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Levey, Barnett (1798–1837)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Barnett Levey (1798-1837), merchant and theatre director, was born in London, and arrived in Sydney in December 1821 in the John Bull to join his brother Solomon, a prosperous emancipist. Barnett Levey was the first free Jewish settler in the colony. He established himself as a merchant and in February 1825 opened a store at 72 George Street. In June he married Sarah Emma Wilson, step-daughter of Jacob Josephson, an emancipist. In August 1825 he was appointed an auctioneer in Sydney. As a general merchant he sold not only the usual goods and spirits but also books; he established one of the first lending libraries. Soon he became interested in banking: in 1825 he sold rupees for Colonel Henry Dumaresq, and until the introduction of sterling currency issued the only rupee banknotes in the colony. In January 1826 he was present at the foundation meeting of the Sydney Banking Co. In 1826-27 he erected behind his store the Colchester warehouse, designed by Francis Greenway. The laying of the foundation stone in June 1827 was associated with the opening of Masonic Lodge No. 266, and of No. 260 of which Levey was a member. He also built a flourmill, a wheat store and a windmill. The erection of the windmill led in February 1827 to an acrimonious dispute with Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling, whom Levey had displeased in March 1826 when, after the governor's direction that ticket-of-leave men should not be licensed as publicans, Levey openly offered to supply them with liquor. In 1827 he built Waverley House, a two-storey residence in Georgian style near the later Bondi Junction. Levey became one of the first building promoters when in 1830 he erected cottages in Waverley Crescent.

From 1826 Levey had interested himself in the cultural activities of Sydney and had sung songs at a number of concerts. He now set about establishing the first permanent theatre in Australia. To finance the building he founded a company in November 1827, and next March a temporary theatre was erected at the rear of his property. Because of this project he neglected his business and in May 1828 had to mortgage his premises and mill to Cooper & Levey for £4403. To gain more money, he converted the front of his building into the Royal Hotel. In June 1829 he obtained from Governor Darling a licence for holding balls and concerts, but in January 1830 the government stopped his entertainments, 'our prison population being unfit subjects to go to plays'. This brought Levey near to ruin. His financial situation became so desperate that he tried to sell the Royal Hotel. Unable to find a buyer he evolved a scheme to sell it on the tontine system, but the plan failed and the hotel, the store, the granary and the mill were sold by auction to Samuel Lyons in December 1830. For a time Levey went back to business, working as a jeweller, watchmaker and estate agent, but his determination to establish a theatre was still strong. In 1832 he was permitted to present four 'At Homes' at the Royal Hotel to finance his theatrical plans and on 22 December received the first theatre licence granted in the colony. He prepared a temporary stage in the saloon of the hotel and, after having offered a silver medal to the 'poets of Australia' for an 'approved opening address', he opened his theatre on 26 December 1832 with Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan. Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke patronized his enterprise.

In August 1830 he received a grant of 640 acres (259 ha) in the Blue Mountains, and in 1831 70 acres (28 ha) in the suburb of Alexandria. In 1835 he received 320 acres (130 ha) more in the Blue Mountains; he called the mountain grant Mount Sion, and on it the Pilgrim Inn (Blaxland) was built.

The properties did not remain long in his possession because he always needed money for new ambitious plans. At last in 1833 Levey built, on land at the rear of the Royal Hotel, the first real theatre in Australia, the Theatre Royal, seating about 1000 people. He secured a licence and it was opened on 5 October with a presentation of The Miller and his Men and a farce The Irishman in London. Levey was now a theatre director indeed. Under his direction not only melodramas and comedies were performed, but also some of Shakespeare's plays and the operatic extravaganza Giovanni in London. However, he was soon in trouble and in January 1834 he advertised for partners. Next month he was joined by Joseph Simmons who became part proprietor and acting manager. Levey lost control of the theatre to other lessees, though in 1836 he briefly resumed the directorship. He still kept some commercial interests, conducted land sales in 1835 and in June 1836 was appointed a director of the Australian Gaslight Co. In April 1837 he staged, as his last great performance, with the assistance of the 4th Regiment, a 'grand national and patriotic pageant', but it was not a success. He was now sick, tired, worn out by his efforts to make the theatre pay. He died on 2 October 1837, leaving a widow and four small children in poverty. When probate was granted to his widow his estate did not exceed £500. He was buried in the Jewish portion of the Devonshire Street cemetery. Barnett Levey was an idealist who sacrificed his fortune and health but failed to reach his goals; as the Sydney Times, 21 October 1837, acknowledged, 'to his spirit and perseverance are the public indebted for the introduction of theatricals into New South Wales'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. H. Bertie, The Story of the Royal Hotel & the Theatre Royal (Syd, 1927)
  • B. T. Dowd and W. Foster (eds), The History of the Waverley Municipal District (Syd, 1959)
  • A. G. Foster, ‘Some Early Homes and Epitaphs’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 11, part 5, 1925, pp 288-316
  • A. W. Hyman, ‘Barnett Levey: The Father of the Theatre in Australia’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 1, part 7, 1942, pp 223-35
  • G. F. J. Bergman, ‘Barnett Levey: First Jew in Bondi’, B. B. Bulletin, vol 3, no 6, July 1955, pp 12-15.

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Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Levey, Barnett (1798–1837)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/levey-barnett-2352/text3075, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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