Judaism was first practised in Van Diemen’s Land by male convicts or free settlers from London’s Jewish East End. Lack of wives had made it difficult to form a traditional Jewish community, but by the 1840s the numbers had increased sufficiently to require religious facilities in Hobart. The date and style of Hobart synagogue soon led to the Launceston Synagogue being built, as we’ll see.
Samuel Moses (1807–73) and his family sailed to Hobart in Feb 1841. Samuel became a partner with Louis Nathan in the merchant firm Nathan and Moses, importing and exporting via Hobart’s wharf. These traders exported Australian wool to Britain, and shipped whale and fish oils to the Australian colonies and New Zealand. Louis Nathan and Samuel Moses were among the founders of Hobart Synagogue in York St, Louis being elected as the congregation’s first President.
The Courier Newspaper of Aug 1843 described Hobart’s synagogue: “This simple but elegant building’s plans are from the classical designs of JA Thomson, who has with great propriety adopted Egyptian revival style for the architecture of the temple. The carving of the pillars on each side of the door way and the windows is in a style of chaste beauty, unusual in this colony. This part of the carving work illustrates the origin of ornamental architecture deriving from the splendid architecture of nature…. The Synagogue is a miniature Egyptian temple of the Pharaohs’ great, palmy days, such as enhanced the gorgeous architecture of those palace cities of Tyre, Sidon, Babylon, Memphis and Thebes now laid in the dust.”
Why had they chosen Egyptian Revival architecture in Hobart? Previously in Tasmanian Geographic, Rotem Erlich wrote that the Napoleonic Wars contributed to Judah Solomon’s presence in Hobart. And that Napoleon’s recent conquest of Egypt had made interpretations of Egyptian style popular. It symbolised a new world of knowledge and a sense of history, appropriate for a new congregation of an ancient religion. NB Sydney’s York St Synagogue (1844) and Adelaide’s Rundle St Synagogue (1850) also chose Egyptian Revival styles.
But note that the hard benches at the back of the building were for the Jewish convicts who were marched in under armed guard. The congregation wrote to London’s chief rabbi asking whether convicts could receive call-ups. The answer was they could be counted in a minyan/ten men, but they were not respectable enough to be given honours.
The planned restoration projects at the Hobart’s synagogue took place in 2020, as well as at the historic Jewish cemetery at Cornelian Bay. This included repointing the sandstone walls around the oldest Jewish graves. Another highlight of the anniversary year was making the congregation’s meeting minutes from 1841-1958 accessible online.
Now to the north of the island. The Moses brothers became “Moss” and moved their business to Launceston as Moss and Nathan Shipping Agents. In 1844, Louis Nathan’s merchant firm bought fine vessels to be based in the port of Launceston, including whaling brigs, schooners and barques. And Samuel’s brother Moses Moss became a founder of the Launceston Hebrew Congregation in St John St.
The Launceston synagogue building was designed by Richard Peter Lambeth and constructed in 1844 by builders Barton & Bennell. Once again using Egyptian Revival Architecture, we can still see the trapezoidal stained glass windows and façade similar to Hobart’s. The Launceston synagogue was consecrated in 1846 when the first minister was appointed and prayer services started. David Benjamin was elected its first president.
Why had they chosen Egyptian Revival architecture in Launceston? Every style has its special era in history; for Egyptian architecture and decoration, it was c1820-45. Thus any important facility being built in that era might have been Egyptian because it was the owner’s preference or, more likely, because it was on trend just then. And perhaps the chaste beauty of Egyptian Revival was popular for Launceston because they were modelling it on their Hobart cousins. Launceston’s style was imperial but the scale was modest.
Samuel Moses and his sons, Alfred and Hyam Moses, were also committed members of The Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land. This was the first Royal Society outside London, established in 1843 to advance science and to progress the colony under Queen Victoria’s patronage. The Society’s gardens, plants, library, art and artefact collections became the core of the: Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery and Hobart Library.
In 1847 it was arranged that all Jews in Launceston prisons could also attend synagogue, refraining from work on Sabbath.
The 1848 census recorded 435 Jews in Tasmania, but the numbers went down as some left for the mainland or New Zealand. The last of the 75,000 convicts shipped to Tasmania arrived in 1853, and the name of the colony, Van Diemen’s Land, was changed to Tasmania (1856). When the numbers of Jews went down, the Launceston Synagogue closed, in 1871.
In 1923, Sim Crawcour and Harry Joseph of Joseph’s Menswear helped the revitalisation of Launceston community. European refugees arriving in the 1930s boosted the numbers so that the Launceston Synagogue could re-open before WW2.
In 1989 the Launceston building became listed with National Trust of Australia who have been caring for renovations and maintenance, although the property is jointly held by the National Trust and the Jewish community of Launceston. There are only a few dozen Jews in Launceston today, but the synagogue opens up each holy-day, bar mitzvah, wedding and for tourist groups.
Photos courtesy Monissa: http://monissa.com/ccphotos/launceston-synagogue/
Helen Webberley is a lecturer in history and art history at
the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne. Since November
2008, she has been writing blog articles on the art, architecture
and history of Britain and its Empire, Europe, the Mediterranean
and North America.
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