Percy Marks, a Jewish Renaissiance Man

Yehuda Feher with Marianne Dacy


In 1920 Israel Cohen, a prominent British Zionist visited Australia to conduct an appeal for the Palestine Restoration Fund (forerunner of the Keren Hayesod). After a very successful campaign, visiting the Jewish centres in Australia and New Zealand and some Pacific Islands, he returned to London and subsequently published his memoirs of places and people. Of the many Jewish personalities he met, he singled out Percy Joseph Marks, as 'one of the few Australian-born Jews with a true comprehension of the Zionist ideal'.1 In his eulogy of Percy Marks in 1941, the late Rabbi Falk said of him:

'He was one of the first in this community who responded to the call of Herzl and he carried its banner aloft, even in those days when Zionism was looked upon as a subversive movement or at least as inimical to the interest of British Jewry '(Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 3 July 1941) ...and papers from his pen established before Jews and non-Jews a reputation for scholarship such as is seldom possible to a lay-member of the faith in Australia.

As the founding president of the Australian Jewish Historical Society and a major collector of materials on Australian Jewish history now located in the Mitchell wing of the State Library of New south Wales, he deserves a more detailed study of his life and contributions. This article sets out to fill an important lacuna in Australian Jewish history.

Percy Marks was an Australian Jew born in 1861 far from the Jewish centre of Europe who absorbed the Zionist ideals and worked for them all his life. He was conversant not only with all facets of Judaism and Jewish history, but also with Australian history. He was a leading member of the Royal Australian Historical Society, and his interest in English literature led him to become a prominent member of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales. Details of his life, family background and writings so far largely unpublished will cast some light on this outstanding many-sided personality.

1. Early Life

Percy Marks was a third generation Australian Jew. His grandfather on his mother's side, Samuel Benjamin arrived in Australia in 1833 and became a very successful merchant in Sydney with branch stores in Windsor, Goulburn and Queanbeyan. He was also a conscientious Jew who sat on the board of the Bridge Street Synagogue and then on the first board of the York Street Synagogue. He and his wife Rachel had several children, some of whom died in childhood, but one son and three daughters survived. One of these, Elizabeth, was Percy's mother.

Percy Mark's father, Joseph Marks, also came from England. He was only nineteen years old when he arrived in Sydney in 1854, coincidentally the same year in which his future father-in-law Samuel Benjamin died. He went to Maitland where there had been a small thriving Jewish community since the 1830s, and soon became well known in the local community. Among the positions he held was that of the District Trustee to the Savings Bank of New South Wales. He was also one of the founders and first honorary. treasurer of the West Maitland Synagogue and a prominent member of the volunteer corps (Stock and Station Journal , 13 June 1919, 6). In 1866 he married Elizabeth (Lizzy) Benjamin. The wedding was held in Sydney at 82 William Street.

Their first son, Percy, was born a year later, in 1867. The actual birth took place in Sydney, again at 82 William Street. They had two more children, Hilda born in 1869 and Ernest Samuel born in 1871. In 1873 Elizabeth Marks gave birth to another daughter, who died as a baby. Two years later, at the age of twenty-nine, she died in childbirth. Percy was thus not yet eight years old when he and his younger sister and brother lost their mother. One wonders what difficulties and problems their father faced in the small Jewish community in Maitland with three small children, and what sort of home-life and Jewish education he could give them.

As it happens, this was also the period when the Jewish community of Maitland reached the peak of its development. In 1878 the community erected a synagogue and appointed the Reverend Samuel Goldstein as minister of the congregation. He was a graduate of Jews' College, London, a young man of dignity and scholarship.

Thus Percy Mark's education in Judaism must have started, apart from early childhood influences from his father and mother, with the teachings by Rev. Samuel Goldstein. Rev. Goldstein, however, did not stay long in Maitland, and Rev. Solomon Levy followed him in 1880. This is the year in which Percy Marks became Bar Mitzvah and therefore must have been tutored and instructed by Rev. Levy.

It was also the time (1879/80) when young Percy first showed his interest in writing and journalism. He produced several 'home-made magazines'. These were small eight page leaflets, written and illustrated by hand, set out as a newspaper produced with columns, editorials and features. His first paper carried the heading: 'Morning Post-published and printed by P. J. Marks at the ROSEBUD Office'. This was followed by the Maitland Fun (9 January 1880) with the introduction:

In presenting our first number before the public we hope to have their support and patronage for without that a paper cannot prosper so we will try our best to please them. - Editor

The Maitland Fun was also produced in the ROSEBUD PRINTING OFFICE - P. J. MARKS PROPRIETOR. Among its features was 'Conundrums, Mirths, Fun and Tricks'. The young twelve-year-old editor introduced the second issue:

'We have now great pleasure in presenting to the public our second issue and if the other did not please we hope this one will as we will try and improve as much as we possibly can.'

At the end of the third issue he states: 'We are sorry to have to notice that unless we receive a certain number of subscriptions this issue will be the last'. However, in the next issue he writes: 'We are glad to see that our appeal to the public has been answered in a very generous style. We thank them for it'. Although only short essays into 'journalism', they reveal Percy Mark's ability to express his thoughts interestingly and precisely from an early age. Percy, in fact, also became a contributor to a real newspaper, the Illustrated Maitland News that had a column of 'Facts' and a 'Pastime Column' as well as 'Funny Sketches by Funny Fellows'. He was also a regular contributor to the 'Pastime' column of the Sydney Mail (1881).

In 1882 Joseph Marks decided to leave Maitland. By that time he had become a successful businessman, trader in wool and produce and a part owner of a tin mining company. While the main reason for moving to Sydney must have been to expand his business, he was also perhaps prompted to move to the capital by the educational opportunities, both general and Jewish, for his children. In fact, both boys were enrolled immediately at Royston College, Darlinghurst and already in November 1882, Percy Marks was listed as having been successful in the Junior Public Examination held at the University of Sydney (Subjects: History of England, arithmetic, geography and geology). In the following year Percy was named first in the prize list of Royston College and a year later was a successful candidate for matriculation.

Although his natural inclination was towards architecture and engineering, he was dissuaded from both these professions and decided on Law. As there was no Faculty of Law at Sydney University at the time, he enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and graduated with a B.A. degree in 1887.2

During the five years after leaving Maitland, while Percy Marks completed his formal education, he must have continued his Jewish education and maintained his interest in the community. This is evidenced by the fact, that when the Hebrew Literary and Debating Society was founded in his graduation year (1887), he became its treasurer and his brother Ernest, the secretary. Percy also contributed to the Society by giving talks on various subjects which already at this early stage reflected his varied and wide ranging interests. In 1888 he gave a talk on 'What is Socialism?' This talk was reported in detail in the Jewish Press and also in the Bathurst Times. In it Percy Marks traces the history of socialism from 1835 when the word 'socialism' was first used.

After receiving his B.A. degree, he commenced his legal training by being articled to the Sydney law firm of Creagh and Williams. In 1891 he was admitted as 'solicitor at the Supreme Court'. Already during the period of his legal training he found time to pursue his Jewish interests. He became the Sydney correspondent of the Melbourne Jewish Herald and published his first polemical article 'The Bible and Land Monopoly'. In this article Percy Marks points out that the idea of land nationalisation, at that time proposed by the American economist, Henry George, who was visiting Australia, had already been known by the Jewish people in Biblical times. He quotes the law of the Jubilee year (Lev 25:10; 27:30) and the fact that it had been practised for hundreds of years. He concludes his article:

'I have endeavoured to show, and I hope that I have been fairly successful in my attempt, how a primitive people… practically solved by peaceful methods the problem, which according to Mr George, is the root of all poverty…but the times and circumstances are now quite different and ideas have to be altered to suit them…all honour is, however, due to those economic thinkers who are endeavouring by different methods to find a way to apply in these modern times the ancient biblical principle of allowing to every man a fair share in the use of the land, and who thus hope to reduce poverty in the world and to raise the general status of mankind.'

In 1891 Percy Marks commenced his legal practice at 17 Bridge Street, Sydney. We do not know how busy his practice was, but we do know that in 1894, he decided to visit England, in those days, 'the Mother Country', to everybody in Australia. A few weeks before he sailed he published in the Australian Hebrew Times an interesting piece which showed his interest in classics. Entitled 'An Imaginary Conversation', the Prophet Malachi and the Greek philosopher Plato meet again after two thousand years. After exchanging pleasantries Plato says:

'What grieves me is that the Greeks as we knew them are no more. How is it with your people? Do they still exist or have they been absorbed by the races that have since sprung up?' Malachi replies: 'The people of Israel have suffered much since then…but they still exist and although scattered east, west, north and south throughout the world, yet remain a powerful and influential race.' Plato: 'How is that, Hebrew? Our great writers are still acknowledged to be unsurpassed. Have your people had a similar influence? - Malachi: 'Yes. The Bible, the inspired literature of the Jews has become the property of all mankind…We too have given the world its religion and its indebtedness to our race is even greater than yours.'

And so the two great ancients go on discussing God, immortality, science and they part as two friends. Percy Marks signed this article with his 'nom de plume' SAMOJEP which he used many times later.

When Percy decided to travel to England in 1874, he must have been well known in the community since a newspaper reported:

Among the passengers by the 'Opir' which will leave Circular Quay at noon tomorrow, will be Mr Percy Marks, B.A. He is proceeding on a trip to Europe previous to his settling down to his profession as a lawyer in Sydney. Mr Marks is the popular and zealous Hon. treasurer of the Sydney Hebrew Literary and Debating Society of which he was one of the founders seven years ago. He is also an esteemed contributor to the Hebrew Times as well as to other Sydney publications. We heartily wish him a pleasant journey and safe return to Sydney where he will be much missed during his absence.

Another newspaper reported:

Mr Percy Marks, son of J. Marks, a clever young solicitor, is about to visit Europe for a period of twelve months. Mr Marks is, amongst many other accomplishments, noted of his thorough knowledge of Volapük.3

Apart from his intellectual pursuits Percy Marks was an accomplished athlete who excelled in running and swimming like his brother Ernest. The latter had developed an outstanding reputation in the world of sport. Percy's trip to London was focused not so much around his intellectual interests as on his interest in sport. The Daily Chronicle (of London) reported on 28 July 1894:

P. J. Marks, well known in Sydney in swimming and athletic circles has arrived in England and is at present staying in London. His chief mission is to study the methods of English swimming and organisation as he was asked to make a report on his return to the Colony.

Percy Marks must have fulfilled his task in London as another newspaper report (unattributed) in the P. J Marks collection testifies:

'At a meeting of the Council of the New South Wales Amateur Swimming Association, Mr Percy Marks, of the Darlinghurst Harries, who has recently returned from a visit to London, furnished a somewhat lengthy and highly interesting report of his impressions of swimming in England.'

It is evident that Percy Marks' interest in sport was not limited to it's physical aspect only but also aimed to improve the legal status of sports organisations as is evidenced by another newspaper report .

At the last annual meeting of the New South Wales amateur Athletic Association Mr P. J. Marks, B.A., solicitor of this city, and a member of the Darlinghurst Harriers and East Sydney Swimming club, had a motion on the business paper in reference to obtaining legislative authority for the legal recognition of athletic and other clubs. Owing to other important matters taking precedence the motion was not discussed. Since then, however, Mr Marks has elaborated his scheme, and it is the intention of his brother, Mr E. S. Marks, hon. secretary of the Amateur Athletic Association, to bring it before the meeting of amateur bodies to be held at the end of thee month. Mr Marks' idea is to obtain an Act of Parliament giving clubs the right to sue and be sued in courts of Petty Sessions.

After his return to Sydney, Percy Marks resumed his legal practice (first at 17 Bridge Street, then at Royle's Chambers - Bond Street, and from 1896 at Eldon Chambers - 92 Pitt Street). He resumed his activities in the Jewish community. From 1894 to 1896 he was the honorary secretary of the Sydney Jewish Education Board. He was also one of the early champions of the study of the Hebrew language. In one article in the Australian Hebrew Times (January 25, 1895) he wrote:

'Hebrew should be included amongst the subjects of a university examination. It is as much entitled to a place in the curriculum as Greek, and behoves us as Jews who are so to say, the custodians of this tongue, to see that it occupies such a place.'

In 1896, Percy Marks was associate editor, together with Daniel Levy of The Australasian Hebrew, a short lived newspaper that lasted only one year but was of a high literary standard. In the same year he also published a lengthy treatise on 'The Jews and the Marriage laws'. In this he examines the marriage laws of England and those of New South Wales in detail and the ways in which they affect Jews and Quakers, as a section of these statutes 'permits Jews and Quakers to continue to contract and solemnise marriage according to their religious belief'. Many years later (1936) Percy Marks re-wrote this study, including a detailed consideration of Jewish marriage laws.

In 1900 Percy Marks wrote another illuminating article entitled 'The Hebrew and Other Early Versions of the Bible'. Two years later he gave a long talk on the same subject to the Jewish Literary and Debating Society under the slightly different title of 'The Bible, Its Canon, Text and Early Translations' which was reported in the Hebrew Standard (June 6, 1902) and also printed as a pamphlet for private circulation.

2. The Zionist

Percy Marks first entered the public arena of Australian Zionism early in 1900 when he announced in the Hebrew Standard 'that he has received from England a copy of the articles of association of the Zionist Bank (the Jewish Colonial Trust, Ltd) and he is willing to show it to intending shareholders and afford what information he can free of charge'. There is no record how and why this information was sent to him from London and what response - if any - there was to this announcement.

By this time a number of people in Sydney expressed interest in the Zionist movement, particularly Samuel Goldston at whose instigation public meetings were held in January 1901 at the Great Synagogue in Sydney. Percy Marks was one of the speakers. After the meeting on 24 January, 1901 it was decided to form a Zionist Society, whose name was later changed to the New South Wales Zionist League. Henry Hockings was elected president. In the same year, at the first meeting of the Sydney Jewish Literary and Debating Society, whose treasurer was Percy Marks, it was moved that 'the Zionist Movement should be encouraged'. 'Percy Marks led the debate and gave a very clear exposition of Zionism'.

On the other hand, there were others who opposed the emerging Zionist movement on the local scene. The most outspoken among them was the Reverend J. H. Landau, assistant minister of the Great Synagogue who even went as far as discussing that matter in the general press and at public meetings. At one of these meetings, held mostly for non-Jews, Rev. Landau even objected to the presence of Jews and engaged in fiery debate with them. Percy Marks was so incensed that he stormed out of the hall in disgust. Subsequently, he took it upon himself to defend Zionism in a long letter to the Editor of the Jewish Herald headed 'Zionism- a Reply to the Rev J. H Landau'. He wrote: 'In his endeavours to stem the growing tide of Zionism Mr. Landau will be as successful as was Canute when he tried to keep the waves from wetting his feet.' Later in the same year, Percy Marks gave a lecture to the Hebrew Mutual Benefit and Medical Society. Again, after decrying Rev Landau's negative attitude he presented his audience with a clear exposé on Zionism.

Zionism is no new idea. Every Jew is necessarily a Zionist of some type or another…Zionism means the realisation of the hope that we as a nation shall at last obtain a firm foothold in the land of our fathers which is the final resting place of the wandering of so many centuries… The Zionist movement is the greatest of all Jewish developments of recent times…Humanity and Judaism will be richer and better for what Zionism has done and is still doing…(Hebrew Standard, 21 November 1902, 2-5).

During the next few years, although Percy Marks did not seek any executive position, he must have watched anxiously the slow development of the Zionist movement because in May 1906 he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Zionist organisation in Cologne complaining about 'the apathy in Australia and New Zealand about Zionism.' Only two years later after the demise of the earlier Zionist League, Percy Marks called a meeting in his office and in the presence of thirty people explained the objects of the movement in some detail. At this meeting the decision was made to form the Sydney Zionist Society with Percy Marks as it's first president. The society would be affiliated with the International Zionist Organisation. Thus, 'the new chapter of the history of local zionism began in which the name of Percy Marks is written large.'

For the next ten years Marks remained the president and was at the helm throughout the difficult war years (1914-18) during which time he made repeated representations to the Commonwealth Government for permission to remit money to London for the benefit of the Jews in the Holy Land, but it was refused. In spite of his strenuous efforts he had to report again to the Zionist Bureau in 1911 that:

'The general attitude of the Jewish community is one of apathy. There are comparatively few enthusiastic Zionists. The majority of he Jews here are if anything non-Zionist, but there is no hostility.'

Subsequently he reported that: 'We have difficulties with Zionist propaganda…there is little enthusiasm on the subject… there is much apathy here at the moment…'

In 1916 the Young Men's Zionist Society was formed to take a more active part in political activities. Both the Balfour Declaration and the occupation of Jerusalem by British forces in 1917 were duly celebrated. In July 1918, the two Zionist organisations combined to form the Union of Sydney Zionists and Percy Marks was elected as vice-president together with Soomon Pechter.

In 1920 Israel Cohen came to Sydney to conduct a most successful campaign for the Palestine Restoration Fund. The highlight of the campaign was a big public meeting presided over by the Governor, Sir Walter Davidson. Among the Zionist leaders on the platform was Percy Marks.

In 1922, in the course of another overseas trip, Percy Marks visited Shanghai. He was of course welcomed by the local leadership as 'the prominent leader of Sydney Jewry and active Zionist and communal worker'. 'We are thankful', wrote the Israel Messenger- that Shanghai was remembered by Mr Percy Marks in his itinerary. Needless to say such a visitor…can hardly come and go without leaving an impression behind.' In his farewell message published in the same issue of the Shanghai Israel Messenger Percy Marks wrote: 'I cannot conclude this letter without congratulating you on the excellent work done on behalf of zionism. As one who has been connected with the national cause for many years it indeed affords me pleasure to see the enthusiastic manner in which the institutions of Zionism are supported in this Far East City.'

After the departure of Israel Cohen there was slackening of interest in Zionism in Sydney and even though Great Britain was granted the Mandate over Palestine by the League of Nations in 1922, many Australian Jews considered it disloyal to be Zionist. In an effort to counteract this attitude, Percy Marks published a letter in the Hebrew Standard on 10 September, 1926, under the title: 'More British than the king'.

'It seems to me that a Jewish subject of the king of England if he be loyal to his religion and to his king he must be a Zionist. When we find such good Englishmen as Lloyd George, Lord Balfour, Viscount Allenby… and others too numerous to mention all actively interested in Zionism, although not Jews, it is hard to understand how British Jews can be opposed to the movement… Zionism is part of the policy of the British Government, otherwise the Balfour Declaration means nothing…For the preservation of Judaism a spiritual centre in Palestine, such as Zionism will provide, is essential, and lastly a home of refuge for the thousands of Jews who are living in misery and starvation in Eastern Europe, should appeal to the generosity of all Jews.'

By the mid twenties, interest in Zionism had increased and was stimulated greatly by the arrival in Australia of another eminent emissary, Alexander Goldstein, a member of the executive of the World Zionist Organisation. In 1927 Goldstein called a conference in Melbourne with Zionist representatives from all states (except Tasmania) at which it was decided to form the Australian Zionist Federation. This was the first time that Jews from the different states had gathered to form a federal body.

While General Sir John Monash accepted the position of Honorary President of the Federation, the conference also elected M. Zeltner as president and Rabbi Israel Brodie and Rabbi Mestel as vice presidents. Percy Marks was also there as a representative of the Union of Sydney Zionists and chaired the second session of the conference. While he was a supporter of the Federation he had always had reservations about it. As far back as 1909 he had written to the Zionist Central Bureau in Cologne:'

'I agree with the idea of a federation, but cannot see much chance at present…the societies are scattered and there are not enough of them… and we need people who will give the time…'

Even after the very successful second conference of the Australian Zionist Federation, Percy Marks was very critical. In a letter to Israel Cohen at the Zionist Head Office in London he wrote:

'…having considered the matter very carefully, it appears to me that it is necessary to consider whether it is advisable to carry the Federation with its large expense and comparatively small result.'

Perhaps because of his difference of opinion on organisational matters Percy Marks was less active in the Federation in the following years, but he was always ready to speak up when necessary. Such an occasion was after the Wailing Wall issue in 1929 when he took issue with Rabbi Francis Cohen of the Great Synagogue.

'The Rabbi having…publicly given expression to views which to me are neither British nor Jewish, I feel it my duty to disassociate myself from them. When an injustice is done to anyone, be he Jew or Gentile, by a government official, surely one has the right to protest and there is no question of loyalty involved.'

Percy Marks remained on the executive of the Union of Sydney Zionist almost to the end of his life. He also became a keen supporter of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, donating books and other material to its library. When, at the initiative of Ruby Rich, a society of the Friends of the Hebrew University was established in 1936, Percy Marks was elected as its first president. Rabbi Falk in his obituary wrote: The Hebrew University had a special fascination for him. He regularly sent gifts to the library and thus created for himself a special niche which will keep there his memory ever green. No wonder that the bibliographical quarterly of the Hebrew University always referred to him as Yedideneu Ha'neeman - 'our faithful friend'.

Percy Marks' lifelong devotion to Zionism is suitably summarised by the eminent Australian Jewish historian, Suzanne Rutland: 'Percy Marks' leadership was important because of his belief that Zionism has done more to Jews and Judaism than any other movement. In this respect he was an exception since most Australian Jews did not understand the meaning of zionism… '

3. Shakespearean Scholar

Percy Marks was a foundation member and an active participant of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales throughout his life. His first contribution was a paper read to the Shakespeare Society in 1901, entitled 'Shakespeare and the Jews'. In this he points out that there is no historical record that Shakespeare had actually met any Jews. He stressed that:

It will be seen that in his plays Shakespeare followed the prejudice of his own and other ages, both prior and since, in speaking of the Hebrew race in contemptuous tones… And specifically in The Merchant of Venice both the plot and the character were borrowed from various sources… Although our poet could not altogether rid himself of the prejudice of his time, yet he showed himself superior to his predecessors by making Shylock a human being, with human feelings and aspirations.

Percy Mark's major contribution was his 'Australian Shakespeareana - a bibliography of Books, Pamphlets, Magazines, Articles, etc, that have been printed in Australia and New Zealand, dealing with Shakespeare and his works.' This was published in 1915 by Tyrrel's Limited. In compiling this bibliography Percy Marks used not only the catalogues of all the major public libraries but also inspected several private collections. He aimed also to include everything printed in Australia irrespective of its its literary merit. Also included are many works which, although their titles do not indicate any Shakespearean interest, have been found to contain chapters or essays dealing with the dramatist or his works. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewing the work at the time stated: 'A compilation quite unique of its kind… is an excellent specimen of bibliography…Mr Marks is to be congratulated on his compilation…'

In a subsequent long review the literary editor of The Sun wrote:

'It must have meant to Mr Marks a remarkable amount of patience and research, for he had no earlier book to begin from, and scarcely anything in the way of systematic record to cover even part of the field he was exploring…Thus he is certainly doing the spade work of Shakespearian bibliography in this country, putting down the first foundation on which he or other compilers will build later.'

Percy Marks presented three other papers before the Shakespearean Society. One was in 1923 on the occasion of the three hundreth anniversary of the 'First Folio'. It was in 1623 that all the collected works of Shakespeare were first made available to the public in one volume. In his paper Percy Marks describes some earlier prints of individual plays and gives some details of the first complete folio, concluding:

'In rendering honour to Shakespeare on this, the three hundredth anniversary of the appearance of his works, we should also pay reverence to all those through whose labours the plays have been preserved.'

'Shakespeare, the Actor and the Theatre of His Time' was the title of another talk to the Shakespearean Society. In this talk Percy Marks traces the young Shakespeare's first contacts with theatres in London, not as an actor but as one of the 'supernumeriers' such as 'servitor' or 'prompter's attendant.' He then describes the various theatres and playhouses of the time, including The Globe, of which Shakespeare became part-owner and gives a detailed description of what a theatre of the time looked like and how the performances were given.

As to Shakespeare's appearances on the board, there is not much authentic material to rely upon, but the probability is that he was an actor of no mean parts…. But it was this experience which enabled Shakespeare to write his great plays in which 'the technicalities of the stage are always correct'.

Another talk entitled 'Shakespeare and the Bible' is introduced thus:

'English literature is very rich in masterpieces, but these two books (one being in translation) which are the most valued of all… the English version of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. These are so unique and valuable as literature, that if all other books written in English were destroyed, the language would still be studied for the sake of these two books.'

Whilst the reference is to the 'unauthorised version of the Bible' (of 1611) Percy Marks mentioned many other translations during the previous century, but it is not certain which translations Shakespeare used. There are said to be no less than four hundred and fifty distinct biblical quotations and allusions in the writings. Percy Marks did not attempt to enumerate them, but instead discussed the points of resemblance between the Bible and Shakespeare's writings. He claimed that: 'A person desiring to improve his English composition and to develop a literary style could not do better than study these two books'.

Later in his essay, he advised that:

'It will well repay all students to read the Bible as they do Shakespeare, not as a religious work, but as a great piece of literature. The Book of Job, for instance is unsurpassed by any other work, ancient and modern. What more interesting short story is there than that told in the Book of Ruth. The poetry of the Psalms is unique and Proverbs and Ecclesiastes probably contain more words of wisdom to the inch than any other similar composition.

As many of the beauties of Shakespeare are lost in translation, so it is with the Bible. Excellent as the English version is, yet it fails in some respects to reproduce the original. Like Shakespeare it contains many plays on words which it is impossible to translate adequately.'

Percy Marks concluded his treatise:

Shakespeare's work like the biblical books can be read and read again, and every time one does so, it is only to find fresh beauties in them, and to appreciate more and more how rich English literature is, having these two master pieces.

Percy Marks remained active in the Shakespearean Society throughout his life. He also presented a talk on the 'History of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales'. At one stage he was the Society's honorary treasurer. At his death, the honorary secretary of the Society wrote the following condolence letter:

'Mr Marks was a foundation member of the Society and it was largely due to his keen interest and untiring efforts that the Society has reached its present standard…He gave his best and those who were privileged to come in contact with him became enriched by his inspiring qualities.'>

4. The Collector. Bookplates, Paper Currency, Coins and Medals

Among his many interests, Percy Marks was a keen collector of bookplates and was a committee member of the Ex-Libris Society. He collected and recorded Australian Jewish bookplates. In an article in the Jewish Herald he wrote:

In my small collection I have a few examples varying from the mere printed label to the engraved armorial and the purely pictorial…A complete catalogue would be of value to the collector, but it is not likely to be so to the ordinary reader, so I propose to briefly allude to some of the most important in my possession…The earliest of these which I have been able to identify is that of Joseph Barrow Montefiore, the first president of the Sydney Synagogue. Another early engraved plate was that of Mr Moses Moss, also a former president of the synagogue.

Next he describes a number of later examples such as that of Eliezer Levi Montefiore, the art critic and Rabbi Francis Cohen (1908). The bookplate designed by the the artist H. S. Rocknell for his brother Ernest Marks shows a bookcase and various pieces of sporting equipment, sport being his brother's main interest.

Percy Marks' first bookplate was very simple, bearing only his name in a decorative frame. In 1906 he also commissioned the artist Rocknell to design a beautiful plate which he describes in his article. <

The centre represents an open bookcase, underneath which are the scales, sword and hourglass, as representative of his profession. Above is the upper part of a female figure holding a scroll; in the top corners are the waratah and the bottom corners have the double triangle, with the word 'Zion' in Hebrew.

Apparently Percy Marks was not quite satisfied with this bookplate and in 1932 he adopted a third design, described as follows:

It depicts himself seated in his library, its window opening out to show the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Artistic items as well as books surround him. On the table before him are the five large volumes of his primary interests: Law, Judaism, Numismatica, Shakespeare and Australia. Around the room is further indication of his life-style, a bust of Shakespeare, the Menorah, and shofar, and a Scroll. At the base of the plate is a Star of David supporting the Eternal Lamp.'

Coins and Paper Currency

Percy Marks was an active member of the Australian Numismatic Society most of his life. He was the society's treasurer from 1916 till his death in 1941. Throughout this time he participated in the society's activities, attending regular meetings, during which he displayed some of his rare numismatic collections for discussion. He also contributed by giving talks to the society such as 'Notes to Illustrate the Adelaide Sovereign', 1917, 'Early Paper Currency in Fiji,' 1922, 'Notes on the Vagaries of Eastern Currency,' 1923.

In 1930 Percy Marks published a treatise 'The Shekel'. In this he discusses in some detail the first Jewish coins which were variously attributed to the period of the Maccabees (BCE 140) or to the later period, that of the Jewish revolt against Rome (CE 66-70). After giving a detailed description of the actual coins, he concludes:

The value of numismatics in the study of history is well recognised, and if an additional proof of its utility in this respect be needed, the Shekel affords it.

Allied to Percy Mark's interest in numismatics was that of paper currency, as shown in a long talk he gave to the Royal Australian Historical Society entitled: 'The History of Paper Currency in Australia'. In his introduction he states that his intention is:

'to give a brief account of the various paper currencies of Australia including therein the private promissory notes, which, from a historical point of view are of more interest than the regular notes issued later by the Banks and Government under statutory authority.'

The article traces the history of store receipts and paymasters' bills, gives accounts of forgeries, individual promissory notes, tradesmen's notes, currency payable in other than sterling and the establishment of banks. From this time pay bills were still issued as well as different banknotes by various banking companies until the passing of the Australian Notes Act (1910) and the achieving of standardised currency with the issuing of Government notes. At the end of this very detailed and illustrated article, he writes: There were two other 'devices' used as currency. Percy Marks described these in his article entitled 'Rum and Wheat Currency in New South Wales' also published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 26 (1940), 511-514.

The complete list of Percy Marks' Collection of coins is found in the Percy Marks Collection of Judaica in the Mitchell Library, MSS 2718 (Box 3). This list includes sovereigns, silver coins and tokens used for Australasian currency including the Spanish dollar of 1748, silver crowns, half-crowns, shillings, florins, sixpences pennies and half pennies as well as foreign coins. This collection is no longer extant.

However, there are two other collections in the National Library in Canberra. These include photographs and glass negatives of early Australian notes and currency exhibited by Percy Marks. The collections also include a box of medals from New South Wales and Great Britain, some dated from 1878 and commemorative coins including one celebrating the opening of the first Federal Parliament in 1901 and another commemorating the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

5. The Percy Marks Collection of Judaica

Undoubtedly his most valuable collection is his Judaica collection which contains many items on Australian Jewry not found elsewhere. When the chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth at the time, Joseph Herman Hertz visited Australia in 1921 he wrote a letter to Percy Marks stating: 'I have just received the Pamphlets of Australian Judaica you have been good enough to send me. I need hardly assure you that they are not only valuable but also extremely interesting'.

This was the first public recognition and appreciation of what eventually became the 'Percy Marks Collection of Judaica' in the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales. The beginnings of the collection most probably were the books and records Percy Marks inherited from his maternal grandfather, Samuel Benjamin, who died in 1854 'a man of deep religious fervour… If not a literary man, he was at least fond of books and reading.' Percy was also fond of books but he was also 'unique in collecting historical records and data'.

Encouraged by the Chief Rabbi, Percy Marks compiled a catalogue of the Australian Jewish section of his library in 1930, which he updated in 1936. He added to it a 'list of publications relating to Australian Jewry found in the Mitchell and Public Libraries of New South Wales' which was compiled by a member of staff. Both sections were then printed for private circulation. This bibliography was indeed ground breaking. Half a century later, the compiler of the latest bibliography (Bibliography of Australian Judaica)(1987, 1991 (revised) Serge Liberman wrote :'In compiling this bibliography…the author has used as inevitable starting-points Percy Marks' 1930 listing and his 1936 up-date'.

When Percy Marks died in 1941 his books and the collections were taken over by his brother, Ernest Marks.4 The latter added to it and after rearranging it, bequeathed it to the State Library of New South Wales in 1947, on condition that it be maintained as a unit and be housed separately. Most of the books bear the following bookplate:

Regrettably, this most valuable collection has not been utilised as well as it should. The collection contains many thousands of items, including books and pamphlets, magazines and newspaper cuttings, and reports of contemporary societies and is a veritable goldmine of historical information.

In 1994 the collection was re-arranged and catalogued by Di Jackson of the Mitchell Library. In the introduction to the catalogue she states:

Access to the collection has been hampered by the fact that it is not indexed in the Printed Books Catalogue or on URICA. Again, apart from a 1936 author index, there has been no complete index or shelf list to the collection, which meant that it was not often used. Two stocktakes of the Collection were carried out, the latest being in 1993, and from these a shelf list was created.

The Collection is now indexed under the following headings:

1) Judaica (non-Australian) a) J010/1-J990/19 (Books) b) J. Pam 010/1 - J Pam/ 6 (Pamphlets) 2) Judaica Australiana a) JA 1- JA 63 (Books and Periodicals) b) JA PAM 010/1 - JA PAM 990.1/20 (Pamphlets).

After completing the catalogue Di Jackson commented:

Aside from the wealth of material in the Marks collection, what I found most interesting were the many handwritten annotations in some of the volumes - annotations made by members of the Marks family or by Percy himself. Birth and death dates appear, as does an envelope inserted in a volume by Hilda Marks containing 'the flowers that fell from my dear aunties' wreath from the coffin' in 1888. The envelope is still sealed after all these years.

When making up the index, I endeavoured to include notes regarding these annotations as I found them to be a poignant reminder that this was once the poignant collection of an amazing man.

Some Highlights of the Collection

While the most interesting aspects of the collection are the original newspaper cuttings and pamphlet files cataloguing the history of Sydney's Jewish community, it is evident that Marks wished to document the production of Judaica overseas. Marks' collection includes such Jewish sources as the Talmud and Mishnah in their original languages and translations, the Biblica Polyglotta, the Septuagint, Rashi, Jewish apocrypha, Targum Onkelos and Jonathan and various biblical commentaries, Pirke Avot, Midrash, the Shulchan Aruch and the writings of Moses Mendelsshon.

The oldest work by the translator John Davis, dated 1656 is entitled A Short Introduction to the Hebrew tongues: Being a Translation of the Leaned Buxtorsius, Epitome of His Hebrew Grammar. Another unusual work translated by the Reverend Philip Lefanu is entitled: Letters of Certain Jews to Monsieur Voltaire containing an apology for their own People and for the Old Testament, with Critical Reflexions. Percy Mark's version is the second American edition of 1845.

There also are several versions of the Jewish prayer book and commentaries on Jewish liturgy, as well as sermons and biblical treatises. His interests were broad for there are such diverse titles as J. Cohen'sThe Deicides: Analysis of the Life of Jesus and of the several phases of the Christian Church in their relation to Judaismor Norman Bentwick'sHellenism,

Other books relate to modern Judaism with works on Zionism and the Jewish religion, or such works as Leonard Stein's The Truth about Palestine; and at the other end of the spectrum Israel Zangwill's treatise on the Jewish Territorial Organisation. Some works deal with anti-semitism, various aspects of Judaism, the Jew and the world ferment and there is a bound volume of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion Another category relates to Jewish law, divorce, the criminal code and marriage. The collection includes reference works such as dictionaries, grammars of Hebrew, Jewish legends of the Middle Ages and Jewish literature including Yiddish and Hebrew humour. There is quite a substantial section on Jewish history, Jewish travellers and Jewish coins. An interesting item is Moses Gaster's, The Samaritans: their History, Doctrines and a descriptive catalogue of Samaritan manuscripts in the Sassoon Library, London. A few works are on Israel, the Hebrew University, the Balfour Declaration and the United Israel Appeal. A large pamphlet collection treats such topics as bibliography of Jewish books, the letter of Aristeas, Jewish ritual and the Jewish question in Poland. He has also collected a number of Jewish periodicals including The Jewish Review and a bound volume of the sermons of the Chief Rabbi of England, Joseph Herman Hertz.

The most unique part of the collection is the last third devoted to Judaica Australiana, which includes both books and pamphlets, newspaper cuttings, Australian Jewish magazines and annual reports of organisations. These provide documentation of the history of Sydney's Jewish community in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Three files are about Jews of note. The pamphlet collection takes up by far the greater portion of the Australiana collection with such items as the first report of the Central Synagogue, Sydney (1914), sermons from the Great Synagogue, Orders of Service, the first annual report of the Sydney Zionist Society (1909), and the deed of association of the Sir Moses Montefiore Jewish Home, 1889.

6. The Historian

Mr Marks for years had recognition among a small circle of acquaintances as the unofficial historian of Australian Jewry. His feeling for history was the legacy from his ancestors.

In the early 1900s it was Coleman P. Hyman who was regarded as the authority on Australian Jewry's past. When Hyman left Australia to settle in London in 1912 'the official mantle of authority on Australian Jewish history passed to Percy Joseph Marks.

An early demonstration of Mark's detailed knowledge of communal minutiae was a lengthy review of the Jewish Encyclopaedia's entry about Australia in which he systematically catalogued and corrected the multiple inaccuracies. 'If a second edition of the Encyclopaedia should be published', wrote Marks, 'it is hoped that these errors will be corrected. It is a pity in these far from small matters greater accuracy was not secured.'

In 1911 Percy Marks addressed the Royal Australian Historical Society on 'The Preservation of the Old Records and Collection of Modern Ones' where he stressed the great importance of the correct preservation not only of important legal and other documents but also of pamphlets and general ephemeral literature which could be of importance to future historians.

Percy Marks could also claim to be the first demographer of the Australian Jewish community. He studied and analysed all census figures appertaining to the Jewish people, including marriage statistics. The first census figures he analysed were those of 1901. and his first study was entitled 'New South Wales Jewish Statistics', and was published in the Jewish Herald of 29 August, 1902. Another article 'The Religious Census of Australia' was published in the Jewish Chronicle of 21 November, 1902. His most detailed study was made in 1905 when in a long series of articles he examined the census figures of all six Australian states and those of New Zealand which were all published in the Hebrew Standard between March and December 1905. In 1907 he published a second similar series. In 1913 he published 'Intermarriage Statistics 1911' in the Hebrew Standard on 31 January, 1913. A few years later he again analysed the census figures and published 'A Census of Australian Jewry- Some Interesting Statistics (from the census of 1921) in the Hebrew Standard of 9 January, 1925 and 'Australian Intermarriages' in the Hebrew Standard of 9 April, 1925. His last article on this subject was entitled 'Australian Jewish Statistics' and was based on the census of 1933.

In 1913 he presented a long talk to the Jewish Literary and Debating Society on 'The Jewish Press of Australia. Past and Present', which was the first ever full survey of all the Jewish press printed in Australia till that time. He deals in detail with all publications, their contents and history. At the end of his talk he exhorts his audience to collect all Jewish newspapers and reports, to build up valuable records for future historians of the Jewish communities of the Commonwealth.

In 1922 the Australian Jewish Chronicle announced somewhat prematurely that

Mr Percy Marks is about to write and publish a complete history of the Jews of Australia. Mr Marks has made this the subject of his study for a number of years, collecting many interesting items. As a keen observer, as a literary man, and a lucid writer, such a publication will be interesting and will give a great deal of information to Jewry outside Australia.

This prediction did not materialise, however, and Australian Jewry had to wait for another sixty years before the first comprehensive histories of Australian Jewry were written.

In 1925 Percy Marks addressed Royal Australian Historical Society of which he was a council member, on the topic: 'The First Synagogue in Australia'. In this he traces the first divine services held by the small Jewish community in private houses and then focuses on the building at number 4 Bridge Street which actually served as the first proper synagogue.

The exact date when the property in Bridge Street was acquired and converted into a synagogue cannot be definitely stated…but it could not have been earlier than 1833 and probably later… …It may be fairly assumed that the Bridge Street synagogue was first used for divine worship in 1837 and continued to be used till the opening of he York Street Synagogue in 1844.

In the concluding page of the article he also quotes a contemporary description of the interior of the first synagogue:

Containing about one hundred seats which are rented by the rate payers, a reading desk and a pulpit for the officiating minister, and an ark which contains the Decalogue and a manuscript copy written on vellum of the Books of Moses; also a ladies' gallery containing about thirty seats, fitted up with neat candelabras…

Percy Marks' general interest in local history is shown also by a well researched treatise on the 'Norfolk Island and the Bounty Mutiny.' 5In this he traces the discovery of the island and its subsequent use as a penal colony, its abandonment for a few years and re-establishment as a convict settlement. He also traces the fate of the mutineers and their descendents who first settled on Pitcairn Island and eventually were transferred to Norfolk Island in 1856. Here they settled for good and formed the population of the island which became a territory of the Commonwealth in 1914.

This interesting history was published in a limited edition of two hundred copies for private circulation. One wonders why Percy Marks chose this method at the time when he was already well know by the Royal Australian Historical Society, of which he was a member and whom he addressed several times.

In 1938 Jewish immigration to Australia became a public issue and consequently the local Jewish community itself became a subject of interest. Percy Marks took it upon himself to provide information about the Jewish community writing an article for The Australian National Review under the title: 'The Jew in Australian Life'. In it he gives the Jewish population figures since the early settlement, names outstanding figures and their contribution to the development of Australia, in particular the Jewish contribution during World War 1, and some of the outstanding Jewish personalities in many other fields.

Perhaps Percy Marks' most valuable contribution to Australian Jewish history was his leading role in the establishment of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 1938.

Sydney B. Glass, who was a close friend and collaborator of Percy Marks, wrote that: 'The formation of the Society was due to the inspiration of one man - our foundation President'…

For years we had talked about doing something. We met daily and talked over our mid-day luncheon. We had no one interested with us…Nowhere in Australia were our people active in historical societies… The impetus came from two sources. One was the first Jewish community record, the history of the Jews in South Australia written by Hirsch Munz on the occasion of the centenary of South Australia in 1936. The second event was the sesquicentenary of Australia's foundation being celebrated in Sydney. As Glass wrote: 'There was a general stirring of historical consciousness.'

At the inaugural meeting on 21 August 1938, convened by Rabbi Falk, Sydney Glass, Hertz Munz and Percy Marks, the latter was proposed as chairman by Herbert I. Wolff who claimed that Percy Marks had'constituted himself and had acted as an unofficial historian of Australian Jewry and collected much valuable data. His work in that field was already well known abroad'.

Percy Marks was confirmed as the inaugural president of the Australian Jewish Historical Society at the first business meeting on 7 November, 1938.

One of the talks given at the first quarterly meeting of the Society in April 1939 was by Percy Marks entitled 'Early Jewish Education in New South Wales'. On this occasion he gave a detailed account of all the early efforts and the subsequent gradual development leading to the successful establishment of the N.S.W. Board of Jewish Education in 1909. The story begins in 1839 when it was decided to build a synagogue and there is a request 'that a competent master be engaged to instruct the youthful members of the Mosaic religion.' The first classes started in the 1850s. In the early 1860s there was a 'Sydney Hebrew School' at 334 Pitt Street, which became a 'Certified Denominational School' with four professional staff. There was a gradual but constant development even after the cessation of the Denominational School in 1882. Other Hebrew Schools were founded, including the Sydney Sabbath School in 1863 by Rev A. B. Davis and the Society of the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge. In 1882 the Sydney Jewish Education Board was founded, following the decision to close the Denominational School, eventually becoming the New South Wales Board of Jewish Education in 1909.

It is most probable that this was Percy Marks' last public talk. At the first annual meeting of the society in 1940, it was reported that one hundred and twenty members had joined since its foundation. Numbers had increased to one hundred and sixty-two by the second annual meeting in June 1941. Regrettably this meeting had to be held in the absence of the President who was away ill; but it must have pleased him on his sickbed to hear Sydney Glass' report that the Society had an increased membership and was 'firmly established'. A few days later Percy Marks died on 22 June 1941 at his flat in Kirribilli.

After examining these many facets of Percy Mark's life what are we to conclude about the nature of this man who lived such a full and productive life? Here we can turn to his contemporaries.

Modesty and sincerity of purpose were the cardinal features of the character of Percy Marks.

He was a scholar with a calm and retiring nature.

He was a handsome man…quite youthful in his appearance…a kindly, gentle and loveable character - he would not willingly hurt a fly…he had no personal following, no collaborators… There was a certain loneliness about him - the isolation of a scholar… His inspiration, the most impelling fact about the man, did not die with him. It lived on.

Unfortunately, it was not so. Percy Marks died during World War II when the whole country was engaged with the war effort and the tragedy of European Jewry was looming as the Jewish community's more immediate problem. Percy Marks' quiet but widespread contribution to Australian Jewry tended to be, if not forgotten, effectively sidestepped. Now more than sixty years after his death, it is time to recognise his contribution to the Australian Jewish community and to recognise him as a true Jewish Renaissance man.


Percy Marks never married, nor did his brother Ernest and sister Hilda. Anecdotal information is that all three of them carried a disease which they had inherited from their mother and apparently were reluctant to pass it on to the next generation. They died within a few years of each other and 'the line is now at an end.'

Percy Marks Legacy

Percy Marks' name has been preserved at Sydney University as well as at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A letter from the Registrar of the University of Sydney to the executors of his will, in 1943 states:

The Professorial Board at a recent meeting decided, on the recommendation of the Faculty of Arts that the income from the bequest of the late P. J Marks should be used to establish a prize for an essay on a subject in Semitic Archaeology, giving special weight to knowledge of Hebrew…

From this legacy, a number of prizes are awarded each year for the study of Hebrew in the Department of Semitic Studies at the University of Sydney.

Percy Marks left a further £100 to be devoted to a Jewish educational institution in Palestine. The executors have agreed that this amount… should be given to the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem to be invested and the income…to be awarded as a prize annually for some phase of school work as may be decided by the Directors…

A further £100 was left to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

…the income to be awarded as a prize to be called the 'Joseph Marks Memorial Prize' in some branch of Hebrew or Jewish learning.

The last time this prize was awarded was in 1990 after which time the original fund was exhausted (as reported by Eliyahu Honig, vice-President of the Hebrew University).

While Percy Marks, the man, largely may have been forgotten, his legacy lives on. The Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) continues to be an active and thriving institution. The study of Classical Hebrew at the University of Sydney has continued to grow and strengthen. Above all, the Zionist movement to which he devoted so much of his life has moved into the mainstream of the community with Australian Jewry being in the forefront of most diaspora communities in its support for Israel.

The full text of this article which includes detailed endnotes and several illustrations has just been published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Vol XVI:2, 2002, 191-226.


  1. Israel Cohen, Journal of a Jewish Traveller, London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1925,65.
  2. Sydney B. Glass,'Our First Decade', AJHSJ 3:2, 1949, 63.
  3. Artifical international language invented about 1879 by J. M Sleyer.
  4. Ernest Marks was the younger brother of Percy Marks. One time a Lord Mayor of Sydney, whose main interest was sport, he was founder and active member of many sporting organisations and represented Australia at the Olympic Games in 1908, 1912 and 1932. The E. S. Marks athletic field in Moore Park is named after him. For detailed biographical notes of both Percy and Ernest Marks see Suzanne Rutland's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, 413-414. The E.S. Marks Collection of Sport is also part of the special collections of the Mitchell Library.
  5. A copy can be found in Sydney in the archives of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Mandelbaum House, Abercrombie Street, Box AB 182.


    Australian Jewish Chronicle

    Israel Cohen, Journal of a Jewish Traveller, London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1925.

    Marianne Dacy, Early Australian Zionism: An Annotated Index of Records in the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem, 1, Sydney, University of Sydney, Archive of Australian Judaica, 1993 (many of the citations about early zionism from the letters of Percy Marks).

    Leib A. Falk, ' Percy Joseph Marks,' AJHSJ 1:6, 201-203, 3 July 1941.

    Morris Z. Forbes, 'Early Australian Zionism in Sydney: 1900-1920', AJHSJ 3:4,1950, 165-187.

    Sydney B. Glass, 'Our First Decade,' AJHSJ 3:2 1949, 61-71.

    Hebrew Standard of Australasia

    The Jewish Herald

    Percy Marks Collection of Judaica, Mitchell Library, ref. J240/17; JA Pam 220/1 and MSS 2718 (Personal Papers of the Marks Family) (Most of the details of Percy's early life, newspaper clippings (sometimes unattributed) his publications and unpublished writings can be found in these collections).

    Suzanne D. Rutland, Seventy Five Years: the History of a Jewish Newspaper, Sydney: Australian Jewish Historical Society, 1970.

    Many of Percy Marks' articles are in the collections in the Mitchell Library in Macquarie Street, Sydney and include such topics as 'The First Synagogue in Australia', and 'The History of Paper Currency in Australia'. He published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, the Royal Australian Historical Society Journal with the Jewish Literacy and Debating Society Society and contributed frequently to the Australian newspapers of the day.

    University of Sydney

    23 July 2002

    Marianne Dacy