid of the fabled element.
In the State Library, there is a book of some 127 letters that Emanuel wrote to his brother Vaiben and other family members during the period of trading between Adelaide and Sydney on his ship Dorset. These letters certainly indicate that he liked to micro-manage the business.
The correspondence tells the story of ruthless competition between rival ship-owners, each striving to eliminate his rivals and obtain a monopoly of the inter-colonial trade, and it throws
light on sharp practices which are as old as commerce itself—secret rebates, rings of buyers at auction sales, and collusion between merchants tendering for Government contracts. And of course there are complaints in the letters of pilfering by sailors and wharf labourers, especially of cargoes of beer.
In one of his letters he writes: “We have down here premises worth ₤20,000 but there is no demand for selling or letting them at present. If you make up your mind to carry on the business I will suggest one plan, that you sell my land on the Parramatta Road, sell my premises in Liverpool Street and you must do the same. Our merchants down here are very few & nearly all have been insolvent and have not the premises to carry on the business – I owe very little having no bill or paper out with my name on – the only liability I have is about 200₤ to the Bank which was 500₤ before I reduced it more than one half.”
In his letters Solomon unwittingly paints his own portrait, and though one recoils from a certain ruthless and vindictiveness towards his rivals, it is clear that he possessed in good measure the experience, vigour, and decisiveness necessary for success. He was tireless in his search for profitable openings and was quick to seize every opportunity that offered. He traded in a multitude of things, importing from Sydney things such as toys, musical instruments, snuff, sets of chessmen, playing cards, babies’ bonnets, parasols, spectacles, peppermints, candle snuffers, beer engines, castor oil, and handcuffs. Nothing was too large or too small for him to handle.
In one of his business letters, he inserts just one sentence of a private or personal nature amongst business: “P.S. I feel much surprised that strangers here should know what is going on in our family better than myself I understand that Judah & Isaac are both married yet I have never received any notice at all of it – I wish you to let me know how boots & shoes will sell. Also do not send any more champagne cider as we go can get it here for the same price. There will be a quantity of things to go from here as well as grain of which there will be plenty as a great deal of our wheat is already in ear.”
To read these letters is to share the hopes and fears, successes and disappointments of one of our pioneer merchants, and to see at close quarters, the fabric of commercial life during a momentous period of South Australian history.
Emanuel somehow seemed to manage to keep his convict start in Australia a complete secret as he was a Member for the House of Assembly for West Adelaide (1862-65) and Member for the Legislative Council (1867-71). In between his stints on the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, in 1866 Solomon was badly injured when he was knocked down by a vehicle. He never really recovered; yet he influenced affairs in his adopted territory almost to the last. Skilfully negotiating the narrow pass between genuine benevolence and ostentation, Solomon expressed his pride of place in 1871, by inviting more than five hundred pioneers of the colony to a grand banquet at the Town Hall celebrating the 35th anniversary of the foundation of South Australia. Some of the guests at this banquet included Sir John Morphett, Sir GS Kingston, Captain Hart and the Hon Henry Ayres. The papers reported “never before have we seen gathered together in the colony such an assembly.”
Although Emanuel achieved so much for South Australia he is mainly remembered for providing refuge to the sisters of St Joseph and the nun who became Australia’s first saint.
Toward the end of 1871, when Mary MacKillop was excommunicated by Bishop Sheil, her Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart were ordered to vacate their home immediately. Thinking fondly, perhaps, of his deceased Catholic wife, Emanuel Solomon stepped in to provide the Sisters with two Flinders Street properties in which to live, rent free. He insisted that their good work must continue.
It is a twist of history that sees Solomon remembered primarily, now, for this act of kindness – one of many magnanimous gestures in the course of his long life. Happily, however, on the occasion of Mary MacKillop’s canonisation in 2010, the owners of the Solomon brothers’ charming painted portraits, offered to lend them to the Mary Mackillop Gallery. They can be seen hanging now, adjacent to the woman Emanuel Solomon helped because he could – rather than spurning her because her faith was different from his own.
(Nephew Judah also had a political career: Alderman, Gawler ward 1852-54; M.H.A. City of Adelaide 1858-60; M.L.C. 1861-66; M.H.A. for West Adelaide 1871-75; mayor of Adelaide 1869-71. He acted as a coroner, and was the first President of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He died of cancer in August 1880 in Adelaide and was survived by 7 of his 16 children from his 2 wives. One of his sons, Vaiben Louis Solomon was treasurer of S.A. and in 1899 became the shortest serving Premier of South Australia (7 days) He was a member of the first Federal Parliament until 1903. Quite an upward progress for the Solomon family after such a felonious start in Australia!)