Now, here’s a name that distinguishes itself from the other Twelve Apostles’ names by virtue of his strong Jewish associations. Abraham Abrahams was a merchant, along with Rucker, Were and Welsh, so it is perhaps to be expected that he might have been caught up in the financial syndicate that Rucker formed to rescue himself from insolvency and disgrace. But given that there were several Jewish merchants in Melbourne at the time (Michael Cashmore, and the Hart brothers spring to mind), it is strange that Abrahams is acting alone here.
So what do I know of Abraham Abrahams? He was born at Sheerness, Kent in 1813. [update: maybe not- see comments below!] He arrived in Sydney with his wife and seven children in 1839 at the age of 26 (fast work there!) and was in Melbourne by 1841. He was described as a “merchant” of Lonsdale Street in 1841 when he donated the land for the first Jewish cemetery on what Garryowen described in 1888 as “a stony rise at the Merri Creek between the now Northcote and Merri Creek bridges”. The land was found to be unsuitable for burial- the poor sexton dispatched to dig the first grave “found himself working on what nature designed for a quarry and made little or no progress downward” (Finn p. 695). The grave was only half-dug when the burial party arrived to bury 19 year old Miss Davis, the young daughter of a Melbourne innkeeper, and in any event it was not her final resting place, as the body was exhumed and sent to Hobart. Realizing that all subsequent funerals would face the same problem, the Jewish community applied for land adjoining the general cemetery, and after a delay, their application was granted.
In September of 1841, Abraham Abrahams was admitted to the Chamber of Commerce. Paul de Serville mentions that a “Mr Abraham” served as one of the stewards of the alternative public ball set up in opposition to the more exclusive private Turf Day ball in May 1841. The battle of the balls exemplified the attempt of “good society” to define its boundaries by limiting attendance to the ball to those deemed suitable. In defiance, a public ball was championed by the Gazette and Patriot newspapers who jeered the pretensions of the Turf Club stewards. The “public” ball was held at the end of May 1841, but was apparently not a success. The more “respectable” stewards eschewed any involvement with it, and on the night, rain kept many guests away (including perhaps those who were looking for an excuse to extricate themselves). Mr Abraham, however, remained as a steward but I am not absolutely sure that this is Abraham Abrahams.
On 7 March 1842 he was appointed Trustee to the estate of the Langhorne Bros, even though at the time his debts amounted to 3792 pounds while his assets were 3655 pounds. By January 1843 he was listed as insolvent and shifted to Sydney.
Abraham Abrahams served on both general and special juries, alongside other Twelve Apostles. He publicly supported Judge Willis in March 1842, but did not sign the petition circulated in November 1842, and was resident in Sydney by the time that Judge Willis was dismissed in 1843. Generally, Jewish citizens in Port Phillip publicly supported Judge Willis throughout.
So why and how did he get involved in the Twelve Apostles arrangement? Hard to say. As a merchant and through his involvement with the Chamber of Commerce, he would have come into contact with several of them socially. If he was the Mr Abraham who served as a steward at the Public Ball, then this suggests some element of social visibility, and his jury duty and philanthropic gesture with the land donation indicates a level of civic involvement. Ah, but who can tell.
Update: see the comments below
[This information below is not correct- see comments. It’s a different Abraham Abrahams!]
Anyway, all ended well. At some stage he moved to Adelaide where he founded the Executor, Trustee and Agency Co. of South Australia which he managed until 1891. He was one of the original members of the Society of Arts in South Australia, a Governor of the Public Library, the Art Gallery and the Museum there. He was described as “One of the most distinctive figures in Adelaide, a man most courteous in speech and courteous in manner”.
- Paul de Serville Port Phillip Gentlemen and Good Society
- Edmund Finn, The Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835-51: historical, anecdotal and personal by ‘Garryowen”
- John S. Levi These are the Names: Jewish Lives in Australia 1788-1850