State Library of South Australia

Transcribing Tales : Inside the business world of Emanuel Solomon

Date: 11 March 2015

To read these letters is to share the hopes and fears, successes and disappointments of one of our pioneer merchants, and to see at close quarters, through the eye of a shrewd observer, the fabric of commercial life during a momentous period of South Australian history-so wrote Archivist George Pitt in a 1940 report to the Libraries Board about a donation of some 400 pages of letters written by Emanuel Solomon a hundred years previously.

Entrepreneur Emanuel Solomon in 1849 as drawn by ST Gill B331
Entrepreneur Emanuel Solomon in 1849 as drawn by ST Gill B331

Son of a pencil maker, Emanuel Solomon (1800-73) was transported to Sydney for larceny in 1818, but was back in business as a general merchant before moving to Adelaide in 1838, acquiring land and buildings. With his brother Vaiben in Sydney, their ship, the Dorset traded between Adelaide and Sydney, making him almost certainly South Australia's first shipping agent. A founding member of Adelaide's Hebrew Congregation, he was later a Member of Parliament, married three times and had nine children.

George Pitt observed, 'In his letters Solomon unwittingly paints his own portrait … it is clear that he possessed in good measure the experience, vigour, and decisiveness necessary for success. He was tireless in his search for profitable openings and was quick to seize every opportunity that offered. Among the things from which he hoped to snatch a profit were toys, musical instruments, snuff, sets of chessmen, playing cards, babies' bonnets, parasols, spectacles, peppermints, candle snuffers, beer engines, castor oil, and handcuffs. Nothing was too large or too small for him to handle'

Emanuel was also a philanthropist, providing Sister Mary Mackillop and her Order with two Flinders Street properties to live in after her excommunication. In 1848 he also provided an endowment for religious observance on the land he acquired near Port Pirie which bears his name, Solomontown.

Notably, Emanuel built the Queen's Theatre in 1840, the first building of any substantial size in Adelaide, and still a much-loved venue for events. On 10 November 1840 he wrote in a nine page letter to his brother in Sydney:

"I have written for several articles which are indispensably necessary for the Theatre and must in consequence come down by the return of the Brig.
Play books of the latest edition
The music of the following pieces - William Tell, Gusstavus, Oberon, Caliph of Bagdad
Musical instruments - two kettle drums (or one large drum), one double bass-a tenor and a second violin
White and black feathers
2 large looking glasses - and some Sperm Oil
Curtain rings
Broad swords, cutlasses and swords that will suit for the Theatre.

The Theatre I propose opening on Boxing Night, but it will require a great push to get ready in time-the first week of opening I expect to see a deal of money in the house thereby enabling us to go on briskly-you must not on any consideration delay sending the goods to me for the Theatre-if you do, you will throw us back with it beyond the chance of regaining what we may lose by any delay.

The fellows calling themselves Actors here are conspiring in a similar manner against me that they did against Wyatt on the opening of his New House. I should therefore like you to engage two good Actors and two Actresses-if Mr Winstanley and his two daughters would come down you might guarantee them £9 per week.

We have a very clever Scene painter down here but he is such a Humbug that I can place no dependence in him. I have therefore sent you up a design of a Drop Scene I want painted together with the measurement. You can get it painted by Keogh-or Shribb of the New Theatre. The object I have in view, unknown to my Painter, is to drop the Scene and then say to him-you see I am not solely dependent on you-this I am convinced will frighten him to do his duty properly."

Volunteer Ernest Roe enjoyed transcribing the lively letters, covering the years 1840-46, into 171 pages of keyword searchable text, and volunteer Kathy Hurley edited the letters for attachment to the catalogue. With her usual interest in family history research, Kathy puzzled over the identities of family members in the letters. For example, all are addressed to 'Dear brother' but which brother? It could be any of three brothers or five brothers-in-law in Sydney. Kathy's preface to the transcript clears up this confusion.

In an interesting quirk of fate, at the Information Desk last year I overheard a researcher asking about Solomon material in our collection, so I stepped forward and found myself meeting Emanuel's great great grand-daughter Gai. She was able to answer some of Kathy's family history questions and told me about the Solomon family reunion in Melbourne of some 160 of his 4500 descendants. They will be pleased to know that Emanuel is still entertaining audiences today through his business letters of the 1840s now available for everyone to read.

Story by: Carolyn Spooner

Back to e-xtra 2015 - Autumn stories

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