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Cohen, George Judah (1842–1937)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

George Judah Cohen (1842-1937), banker and financier, was born on 27 April 1842 in Sydney, eldest son of Samuel Cohen and his wife Rachel, née Nathan; both came from old-established Anglo-Jewish families. Samuel had migrated from London in the Resource, reaching Sydney on 19 April 1834, and, with his brother David and later his cousin Lewis Wolfe Levy, established the wholesale firm David Cohen & Co. in Sydney and Maitland in 1836; he represented Morpeth in the Legislative Assembly in 1860 and was a founder of the breakaway Macquarie Street Synagogue. 

George was educated at Cleveland House under James Kean then at University College School, London, in 1857-60. He returned to Sydney in 1861, intending to study law; however after the death of his father on 4 November, he decided to enter the family business. After four years in Sydney, in 1865 he took charge of the firm's Maitland office. He was active in local affairs—chairman of the Maitland Gas Co., treasurer of the Northern Jockey Club, and helped the School of Arts, one of the finest in the colony. On 19 February 1868 in Sydney he married Rebecca (Rè) Levy (d.1933), daughter of his father's partner, in the presence of (Sir) Saul Samuel and J. G. Raphael. With the coming of rail transport, he established a branch of the firm in Newcastle, but in 1879 moved back to Sydney.

Cohen was a financial wizard and an indefatigable worker. His acumen was soon recognized and in 1885 he succeeded his father-in-law as a director of the United Insurance Co. Ltd, the Australian Gas Light Co. and the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney. As deputy chairman of the bank in 1891 and 1893-1901 and chairman in 1892-93 and 1901-33, he helped to guide it through the banking crisis of 1893 and the depressions of the 1890s and early 1930s; he celebrated fifty years as a director of the United Insurance Co. and was chairman in 1904-35; he was also chairman of the Australian Gas Light Co. in 1887-1932, Tooth & Co. Ltd in 1889-1929 and of the Sydney Exchange Co. (Royal Exchange of Sydney) almost continuously from 1887 to 1935. In 1912 David Cohen & Co. Ltd was registered as a public company.

At 'no time did get-rich-quick schemes' appeal to Cohen. If he had any vanity, it was for his good name in financial circles. He had a profound insight into the whole Australian economy—as early as 1903, whilst warning against excessive borrowing by State governments, he urged that all their debts should be taken over by the Commonwealth. Many inducements were offered to him to enter politics, but he dreaded the interference with the happiness of his family life, and his dislike of publicity was a byword in financial circles. In 1898 he refused a seat in the Legislative Council because the offer was conditional on his support of the Australasian Federation enabling bill. Nevertheless he supported such patriotic causes as the New South Wales contingents to the Sudan and South African wars, the Queen's Jubilee Fund in 1887 and World War I comforts funds; he also gave liberally and privately to charities.

In Maitland Cohen had been the leader of the small Jewish community. On his return to Sydney in 1861 he had joined the Macquarie Street Synagogue and in 1869 became a trustee. A Jewish patriarch, he soon became the acknowledged leader of the community after the two congregations had joined again in the Great Synagogue in 1878. During fifteen separate years between 1883 and 1921 he was president of its board of management and was made a life member of the board. He also held high office in such organizations as the New South Wales Board of Jewish Education, the Jewish Literary and Debating Society of Sydney and the local Anglo-Jewish Association. His wife was an active charity worker, especially for the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and the Infants' Home, Ashfield, and was a council-member of Women's College, University of Sydney. They celebrated their diamond wedding in 1928.

Cohen was a member of the Union Club from 1901, where his silk hat distinguished him from other members; he also enjoyed racing and was a member of the Australian Jockey Club. He furnished his house, Engadine, Elizabeth Bay, with antique furniture, European pictures and rare china and glass; one of his few hobbies was coin collecting.

Survived by five sons, including Sir Samuel Sydney Cohen, and two daughters, Cohen died at Engadine on 22 January 1937 and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £510,910. After his death, his family gave his valuable collection of coins to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and £1000 to the University of Sydney to provide for the George Judah Cohen Memorial Lectureship.

A portrait of him by George Lambert hangs in the head office of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney; two other portraits commissioned by the United Insurance Co. from R. H. Jerrold-Nathan are held by the Royal Exchange and Tooth & Co.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Jubilee History of the Great Synagogue, Sydney and Records of the Earlier Jewish Community of New South Wales (Syd, 1928)
  • George Judah Cohen: A Memoir (Syd, priv print, nd)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Jan 1937
  • Bulletin, 27 Jan 1937
  • Sydney Mail, 27 Jan 1937.

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Cohen, George Judah (1842–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cohen-george-judah-5711/text9657, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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