From Australia’s Jewish Past:
First published in J-Wire May 2, 2023
Elias Solomon was born on 2 September 1839 in London, the youngest child of Leah and Moss Solomon.
The family migrated to Australia, arriving in Sydney on 19 January 1841, but moving on in March to Adelaide, sailing on the ‘Dorset’, which was owned by Emanuel and Vaiben Solomon – Moss’s brothers. There is no record of the number of children who accompanied the family other than a daughter Isabella. His uncle Emanuel Solomon owned the Queen’s Theatre in Adelaide and Elias’s father, Moss, was for a short while the theatre manager. The family returned to Sydney until Moss’ death in 1849, when Leah moved back to Adelaide. Elias was educated at Adelaide Educational Institution and after leaving school he joined his uncle’s firm.
At eighteen years of age he was sent to Mauritius to purchase a consignment of sugar. On his return, he was appointed chief clerk and bookkeeper to the firm Solomon and Salom of Adelaide. He later worked for a time with Falk & Company of Melbourne. Believing that business prospects were good in the colony of Western Australia and supported by his family, Elias arrived at the settlement of Fremantle on 20 January 1868 at the age of twenty-nine. He set up a wholesale and retail grocer, wine and spirit merchant. It is interesting to note that, whilst there were very few Jews in Fremantle and, indeed, Western Australia, there were two in the same business, the other being Lionel Samson. It is noted that Elias was even more civically minded than Lionel, another amazing pioneer.
Elias found lodgings in Henry Street, Fremantle, and on 16 March 1868, was joined by his two twenty -year-old nephews who had arrived from Melbourne. Their partnership, Solomon & Nephews, Auctioneers and Agents, was financed jointly by Elias, his half-brother Judah Moss Solomon, then of Melbourne, and his brother-in-law Isaac Solomon of Adelaide. In mid-1871, the business partnership between Elias and his nephews was dissolved due to mounting loss. Even as far back as the late 1800s, Elias knew that he had to keep gaining and keeping business contacts in order to continue with any business and this he did to friends and colleagues in London, Singapore and the eastern colonies. Clients still sent consignments, and to keep them abreast of prices and requirements in the colony, Elias forwarded extensive market reports in beautiful copperplate handwriting. He had other business dealings, including sending horses to Calcutta, sandalwood to Singapore, cut hay from country districts and barley, bran and flour, mainly from Champion Bay near Geraldton. As from the beginning of 1872, he had been appointed sole agent for the sale of all Rottnest Island produce and he worked hard to find outlets, especially for salt sent from the island.
It was reported in his letter book that auction sales yielded little or nothing, and very few stood out that had been worthwhile for him. He wrote of an auction on 12 May 1872 where he sold the sailing vessel ‘GH Peake’ for two thousand two hundred and twenty-five pounds with whaling gear and everything else that was on board. She was fitted out for whaling, and the purchaser intended to sail it with cargo to Singapore. Elias made five pounds commission on this auction, a large sum, about which he described himself as being ‘much pleased’. The last entry in the letter book of business correspondence is that of 6 August 1872.
Elias, as settled as he was in Fremantle, did not find it an attractive place and the English novelist Anthony Trollope who visited Western Australia in 1872 was also unimpressed. He described it as certainly having no natural beauty to recommend it. It is a hot, white, ugly town with a very large prison, a lunatic asylum and a hospital for ancient and worn-out convicts.
Elias was a long-serving Mayor of Fremantle, MLA for South Fremantle, and the first Member for Fremantle in the Federal House of Representatives in 1901. He was also Chairman of the Fremantle Tramways, involved with the Literary Institute and the Member for Fremantle in both the Colonial and Federal Lower House. His contribution was quite considerable. As Mayor, Elias condemned the unhealthy sanitary conditions prevailing in Fremantle. The Fremantle Times of 17 March 1896 attributed him to most of the credit for cleaning up ‘the filthy conditions of certain back premises in the town’ and for being ‘mainly responsible for the new by-laws relating to sanitary affairs recently adopted by the Board of Health.’
Elias maintained his Jewishness, and over the Passover period, he ensured that the small Jewish community would be able to have matzah, which he had organised to import from England. On 28 March 1890, land was granted to Elias Solomon and William Samson for the purpose of a Jewish cemetery in Fremantle; in the same year, they were granted a site for a synagogue. Elias laid the memorial tablet on 8 January 1902 but the building was only in use a short time as most of the small congregation eventually moved to Perth. It still stands on the comer of Parry Street and South Terrace.
The first Torah (scroll) to come to Fremantle was brought by Joseph Mandelstam, who was involved in the establishment of the synagogue. He brought a Torah out on the ship called the ‘Hampshire’. The story goes that the captain of the ship was Captain Mathias, who was also Jewish. So perhaps you can imagine the scene of a Jewish man with a torah, a captain of the vessel who was Jewish and the scroll having a great place of honour in the ship’s stateroom for the entirety of the journey. Unfortunately, no one knows where this Torah is today. This Torah was certainly the first Jewish religious item that came, not only to Fremantle but to Western Australia.
Although Elias had written on many occasions to his friends that he would not marry, he was married and widowed twice with a total of eleven children. He died in Beaconsfield on 23 May 1909 at the age of sixty-nine and was buried in Fremantle Cemetery.
- Curtin University;
- Fremantle History – Coralie Solomon;
- Parliament of Western Australia