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Solomon, Vaiben Louis (1853–1908)

by Peter Donovan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Vaiben Louis Solomon (1853-1908), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Vaiben Louis Solomon (1853-1908), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23371071

Vaiben Louis Solomon (1853-1908), businessman and premier, was born on 13 May 1853 in Adelaide, son of Judah Moss Solomon and his wife Rachel, née Cohen. He was educated at John Lorenzo Young's Adelaide Educational Institution and Scotch College, Melbourne. Solomon joined Adelaide merchants Donaldson, Andrews & Sharland, and was their agent in Kapunda before working at the Adelaide Stock Exchange. In early 1873 he joined a prospecting party, largely funded by the Adelaide Jewish community, in the rush to the Northern Territory goldfields. After ten months he returned to Adelaide to find his engagement to a Gentile so strenuously opposed by his father that Vaiben again went to the Northern Territory in August 1874, having also failed to secure appointment as a goldfield warden. He managed the Palmerston business of his elder brother, Moss, until January 1877 when he opened his own store and agency (auctioneers, shipping, mining estate and general commission agents). Next year he formed a partnership with F. P. Stevens and H. H. Adcock. On 6 December 1880, some three months after the death of his father, Vaiben married his early love, Mary Bridgland (d.1885), née Wigzell, by then a widow with a young son.

Dubbed 'Mr Everything' because there were few pursuits to which he would not turn his hand, Solomon invested in mining and in 1884 promoted the North Australian Pearl Fishing Co. of which he was manager and secretary. He lost heavily on both ventures. Virtually insolvent by 1888, he was able to stave off bankruptcy by taking Walter Griffiths as a partner in July 1888. From mid-1885 until mid-1890 Solomon owned and edited the Northern Territory Times and Gazette.

Powerfully built, with a heavy, dark beard, Solomon was a dynamic, prominent and popular citizen of Palmerston. His nickname, 'Black Solomon', derived from the occasion when—for a dare—he blackened himself to resemble an Aborigine and walked naked through the town. A foundation member (1874) of Palmerston District Council, he served for several terms. When the Northern Territory was granted parliamentary representation in South Australia's House of Assembly, Solomon was returned at the head of the poll in April 1890. While urging economic development of the Territory, particularly the completion of the transcontinental railway between Adelaide and Palmerston, he advocated total exclusion of Chinese and other Asians. He wound up his affairs at Palmerston. On his way south he gave a number of public lectures opposing Chinese migration to the eastern colonies.

From Adelaide Solomon speculated in Western Australian gold-mining and entered the Adelaide Stock Exchange (1896). Largely because of the forcefulness of his personality, he became a prominent figure in colonial politics. He was government whip for the second Playford administration in 1890-91 and for the Downer government in 1893. Forced to resign as an insolvent in March 1891 mainly due to his Territory mining ventures, he was returned at the consequent by-election in May before he had even received his certificate of discharge. In June 1899 he became leader of the conservative Opposition, a motley group of parliamentary factions dubbed the 'Forlorn Hope'; in November, however, he led the attack which brought down the Kingston administration, and was asked to form a government. Solomon became premier and treasurer on 1 December, but his government faced the House on only two occasions; the first to announce its policy, the second when it was defeated by a simple adjournment motion on 8 December. The sole Jew to have been a colonial or State premier, Solomon also led South Australia's shortest-lived government. It was the last of the factional administrations in what had become essentially a bi-party House after the emergence of the Labor Party during the 1890s. Something of an anachronism in the South Australian parliament, he was always a forceful and witty debater, but never held another ministerial portfolio.

A staunch advocate of intercolonial free trade, Solomon considered it a distinction to have been elected a delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897 and to have helped draft the Federal Constitution. In 1901, with South Australia voting as a single electorate, he was returned to Federal parliament, but was defeated by Egerton Batchelor in 1903 for the seat of Boothby. In May 1905 Solomon was again returned as Northern Territory representative to the South Australian Legislative Assembly where, by 1908, he was deputy leader of the Opposition. Ever a determined advocate for the Territory, he supported its transfer from South Australia to the Commonwealth.

He had compiled successive issues of the Northern Territory Times Almanac and Directory between 1886 and 1890 and later published a Guide to Western Australia and its Goldfields (Adelaide, 1894). With Thomas Harry, he wrote Australia at Play (Adelaide, 1908), a pamphlet that guyed the Australian attitude to sport. Solomon died of cancer in Adelaide on 20 October 1908 and was buried in the Adelaide Jewish cemetery. On 22 July 1896 in Melbourne he had married Alice Cohen who survived him with three children and the daughter of his first marriage. His daughter Esther was the first woman elected to the Adelaide City Council: a councillor for twenty-two years and an alderman, she served two terms as deputy mayor.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Quiz, 15 Sept 1893, 29 Sept 1898, 8, 15 June 1899
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 8 (1977), p 89
  • Northern Territory Newsletter, 1, no 1, June-July 1978, p 24
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 June 1891, 24 Oct 1908
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Oct 1908
  • D. H. Jaensch, Political Representation in Colonial South Australia, 1857-1901 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1974)
  • South Australian Insolvency Court records, GRG 66/5/6017 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Peter Donovan, 'Solomon, Vaiben Louis (1853–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/solomon-vaiben-louis-8577/text14973, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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