From Australia’s Past: Jewish businessmen who shaped the colony

June 1, 2021 by J-Wire News Service
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Samuel Cohen arrived in Sydney in 1833 aged 21 with an English history dating back to the time of Cromwell and to Spain and the Expulsion.

David Cohen Newcastle East warehouse

He joined a company –  Cooper and Levy – a government-contracted slaughterhouse providing “salt beef” – as a clerk.  His bosses encouraged and assisted him to establish his own company.

In 1836, now living in Maitland, he opened a general merchants company, and in the next three years opened branches at Campbelltown and West Maitland then known as the Hunter River region.   His brother David and his cousin Lewis Wolff Levy joined him and it became known as David Cohen and Company  The headquarter building in Maitland was considered to be the finest mercantile building in any country town in New South Wales.  The company acquired stores throughout the Hunter River and New England districts, becoming very prosperous and contributing to the urban and economic development of Maitland.  He then expanded the business to London.

Samuel Cohen

The Cohen families played a central role in the development of commercial ventures in the region as well as expanding the trade of the colony.  Samuel went on to become an important landowner and businessman.  In 1860 he was elected in a by-election to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the seat of Morpeth but was defeated at the general election later that year.   David later became a politician and a member of the Legislative Assembly.  Samuel was also a founding member of the Royal Exchange.

In 1837  Samuel married Rachel Nathan, his brother David later marrying Rachel’s sister.  Samuel and Rachel had seven children the last child being born in 1855.

Samuel’s faith was very important to him and his knowledge of the bible was so great that often when he could not find the right words, he would knowledgeably recite a phrase or proverb, directly from the bible.  This led to his being one of the founders and first president of the secessionist Macquarie Street Synagogue in 1859, as well as being a member of the board of the York Street Synagogue from 1855 to 1859.

Unfortunately, he died suddenly in Sydney on 4 November 1861.  Such a well-respected businessman, the newspaper The Empire reported that “the mournful cortege consisted of a hearse, fourteen mourning coaches, and seventy-two carriages.  As the funeral passed through the streets, large numbers of spectators assembled to witness it thus showing the great esteem in which the deceased gentleman was held by all sections of the community.”  Rachel returned to London where she died in1893, with an estate valued at more than thirty-eight thousand pounds.

Samuel’s legacy grew with other family members making their mark and becoming one of the key Sydney Jewry families, with his son George Judah Cohen grandson Sir Samuel Cohen and great-grandson, Major-General Paul Cullen, all playing central roles in both the general and Jewish communities.

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 or its Facebook page.

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