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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davis, Alexander Barnard (1828–1913)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Alexander Barnard Davis (1828-1913), Jewish minister, was born on 15 August 1828 in London. Orphaned at 12, he was educated by Rev. H. A. Henry of St Albans and then, whilst teaching himself Hebrew, at Holland House, Hammersmith, by Rev. H. M. Meyers of Ramsgate. He became a master of Westminster Jews' Free School in 1848; in 1852, recommended by the chief rabbi of England, Dr Adler, he accepted the ministry of the Portsmouth Synagogue. In June 1853 he married Blanche Annie (1832-1892), daughter of Bartolomew Harris, stationer of Hatton Garden, London. In 1854 he became minister at Kingston, Jamaica, where his progressive views united members of the Portuguese and German Jewish communities. He returned to England in 1861 and accepted the ministry of the York Street Synagogue, Sydney. He arrived with his family on 17 August 1862. He was installed on 14 September at the reconsecration of the renovated synagogue and soon aroused the drooping congregation.

Davis soon realized the inadequacy of religious education in the Jewish community. In 1863 he founded the Jewish Sabbath school and was its president until 1882. He later established the Society for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge in unison with the London association; it was equipped with a lending library and a children's savings bank. In 1868 he joined the committee of the Sydney Hebrew Orthodox Denominational School and in 1873 was its president; in 1882 he was president of the Sydney Jewish Board of Education. In 1869 he published Jewish Rites Explained … and Prayers for Children (Sydney, 1869); its third edition was printed in 1902. He also produced two pamphlets: Questions Upon the Principles and Duties of the Jewish Religion (Sydney, 1866) and Devotions for Children and Jewish Families, and in 1895-96 wrote many articles for the Australasian Hebrew. He was the first to admit girls to religious classes and to conduct confirmation services for girls in the synagogue. He is also said to have initiated the first mixed choir in any synagogue of the British empire. In 1872 he founded the local branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association and was its first president. He greatly assisted in breaching the gulf between the York Street and the dissenting Macquarie Street Synagogues, and in uniting the Sydney Jewish community after the building of the Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street. He consecrated it on 4 March 1878 and became its first minister. In 1883 while on leave in England he collected funds for a home for the aged poor, the Sir Moses Montefiore Jewish Home, which was opened in 1889 in Dowling Street, Sydney, and later transferred to Hunter's Hill. In 1903 he retired and was appointed emeritus minister. He died on 16 December 1913 and was buried in the Jewish section of the Rookwood cemetery. He left an estate worth £8000. His wife had died on 6 June 1892, survived by three daughters and six of her nine sons. The eldest, Ernest Lawton, was a leading Sydney stockbroker and sometime chairman of the Sydney Stock Exchange; the two youngest sons, Oscar and William, were medical practitioners.

Davis never claimed the title of 'Rabbi', although it was freely accorded to him. He was strong and sincere and an excellent preacher. An incident in 1871 showed the wide public esteem earned by Davis: he was accused by his maid of indecent assault, and acquitted; the case was notable for Edward Butler's defence and David Buchanan's prosecution and Davis's complete vindication received warm approval from all sections of the community. He supported Palestine welfare appeals but not the nascent Zionist movement in 1901. Imbued with Anglo-Jewish traditions, he misjudged the importance of Jewish migration to Australia as a means of survival, and had misgivings in the 1890s when Russian Jews, fleeing from pogroms, began to migrate to Australia. His name will always be associated with dignified services, religious education and unification of the Sydney Jewish community.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Benjamin, ‘Essays in the History of Jewish Education in New South Wales’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 4, part 3, 1955, pp 116-29
  • Hebrew Standard of Australasia, Dec 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 17, 19, Oct 1871.

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Davis, Alexander Barnard (1828–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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