The Hobart Hebrew Congregation Synagogue at 59 Argyle Street, Hobart, is the oldest remaining synagogue in Australia. Consecrated in 1845, this Heritage-listed building has been used as the home of Jewish worship in southern Tasmania continuously ever since. The building of a synagogue was raised as the Hobart Jewish community began to emerge in the 1830s. Hardly anyone would be more instrumental to its building than a former convict from England by the name of Judah Solomon.
Judah Solomon is not to be confused with another famous “Solomon”: Isaac (Ikey) Solomon, upon whom the fictional character of Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist is based. While the life paths of these two Jewish convicted criminals who shared the same surname apparently actually briefly crossed each other in Hobart – Judah was said to assist Ikey with money for surety at one occasion – there is no evidence to suggest that these two were related to each other.
Part I – Judah Solomon is Transported from England, and Arrives in Hobart
Judah and his brother Joseph were born in late eighteen-century London. The brothers – belonging to a small Jewish community which supplied goods to the Royal Navy – would have undoubtedly profited from the boom years of the Napoleonic Wars. However, in the wake of these wars, the presence of so many demobilised sailors and soldiers created unemployment, poverty and crime. The two Solomon brothers were caught dealing with stolen goods generated by this crime wave.
With the relatively recent discovery and colonization of Australia, it was chosen to serve as a penal colony in order to accommodate the increasing number of offenders caught in this surge of crime. The Solomon brothers were sentenced to the capital punishment for their role in promoting criminal activity, and – as was usually the practice at that time – had this sentence immediately commuted into transportation for life in the penal colony.
The Solomon brothers arrived to Tasmania, known as Van Dieman’s Land in those days, via Sydney in 1820, on the transport Castle Forbes. The brothers worked in Hobart as assigned convicts, and, eventually – unusual as this was for convicts – using money brought from England, were able to start their own business, probably a general store, in Hobart. The combination of their resourcefulness and having arrived with their own funds enabled the brothers to engage in business and prosper.
Soon the Solomon brothers acquired more businesses in Hobart and, after securing a permission from the authorities to leave the town of Hobart, spread their emerging business empire to Launceston as well. This increasingly prominent mercantile family acquired land on the intersection of Liverpool and Argyle Streets in Hobart. This property, later named the Temple House, was developed around the mid 1820s as a combination of residence and business premises.
By the 1830s, the Solomon brothers acquired a reputation for their hard work and sound business practices. After twelve years operating as convict businessmen, the Solomon received conditional pardons in 1832. In 1841, the partnership between the brothers would be dissolved, and Judah was left to own the Temple House by himself.
Part II – a Jewish Community Emerges in Hobart and Judah Solomon’s Generosity
There have been Jews living in Hobart ever since 1804, when a few Jewish convicts arrived from the then failing colony of Port Phillip to Sullivans Cove – the initial landing site in what is now the city of Hobart. As with other convicts, the struggle for survival consumed most of their resources, and the Jews – initially only convicts – had little time in those early days for religious practices. By the 1830s, however, a number of the Jews living in Hobart would start gathering for worship in various venues.
One such venue was the Temple House – Judah Solomon’s property which consisted of his home and warehouse. Records from these early days reveal that in this and other venues around Hobart, a Jewish community was starting to emerge. A newspaper report of the early 1830s, for example, records a wedding “according to the Mosaic Law (i.e. the Law of Moses; a now rather obsolete reference to Judaism.)”. In 1836, the first formal Jewish group, “the Jewish Benevolent Society”, was formed.
In 1841 this Jewish organization would be renamed “the Hebrew Philanthropic Institution”. By the early 1840s, the building of a dedicated synagogue began to be contemplated among the emerging Jewish congregation, and that led to further name changes: first, “the Hebrew Congregational and Philanthropic Society”, and then: “the Hebrew Congregation of Hobart Town”. In the 1880s, it would finally be renamed to its current name, “the Hobart Hebrew Congregation”.
Following a meeting of the community in 1842, it was decided to establish a “synagogue building fund”. In 1843, it was announced that Judah Solomon had donated a portion of his garden as a gift to the site, as well as making a generous donation to the said fund. The Hobart Jewish community had earlier requested the then Governor of the colony, Sir John Franklin, that the government grant them land. However, they were refused, because of government policy of only granting land to Christian organizations. Judah Solomon’s finances and property would therefore be instrumental to the building of the Hobart synagogue.
Part III – The Building of the Synagogue
The building was designed by Hobart Town architect James Thomson. Thomson was a Scot who was transported at the age of twenty in 1825 for attempted jewel robbery. He was later assigned to the Public Works department where he worked with architect firms, and in 1839 received a Free Pardon. It has been suggested that this building showed great Masonic influences: Thomson himself, as well as leading members of the Jewish community, were Freemasons.
The building was designed to be built in the Egyptian Revival style. The Napoleonic Wars – which contributed to Judah Solomon’s presence in Hobart- seemed to have also shaped the style of the synagogue. Napoleon’s recent conquest of Egypt had has made interpretations of Egyptian style popular. It symbolizes both a new world of knowledge, as well as a sense of history- an appropriate combination for a new congregation of an ancient religion.
A tender from Kirk and Fisher to construct the building for £717 was accepted on 5 June 1843, and on 20 October 1844 another tender, from John McLoughlin, for £385, was accepted to finish the interior. As the community did not possess sufficient funds to finish the building, an appeal was sent to the Board of Deputies of British Jews in London through Sir Moses Montefiore. Sir Montefiore himself responded, as did other prominent British Jews; donations were also received from prominent Jews in Canada and New Orleans in the USA. The remaining difference between the funds available and the total cost would eventually be loaned from several members of the congregation.
The foundation stone for the synagogue was laid on 9 August 1843 by the President of the congregation, Louis Nathan. He was a free settler who immigrated to Australia on the encouragement of his emancipist brother-in-law who lived in Sydney. His brother-in-law would later become the President of the Sydney Synagogue. At the laying of the stone, Louis Nathan placed a sealed bottle in a specially prepared cavity.
This bottle contains a record, on parchment, written in both English and Hebrew, of the occasion. It states:
“On the fourth day of the week … in the year 5603 [of the Jewish calendar], the seventh year of the reign of Queen Victoria, the first stone of this house of Assembly… was laid… on this portion of ground given as a perpetual gift by Judah Solomon Esquire.”
The bottle is believed to still be in a cavity in the foundation, though where exactly is unknown.
The ceremony was attended by many prominent non-Jewish citizens as well. The ceremony was concluded in refreshments served in Judah’ s home – the Temple House next door. There, the day’s proceedings were concluded with the usual afternoon service.
The completion of the synagogue took almost two years. The dedication and official opening took place on Friday, 4 July 1845, in the presence of some of the leading citizens of Hobart Town. The opening ceremony received wide coverage in the press in Tasmania, as well as beyond: a Sydney Morning Herald article from 19 December 1845, praised the building and its generous contributor, Judah Solomon, stating:
On the north wall of the building a white marble tablet is placed, having engraved on it in gold letters the following inscription: “The ground on which is erected this edifice was presented to the Hebrew Congregation of Hobart Town by Judah Solomon Esqre., who also handsomely contributed towards its erection. To commemorate this event, and to inform posterity of his zeal and liberality, this table is inscribed.”
The synagogue’s completion and initial operating years still coincided with the convict era in Tasmania. Not inconsistent with similar policies for Christian prisoners, instructions were given that “all prisoners of the Jewish persuasion” not actually under a sentence would have leave to refrain from work and attend the synagogues on Sabbaths. The synagogue contains to this day (now unused) numbered benches for use of the prisoners, perhaps the only such synagogue in the world.
As for the one particular convict who was so instrumental to the building of the synagogue – Judah was never able to return to England. While his success in the business world amassed him a great fortune that placed him among the most affluent and prominent families among the citizens of Hobart, he was never able to receive full pardon from His Majesty’s Government.
It is possible that a reference to Judah’s Jewish religion, included in his application to petition the Christian, middle-class Governor for this pardon in the 1840s – made by this very enthusiastic member of the Jewish community- had a negative effect which made all the difference on its outcome. Perhaps, had mention of Judah’s Jewish identity been neglected, his pardon would have been more favourably considered by the Governor. Judah would die in Hobart in 1856.