Abraham & David Benjamin

From Australia’s Jewish Past:



First published in J-Wire June 28, 2022

Abraham Benjamin – a family business in its one hundred and forty-second year

Abraham Benjamin and his wife Theresa Falk came to Melbourne in 1865 by boat from Bristol, UK.

His father, a rabbi, had emigrated from Prussia and was associated with the Bristol Synagogue. Theresa’s father was in jewellery, where Abraham learnt his trade and worked in Manchester.

In 1867 Abraham began a partnership through his father-in-law’s business, trading as P Falk and Company, jewellers, wholesalers and importers with firms in Birmingham, Melbourne and Adelaide. Abraham became the manager of the Melbourne branch of the company. In 1878 the partnership dissolved, and it was in 1880 that Abraham began trading as Benjamin & Company, with premises in Little Collins Street in the heart of the Melbourne jewellery precinct.

Abraham was very involved with establishing the St Kilda Synagogue, having served as its president three times over twenty-one years. The family has in their possession a letter that Abraham wrote in 1908 to the then Directors of A Benjamin & Company telling them in no uncertain terms they were not to transact any business on the Sabbath. This included any of the directors or shareholders or the staff of employees doing any of their duties.

After Abraham’s passing in 1913, the company was run by his three sons – Lionel, Julius and Maurice. A daughter, Clara, also married a Mr Benjamin from a different family. Abraham is buried in St Kilda Cemetery.

From 1946 the company was run by Lionel’s sons – Frank and Ernest – following which in 1994, Frank and David (the sons of Frank Maurice Benjamin) became the owners and ran the family company for the next 20 years.

In 2014 Frank retired, and the business is now solely run by David Benjamin at 360 Little Collins St – having traded for 142 years at the same site.

‘This Benjamin family jewellery company has seen Australia become a nation, fight in two world wars, and survive the 1930s Depression, floods, droughts and fires. For their company to trade for more than one hundred and forty-two years in a competitive economy demonstrates the Benjamin family’s strong principles and work ethic through four generations of making jewellery in gold, platinum, silver, diamonds and precious gems for its multi-generational clientele.”

David Benjamin – a family business in Dunedin, New Zealand

Abraham’s younger half-brother David Benjamin, arrived in Melbourne in 1874. He married Marie Michaelis and moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1878, where, together with Marie’s brother, Frederick Michaelis, he set up and managed the Glendermid Tannery on behalf of Marie’s father. This industrial business soon gave way to a music agency’s more artistic and profitable pursuits. In late 1883 the Dresden Pianoforte Manufacturing Agency & Company (renamed the Bristol Piano Company during the First World War) was formed to meet the rising demand for musical instruments.

In 1885 David changed his name, by deed poll, to that used by his father’s family in Prussia – Theomin – while the city of Dresden, known for its musical instrument makers, lent its name to the new business. By 1913 the Bristol Piano Company was one of the largest operations of its type in New Zealand.

In 1904, David had a thirty-five-room house built in Royal Terrace, Dunedin, named ‘Olveston’ after a village near Bristol where he had enjoyed holidays as a child. The house was filled with David’s collection of European and Oriental treasures in the coming years.

David was active in many aspects of Dunedin’s life. He was a leading member of the Jewish community, contributed to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Royal Dunedin Male Choir, Dunedin City Sinking Fund (set up to free Dunedin from debt) and the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, where he was President in 1901 – 1902 and was its representative at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia and the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.

David passed away in 1933. He and Marie are buried in the Jewish section of the Dunedin Southern Cemetery. Dorothy, their daughter, having no family of her own, left the family home – Olveston – and its contents to the citizens of Dunedin in her will.

Opened as a historic house museum in 1967,  Olveston is open to the public.

Little has changed inside the house since it was occupied between 1906 to 1966. Today it represents an authentic and original home depicting the life of a wealthy merchant family in the early part of the twentieth century.

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