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Montefiore, Joseph Barrow (1803–1893)

by Israel Getzler

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

Joseph Barrow Montefiore (1803-1893), merchant and financier, was born on 24 June 1803 in London, the youngest son of Eliezer Montefiore, merchant, of Barbados and London, and his wife Judith, née Barrow. As a scion of a wealthy Sephardi family he was educated at Hurwitz's school at Highgate and at Garcia's academy at Peckham. On leaving school he was articled to a firm of London tea brokers, thus continuing in the tradition of the Montefiores of Barbados, who made their fortune in colonial trade. In 1826 he became one of the twelve 'Jew brokers' in the city of London, buying the privilege for £1500. However, being young and enterprising and with a penchant for larger speculative ventures he decided in June 1828 to emigrate to New South Wales, where he proposed to invest some £10,000 in the wool industry and the cultivation of drugs; he applied for a grant of 5000 acres (2024 ha).

Recommended by the Treasury as 'most respectable' and a valuable acquisition to the colony, he arrived in Sydney in February 1829 in the Jupiter with his wife Rebecca, née Mocatta, and their two children, his partner David Ribeiro Furtado and his wife, and his brother-in-law George Mocatta. They established the trading firm J. B. Montefiore & Co., with an office in O'Connell Street. Montefiore acquired large tracts of land in New South Wales and by 1838 owned 12,502 acres (5059 ha) by grant or purchase, including Nanima station, near Wellington. Though a landowner, he never became an 'agriculturist' as he had originally intended. In partnership with his brother Jacob (1801-1895), who in 1835-39 was a member of the South Australian Colonization Commission in London, he made a large fortune in real estate, helped to found the Bank of Australasia and was one of the channels through which English capital contributed to the pastoral expansion and speculative boom of the late 1830s. Joseph B. Montefiore was one of the sponsors of the bill, which became known as the Forbes Act of 1834, advocating interest rates free from statutory limits to encourage the flow of capital into the colony: 'restrict the rate of interest', he warned a sub-committee of the Legislative Council, 'and you at once destroy the stamina of the colony'. After the depression the Montefiore firm in Sydney went bankrupt. The London firm had suspended payment in 1841 and Montefiore had returned to England.

By 1844 the Montefiore brothers, assisted by numerous friends and possibly the London Rothschilds, were back in business and Joseph B. Montefiore decided to try his luck in South Australia. He arrived in Adelaide from London on 27 July 1846 bringing with him his wife, nine daughters and two sons, two servants, 'a harp, a piano and 300 packages', and soon set up in business with his nephew Eliezer Levi Montefiore as importers and shipping agents. Joseph invested heavily in copper mines and served on the board of a number of mining companies, notably the Royal South Australian Mining Co. He was a member of the stock exchange, a committee member of the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce and an original trustee of the Savings Bank. In 1851 he stood for election to the East Adelaide seat of the Legislative Council as a 'good friend of free trade and moderate, unhurried reform and an opponent of state aid' but was roundly defeated. True to the Montefiore tradition he retired from business when still in his fifties and in 1860 returned to London where he was active for many years as one of the founders and stalwarts of the Jewish reform movement.

Montefiore was one of the earliest free Jewish settlers in New South Wales and was active in Jewish communal life from the start. He was the first president of the Jewish congregation of Sydney upon its official foundation in 1832 and helped to secure a land grant for a Jewish cemetery in 1835. In 1847, together with E. L. Montefiore, he pressed for a Jewish share in state aid to religion, by which means the nascent Jewish community of Adelaide meant to assert Jewish equality in South Australia. Likewise in 1851 he welcomed the General Education Act on behalf of the Adelaide Jewish community.

Enterprising, urbane, and noted for his wit and prodigious memory, he was perhaps the outstanding representative in the Australian colonies of the richly endowed Sephardi merchants, financiers and scholars of London, the vanguard of Jewish expansion into a new world and of the Jewish emancipation movement in the old. He died on 8 September 1893 in Brighton leaving ten daughters and three sons.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 14, 18
  • H. Munz, Jews in South Australia, 1836-1936 (Adel, 1936)
  • L. M. Goldman, The Jews in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century (Melb, 1954)
  • L. M. Goldman, The History of the Jews in New Zealand (Wellington, 1958)
  • D. J. Benjamin, ‘The first Montefiore in Australia’, Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal, 2 (1944-48).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Israel Getzler, 'Montefiore, Joseph Barrow (1803–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/montefiore-joseph-barrow-2472/text3317, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 September 2014.

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

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