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Cohen, Edward Aaron (1822–1877)

by Geulah Solomon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Edward Cohen, c1918

Edward Cohen, c1918

Edward Aaron Cohen (1822-1877), merchant, parliamentarian and Jewish community leader, was born in Edgeware Road, London, the second son of Henry Cohen, merchant and convict, and his wife Elizabeth, née Simmons. Edward, with his mother, four sisters and five brothers, arrived in the Brothers at Sydney in December 1833 and settled first in the northern district of the colony. In 1847 Edward married Rebecca, eldest daughter of Moses Benjamin; they had four sons and four daughters. 

In Sydney Edward managed his father's wholesale grocery firm, H. Cohen & Son, George Street. He moved to Melbourne in 1842 and with B. Francis bought the auctioneering firm of William Easey; the partnership was dissolved in 1854 when Cohen went to Sydney for eight months. On his return to Melbourne he joined the auctioneering firm of his brother Samuel and Alexander Fraser. In 1863 the two Cohens retired and in 1864 Edward became a tea merchant and general importer. He was later joined by his brother-in-law, Benjamin Benjamin. Their association was not restricted to importing but extended to real estate and company finance. Together they bought Canally, a sheep station on the Murray. Cohen was for many years a director and chairman of the Colonial Bank of Australasia and a director of the Hobson's Bay Railway Co. and of the Australian Insurance Co.

Cohen's financial prosperity, fluent eloquence and likeable personality helped him greatly to share in colonial affairs. Although unsuccessful at elections in 1857 and 1859 for Melbourne and West Melbourne, he represented East Melbourne in the Legislative Assembly in 1861-65 and 1868-77. He was commissioner of trade and customs in the Macpherson government in 1869-70 and in the Francis and Kerferd governments in 1872-75. In 1870 he served on the royal commission on charitable institutions. Cohen was also active in civic and municipal affairs. First elected a city councillor in 1854 and re-elected on his return from Sydney, he retired from the City Corporation because his views conflicted with those of other councillors. In 1862 he was re-elected and became mayor on 10 November. In 1865 he was elected alderman and remained a member of the corporation until 1877.

Cohen was active in the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation and in the Board of Management of the Synagogue. With A. H. and H. J. Hart in 1850 he petitioned Earl Grey for state aid to the Jewish religion on the grounds of equal citizenship, common loyalty and equal rights with other denominations, although in parliament he consistently advocated the abolition of state aid to religion because it contributed to colonial divisiveness and anti-national sentiment. While president of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in 1854, he conducted appeals for the relief of indigent Jews in Palestine, recommending to Moses Montefiore that the money collected be used to settle needy Jews in agricultural colonies rather than distributed as alms. In 1863 when he was mayor and again president of the congregation he joined the committee for raising funds to relieve Polish Jews, though he opposed any encouragement of non-British Jewish paupers to migrate to Victoria. In 1873 he became the first president of the newly-formed Anglo-Jewish Association whose aim was to 'work for the emancipation and moral progress of Jews everywhere, and to aid persecuted Jews'. But his philanthropic activities were not restricted to the Jewish people; among other offices he was treasurer of the Melbourne Hospital for over twenty years. His later reputation as a 'silent, solid, urban Conservative' was not substantiated by the progressive position he took in Jewish or general colonial matters.

Cohen's most enduring contribution to Australian history was in the sphere of education. The struggle to provide a state-controlled and conducted system of education to every child was then a progressive movement, and one which Cohen ardently championed. As 'neither a Capulet nor a Montague' he saw clearly the practical dilemma of sectarian divisiveness, but his chief motives for supporting state education were idealistic. He did not want to drive religion out of state education but aimed at school facilities for every child, irrespective of creed. At the same time he supported the establishment and continuation of a Jewish day school, although he would have preferred it to provide free tuition partly because he was influenced by the Jews' Free School in London and partly because he was convinced provision of universal education should have no restrictions whatever.

When the Jewish community felt that the secular spirit of the Education Act was being subverted and eroded by the inclusion of references to Christianity and religion in the Irish National Readers used in the state schools, Cohen acted as the representative for the Jewish grievance. He led the two deputations to the minister of public instruction to 1873 and 1874. Although his illness from 1874 prevented him from doing more, the successful conclusion of the textbook grievance in July 1877 vindicated the tolerance which he had championed throughout his life.

After three years of illness and an accident Cohen died aged 54 at East Melbourne on 13 April 1877. He was survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters, to whom he left £29,000. His life had been devoted to the principles he cherished and to the welfare of his fellow-men. His passing was a blow to the Jewish and general community and his example inspired many of the later Jewish public figures.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • I. Selby, History of Melbourne (Melb, 1924)
  • L. M. Goldman, The Jews in Victoria in the Nineteenth Century (Melb, 1954)
  • A. G. Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900 (Melb, 1961)
  • A. G. Austin (ed), Select Documents in Australian Education, 1788-1900 (Melb, 1963)
  • L. E. Fredman, ‘Some Victorian Jewish Politicians’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 4, part 3, 1955, pp 97-115
  • L. M. Goldman, ‘The Early Jewish Settlers in Victoria and Their Problems: Part 1: Before Separation’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 4, part 7, 1958, pp 335-412, 'Part 2: After Separation, 1851-1865', vol 4, part 8, 1958, pp 415-97
  • G. F. J. Bergman, ‘Melbourne Jewry and the Polish Revolution of 1860-1863’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 5, part 6, 1962, pp 265-72
  • I. Getzler, Neither Toleration Nor Favour: The Struggle of the Jewish Communities in the Australian Colonies (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Annual reports (Synagogue Archives).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Geulah Solomon, 'Cohen, Edward Aaron (1822–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cohen-edward-aaron-3241/text4893, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 September 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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