Levy Mandelson of the Tumut

Levy Mandelson of the Tumut by Mark Howard.

Levy Mandelson (1833-1891) died in London in the 1890s and was buried in the Willesden Jewish Cemetary.  The inscription on his headstone says he was, “formerly of Tumut and Sydney, Australia, [and] passed away 30 December 1891 in his 58th year.” Like most gravestone inscriptions, it barely hints at the details of an eventful life lived mostly on the other side of the world.

Levy Mandelson was born in Sydney on 4 July 1833, soon after the arrival of his parents Nathan and Phoebe from Britain. His father was a pastry cook from Warsaw in Poland who made his way to Britain where he found a wife and then embarked for Australia, arriving in 1833. Nathan was first a storekeeper in Sydney and again in Bungonia before finally settling in Goulburn in rural New South Wales. There he ran a store and later purchased two adjacent blocks in the middle of Goulburn on which, in 1846, he built Mandelson’s Hotel, which still exists today and still operates as a hotel under that name.

His eldest son, Levy, was apparently a short man and was later described by an acquaintance as, “little Levi Mandelson, of the Tumut.” Any lack of height he made up for in endeavour. He grew up during a turbulent time in Australian history. Gold was discovered on mainland Australia in 1851 and led to a rapid increase in population and wealth in the colonies. It also resulted in a lot of extra drinking and an upsurge in crime in the towns near the goldfields. One night in Goulburn one of Levy’s younger brothers heard a disturbance outside their house and woke 19 year old Levy and the two brothers went out to investigate. In a nearby laneway they saw a woman laying unconscious on the ground with two men standing above one of whom was kicking her. Levy grabbed the hair of the man doing the kicking to make him stop and a fight ensued in which he reported “we gave them a good thrashing” in the court case that followed.  He was again in the news three years when later he helped to capture a burglar who tried to break into a neighbour’s house.

He and one of his brothers took two wagonloads of general goods to Tumut in 1856 or 1857 and camped in the police paddock. They quickly sold out and returned to Goulburn for another two loads. When they returned they bought or leased land on which they built a slab hut to serve as a temporary store. Levy later built a permanent general store on the corner of Wynard and Russel Streets.  In the two decades that followed he operated as a storekeeper, gold buyer and gem dealer in Tumut. He was a prominent figure in the town and took the lead in many social events and civic organizations. He served as a Justice of the Peace and Magistrate and was the president of the local literary society. The town was surrounded by goldfields and as Tumut prospered, so too did its storekeepers. He decided to retire in the 1870s and he and his family moved to Sydney.

Life in retirement was not without incident. In November 1875 the family were returning home in a carriage from an outing at Bondi when the horses bolted. Levy jumped to the ground and ran forward to help the driver calm the horses, telling his family to stay inside. His wife panicked and seized two of the children – one under each arm – and attempted to jump from the carriage. Her husband saw this and went back and shoved the two children back inside but his wife lost her balance and fell and hit her head on a tree stump and was knocked unconscious. She was heavily pregnant at the time and two months later gave birth to their eighth child.

They took a longer more tranquil journey in January 1877 when the family and a servant boarded a ship and sailed to Britain.  They were living in London when their ninth and tenth children were born in 1877 and 1878 respectively. (They had 12 children in all but at least two died in infancy) The growth in the size of the family prompted the move to a larger terrace house in De Vere Gardens, Kensington. The former chairman of the Tumut Literary Society would have been pleased to discover that among his neighbours living in the street was the poet Robert Browning and Henry James the author. Levy Mandelson was 58 years of age when he died in Kensington on 30 December 1891. Among his by now many descendants is the politician Peter Mandelson, elevated to the peerage in 2008 as Baron Mandelson of Foy.

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