Academy BJE, NSW Australia  

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What was life like in Sydney in 1788?

One of the first Jewish people to set foot in Australia was a woman convict named Esther Abrahams.  On February 6th 1788 she stood on the deck of a convict ship with her baby daughter in her arms.  She waited for the sailors to row her and the other convict women ashore at Sydney Cove.

Esther had been sent to New South Wales as a punishment for shop-lifting 22 metres of black silk lace from a London shop.  It was her first offence, but the judge at the London Court found her guilty and sentenced her to 7 years as a convict in Australia.

Esther hoped to see a young officer of the Royal Marines, Lieutenant George Johnston, who had also sailed on the Lady Penrhyn.  He had helped and protected Esther and her baby during the voyage and he was eventually to become her husband.

It was good to be ashore again after nine months on board ship. However, the confusion at Sydney Cove and the hot, humid February weather made Esther wonder if she would ever get used to this strange place.

The convicts were usually hungry, bored and homesick. They had to work 6 days a week.  Esther and the other women who could sew were employed making men's shirts and trousers out of the coarse material which had been brought from England. 

Some women were sent to the harbour beaches to look for shells.  The shells could be used to make lime for mortar.  Mortar is the mixture that cements bricks together.  Others were shown how to make wooden pegs which were used to hold the shingles onto roofs.  While the women worked, their children slept or played nearby.  Sometimes the women made small toys for them out of wooden pegs and scraps of cloth.

The convict children of Sydney in 1788 had no grandparents or other relatives to look after and amuse them.

Lieutenant Johnson, even though he was not Jewish, married Esther.  His house was a tiny 'wattle and daub' cottage built by convicts with local timber.  The wall posts were made of timber.  The roof was thatched with reeds that were later replaced by wooden shingles.  The builders finished off the cottage with a coating of mud.  Near the cottage was a vegetable garden planted with potatoes, pumpkins, turnips and corn.

Religion in Sydney

On Sunday mornings at 10 o'clock the drummer boy would beat his drum.  Everyone would gather under the trees for a religious service conducted by the Reverend Richard Johnson, the Church of England chaplain.  All the convicts and marines had to attend the service and the Governor instructed everyone to be as clean and tidy as possible.

Governor Phillip planned to build a Church of England in Sydney Town, but other buildings such as the hospital and storehouses had to be built first.  All religious services had to be conducted in the stores buildings or outside under the trees.

Four Jewish Convict women

In 1828 four Jewish women – Sarah Jacobs, Catherine Solomon, Ann Solomon, and Sophia Mendoza were transported to Van Dieman’s land. (Tasmania). They all came from the poorest part of London, the East End, where most of the Jews in England lived.

In Tasmania most female convicts became household servants.

Sarah Jacobs – had been a professional thief in London. She was 19 when she robbed a drunken sailor of money. The money was found in a box under her bed. She was sentenced to 14 years in Australia. When in Australia she was often badly behaved and was punished with meals of bread and water. Many attempts were made to find her work as a servant but she didn’t like the work. In 1846 she married Daniel Newman and in 1846 became a “free woman”. She was 41.

Catherine Solomon - had been a professional thief in London. She also sold fruit. She was charged with stealing 13 yards of printed cotton. She had been in William Brown’s shop and after leaving was found carrying the fabric. Her sentence was for 7 years, and after behaving very well in Tasmania she was freed.

Sophie Mendoza – The daughter of the champion boxer Daniel Mendoza. She was one of eleven children, seven of whom were girls. As a child she was given lots of presents by her father. When she grew to become a young woman she was charged with stealing a variety of items including a teapot and a pair of boots from people living in the same building. Her neighbour said she found two spoons in Sophie’s pocket. Once in Tasmania she was assigned work as a servant, but she was bad tempered and her sentence was extended from 7 years to 25. She would be cheeky to the Master and Mistress of the house and disappear without saying where she was going. She often found herself being punished with a meal of bread and water. One day she decided to run away and during her absence from the house she stole a bottle of perfume. In 1853 she married and soon became a free woman.

Ann Solomon – was married to Ikey Solomon who had spent some time in prison. Someone who didn’t like Ikey hid a stolen watch under Anne’s bed and the next day she was falsely accused of stealing it. She was sentenced to 14 years in Australia. She brought 4 of her children with her. She behaved very well whilst in Tasmania, it being recorded that in 14 years she only lost her temper twice!

Jewish religious life begins

Early Jewish convicts found it hard to practise their religion.  They were far away from other Jews and had very little Jewish knowledge.  They probably also had little interest in establishing a religious community.

However, as the Jewish population of Australia increased so did the opportunities to live as a Jew.

Timeline of early Jewish religious life in Sydney

1788- First Fleet arrives in Sydney Cove with Jewish people amongst the convicts on board.

1817- Chevra Kadisha formed to perform burials according to Jewish law.  This was the first recorded act of any Jewish life. 

1820s-  Many convicts had been set free and Jewish free settlers had come to the colony.  Between them they began to organise Jewish life. Joseph Marcus, a convict with good Hebrew knowledge, brought together about 30 Jews to pray together. 

1827- First synagogue in Australia established in Sydney.  Congregation of 400 people.

1828- Philip Joseph Cohen arrives with the permission of the Chief Rabbi of London to perform Jewish marriages.  Regular services took place in his home in George Street until 1832.

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Last updated  2008/09/28 17:19:16 AESTHits  185