From Australia’s Jewish Past: Sir Lewis Cohen – a merchant and politician

May 24, 2022 by Features Desk
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Lewis was born on 23 December 1849 in Liverpool, England.

Sir Lewis Cohen

His parents Henry and Elizabeth emigrated to Sydney in 1853, where Henry established a successful clothing business over the next ten years, after which time the family returned to the UK and Lewis completed his education at a Jewish school in London.

At the age of seventeen Lewis returned to Sydney and at nineteen with capital provided by his father, Lewis and friend Adolphus Brodziak, set up a profitable barter trade business in Levuka Fiji handling cotton, copra, trepang and tortoise-shell products.  Lewis took part in public affairs in Fiji and was elected to Levuka’s first council in 1872.

Due to poor health Lewis returned to Sydney in 1873 and married Selina Marks from Melbourne later that year. They produced six children.  On medical advice, the family moved from Melbourne to Adelaide in 1876, where he opened a branch of the Melbourne-based London Loan & Discount Bank becoming a wealthy businessman.

He was an active member of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation – serving as their treasurer – as well as involving himself with the Independent Order of Oddfellows, South Australian Ancient Order of Foresters’ Friendly Society, the Freemasons, Australian Natives Association, and the United Ancient Order of Druids, of which he became grand president.

In 1887 Lewis was elected to the South Australian Parliament, having won the seat of North Adelaide – a position he held until 1893.   He was a member of the Adelaide City Council for thirty years, serving as its mayor from 1901 to 1904.  In 1911 he represented the City of Adelaide at the Coronation of King George V.   Lewis campaigned strongly for Adelaide City to have a ‘’Lord Mayor’’ rather than a ‘’Mayor’’.  This was achieved in 1919 and Lewis took up the position from 1921 to 1923.

He was proud of the city’s development and his achievements as Mayor and Lord Mayor, making improvements to parks, squares and roads.  He hosted several balls for Adelaide citizens during his mayoral period.

Lewis was a strong protectionist advocating the sale of crown lands to eliminate government deficits. He supported free and compulsory education, closer settlement of pastoral lands, progressive income tax, payment of members of parliament, and eight-hour legislation for government employees. He feared that the Federation would threaten the local industry, thought that government expenditure for work should be placed with private companies, and opposed coloured immigration. He declined a portfolio in Sir John Cockburn’s cabinet in 1889 as well as the position of agent-general in London. In 1917 and 1918, he campaigned strongly for the Liberal Union. In January 1924 he was knighted by King George V.  He retired from all duties in 1927.

Lewis passed away on 24 June 1933, survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, two other sons having predeceased him.  His portrait hangs in the Adelaide Town Hall.  An avenue in Adelaide City is named in his honour.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via www.ajhs.com.au or its Facebook page.

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