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Fink, Benjamin Josman (1847–1909)

by Michael Cannon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Benjamin Josman Fink (1847-1909), businessman, politician and speculator, was born on 21 April 1847 in Guernsey, Channel Islands, the eldest son of Moses Fink and his wife Gertrude, née Ascher. The family arrived at Melbourne on 14 April 1861 in the Suffolk. Moses Fink's brother Hirsch had started a small business in Geelong: Moses at first worked for him as an itinerant hawker. Benjamin completed his education at the Flinders School, Geelong, and at 16 went to New Zealand where he worked as a produce dealer.

In 1865 Fink returned to Melbourne and became a clerk for Wallach Bros, an Elizabeth Street emporium. Gifted musically, he demonstrated and sold pianos and furniture to such effect that by 1874 he was joint owner of the store. In 1880 the National Bank lent him £60,000 to buy out his partner, Maurice Aron. In 1883 Fink opened two branches of Wallach's in Sydney, later rebuilding the Melbourne store for £120,000. In the 1880s he also bought large interests in coal-mines, gold-mines and pastoral properties. In 1883-89 Fink was an independent member of the Legislative Assembly for Maryborough, but his political career remained always subservient to his business, which began to expand rapidly. He amalgamated his small Joint Stock Bank of Ballarat with the City of Melbourne Bank, making it the colony's biggest buyer of gold. In the next years the City Bank lent Fink more than £300,000, most of which was lost in speculation. In 1884 he bought W. H. Rocke's furniture business, which gave him control of the most important retail outlets for quality furniture. In 1885 he took over the famous Duke mine at Maryborough, had it pumped dry and won £70,000 worth of gold in three years; he also formed the Mercantile Finance Co. Ltd, which rapidly became one of the biggest land boom companies. In 1888 he erected Fink's Buildings on the corners of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets at a cost of £110,000; he also bought the original Cole's Book Arcade for £40,000, Gresham Buildings for £52,000 and several other sites which were converted into shops and office blocks. He built 'The Block', Melbourne's leading shopping arcade of the day, and took over and rebuilt Georges Ltd. Among the hotels he bought, leased or controlled were the Ballarat Star, Albion, Saracen's Head, Governor Arthur and Rose and Crown. In 1888 he undertook to pay the McCracken family £250,000 for the right to float their brewery into a £2,000,000 public company. He persuaded the Stock Exchange of Melbourne to build on his land at a cost of £220,000; it yielded him a personal profit of £55,000. All these ventures were supported by a complex system of cross-financing which was never fully untangled.

When the land boom collapsed and devalued his speculations, Fink's apparent wealth vanished. The Mercantile Finance Co. alone showed a loss of nearly £1,000,000. He made a so-called 'secret composition' with his creditors, revealing debts of £1,520,000. His estate realized ½d. in the £. Fink left Melbourne hurriedly for London with his family. At least two attempts were made by leading institutions to have Fink's composition set aside on the ground that 'registration was obtained by fraud', but in these cases out-of-court settlements were made and public investigation avoided. Large assets were in the name of his wife Catherine, who was the daughter of his uncle Hirsch and whom he had married on 14 October 1874 at Geelong. After the crash Catherine retained control of the remaining assets and even increased them. In 1892, the year of his insolvency, Benjamin transferred to his wife much land in Melbourne's western suburbs. As late as 1909 Catherine was still subdividing and selling this land in partnership with Sir Thomas Bent. In 1895 the Eighth Union Building Society sold Catherine a fifty-year lease of the Ballarat Star Hotel on which Benjamin Fink had defaulted. In 1899 the Caledonian and Australian Mortgage & Agency Co. Ltd sold her back the freehold of Fink's Buildings, on which Benjamin had also defaulted.

Benjamin Fink died intestate in London on 17 September 1909, after suffering from diabetes for twelve years. He was survived by a son, Harold Nestor, and a daughter, Winifred. In early life Fink undoubtedly had remarkable acumen and energy, but like many others became obsessed by the land boom of the 1880s. His manipulations when the boom collapsed disfigured an otherwise productive career.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • G. Meudell, The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift and his Later Reflections (Melb, 1935)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Australasian Sketcher, July 1888
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Sept, 30 Nov, 10 Dec 1892, 21 Sept, 16 Nov 1893, 5 Sept 1894
  • Table Talk, 23 Sept, 14 Oct 1892, 10 Mar, 18 Aug 1893, 12 Jan 1894
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1909
  • company and insolvency files (Public Record Office Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Cannon, 'Fink, Benjamin Josman (1847–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fink-benjamin-josman-3516/text5407, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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