Moritz Michaelis, businessman, was born on 8 November 1820 at Lügde, near Hanover, son of Reuben Michaelis and his wife Sara. His parents, though financially struggling, sent him to a private school and in 1835 to Holzminden to study medicine. After a brilliant year the money ran out and he began a four-year apprenticeship with a Brakel firm. He then worked for a Cologne linen merchant and was soon made the manager. In 1843 he joined a Manchester firm, Sampson & Leppoc, and won rapid promotion. He visited Germany in 1848 and on his return considered Australia as the remedy for his ill health. On a farewell visit to Germany, Michaelis met Rahel Gotthelf and they married on 14 April 1853, and in August they arrived at Port Phillip in the Falcon. A picture of Moritz and his wife is seen in Figure 2.
Michaelis set himself the ambition of being 'a well to-do man' in ten years and began a business in Richmond. Within a year Michaelis had to return to England for more goods, of which he was to sell £25,000 worth at one auction. In 1864 Michaelis visited Europe but on his return faced ruin. The end of the American civil war had lowered the price of cotton goods and a shipment of elastic-sided boots proved faulty. Michaelis joined his nephew, Isaac Hallenstein, who in 1864 had bought a tannery at Footscray, Victoria.
Michaelis, Hallenstein & Co. grew rapidly, and in 1873 Isaac established a London branch and in Melbourne 780 hides were turned out a week. The company operated tanneries in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Dunedin, N.Z. The firm handled leather, grindery, saddlery, canvas, sports goods, and other general merchandise, with other subsidiary factories making finished goods in those commodities. The firm won awards in Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Calcutta. It also pioneered the Australian glue industry and processed gelatine. An aerial view of the extensive Michaelis Hallenstein gelatine factory is seen in Figure 3.
The firm prospered and Moritz was able in 1884 to take his family to Europe for a two-year visit, marred for him by his rheumatism. The crash of the 1890s was not entirely unexpected by Michaelis and the firm kept down its overdraft and survived. Michaelis had wide interests and though never seeking public office, he vigorously supported the liberal reform movement and for years was acting consul for Prussia. In 1860 he had acted as special auditor for the National Bank. Fascinated by mechanical inventions he financed several and was also involved in salvage operations.
He did not continue to practise the orthodoxy of his Jewish childhood, and he often visited the Unitarian Chapel where the minister was 'a very clever preacher'. Michaelis was treasurer of the Melbourne and East Melbourne Hebrew congregation, founded the St Kilda congregation in 1871 and gave large sums to both. Though a committee member of the Melbourne Hebrew School he sent his sons to Wesley College. He was a member of the Sabbath Observance and Jewish Aid Society Committees and a founder of the Australian Israelite which he later boycotted. He supported many charities, gave £500 to the Melbourne Hospital and with his sons gave £1000 to the Alfred Hospital in memory of his wife who died in 1901. His greatest interest was his family whose unity he maintained by personal and written contact and an implacable will. Only sons and sons-in-law of partners became shareholders but Michaelis advised them to acquire financial independence.
In old age, Michaelis spent increasing time at Romawi, the 4000-acre property on Lake Victoria, Gippsland, bought in 1889. There, after an unsuccessful attempt to produce wattle bark, he bred cattle and sheep and enjoyed visits from his family. In 1901 his health declined and his rheumatism worsened. He died at Linden, St Kilda, on 26 November 1902, survived by seven daughters and four sons. He was widely mourned as a man of great honour 'who would do good by stealth and blush to find it fame'.
Another family member who was involved in the firm is better known, for Archie Reuben Louis Michaelis, a grandson of Moritz was born on 19 December 1889 at St. Kilda, Melbourne, the child of Frederick David Michaelis, merchant. In 1908 he entered the family tanning business, Michaelis, Hallenstein & Co. Pty Ltd. In 1912 he was sent to England to gain experience in the firm’s London office. He was a business man, politician and Jewish leader, who became the chairman of the family firm from 1948-65 as well as its parent company, Associated Leathers Limited, and he was a generous supporter of charities. He was knighted in 1952 on his retirement from being the Speaker of Parliament from 1950-52. Survived by 3 daughters, he died on 22 April 1975 at South Yarra and was buried in St. Kilda cemetery. A photo of Sir Archie Michaelis is seen in Figure 4.
The information on Moritz Michaelis and Sir Archie Michaelis is derived from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.