Beside Christchurch’s Town Hall, stood Solomon Nashelski’s hardware and ironmonger’s shop. Called ‘Melbourne House’, this small shop was later replaced with a permanent brick and mortar version.
Solomon Nashelski (1822 – 1890) and his nephew Hiram arrived in Christchurch in 1864 after purchasing the business, J. Caro & Co. Ironmongers. They renamed the small wooden one storey building, Melbourne House and operated as S. & H. Nashelski (until 1876, when it became S. Nashelski), a hardware merchants, importer and indenter. They supplied iron, cement, coach builders’ equipment and tools for carpenters, blacksmiths and coopers. The proximity to the commercial centre, as well as being in such a prominent position next to the town hall, attracted plenty of business. Nashelski’s turned out to be one of the most successful retail businesses in the city.
Early Years – from Imprisonment to Political Refugee
Solomon Nashelski was born in 1822, in Lubranitz, which was part of Russian occupied Poland. When he turned fourteen, Emperor Nicholas of Russia decreed that all youths over fourteen years of age, must serve in the Russian Imperial Army. Solomon escaped before being sent away to serve but was subsequently captured by the Prussians who imprisoned him in their fortifications at Posen. He remained imprisoned as a political refugee under military orders, for fifteen months. On his release he was treated favourably and allowed to leave. He chose to go to England where he was free and able to work in several different occupations.
In 1852, after working for Messrs D. and P. Falk and Co. for three years, Solomons sailed to the gold rush in Victoria, Australia in the hope of making his fortune. Here he set himself up as a general dealer in the Ballarat, Castlemaine and Inglewood gold fields. He returned to Melbourne and went into partnership with Mr. Julius Mendelson of Temuka, and Mr Jacob Caro (whom he later bought the ironmongery from in Christchurch) running a business of general storekeeping at Sandhurst, Little River and Yachandandah.
When the Otago gold rush began, he sailed to Dunedin with his nephew Hiram where they set up a general merchant store in Rattray Street. Two years later, Mr Jacob Caro, Mr Nashelski’s former partner, in conjunction with Mr. H. Cohn (now of Messrs B. Petersen and Co.) had opened a business in Christchurch, and wanted to sell. Mr Nashelski bought it and moved to Christchurch in 1864, arriving on the day the foundation stone for the Cathedral was being laid. Moving to the more tranquil paced life that Christchurch offered, Solomon was able to finally settle down within the local Jewish community, get married, have children and build his business up.
Before the end of 1860s Nashelski purchased Petersen’s jewellery and watchmaking business situated on High Street. Petersen had sold up and gone to London some years previously after selling to Cohen, Nashelski’ ex-business partner in Melbourne. Nashelski purchased it and retained the name.
For the first few years he ran the business with Hiram but in 1876 it became solely Nashelski’s. For twenty years Ludwig Berg was manager and Mr Wells was Nasheski’s. travelling salesman.
“There were few citizens better known in Christchurch and none better respected. Mr Nashelski’s kindly disposition, unassuming manners and genial urbanity have won for him universal respect, whilst his generous hospitality and numerous sterling qualities have endeared him to a host of friends. Altogether a faithful and consistent supporter of the faith of his people, Mr Nashelski has shown in the distribution of his charities that he is no respecter of nationalities or creeds, his lengthened and varied experience amongst English speaking people – more especially in the Colonies- having rendered him thoroughly cosmopolitan in his sentiments. His career in very many respects has been a wonderful one and the lesson of it is as encouraging as it is valuable. In the course of a long life there are few things that Mr Nashelski has not been – except dishonest; but whatever his sore trials and vicissitudes, hopes, industry, perseverance and frugality enabled him to triumph over all difficulties, to land him at last in a haven of independence and rest – a noble example to our Colonial youth. He was a member of the Canterbury Lodge, E.C., of the Masonic Body, also a member of the Canterbury Kilwinning Royal Arch Chapter, and amongst the brethren of the mystic tie he held a high position. Mr Nashelski was many times solicited to enter public life, but always steadily refused.”
A Crackling noise from inside the Town Hall
Late one evening in April 1873, Constable Hughes, who was on duty in High street, heard a crackling noise inside the new Town Hall, next door to Nashelski’s, and on further investigation found the interior of the building on fire. Very little was visible, for the building was made of stone and the only evidence of the fire was the glare through the windows.
The local Fire Brigade, a number of Police, several volunteers and a large crowd of onlookers were rapidly on the scene. By the time the ‘Dreadnought’ hand engine had arrived and taken up position, the fire had burst through the large windows of the Town Hall and those on the roof of Nashelski’s shop.
Within five minutes of the alarm being raised, the Brigade was pumping water onto the roof of Nashelski’s. It must have been quite a scene to witness; the firemen bravely holding their ground with ‘pertinacity and courage which, in view of the vast body of flame within a few feet of them, appeared from the street to be really extraordinary’. Their efforts succeeded in preventing the fire on Nashelski’s roof from extending further down the line of wooden buildings. Within 45 minutes the brigade had the fire under control, but not before a report had been raised that there was gun powder in Nashelski’s shop, which fortunately proved groundless.
The new Town Hall stood gutted, and there was obvious damage to the roofs of Nashelski’s and the Old Hall. Worse for Nashelski’s was the damage to their stock caused by the water, luckily they had £1000 of insurance in place. As to the cause of the fire, like many from this time, it remained a ‘mystery’.
The business was extended in 1875, to a new Gothic brick two storeyed retail premises at 129 Hereford Street. It kept its name ‘Melbourne House’.
They shared the ground floor with Solomon Nashelski’s son-in-law, Hermann Isaac, a watchmaker (Isaac would later become a local name to be reckoned with). Solomon had married Herman’s sister.
In its early days, guns and revolvers could be purchased over Nashelski’s shop counter. Their business was very successful and they had added a fourth storey to the shop before 1900.
One of Nashelski’s employees was R.C. Pitt, who worked there for ten years before branching out into his own grocery business.
In 1888, Solomon tendered for supplying and delivering 45 miles of rabbit fencing to Lyttelton Harbour for the government. This was declined due to his tender being too high. The following year Solomon suffered from rheumatic gout and became seriously ill. The Christchurch Star reported on November 4th, “His friends, will be pleased to hear he has recovered.” He died at his residence on Armagh Street at 68 years of age at a quarter to midnight on the 5th of May 1890. He left his wife, Bertha, a widow and five children: Rachel Lina, Louise Eva, Boas Benjamin, Israely Mietriner and Marcus Myer who was aged just six years old.
In 1880 his business was sold to two former employees of Nashelski’s, Edward E. Ashby and Norwegian, Ludwig Bergh (1848-1895). Known as Ashby Bergh’s, it became a limited liability company in 1899. The business was still running in 1950.
In addition to trading as ironmongers, advertisements in the nineteenth century suggest that the company was in the building trade and actually constructed buildings as well as selling the fittings for them.
Solomon’s nephew Hiram went on to run P. Hayman and Co. in New Zealand. He later moved back to London where he died in 1896. His son Benno Nash was manager of P. Hayman and Co. in Wellington.
Unfortunately, Melbourne House fell victim to the devastating Great Fire in 1908. It was one of sixteen major buildings gutted, however it was refurbished and its exterior remodelled the following year.
Although Ashby’s and Berg’s names were incised into the limestone facade, the business begun by Nashelski 145 years earlier, still remains.
- Papers Past. Obituary. Star , Issue 6845, 6 May 1890, Page 4.
- Papers Past. The Late Mr S. Nashelski’s Business. Star, Issue 7016, 21 November 1890, Page 1.
- Papers Past. Fire. Star , Issue 1597, 3 April 1873, Page 2.
- Source: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference PhotoCD 18, IMG0014 Archive 164/27.
- Source: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Reg. No. O.002067.