The Moses family of Van Diemen’s Land

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

The Moses family of Van Diemen’s Land

First published in J-Wire August 24, 2021

Painting of Samuel Moses and his family attributed to Conway Hart
Samuel Moses and his family; painting attributed to Conway Hart (1814 – 1864)

Samuel Jacob Moses (born 1807) and his wife, Rosetta Blanche Moses (born 1820), arrived in Sydney from London in early November 1840. Within a couple of months, they sailed to Hobart with their three children, arriving there on 17 February 1841.

Samuel became a partner with Louis Nathan in the merchant firm – Nathan and Moses – having already established his own import-export business. Samuel’s youngest brother Moses Moss also arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1841, the three brothers changing their family name to Moss. The company grew with Rosetta’s brother Hyam Moses joining Louis and Samuel as a partner in January 1847. The company was now a ship-owner with vessels travelling to Jordan and Hong Kong, shipping agents, as well as retail and wholesale traders in a wide variety of goods, including whalebone, whale and fish oil. They owned at least four whaling brigs as well as several schooners and barques. They exported wool to Britain and shipped countless necessary products to New Zealand, Victoria and South Australia. Louis later returned to England, establishing a London Agency for the firm, offering select goods on order for Hobart customers.

Louis and Samuel were among the founders of the Hobart Synagogue, one of the first in Australasia. It was built in an Egyptian Revival style and opened in 1845. Louis was the first President, serving in that office for ten years. The deed for the synagogue land was granted to Samuel and David Moses, and Isaac Solomon, with leading subscribers to the synagogue building fund including Louis, Samuel, and Rosetta’s father Henry Moses of London. Samuel’s brother Moses Moss was a founder of the Launceston Synagogue, which was also built in 1845. Samuel was the first, and for a long time, the only Jew in Australia or New Zealand authorised to perform the Mitzvah, and he travelled extensively for these duties. Samuel succeeded Louis as President.

In 1843 the Royal Society was established in Van Dieman’s Land – the first outside of London – to further the advancement of science and the progress of the colony under the official patronage of Queen Victoria. The gardens, plant collections, library and art acquired by the Society were the beginnings of the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Samuel, his son Alfred and Hyam Moses became members. Samuel donated an outrigger canoe, picked up at sea via one of his ships which during a gale, managed to rescue three Pacific Island fishermen. Samuel and Hyam were also early donors to the Hobart Library and were appointed life members.

Samuel’s next recognition was to become the first Jewish Justice of the Peace in Australia and New Zealand. He presided over hearings in Hobart with a police magistrate as well as at supreme court hearings, presiding with a judge. Most of the cases involved convicts and ex-convicts for petty crimes, although there were often hearings about financial contracts and agreements, which Samuel was well-placed to adjudicate. As a result of these religious, judicial, and commercial responsibilities, Samuel became one of Hobart’s best-known community leaders.

In 1854, a large number of Australians contributed to a fund ‘in Aid of the Jews in Jerusalem’. A published list of donations was headed by the Governor, His Excellency Sir W. T. Denison who gave five guineas, the Anglican Lord Bishop of Tasmania who gave five pounds, Samuel and Rosetta each gave 25 pounds, as well as their children, contributing one guinea each.

Samuel continued to purchase new vessels – one, the William Denny – a 600-ton steamship was unfortunately wrecked in a storm off New Zealand in 1858, followed by the Lady Denison which sank off the north-west coast of Tasmania with 16 passengers and 12 crew members, 11 convicts and three prison guards.

Samuel and Rosetta resided between two magnificent residences, one in Derwentwater and one in Boa Vista, in the city’s outer environs. Whilst at Derwentwater, Samuel requested portraits to be painted of himself, Rosetta, and the children by a talented artist Frederick Frith. When the art was delivered, Samuel felt that the price was too high and wouldn’t pay more than £50 for many hours of work and sittings at their home. Frederick sued Samuel for the balance, the case being heard in the Supreme Court in June 1855 in Hobart. Much deliberation took place, artists were called as witnesses, including an up-and-coming artist, Conway Hart and, at the end of the day, the jurors decided for the Plaintiff. Moses was ordered to pay damages of £4 10s for the frames, in addition to the £50 already paid.

On 1 January 1856, Van Diemen’s Land became known as Tasmania. Shortly before this, Samuel commissioned a new set of portraits from Conway Hart, well respected and known for his work now hanging in a number of public institutions. It was noted in the Courier Newspaper, that his ‘’art genius would raise the standard of the colony and spread the elements of excellence among us”.

Social life for the elite was growing with the most important social occasions in Hobart being balls hosted by the Governor. In May 1844, a Launceston newspaper reported that Hobart was ‘enlivened by the preparations now in progress for the ball at Government House, on the approaching Queen’s Birthday’… Messrs. Nathan, Moses and Co.’s splendid showrooms are resorted to by our lovely belles, for the purpose of selecting such articles of taste, elegance, and fashion, with which the well-stored Magazin des Modes of that enterprising firm so copiously abounds.

Samuel and Rosetta returned to England with the family, minus Alfred, in 1859. An address was delivered on behalf of the Members of the Hobart Congregation by Phineas Moss, Honorary Secretary. He expressed the ‘community’s regret at the approaching separation of so sincere and long-tried a friend.’ In Samuel’s response, he said that it had been his privilege and honour to preside over the congregation for more than eleven years.

Samuel Moses died in London in 1873, aged 66, and was the first person buried at the New Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Rosetta survived him by nearly 30 years and is buried in the adjoining grave.

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​