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Levi, Nathaniel (1830–1908)

by L. E. Fredman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Nathaniel Levi (1830-1908), politician and businessman, was born on 20 January 1830 in Liverpool, England, son of Joseph Levi, manufacturer, and his wife Sarah. He arrived at Hobson's Bay in April 1854 in the Matilda Wattenbach and in 1858 joined the firm of John Levey & Son who had stores in Melbourne and Maryborough.

After defeat in the 1859 election Levi represented Maryborough in the Legislative Assembly in 1860-65. He was the first Jew to sit in the Victorian parliament and was sworn in on the Old Testament with his head covered. He failed to win the Maryborough seat in 1866 but was promptly elected for East Melbourne in February. Perhaps his most notable speech was delivered when in January 1865 the treasurer, G. F. Verdon, proposed new duties designed among other objects to give mild protection to local industries. On 24 January Levi led the attack on this proposal, claiming that the duties would raise prices and not benefit manufactures. In 1865-68, while the two Houses were locked in conflict over the tacking of the tariff and Darling grant bills to the annual appropriation bill, Levi voted persistently on the conservative or 'Upper House' side. However, he was a good local member, securing a railway link and attacking the gold export duty. He continued to contest East Melbourne in vain from 1868, but frankly changed his views, and as a Liberal candidate in 1881 advocated protection, Upper House reform, support for the Education Act and Chinese restriction. In the 1880s he again stood unsuccessfully for various seats. Elected to the Legislative Council for North Yarra Province in 1892-1904, he was very strongly opposed to income tax and wages boards. As a member of the royal commission on state banking in 1895 he accepted the bankers' evidence and opposed the majority recommendation to amalgamate the savings banks and establish a Crédit Foncier Land Mortgage Department.

Levi's changed fiscal views were probably affected by his own promotion of local industries. His interest in the Cape Paterson coalfield began in 1859 and lasted for many years. In 1864 his firm, Nathaniel Levi & Co., started a distillery at Footscray to manufacture spirits and sugar from beetroot. He won exhibition medals and compiled a handbook in 1870 explaining the techniques and benefits of the process, but the company had to sell the plant to pay the firm's debts. He then turned to auctioneering and agency business, and in 1884 took his two sons into the firm. He launched the short-lived Daily News in October 1885. For years he held the advertising concession from the Victorian railways. An early member of the Victorian Manufacturers' and Exhibitors' Association, he was also a founder and trustee of the Chamber of Manufactures, serving as president in the depression years of 1893-95.

Prominent in the Jewish community, Levi was president of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in 1880-82 and 1904-05. Strong-willed, energetic and orthodox, he opposed concessions in observance and temporarily resigned from the congregation when the Jewish day school was closed in 1885. He died at St Kilda on 11 September 1908, predeceased in 1864 by his wife Sarah, and survived by two sons, Joseph and John.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • L. M. Goldman, The Jews in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century (Melb, 1954)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1908.

Citation details

L. E. Fredman, 'Levi, Nathaniel (1830–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/levi-nathaniel-4015/text6365, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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