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Benjamin, Sir Benjamin (1834–1905)

by Geulah Solomon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Sir Benjamin Benjamin (1834-1905), merchant, philanthropist, politician and Jewish community leader, was born on 2 September 1834 in London, the eldest son of Moses Benjamin and his wife Catherine, née Moses. With his family he sailed in the London from Gravesend and arrived in Melbourne on 29 December 1843. A fellow passenger was Alfred Joyce. Benjamin was educated at Rev. W. Jarrett's school and then joined his father and brother Elias in the family business of M. Benjamin & Sons, merchants and importers. In 1857 he married Fanny, daughter of Abraham Cohen of Sydney; they had nine sons and seven daughters. In 1864 Benjamin 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 reputedly in the vicinity of £60,000. His father was said to have left an estate of some £200,000 and his uncle Solomon to have made a fortune in Victoria before he returned to London in 1854.

As an early Jewish migrant family in Victoria, and one of the more affluent, the Benjamins played a significant role in establishing and organizing 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: he was elected to its executive committee in 1860 and later served as trustee, auditor and treasurer; he was its president in 1868-75, 1879-80 and 1885-91. In addition there was scarcely a Jewish organization or cause in which he took no part or 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 1882-84. He was a member of the finance committee of the Jewish Herald, and a trustee of the Jewish Philanthropic Society, the Jewish Aid Society and the Hebrew Ladies' Benevolent Society. In projects not restricted to his co-religionists he was a founder of the Hospital Saturday and Sunday Committee and chairman of the Melbourne Sailors' Home, while his wife had active interests in the Austin Hospital for Incurables as well as in 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 early became a justice of the peace for Victoria and New South Wales. Elected by Albert ward to the Melbourne City Council in 1870, he became an alderman in 1881. While mayor in 1887-89 he was a commissioner for the Centennial International Exhibition and was present at the formal opening of Princes Bridge. Always strict in his Jewish observances, his first banquet was unusual in that only kosher food was served. 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 appointed K.B. in May 1889 as a reward for his civic services in the 1888 centennial year.

The first mayor of Melbourne and the first Jew in Victoria to be knighted, Benjamin was one of the first Jews elected to the Victorian Legislative Council, representing Melbourne Province in 1889-92. 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 Bernard Bradley and Robert John Curtain, partners of an auctioneering firm, abetted by their silent partner, James Clarke, to float the Imperial Banking Co. to finance land transactions. It opened in 1886 with Clarke as general manager, Bradley as valuer and Curtain as auditor. To start its operations two of the directors, Benjamin and George Withers, gave 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 not only the duplicity of Clarke, Bradley and Curtain but also the embezzlement of nearly £20,000 by the bank's accountant, J. F. O'Shea, and a teller, Alfred Teale. 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 Wright & Edwards, engineers, 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 also have lost money through the collapse of Country Estates Co. Ltd, of which he and two members of the Legislative Council and four of the Legislative Assembly were major shareholders. Benjamin was also a director of the Colonial Permanent Executors and Agency Co., and of the Australian Land and Deposit Agency Co. 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 1s. in the £, and allowed him to continue to live at his home, Canally, 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 and lust for food, and for a parallel greed for honour and prestige. These accusations, repeated by implication in later writing, 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 institutionalized philanthropy than with the individual poor or with warding off the effects of the depression. But some of Melbourne's achievements were begun or completed in his terms of office and he did at least disdain any attempt to retain what might be regarded as undeserved prestige. The court investigation of the Imperial Banking Co. would have precluded any possibility of his entering into a secret composition which so many of his well-known contemporaries did. 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 organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to which he belonged. His own co-religionists accorded him a certain sympathy, despite his 'misfortune'.

He died at his home in East Melbourne on 7 March 1905, 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 of Australian Jews.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • A. Joyce, A Homestead History, G. F. James ed (Melb, 1942)
  • L. M. Goldman, The Jews in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century (Melb, 1954)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Jewish Herald, 10 Mar 1905
  • R. Apple, ‘The Victorian Jewish Community, 1900-1910’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 4, part 2, 1955, pp 53-77
  • R. L. Benjamin, ‘Sir Benjamin Benjamin’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 6, part 3, 1967, pp 129-44
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Aug 1890, 12 Nov 1892, 8, 9 Mar 1905
  • Australasian, 11 Mar 1905
  • Bulletin, 11 Mar 1905
  • I. Getzler, Neither Toleration Nor Favour: The Struggle of the Jewish Communities in the Australian Colonies (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Annual Reports (Synagogue Archives).

Citation details

Geulah Solomon, 'Benjamin, Sir Benjamin (1834–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benjamin-sir-benjamin-2972/text4331, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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