Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Spielvogel, Nathan Frederick (1874–1956)

by Weston Bate

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

Nathan Frederick Spielvogel (1874-1956), teacher, writer and historian, was born on 10 May 1874 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of Newman Frederick Spielvogel, pawnbroker, and his wife Hannah, née Cohen. Newman, an Austrian, and Hannah, a Prussian, were typical of the strong Jewish community on the Ballarat goldfields. Nathan attended Dana Street State School and trained there in 1892-95 as a pupil-teacher. He taught at several schools in the Wimmera, including Dimboola (1897, 1899-1907).

A small man, with sharply chiselled features, a wide forehead, big ears, warm eyes, a jutting chin and a beard that became golden, Spielvogel was adventurous and imaginative. In 1904 he spent his savings of £120 on a six-month journey through Egypt, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Britain. He had begun his writing career in 1894 with a Christmas story for the Ballarat Courier, to which—with the Jewish press, the Bulletin, the Dimboola Banner and other newspapers—he contributed regularly under such pen names as 'Genung', 'Eko', 'Ato' and 'Ahaswar'. From the early 1920s he wrote a humorous piece each month for the Teachers' Journal, but was probably best known for his first book, A Gumsucker on the Tramp (1906). It sold 20,000 copies. He also published The Cocky Farmer (1914), A Gumsucker at Home (1914), Old Eko's Note-Book (1930) and a volume of poetry called Our Gum Trees (1913).

He loved a beer (not lager) and around 1908 dined every Thursday at Fasoli's café, Melbourne, with writers and artists such as E. J. Brady, Norman Lindsay, Hal Gye, C. J. Dennis and Louis Esson. Later he was close to J. K. Moir, Victor Kennedy and R. H. Croll of the Bread and Cheese Club. Croll thought him 'offensively Australian' yet proudly Jewish, a conjunction that rent Spielvogel in 1901 when his love for a Gentile conflicted with a promise to his mother not to marry out of the faith. He remained steadfast and on 6 September 1911 at the Great Synagogue, Hyde Park, Sydney, married Jessie Muriel, daughter of Henry Harris, publisher of the Hebrew Standard.

After further postings to other Victorian schools, Spielvogel returned to Ballarat to be headmaster of Dana Street in 1924-39. Inspiring, sympathetic and methodical, he was immensely popular: a phalanx of pupils usually escorted him into the grounds. As president of the revived Ballarat Historical Society (1933-56), he developed a passion for local history. He published vignettes of early Ballarat life and a popular monograph, The Affair at Eureka (1928). After retirement he was largely responsible for managing the local museum and for placing plaques and monuments at historic sites. His broadcasts and press releases increased historical awareness.

Spielvogel was president of the Ballarat Hebrew Congregation, the Mechanics' Institute, the Teachers' Institute and Dana Street Old Scholars' Association. Strongly patriotic during World War I, he became chairman of the Dads' Association in World War II. A sharp mind lay behind his lifelong interest in chess: he was secretary (1894) and president (1939) of the Ballarat club and represented Victoria in 1921 and 1925. He was instrumental in sustaining the Ballarat synagogue between 1941 and 1953 and wrote Jewish stories with a tenderness and strength that drew from Judah Waten the remark that Jewish literature in Australia began with him. Spielvogel died on 10 September 1956 at Ballarat and was buried in the old cemetery. His wife and their three sons (all of whom had married out of the faith and in his absence) survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, 3, no 2, 1949, 6, no 1, 1964
  • Bohemia, 1 Nov 1956
  • Education Department (Victoria), Educational Magazine, July 1971
  • Ballarat Courier, 15 Sept 1956
  • H. Marks papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Spielvogel, Nathan Frederick (1874–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spielvogel-nathan-frederick-8607/text15033, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Genung
  • Eko
  • Ato
  • Ahaswar
Birth

10 May 1874
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Death

10 September 1956
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation