Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Michaelis, Moritz (1820–1902)

by J. Ann Hone

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

Moritz Michaelis (1820-1902), businessman, was born on 8 November 1820 at Lügde, near Bad Pyrmont, Hanover, son of Reuben Michaelis and his wife Sara. His parents, though financially struggling, sent him to a private school and in 1835 to Holzminden to study medicine. After a brilliant year the money ran out and he had to begin a four-year apprenticeship with a Brakel firm. He then worked for a Cologne linen merchant and was soon manager. In 1843 he joined a Manchester firm, Sampson & Leppoc, and won rapid promotion. He visited Germany in 1848 and on his return considered Australia as the remedy for his ill health which Manchester only aggravated. The offer of a higher salary prevailed but when the gold rush began the firm decided to send Michaelis and Adolphus Boyd to Victoria. On a farewell visit to Germany Michaelis met Rahel Gotthelf, daughter of his sister's husband. They married on 14 April 1853 and in August arrived at Port Phillip in the Falcon.

Surrounded by gold mania Michaelis set himself the limited ambition of being 'a well to-do man' in ten years and with Boyd began business in Richmond. Within a year Michaelis had to return to England for more goods, of which he was to sell £25,000 worth at one auction. In 1855 Michaelis and Boyd broke with Sampson & Leppoc, moved to Collins Street and with a capital of £15,000 drew up a five-year partnership agreement. Boyd returned to England to manage the fortnightly shipment of goods and, except for £10,000 lost through a dishonest employee, the firm prospered; in 1860 the agreement was renewed. In 1864 Michaelis visited Europe but on his return faced ruin. The end of the American civil war lowered the price of cotton goods and a shipment of elastic-sided boots proved faulty. In May 1866 the partners' creditors accepted a composition of 14s. in the £ and in March 1867 the partnership was dissolved. Michaelis had already joined his nephew, Isaac Hallenstein, who in 1864 had bought a tannery at Footscray.

Michaelis, Hallenstein & Co. grew rapidly; in 1873 Isaac established a London branch and in Melbourne 780 hides were turned out a week; in 1876 the Sydney branch, Farleigh, Nettheim & Co., started and in 1879 Michaelis, Hallenstein & Farquhar was established in New Zealand. The firm won awards in Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Calcutta. It also pioneered the Australian glue industry and processed gelatine. To Michaelis, the success was due to his management and Isaac's hard work. In 1883 he was able to pay his creditors. In 1884 he took his family to Europe for a two-year visit marred for him by rheumatism. The crash of the 1890s was not entirely unexpected by Michaelis and the firm kept down its overdraft and survived. Michaelis maintained that business would recover 'when once the mercantile world has got clear of its speculative and weakened members, when I doubt not we shall reap the reward of my caution'.

Michaelis had wide interests and though never seeking public office vigorously supported the liberal reform movement and for years was acting consul for Prussia. In 1860 he had acted as special auditor for the National Bank. Fascinated by mechanical inventions he financed several and was also involved in salvage operations. He loved music and plays and frequented Melbourne's early theatre. A Jew by birth, he did not continue to practise the orthodoxy of his childhood and often visited the Unitarian Chapel where the minister was 'a very clever preacher'. Michaelis was treasurer of the Melbourne and East Melbourne Hebrew congregation, founded the St Kilda congregation in 1871 and gave large sums to both. Though a committee member of the Melbourne Hebrew School he sent his sons to Wesley College. He was a member of the Sabbath Observance and Jewish Aid Society Committees and a founder of the Australian Israelite which he later boycotted. He supported many charities, gave £500 to the Melbourne Hospital and with his sons gave £1000 to the Alfred Hospital in memory of his wife who died in 1901. His greatest interest was his family whose unity he maintained by personal and written contact and an implacable will. Only sons and sons-in-law of partners became shareholders but Michaelis advised them to acquire financial independence. He published Chapters from the Story of my Life (Melbourne, 1899).

In old age Michaelis spent increasing time at Romawi, the 4000-acre (1600 ha) property on Lake Victoria, Gippsland, bought in 1889. There, after an unsuccessful attempt to produce wattle bark, he bred cattle and sheep and enjoyed visits from his family. In 1901 his health declined and his rheumatism worsened. He died at Linden, St Kilda, on 26 November 1902, survived by seven daughters and four sons. He was widely mourned as a man of great honour 'who would do good by stealth and blush to find it fame'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. M. Goldman, The Jews in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century (Melb, 1954)
  • The Michaelis, Hallenstein Story 1864-1964 (Syd, 1964)
  • Table Talk, 11 Dec 1902
  • Australian Leather Journal, 15 Dec 1902, 16 Jan, 15 Feb 1956
  • Michaelis, Hallenstein Pty Ltd records (Australian National University Archives).

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Michaelis, Moritz (1820–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/michaelis-moritz-4194/text6747, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017