Bondi’s first larrikin

B’nai B’rith Bulletin 1955 Bro. Dr. George F. J. Bergman

Initially published under the title: Barnett Levey: First Jew in Bondi.

What was Bondi like in 1833? Turning the pages of the N.S.W. Calendar of this year, I found the description of a “bush walk” from Macquarie Place in the City to Bondi Beach.

There was no Central Synagogue, neither were there flat houses there: but “some good specimens of weeping birch are seen here which, when in bloom, are singularly beautiful. There are also specimens of zunika palm, also the fern tree, and on the right, in the bush—where the Shanghai Jews now live in Bronte flats—the fan palm commonly called the cabbage tree may be found; a little further is a grassy spot indicated by the ruins of a house. The bays on this part of the coast, backed by barren rising ground, have something of a peculiar loneliness about them. The solemn roar of the breakers, the shiny shady beach, unmarked by human foot—and the low but beautiful shrubs make up a scene to be peopled by imagination. Botanists resort hither to view, in flower, many shrubs rarely to be met elsewhere”.

Here we are! Bondi, the lonely botanical bush garden of a hundred and twenty years ago. The beaches never trodden by thousands of feet . . . a ruined house, that was all!

The Calendar speaks also of a “bushroad, leading to a hill on which stands Levey’s tower, an octagonal obelisk, commanding an excessive view”, and “a quarter of a mile further we come to Waverley House, built by Mr. Barnett Levey”.

Here Barnett Levey, first Jew in Bondi, and more or less the first permanent inhabitant of this suburb lived in a marvellous home which for many years formed the attraction of the district. And he even foreshadowed the great builders of the great flat houses of the twentieth century, because we read also in the Calendar: “Adjoining is Waverley Crescent, a range of cottages projected by Mr. Levey, but of which only 2 or 3 are completed”.

Who was Barnett Levey and what kind of a man was he?

Barnett Levey was an English Jew and a free settler. It was in 1817 that we first hear of him, and at this time, although only 19 years of age, he was already a perfect businessman.

Bondi Stories Vol.1.

His brother, Solomon Levey, who was one of the greatest merchants in the city and partner of the renowned banker and general merchant Daniel Cooper, bought in 1817 for the price of £400 a property at 72 George Street which was then called “Sergeant-Majors Row”, as many Non-Commissioned officers lived in this street. Solomon sold this property in the same year, 1817, to Barnett. This is the property on which Dymocks Building stands today.

Barnett opened there a store and established himself as General Merchant, selling not only tobacco, sugar, tea and, of course, spirits, but also providing spiritual nourishment by selling books and prints.

The business flourished well and in 1826/27 he erected a warehouse behind the store. He called it “Colchester Warehouse”. It was an imposing five storey building, the plans of which had been designed by Sydney’s leading architect, the convict Francis Greenway.

He also built there a flourmill and Colchester House was topped with a windmill which provided the power for the flourmill.

He then had the store remodelled as a hotel —the Hotel Royal—for which he obtained a license.

His fortune seemed to be made.

It was at this time that he built his residence on the corner of what is now known as Old South Head Road and Pine Avenue and called it “Waverley House” after the novels of Sir Walter Scott, his favourite author. It was a two storey building in pure Georgian Colonial style, in an elevated position, commanding the view of Sydney to the west and of the ocean to the east and surrounded by gardens.

There is a reference to Waverley House in the “Sydney Gazette” which, one cannot doubt, caused widespread comment and amusement in those days. In the “Sydney Gazette” of October 15th, 1827, we read:

“Mr. Barnett Levey, besides the erection of his frightfully lofty temple in town, is also building a handsome dwelling house upon his estate on the South Head Road, within a few minutes from Bellevue. As soon as the house is finished, Mr. Levey intends erecting a church near his estate for the benefit of the neighbourhood in that direction”.

This note, inserted probably by a practical joker, very soon found the appropriate answer. Two days later, the following “Letter to the Editor” was published in the “Gazette”:—

“In this morning’s paper you make a great error. As far as your statement goes as to building on my little estate is true, but as to building a church is totally wrong. I think a grog shop would find more inside passengers on that Road.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant, B. Levey.”

The house was demolished in 1904, after it had served as a convent and subsequently as a school for destitute girls and later as a boy’s school. In 1924 a modern house, called “Eurangai” was built on this place.

Barnett held open house in Waverley and in May 1828 he was broke. He had to borrow £4402 on the security of his famous mill. And in addition, through this mill, he had come into trouble with the Government.

Levey must have had very good connections in Government circles as long as Macquarie and Sir Thomas Brisbane were Governors. He was, with Sir John Jamieson and the three first explorers of the Blue Mountains, the only person to whom land in this district had been granted before the general opening up of the area and the land sales there started.

But under Brisbane’s successor, Governor Darling, the situation must have deteriorated very much and he must have fallen out of favour. The reason for it was that famous mill and a letter concerned with it.

We are in the year 1827 and in the time of the awakening of the Australian settler to national independence, of the revolt of the free settler against the tyranny of the Governors. This revolt was led by the lawyer William Wentworth, famous through his participation at the first crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 and later to be one of the greatest Australian statesmen. It was Wentworth, who in his first “free” and not Government inspired newspaper “The Australian”, seconded by Wardell’s “Monitor”, attacked the Government.

It seems that many of Sydney’s Jews and Barnett Levey in particular took an active part in the agitation and in the open criticism of the Government which had started by the end of 1826 approximately. The Jews were not afraid to speak up.

The Jewish community of this time was by no means negligible.

The first report of the York Street Synagogue, dated 1845, says that “in the years of 1827/28 the worldly conditions of the Hebrews in this colony had considerably improved for various reasons”. And it was then that a Mr, P. J. Cohen offered the use of his house for the first organised Jewish services. From different sources it is evident that the first Jewish congregation was founded in 1832 Mr. G. B. Montefiore being its first president. A temporary synagogue was used and called “Beth Tephilla”.

But let us return to Barnett Levey and his mill.

In Series 1, Volume XIII of the “Historical Records of N.S.W.”, I found a private despatch of Governor Darling of 6th February, 1827, to the Under Secretary of State, Mr. Hay, in London, after whom, by the way, Mount Hay near Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains had been named.

Here Darling opens his heart to his superior and writes:—

“I have alluded to Mr. William Wentworth in some of my late letters, as appearing desirous to lead the public and degrade the Government on all occasions; I cannot perhaps furnish a better proof than by sending the enclosed copy of a letter to the Attorney General, written in Mr. Wentworth’s hand, but signed by a person by the name of Levey, who is of the lowest class, having commenced erecting a windmill in the centre of the town of Sydney on ground to which he has no claim. The Attorney General was instructed to desire that he should desist, to which he sent the answer drawn up by Mr. Wentworth. The style and the tone of the letter speak for themselves”.

The letter is indeed, impertinent enough. It is dated 30th January, 1827, addressed to Mr. W. H. Moore, Attorney General, and reads:—

“It is not true that I have ever had any notice to discontinue the building of the mill on my premises, although it has been notorious to the Governor and the whole Colony that this building has now been in progress for upwards of nine months. The enclosed certificates from my neighbours, who are most interested in the abatement of this nuisance, if it be one, will shew they do not view it in this light; and I can only say that, if it be a nuisance, the Government windmill is an equal nuisance, and I will take care, shall meet with the same fate as mine. I decline furnishing you with the particulars of my title to the yard upon which the building is being erected. I believe it to be as good a title as any in the town, and I will take care to defend it, if it be sought to be impugned. If this notice had been given me in due time, I might have desisted. To desist now, would be next to ruin; and if the Government are really anxious about the lives of His Majesty’s subjects, as it pretended, let them pay for their default in not giving me notice sooner, and I will leave off. [signed] I am B. . . . . . B. Levey”.

No wonder that Governor Darling, depicted as “remaining hypersensitive to criticism” became enraged by this letter.

But nothing happened and Governor Darling went very soon afterwards the way of most of the early Governors, back to England, into temporary disgrace.

Although under the new Governorship of Sir Richard Bourke, Levey came into grace again, his finances did not improve.

It was then that he conceived the idea of retrieving his shattered fortunes by establishing a theatre, the first permanent theatre in Australia.

To finance this enterprise, he started with giving concerts. He obtained in June 1829, a license from the Governor to open a concert for vocal and instrumental music and for the performance of plays. Colonel Allen of the 57th Regiment gave him permission to use the Regimental Band at the first concert.

Barnett gave several concerts in the “grand saloon” of his hotel. He was his own star artist and although his pathetic rendering of the still famous convict ballad “My Love has gone to Botany Bay” was loudly cheered, money came in very slowly.

By May, 1830, his finances were desperate. Soon afterwards even the windmill was taken down. He then evolved a scheme to sell the “Royal Hotel” on the so-called “tontine system” under which, as the original subscribers to shares died off, the capital and interests accumulated in the hands of the survivors until the fortunate one who lived the longest owned all the property. However, although the impressive name of the grazier-magnate John MacArthur headed the list of the subscribers, the scheme flopped. The Hotel was eventually sold in auction in 1831 and Levey became a jeweller and watchmaker.

But this indefatigable planner was by no means beaten. In 1832 he popped up with a series of nice “At Homes” in the Royal Hotel at which he induced 500 persons to take out modest subscriptions of 5 shillings towards establishing the theatrical venture so dear to his heart. At these “At Home” concerts he was again mostly his own actor and sang to nine songs at one evening, patriotic, sentimental and comical ones.

And now he started in earnest on his theatre plans. He gathered a company of actors and prepared a temporary stage in the saloon of the hotel and in a shed at the rear of the building. The 26th December, 1832, may be regarded as the birthday of all legitimate drama in Australia. It was on this day that Barnett Levey opened his theatre with Douglas Jerrold’s play “Black-eyed Susan”.

On 25th December, 1827, he inserted a notice in the “Sydney Herald” as follows:—

“To the Poets of Australia. Barnett Levey offers a silver medal with a suitable inscription engraved thereon, for an approved opening address to be spoken on the first night of the Theatre Royal, Sydney, composed and written by a Native of the Colony and to be submitted for the approval to the Committee of Management who are gentlemen of talent and of the first respectibility”.

In 1833 a licence was granted to Levey by Governor Sir Richard Bourke for instituting dramatic performances as a regular thing, with the restriction on that he would only perform such pieces as were licenced in England by the Lord Chamberlain.

In the same year, 1833, Barnett Levey built the “Theatre Royal” on the land adjoining the hotel, a large handsome structure, seating nearly 1000 people in the pit, gallery and two tiers of boxes. Admission charges were 5/- for the dress circle, 4/- for the second circle, 3/- for the pit and 2/- for the gallery.

Sydney had been starved of drama for so long that the theatre was crowded when it opened its doors on 5th October, 1833, to witness the opening performance of “The Miller and His Men”.

Barnett Levey, surveying the scene, might well have believed that his troubles were over—but he was to be sadly disappointed.

The newspapers with one accord, blasted the performance, declaring the feminine players “timid” and the males either “mouthed abominably” of “moving with a jerking stiffness”. The troubles increased when brawls broke out among the tough ex-convicts who frequented the gallery.

A letter to the “Monitor” complained that the theatre was full of “unshaven, half-intoxicated filthy scoundrels” and the “Sydney Gazette” thundered about the “half-tipsy, half-strumpet audience”.

I cannot describe the troubles he had with his actors who went sometimes on strike, or went off on a drinking bout. They were a colourful and eccentric lot. And they had to be versatile. His leading Shakespearian was Conrad Knowles. In one evening he played Shylock, sang a duet “Pretty Polly Perkins” with Mrs. Jones, gave a comic recitation in broken English—that will say probably in Yiddish—and wound up the night’s work in playing the leading role in a bloodthirsty melodrama, “The Italian Brigand”.

Despite squabbles with the players, financial crises and the blast of the critics who accused him of encouraging the “mass of debauchers and gaping idlers”, Levey battled on.

In 1835 he lost control of the Theatre to six lessees, but a year later was back in control again.

He kept the wolf from the door with a long series of bloodcurdling melodramas, including “The Wizard of the Moor”, “The Devil’s Ducat”, “The Spectre Bride”‘. “The Murder on the Hearth”, “The Shadowless Man” and many others.

He was occasionally able to bask in vice-regal patronage, as Sir Richard Bourke several times honoured the theatre with his presence.

On October 1st, 1836, Levey could proudly advertise the appearance of the first London actress on the Australian stage, Mrs. Chester, straight from the hallowed boards of Drury Lane.

At this time he was obviously still engaged in other enterprises, as the Minutes of the Australian Gaslight Company record that at a General Meeting of the shareholders held at the Royal Hotel on 29th June, 1836, Barnett Levey was appointed one of the directors of the Company.

In April, 1837, he staged a “grand national and patriotic pageant” at which 40 members of the 4th Regiment “by the kind urbanity of Major England”, joined the cavalcade, rigged out as members of Napoleon’s Old Guard.

But by now, although only 39, Barnett Levey was a sick and exhausted man, worn out by the interminable wrangles to make his theatre pay.

The mass of complications proved too much for him. On October 2nd, 1837, he died, leaving a distressed widow and four young children.

His widow closed the theatre for a week, then re-opened it and struggled on until March 22nd, 1838, when Sydney’s first theatre, the Theatre Royal of Barnett Levey closed its doors. It stood empty and deserted until it burnt down on St. Patrick’s Day of 1840.

What were the Jewish connections of Barnett Levey and what position did he hold in the Jewish community of Sydney? About that we do not know very much, because the first records of the Sydney congregation date only from a time after his death. But there is hardly any doubt, that he was a member of the first congregation and took part in its religious and social life. His brother Isaac Levey—Solomon had returned to England—was a foremost member of the congregation and its president in 1854 and the family is still existing in Australia. The late Colonel A. W. Hyman, a well-known personality in Sydney who, in the first volume of the Journals and Proceedings of the “Australian Jewish Historical Society”, published a short biography of Barnett Levey, was his great-grand-nephew, a great-grandson of Isaac Levey.

I would like to close this lecturette with the testimonial which Mr. C. H. Bertie gave to Barnett Levey in his “Story of the Royal Hotel and the Theatre Royal”:—

“Barnett Levey was a true pioneer. He possessed initiative and force and above all, he had the unquenchable courage which defied defeat and is only conquered by the hand of death. He was a little in advance of his time, otherwise his descendants today would number probably a baronetcy in the clan and a large rent role to support it”.

And I may add to this appraisement of the “Father of the Australian Theatre” the words which were written quite recently in the “Sydney Morning Herald” when the person of his contemporary, the philanthropist J. G. Raphael, was remembered on the occasion of the demolition of his old house at 54 Young Street, Sydney:— “He was one of the many worthy Jews who came to this country in the early days and who made good”.

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