Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Lyon Cohen (1862–1934)

by Suzanne D. Rutland

This article was published:

Francis Lyon Cohen (1862-1934), rabbi, was born on 14 November 1862 at Aldershot, Hampshire, England, eldest son of Woolf Henry Cohen, marine store dealer and later tobacco manufacturer, and his wife Harriett, née Phillips. Cohen was educated at Jews' College, London, from 1879 and attended lectures in arts at University College, London; in 1883 he passed the intermediate music examination of the University of London as a private student. He served as minister of Dublin Synagogue in 1885 and then of Borough (South London) Synagogue in 1886-1904. On 14 December 1886 at the Great Synagogue, London, he married Rose, daughter of Rev. Marcus Hast. An excellent musician, Cohen published a number of works on music including The Rise and Development of Synagogue Music (1887), and Traditional Hebrew Melodies (1896). In 1904 he was appointed chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. After obtaining his rabbinical diploma in London, he arrived in Sydney in 1905 with his family.

Rabbi Cohen was the first and, for most of his ministry, the only spiritual leader in Sydney with rabbinical qualifications. As head of the Beth Din (Jewish Religious Court) he made all the ecclesiastical decisions. Active in all facets of Jewish communal life, he was president of the New South Wales Board of Jewish Education, helped to found the New South Wales Jewish War Memorial, Darlinghurst, and to develop suburban synagogues. He also worked for such philanthropic institutions as the Chevra Kadisha, the Sir Moses Montefiore Jewish Home for the aged and the local branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association, and was also involved in the Jewish Literary and Debating Society of Sydney. In 1928 he published the Jubilee History of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. His qualities as a public speaker won him the admiration of the general community. He was an active Freemason.

Cohen emphasized synagogue dignity and decorum, and, to suit the Christian environment, he tried to modify Jewish observances with some practices unacceptable to more orthodox Jews. His sermons were considered very effective and were published on the front page of the weekly Hebrew Standard of Australasia. However he appeared to prefer well-established Anglo-Jews and his aloof manner alienated many migrants; his criticism of Zionism hindered its growth in New South Wales. Cohen contributed more to raising the status of Jews in the community than he did to increasing Jewish commitment.

His patriotism and love of English culture and the British Empire were a passion. Reared in the military atmosphere of Aldershot, Cohen had served as the first Jewish chaplain of the British Army (1892-1904), was a founder of the Jewish Lads' Brigade and in 1893 originated the annual military Chanukkah service. In Sydney he joined the Australian National Defence League. Appointed chaplain of the Australian Military Forces in 1909, during World War I he was vice-president of the Universal Service League and campaigned for conscription. In 1929 he was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers' Decoration.

Cohen died of cancer in hospital at Potts Point on 26 April 1934 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His wife, who had been very active in communal and civic endeavours, died the same year. They were survived by a daughter, and by two sons who served overseas with the Australian Imperial Force. Cohen's portrait by Joseph Wolinski is held by the Great Synagogue.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Porush, The House of Israel (Melb, 1977)
  • Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 18 Mar 1904, 16 June 1905, 10 Apr 1925, 4 May 1934
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27, 30 Apr 1934
  • S. D. Rutland, The Jewish Community in New South Wales, 1914-1939 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1978)
  • J. H. Watson scrap book, vol 1, 1904-05 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • minute books, 1904-34 (Great Synagogue office, Sydney).

Citation details

Suzanne D. Rutland, 'Cohen, Francis Lyon (1862–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1862
Aldershot, Hampshire, England


26 April, 1934 (aged 71)
Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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