Posted: 7 February 2020
The Hobart Synagogue and Temple House have always been closely linked in my mind, not just because of their proximity but because of my family history. My great-great-great-grandfather, Judah Solomon, the first owner (with his brother Joseph) of Temple House, donated the land for the synagogue and served as Treasurer of the Hobart Hebrew Congregation for some fifteen years.
I am directly descended from Judah through one of his daughters, Lydia Benjamin (née Solomon), Samuel Benjamin, Montefiore (Monty) Benjamin, and my mother Dorothy Hooper (née Benjamin) who was the last surviving member of the Solomon/Benjamin family to have been born at Temple House. She lived there until she was almost ten years old with her siblings (Joseph, Eileen and Eveline), parents and grandparents.
It was actually my father, Jack Hooper, who in the 1960s started researching my mother’s family, not an easy task in the days before digitised records. Earlier, her main knowledge of the family prior to her grandfather, Samuel Benjamin, was something she called the “Joseph Solomon estate”: money which had come to Samuel and thence to his children—and to their children. When my grandmother died in 1953, my mother inherited enough from what remained of “the estate” to pay off the mortgage on our family home in New Town.
The family benefactor, Joseph Solomon, was not my mother’s direct ancestor, or even Judah Solomon’s brother Joseph, as my mother vaguely thought. Born in 1826, he was the “illegitimate” (as it was then termed) son of Judah and his so-called housekeeper Elizabeth Howell whom he met after his arrival in Hobart and lived with at Temple House.
Judah was still formally married to Esther Solomon who had continued to live in England with the couple’s nine children after Judah was transported to Tasmania in 1820. Twelve years later she made the long journey to Hobart and pursued a campaign, which was ultimately successful but provoked public scandal, to prevent Judah obtaining a free pardon which would have enabled him to divorce her and marry Elizabeth.
When Judah died in 1856, he left Temple House (his brother had long moved permanently to northern Tasmania) to his eldest son Isaac. But the bulk of his estate went to his and Elizabeth’s son, Joseph, who himself bought Temple House in 1863; Isaac moved to New Zealand.
More relevant to my own family line was that Judah and Esther’s daughter Lydia (my great-great-grandmother) had arrived in Tasmania in 1832 on the same ship as her mother, along with her husband, Henry Samuel Benjamin, and their two young children. Seven years later their son Samuel, my great-grandfather, was born in Hamilton where his father ran the Old Hamilton Inn. Henry Samuel died suddenly in 1852 and thirteen-year-old Samuel began learning the Solomon family business in Hobart. He later had a peripatetic business career, with fluctuating fortunes, that involved moving his wife Fannie and three children (including my grandfather Monty) from Sydney to London, New York and Cincinatti.
In 1894, Samuel inherited the bulk of the estate of his half-uncle, Joseph Solomon, who had died childless. This brought not just Temple House but assets worth around £100,000 (estimated current value $A6 million) back into the “mainstream” Solomon/Benjamin line. Hence the “Joseph Solomon estate” that my mother used to talk about, without having any idea that it came from the “illegitimate” son of her great-great-grandfather.
Aged fifty-five, Samuel returned to Tasmania and took up residence at Temple House with his wife and family, as well as with his large inheritance which suffered stock market losses. In Hobart he lived the life of a “city gentleman”, becoming a Justice of the Peace and an Alderman, growing prize azaleas and rhododendrons, and succeeding his half-uncle as President of the Hobart Hebrew Congregation. Between them, Joseph Solomon and Samuel Benjamin served as President and/or Treasurer of the Congregation for almost fifty years. My mother remembered her grandfather, the family patriarch, as being “pretty imposing with his long beard. He could be a bit domineering. My grandma Fannie was lovely.”
My own grandmother, Myra Benjamin (née Levien), who lived at Temple House with her husband Monty plus the older generation, from her marriage in 1904 until 1918, died just a few days before my thirteenth birthday. (My grandfather had died two years before I was born.) I loved visiting her, usually on Tuesday after school, not just because she baked Jewish cookies and gave me matzo at Passover, but because of the “interesting old things” in her house at 334 Argyle Street. She told me they had come from Temple House; my favourite was a roll-top mahogany desk that had a secret drawer. The various ornaments around the house included some Chinoiserie porcelain, a large Japanese doll (which my younger sister Christine still has), and a green glass vase (which I have).
Although my mother had “married out” and Christine and I were christened in a Presbyterian church, her Jewish background was part (admittedly a small part) of my consciousness when I was growing up. I knew that her family had been associated with the synagogue and that she had once lived in a big house called Temple House on the corner of Argyle and Liverpool Streets. Sold to the YMCA in 1921, it was largely hidden under various additions and accretions by the time I knew it had any connection with my family.
Every now and again my mother mentioned her childhood, more so as she grew older. In 1991, when I visited Hobart from Western Australia for Christmas, she told me that earlier in the year she had been shown over Temple House, which was now owned by the Tasmanian Government and part of the Police Department, by local historian Anne Rand who was preparing a “heritage” report. Wandering around the house brought back memories of running up and down the ornate staircase and she clearly remembered some of the rooms, including the former children’s nursery.
Then, a few months before my mother died in 2004, I showed her the book A Few from Afar: Jewish Lives in Tasmania from 1804 and read her a few extracts about the history of Temple House and the Hobart Hebrew Congregation. She nodded when I mentioned the synagogue. “Yes, we all used to go there. The women and girls sat upstairs. I still remember a prayer.” Then the 95-year-old, who had rarely been inside a synagogue over the past seventy years or more, recited a few sentences of Hebrew.
to my sister, Christine Hooper, and my husband, Tim Wright, for assistance with
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