My mother’s sister Essie married Charles H May, the jeweller, and caused a family scandal. Not only was he non-Jewish, but he decided to convert to Judaism, which created a debate of immense proportions. He converted with the approval of the new young Rabbi, David Isaac Freedman, who was to spend a lifetime as a Rabbi in Western Australia. Rabbi Freedman, Esor Masel as the elder brother, and a couple of the other board members of the Perth Hebrew Congregation, decided the conversion was allowable. However, there were strong objections on the grounds that proper procedures had not been followed and that the motive for the conversion was marriage rather than a real interest in the Jewish faith. All this caused a great rift in the family, but my mother remained close to Aunt Essie. Fortunately, my mum and dad were very tolerant people, and also they were both down in Fremantle while most Congregation members were in Perth.
So Aunty Essie ran CH May Jewellers. She lived to the age of 90. I remember by the time we changed to decimal currency she was quite deaf. Her son Billy May, who went into the shop with my Aunty, was also quite a character. Aunty Essie served in the shop till she died, and you’d go in there and she’d sing out “Bill, what’s $9.50 in the old currency?” So she never converted. When Charles May died she shifted into the Federal Hotel, which was only one door away from her. She stayed there for 50 years and played in a Sunday night poker school with all the bookies and racehorse owners of Fremantle.
As some of you would already know, no history of Fremantle Jews would be complete without a convict connection (a few gonifs in a few cupboards). Charles May was not a convict himself, but came out from Essex in England to apprentice to his uncle Frederick May, who was one, when he was 16 years old.
Both Charles father and Uncle Frederick (who changed his name to John Mason) were jewellers. His father made pocketbooks and locks out a brass alloy (ormolu) that was specially intended to imitate gold. His uncle was a brass finisher, and fence, and received 10 years in WA for receiving stolen goods. By the time Charles came out to apprentice with him, Uncle Frederick was already one of the wealthiest businessmen in Fremantle, with a number of businesses and many employees. (This was already a common scenario in Sydney. One of his employees was a manufacturing jeweller named Wheeler, who took on the young Charles (who had already started with his father).
At age 26 he married Annie Cooper. His marriage was the catalyst to set up his own wholesale jewellery factory called CH May in Newman St near the Town Hall. This was quite a large business supplying a number of the other jewellers around Fremantle. Interestingly, his sporting medals carried his own stamp, but his other work did not. The sporting medals were finely chiselled out of a solid sheet of solid gold, and were considered the finest made in the state. The other work that he was famous for were the double-bar brooches that were fashionable from the 1890s on. These often had carved black swans on them, possibly supporting the independence of WA from the Commonwealth - a popular sentiment during the Gold Rush.
Charles May, c1867-29.12.1921 and Alice (nee Cooper), 15.03.1870-29.08.1897, had four children. Three of them are shown here: from left: Arthur Howard, born 1893; Charles Henry, born 1891 and Una Annie, born 1895. Eva Grace was born in 1897 and died shortly afterwards. Charles remarried in 1907 to Esther Maselo and they had one child, Frederick, born in 1907. Charles May was a wholesale jeweller in Newman Street from 1894 to 1902 and by 1919 he was in William Street. FHC photo #4161, c. 1901.
His other business interests also included animal husbandry (a nice diversion from jewellery). He had a pig & poultry farm in Palmyra, another one on Garden Island, and a third in the wheatfields of what is now the Kwinana Golf Course.
Annie Cooper and Charles May married in Fremantle on 21.09.1890. The family are having a picnic at Wheatfields, Wellard Road, a farm owned by John and Alexander Forrest. From left: Annie, 15.03.1870-29.08.1897; Arthur Howard, 1893-1986; unknown; Charles Henry, 1891- ; unknown; Charles May, c1867-29.12.1921, holding Una Annie, born 1895. FHC photo #4162, c. 1897.
However, in 1905, after Federation, the WA govt phased out import duties on luxury goods that protected the local manufacturers. We just heard about Solomon’s involvement in the Free Trade Party (Solomon was an importer/exporter). For WA manufacturers, this was not such a good idea (sound familiar - this debate still goes on). Charles and a number of other manufacturers were badly squeezed by Melbourne firms that had flooded the local market.
At this point, May advertised his business and stock and prepared to head off to America. His wife had sadly died from pneumonia after 7 years of marriage and clearly he felt there was nothing to keep him in Australia. The Evening Mail of 31 August 1906 wrote, “Fremantle residents will regret to learn that we are shortly to lose our well-known watchmaker and jeweller. No jeweller is better known in Fremantle than Mr May. His abilities as a tradesman and musician (more of that later) are too well known to need repetition in these columns., but we wish to let all know that to get away quickly he must dispose of all his huge stock of the latest up-to-date watches, jewellery, silverware, etc. ... Our advice to all is to call early and secure some of the bargains.”
However, at this point the story takes an interesting and very Jewish turn. Charles is preparing to head to America. As I mentioned he was a well-known musician (cornet player) in Fremantle - in fact the conductor of the Port Orchestra.
Eg. Evening Mail, August 23rd 1906
A very pleasant evening was spent last night at the residence of Mr. Green, Collie St., Fremantle. The evening, which was spent in readings etc., was one of the most enjoyable yet held by the club. Mr. Sparrow of Perth contributed 2 readings which were well received. Little Miss Green gave 2 amusing recitations. The Port Orchestra, under the baton of Mr. Chas. May rendered several selection, the music being much enjoyed. After supper, a little dancing was indulged in, the music being supplied by the orchestra.
One of the members of the orchestra was a 22 yo violinist from Russia named Esther Maisel. She was actually engaged to Myer Breckler who had bought the engagement ring from CH May. So the timing is interesting. Charles is preparing to go to America. Breckler buys the ring (probably on sale). What happens next is, Esther breaks off the engagement, returns the ring, and agrees to marry Charles (a real soapie, but does Myer get a refund?). Needless to say, Charles decides to stay and marries Esther the next February (1907).
Now the real trouble starts. Charles claimed that he had Jewish ancestry (which was probably true), which was certified as acceptable by Rabbi Freedman through a ‘conversion-marriage’. This started a major controversy. On one hand, Rabbi Freedman was keen to accept the husbands of Jewish women into the community, as they were generally important members and contributors to the developing Jewish community. Certainly, as we heard, many non-Jewish wives (such as those of Elias Solomon and Michael Samson) were accepted by Freedman.
On the other hand, the due process was that all conversions were meant to be brought before the Beit Din in Melbourne under Rabbi Adler. Freeman recommended going ahead with the conversion-marriage with Horowitz, President of the Board of PHC, who then supported it. However, the rest of the Board was against accepting Charles and his marriage to Esther. The ensuing months saw a raging, very public controversy within the PHC board and community. The board tried to get rid of the President, finally itself resigned, and an interim board was appointed to end the disarray in the PHC management.
In the end, Charles and Esther decided it was best to lead a quiet life, and opened a small jewellery shop. Competition from Melbourne and the Boom/Bust economy of WA made business difficult. However, the shop was still in business when I came to Fremantle (I bought a watch for my daughter there). He trained two of his sons in the jewellery trade, who ran the business with Esther. The controversy over his conversion didn’t end with his death in Dec 1921. Rabbi Freedman organised his burial where you see him now, but not before the Chevra Kadisha challenged his right to be buried here.
Interestingly, Esther, who really was Jewish, died in 1974 and has a plaque on a seat near the front of the cemetery.
Plaque in memory of Esther Maisel and her son Frederick (and his wife Catharine).
Antonovsky, Ari & Wendy, text used for their tour of the Jewish section of Fremantle Cemetery, entitled 'Visiting the residents of the Jewish section of the Fremantle Cemetery', as above.
Silbert , Eric 1999, 'Jewish personalities of Fremantle', Fremantle Studies, 1: 77-91.
Garry Gillard | New: 17 May, 2017 | Now: 29 July, 2017