Presented by Myer Solomon to the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society SA Branch, June 2002.
It needs to be recorded at the outset that exact dates could not be verified in the early days of the life of Nathan Solomon due to the lack of record keeping in those times. There is also the fact that my father never talked to his children about his early life in Russia, so the family is even without anecdotal history of his early life.
Nathan Solomon fled from the Russian/Polish border to live in England possibly for the very good reason that he didn’t want to have his head lopped off. After his arrival he settled in Sunderland. Many years later in 1938 I went overseas with my parents and during our stay in England my father especially wanted to revisit Sunderland to try and find anyone he knew from his early days there, but sadly all the homes we visited had different people living there and regretfully we could not find any of his previous friends. Being a mining town, the people seemed to have white faces and no one was smiling. It was a dreary place.
In about 1860, when he was 40 years old my father came to live and settle in Adelaide. He then bought a two-storey building at 9-11 Gouger Street, Adelaide. He lived in the upper storey and later working on his own, he went about establishing a General Store in the ground floor. Although on his own in the beginning, later Nathan was joined in Adelaide by two friends from Russia, Sol Marks, and Sam Gurewicz, but they were not involved in the business.
Nearby he had stables with two horses which were used to pull a buggy. Nathan and Arthur Roe, his very first employee, would make up large bundles of Manchester etc. which were wrapped in sheets of leather and bound with two-inch leather straps, then packed into the buggy. These goods were sold in the suburbs to the housewives on time payment to be repaid as little as sixpence, or one or two shillings per week.
He would go down to the Torrens Road and as far as Port Adelaide with horse and buggy, and in the winter it was not uncommon for the wheels of the buggy to sink into the potholes in the road. This meant that Nathan would have to unload all the bundles, extricate the wheel, reload the card then start off again. Sometimes he would return to Gouger Street at about midnight exhausted, but the horse would still have to be stabled before he went to bed, and everything made ready to begin the next day.
My father always observed the Jewish Sabbath, closing the shop and attending the services at the Synagogue. And also on all other Jewish holy days throughout the year. Our home was strictly kosher and the dietary laws were adhered to at all times.
In later years my father employed a young lad, Len Johnson, who had just left school and when my father retired Len continued to work for me in the Solomon Carpet family business. At 86 years of age, after having worked for both my father and myself Len became very upset with me. I called him into my office and said ‘Len I’ll do anything for you, but I’m not going to jail still having you working when it’s your 86th birthday’. I gave him much more than he would have usually got but he was still extremely upset with me and very annoyed that he was being put off work.
A friend asked Nathan to go to Sydney with him where he had arranged a meeting with a lady named Miriam Lazar. After a short while they were married in Adelaide in 1905 and Miriam and Nathan now lived in the upstairs storey at 9 Gouger Street. Miriam was born in 1883 and was 22 years younger than Nathan.
Their first-born was a little girl, Francie, born in 1906. Then adding to the family later with two more girls Ella and Betty, both born at Gouger Street. With a larger family now, Nathan decided to move and in about 1914 he bought a beautiful villa on a large block of land at 47 Glen Osmond Road, Eastwood. It was called ‘Renfrew House’ and was to be the Solomon family home. It presently is Anaster Hospital. It was an extremely large family home with spacious rooms including 6 bedrooms. Two more girls were born, Lila and Nancy and it was also here in 1920 another baby arrived, but this time a boy, or an absolute brat. He was both adored and spoilt rotten by both his parents and five sisters.
Life at Renfrew House
The grounds of Renfrew House had beautiful flame trees, loquats, quince and fig trees, lilacs and beautiful wisteria.
Apart from the horses, Dad also kept two St. Bernard dogs, two water retrievers, cats and seagulls. It was a fad for people with large lawned areas to go to Victor Harbour and purchase seagulls which had had their wings clipped, they would happily roam around on the big lawns with the dogs and cats.
There were very large stables at the rear of the house and Dad kept five or six horses there with many different carts. Every year at the Royal Show Nathan won many ribbons with his beautiful horses. He would start early with the stable hand at about 4am and the others would arrive by 6am and stack the large leather wrapped bags of Manchester etc. onto the carts ready for the days delivery.
Every year, I remember a Mr Sam Gild who was the Mayor of Unley, would come to visit for afternoon tea. One year he came over with his Harley Davidson and sidecar with his wife Dora. He filled the sidecar with quinces and Dora had to walk all the way back to Wayville.
My father later acquired a car, an Austin 20 which had seven seats, including two dickie seats which were folded up against the front seats. My father would sit in the front next to Francie, who always drove. He would never fail to put on his white dustcoat, peaked cap and goggles, sitting forward with his eyes glued to the road ahead. At the first sign of danger he would wrench on the hand break and we would all end up on the bonnet. He was taught to drive by Mr Harold Wagner but ended up a shocking driver. Dad got into a speed wobble at 15mph; he gave up driving.
Dad kept the Austin 20 for 14 years, and when it was sold it was in mint condition because my father only allowed it out on Sundays. If it rained we children could go out, but the Austin stayed in the shed. When it was sold you could see your face in the original duco and chrome.
Although Nathan was close to ninety when he died, he still had his own teeth and he never wore glasses. His main act was to put his teeth into a heavy leather chair and lift it up in the air. Unfortunately when invited out, if the host had a heavy leather chair they would be shocked to see him dig in his teeth and lift the chair up high.
As a lover of horses he always attended the trots at Wayville every Saturday night. Before a race he used to walk around and ask the owner, trainer, driver and even the horse if they would win. When he would come home for supper after 11pm he would moan about putting 2 shillings on the place tote and only get back 2 and three pence. He knew everyone at the trots and they all knew him too.
Inside Renfrew House the rooms were large, with a very big family kitchen and roomy cellar. The kitchen was so large that when I wanted to upset my sisters I rode my 4-pound motorbike around the kitchen table. There was a big L-shaped lounge complete with a grand piano and this lounge was the setting for many wonderful musical evenings arranged by my father. In the house we had four pianos, one grand, one Ronish and two Lip.
My father had an enormous love of classical music and he invited musical groups and different touring artists from all parts of the world who were visiting Adelaide. I recall such well-known musical identities as Harold Parsons, William Silver, Sylvia Whitington, and Professor Harold Davies, who was head of the Conservatorium. Harold Tideman, Maurie Moskovtiz who was a well-known actor in America and Leo Packer who conducted all orchestras who came to Adelaide, including Gilbert and Sullivan etc. These were some of the illustrious visitors my father invited to his musical evenings in our home.
I well remember a South African group who were visiting Adelaide performing at our house. I got my cousin Ray Goldberg and another friend and arranged that at exactly 11 o clock I would pull the main switch, and plunge the entire house into darkness. There were two doorways into the lounge where we pushed seagulls into the room. Needless to say there was pandemonium and loud shrieks, the three of us quickly got into a car and shot off.
When dad thought it was time for his guests to leave he wouldn’t say a word, he would just get their overcoats and hats and hand them around.
Dad had all the girls taught music and wanting them to have the best musical education possible he sent them to the Adelaide Conservatorium of Music on North Terrace. They performed regularly over 5CL-radio station and were known as The Solomon Sisters. They also won many Australia wide competitions at Ballarat. France played the cello, Ella the violin and Betty the piano.
Dad wanted me to learn the piano and employed Miss Mellowship to teach me. However, every week when she arrived I would run and hide under the grand piano, no one would think to look there as they were searching everywhere else. In the end dad gave up on me.
Dad saw to it that we were all given an excellent education, the girls all attending what was then known as Methodist Ladies College (now Annesley College) at Wayville. I was enrolled in the kindergarten. I later attended Prince Alfred College at Kent Town where I began my life long passion for sport. The Solomon girls arrival at school was somewhat unusual, as they were driven in a horse drawn covered wagonette. The girls were so mortified that their friends should see them, they instructed the driver to stop about a – of a mile from the school so they could walk the rest of the way.
Afterwards when I was at PAC I would be picked up every day by Francie, who then owned a little Austin 7 car, but before she could see me I would run out the back way and disappear into the city to a milk bar. My sister would be left driving around Adelaide trying to find me. When someone once asked Francie why didn’t she just leave me she said, ‘what! Go home and face my father and say I couldn’t find his precious son? I wouldn’t dare’.
I was terribly spoilt by everyone and as far as my dad was concerned I could do no wrong. If I had been particularly naughty he would threaten to take me outside and hit me with a fig leaf. If there was ever any damage caused, such as damage to linen on the line there would be trouble, unless of course it had been done by either me or the St. Bernard dogs – then that was alright.
I really don’t know how mum and dad could ever stand me. For instance I was 18 years old and driving down South Road in an Austin 20 with mum in the back. She kept saying, ‘slow down Mer, slow down’. So I slowed down to the appropriate speed, got out, held the wheel with my left hand and proceeded to run next to the car. Of course there were shrieks coming from the back of the car so after 50 or 60 yards I got back in. Mum never asked me to slow down again after that.
The Wider Community
My father in his own quiet and unobtrusive way was a benefactor to many people. During the depression he kept two or three cows in the parklands and this provided his family with fresh milk and cream and also enough to give away to family and friends. He was a friend to many people and when he stood in the front of his shop in Gouger Street he knew everyone who passed by.
Adelaide Hebrew Community
Both my father and mother were very active members of the Adelaide Hebrew Community then located in Synagogue Place, Adelaide. As soon as each Solomon baby was born my father made them a member of the AHC. Francie, the eldest who was born in 1906 and when passed away this year had been a member of the AHC for 95 years. Quite a record.
One of the reasons I am very proud of my father is that after he died at age 89, we found a large ledger filled with many, many names of customers who in the depression were unable to pay my father the money they owed him. In many cases he loaned them money, interest free, knowing it would never be paid back because of the sad times.
Nathan was a generous benefactor to the Jewish community and served as a treasurer for 3 years and was on the committee for 15 years. When the new Adelaide Synagogue was built in Flemington Street, Glenunga, the entire complex was dedicated to the memory of my parents and is known as the Nathan and Miriam Solomon Centre.
I consider this an amazing lifetime achievement that a young man, a migrant from Russia who came to this country with nothing, should be remembered and publicly recognized by the dedication of a multi million dollar Synagogue, Day School and Kindergarten for the Jewish Community in this state. I am very proud of my father Nathan Solomon.