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Jacob Levi Montefiore (1819–1885)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Jacob Levi Montefiore (1819-1885), by unknown photographer, c1865

Jacob Levi Montefiore (1819-1885), by unknown photographer, c1865

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11232

Jacob Levi Montefiore (1819-1885), merchant and financier, was born on 11 January 1819 at Bridgetown, Barbados, son of Isaac Levi and his wife Esther Hannah, née Montefiore; a member of a notable Sephardi family, she was a first cousin of Sir Moses Montefiore and connected to the Rothschilds by marriage. Jacob and his brothers adopted the name of Montefiore. After his father died in 1837 Jacob decided to join his uncle, J. B. Montefiore, in New South Wales and reached Sydney in the Lord William Bentinck in October. Jacob soon started trading on his own account. Well educated, he wrote plays including The Duel which he translated from the French; it was performed at the Theatre Royal in 1843. His operatic libretto, John of Austria, was set to music by Isaac Nathan and performed in 1847. In 1844 he visited England and on his return in 1845 became a partner of the wealthy Scot, Robert Graham. Montefiore, Graham & Co. soon opened a branch in Brisbane and in 1849 another in Melbourne where Jacob's brother Eliezer took charge. The firm also acquired a total of 270,000 acres (109,266 ha) of leasehold in the districts of Gwydir, New England, Moreton Bay, Wellington and in 1855 George Mocatta's runs in the Burnett; they were all transferred to Montefiore in 1861 when the partnership was dissolved.

Fascinated by political economy, Montefiore in 1853 was chairman of the committee which opposed Wentworth's constitution, thereby becoming a lifelong friend and sometimes creditor of Henry Parkes. In May 1856 Montefiore was nominated to the Legislative Council. In his pamphlet, A Few Words upon the Finance of New South Wales, addressed to the members of the First Parliament, he advocated a tax on unproductive land to encourage farming, reduce land speculation and provide revenue; he also recommended a central or national bank and a railway from Sydney to Melbourne. In 1861 he published Catechism of the Rudiments of Political Economy, 'an unanswerable defence' of free trade.

By 1855 Montefiore was a director of the Bank of Australasia, a committee member of the Chamber of Commerce in 1856 and a director of the New South Wales Marine Assurance Co. from 1857. In 1858 he arranged in London for Baron Rothschild to finance railway construction in the colony but Charles Cowper delayed in submitting the scheme to parliament. Montefiore was one of Sydney's foremost businessmen. He had become a magistrate in 1857, joined the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, and from 1863 was the Belgian Consul. Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in 1866-69 and 1874-75, he led its campaign for extending electric telegraphs and for a Pacific mail service. He was a founder of the City Bank and chairman in 1863-70, founding chairman of the Pacific Fire and Marine Insurance Co. formed with colonial capital in 1862, a director of the Sydney Exchange Co., the Australian Gaslight Co., the Moruya Silver Mining Co., the Tomago Coal Mining Co., the Glanmire Gold Mining Co. and the Northern Rivers' Sugar Co. In the 1870s he was chairman of the New Wallsend Coal Co. and a director of the Mutual Life Association of Australasia. In 1862-65 he traded on his own and lived at Birchgrove House, Balmain, with his brother Octavius and a cousin Herbert, whose firm was Montefiore & Montefiore. In 1866 he joined them in Montefiores & Te Kloot but in 1867 with S. A. Joseph established Montefiore, Joseph & Co. In the 1870s they were agents for the Aberdeen Clipper Line. In 1864-72 Montefiore held 82,000 acres (33,185 ha) in the Leichhardt District and in 1870-82 Montefiore, Joseph & Co. held 135 sq. miles (350 km²) in the South Kennedy District. With J. R. Young and J. B. Rundle he held over 100 sq. miles (259 km²) on the Darling Downs.

In 1864 Montefiore had addressed a public meeting in support of free trade and dissolution of the assembly over the fiscal policy. Next year he was president of the Free Trade Association. A director of the Sydney Sailors Home, he served on the commission to plan the public reception of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867. He condemned Geoffrey Eagar, colonial treasurer, for ruining the colony's credit by mismanaging the sale of debentures. In 1869 he sat on the royal commission on alleged kidnapping of natives of the Loyalty Islands. Disgusted by the Opposition he nominated George King for East Sydney in the mercantile interest, a seat that Parkes was contesting. Montefiore told Parkes that they were unlikely ever to 'think alike in politics', but in the 1872 elections he decided to abstain from any political action and offered Parkes 'to aid the cause with my purse'. Later that year he visited North America and Europe. In October 1873 he advised Parkes not to appoint Edward Butler chief justice, fearful that 'giving to the Roman Catholics the majority on the Bench will raise all churchmen throughout the country'. In 1874 Montefiore was appointed to the Legislative Council on Parkes's recommendation but resigned in 1877.

A member of the Jewish congregation from his arrival in the colony, Montefiore had advocated the claims of the Jewish community for a share in state aid to religion in 1845. In 1868 he secured official recognition by the Council of Education of the Sydney Hebrew Certified Denominational School despite opposition from James Martin. In 1876 he was a representative commissioner for Philadelphia and Melbourne Exhibitions. After a farewell banquet organized by the Chamber of Commerce and a 'handsome money testimonial', he returned to London.

In London Montefiore was a director of the Queensland National Bank and the Queensland Investment and Land Mortgage Co. In 1878 he joined a syndicate that offered to lay a submarine cable between Java and Cape York, the profits to be divided between the syndicate and the New South Wales government. Despite repeated appeals to Parkes the government took the advice of Sir Daniel Cooper who rejected the plan as 'absurd' and too costly. Montefiore was also a member of the Australian Transcontinental Railway Syndicate which planned a railway from Roma to the Gulf of Carpentaria in return for a land grant of 10,000 acres (4047 ha) per mile (1.6 km). However, the railway bill, introduced by Thomas McIlwraith, was defeated in the Queensland parliament on its second reading in 1883. Montefiore repeatedly asked Parkes in vain to appoint him agent-general for New South Wales and advised Parkes to take advantage of cheap money and consolidate all 'the debts of New South Wales into a permanent funded stock'. In 1880 Montefiore served on the London Commission for the Sydney International Exhibition which he had promoted.

A fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute from 1877, Montefiore missed 'that country of my adoption' but in 1881 wrote to Parkes that 'It may be you are right that I could have been more useful out there than I can be here but I am afraid that the callings of ambition are in some degree the prompters for here I am lost among the millions and to court public favour is rather too costly an experiment'. He died from heart disease at his home Keir Bank, Upper Norwood, on 24 January 1885, leaving his estate to his wife Caroline Antonine Gerardine Louyet, whom he had married in London on 9 July 1851.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Benjamin, ‘The Sydney Hebrew Certified Denominational School’, M. Z. Forbes, ‘Jewish personalities in the movement for responsible government in New South Wales’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 4 (1954-58)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858-59, 1, 93, 2, 905, 1861, 1, 833
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1862, 5, 789, 1879-80, 5, 590
  • Sydney Mail, 13 Feb 1864
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Mar 1876, 28 Jan 1885
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/503, 522, 526, 577, 584.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Montefiore, Jacob Levi (1819–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Jacob Levi Montefiore (1819-1885), by unknown photographer, c1865

Jacob Levi Montefiore (1819-1885), by unknown photographer, c1865

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11232

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Levi, Jacob

11 January, 1819
Bridgetown, Barbados


24 January, 1885 (aged 66)
London, Middlesex, England

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.