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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mendes da Costa, Benjamin (1803–1868)

by J. S. C. Miller

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

Benjamin Mendes da Costa (1803-1868), merchant and philanthropist, was born on 17 July 1803 at Enfield, London, first of two children of Benjamin Mendes da Costa and his second wife Louisa, daughter of Edward Naylor of Ponders End. Benjamin was baptized on 9 February 1804 at Enfield Parish Church, where his parents had been married on 21 September 1802 according to the ceremonies and rites of the established Church. The marriage register discloses that Louisa was a minor and married with her father's consent. Their second child was a girl, Louisa, born in 1806. Neither Benjamin nor Louisa married. Their father came of a Portuguese Jewish family that settled in England in the eighteenth century. By his father's first marriage to Esther Machoro, recorded in the London Synagogue Register, they had two children, Hananel and Jacob Joseph; they were brought up as Jews but the children of the second marriage were members of the Church of England.

Da Costa and his sister arrived in South Australia on 7 July 1840 in the Fairlie. He set up as a merchant in Hindley Street and in 1843 moved to Grenfell Street. The reasons for his migration to Adelaide are obscure but other Jews, such as the Montefiore brothers, had played an important role in founding and developing South Australia and may have influenced him to settle in the new province. He weathered the depression and as his business prospered he acquired six town acres (2.4 ha) and fifteen country sections. He was also elected to the committee of the Mechanics' Institute. With his sister, on 4 February 1848 da Costa sailed for London. At first he lived at 53 Gower Street, and then retired to 8 Bedford Square, Brighton, where he died of lung cancer on 26 November 1868.

In Adelaide da Costa had become friendly with the second colonial chaplain, Rev. James Farrell, who ministered at Trinity Church where da Costa was a regular worshipper. The only personal legacy in his will was a bequest to Farrell 'as a mark of esteem'. Da Costa had also become friendly with Bishop Augustus Short who with Farrell was closely connected with the founding of the Collegiate School of St Peter, which had started in 1847 at Trinity Church. Their interest in this school undoubtedly influenced da Costa to bequeath his real estate in South Australia to the Council of the Collegiate School of St Peter, subject to the life interests of ten relations, one of whom was his sister Louisa who died in 1898. The last surviving relation died in 1910 and in 1912 the property was vested in the school. The Da Costa Building is now on the site where he had lived in Grenfell Street, and at the school a hall, house and scholarship are named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Stephens, The Land of Promise (Lond, 1839)
  • South Australian Almanack and General Directory, 1841-43
  • Register (Adelaide), 11 July 1840
  • South Australian Magazine, Sept 1842
  • Australasian, 20 Mar 1869.

Citation details

J. S. C. Miller, 'Mendes da Costa, Benjamin (1803–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 12 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 5

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