Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Emanuel Cohen (1840–1912)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published:

Henry Emanuel Cohen (1840-1912), judge, was born on 1 December 1840 at Port Macquarie, New South Wales, son of Abraham and Sophia Cohen. He went to various schools in Goulburn and Sydney and at 16 became a clerk of David Cohen & Co. at West Maitland, where he remained for eight years. In 1864 he opened a store at Bathurst with his twin brother George, under the name of Cohen & Co. The venture was not a success and the store closed in June 1867. He then left for London, where he studied at the Middle Temple and was called to the Bar in June 1871. He returned at once to Sydney and was called to the Bar of New South Wales at the end of that year. His commercial experience enabled him to establish himself as a barrister occupied mainly with mercantile cases. He became prominent in the Jewish Community and in 1874 replaced his father on the board of the York Street (Sydney) Synagogue, later becoming president of the Community for some years.

In 1874 Cohen began his political career, electioneering for West Maitland, demanding National, secular and compulsory education and land reform. Duly elected to the eighth parliament, he continued his legal practice. In October 1877 he stood again for West Maitland and was returned without difficulty. Until December 1878 he was treasurer in the Farnell government. However, in 1880 when he stood again for this constituency he was defeated. He returned to the Bar and in May 1881 was appointed acting judge of the District Court allotted to the Metropolitan and Hunter District. Finding the District Court jurisdiction too limited, he resigned in April 1882. Politics called and in December he was again elected for West Maitland and from January 1883 to October 1885 was minister for justice in the Stuart government. He piloted through the Legislative Assembly a complicated bill to consolidate and amend the Criminal Law after it had passed the Legislative Council. Although George Dibbs had offered him a seat in the council, he declined and consolidated his position at the Bar. His main work lay on the technical side of the Common Law and in commercial cases; he rarely appeared in criminal and divorce actions.

On 19 July 1895 Cohen was appointed acting judge of the Supreme Court, and next year was offered a permanent position on the bench, which he accepted. For some time in 1901 he was president of a special court set up to try land resumption claims against the government. Soon another activity took his whole interest. After the Industrial Arbitration Act was passed in 1901 he became the first president of the Arbitration Court on 1 April 1902 and remained its president until 3 July 1905. In this branch of the law he exercised great influence in the State and solved many intricate problems presented by 'the new province of law and order' which he had to interpret and apply. These three years were the most important of his life.

Cohen was upright and dignified, liked good company, and was known as a swimmer, cricketer and energetic walker. As a judge he was said to be fairness personified, with his impartiality never in doubt. Without being brilliant he worked industriously and conscientiously on the bench. Although he has been reproached for being extremely technical and insisting on the letter of the law in procedures, sometimes to the point of overlooking the objects of justice, he was, as his sentences showed, a very human judge.

Despite his heavy legal duties Cohen had devoted much time to the general public benefit. In 1894 he was chairman of the directors of the Hospital Saturday Fund of New South Wales and for many years was president of the St John Ambulance Association. After his term as president of the Arbitration Court he returned to the Supreme Court bench. In March 1911 he left for a holiday in England, the first since his appointment to the bench. He died after a heart attack on 5 January 1912 on his return journey in the Frederic the Great and was buried in Sydney on 9 January 1912.

On 17 May 1884 Cohen had married Sophie, daughter of Leo and Emilie Frank, immigrants from Hildesheim, Germany. She died in Paris in 1943. Their two sons, Edgar Henry (b. November 1885) and Cecil Hope (b. July 1888), became barristers in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Benjamin, ‘Henry Emanuel Cohen’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 2 (1944-48).

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Cohen, Henry Emanuel (1840–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Cohen, 1880s

Henry Cohen, 1880s

National Library of Australia, 24170746

Life Summary [details]


1 December, 1840
Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia


5 January, 1912 (aged 71)
at sea

Cause of Death

heart disease

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