Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Isaac Henry Cohen (1872–1942)

by Barry O. Jones

This article was published:

Isaac Henry Cohen (1872-1942), barrister and politician, always known as Henry Isaac, was born on 21 February 1872 in Flinders Street, Melbourne, eighth child of David Cohen, outfitter and later financier, and his wife Rachael, née Marks, both of London. He attended St James' Grammar School, the Melbourne Hebrew School and, from 1885, Scotch College, where he was dux. A student of Ormond College, University of Melbourne, he graduated B.A. (1894) and LL.B. (1895) with honours, and was admitted to the Bar in April 1896. On 27 June 1901 at the Office of the Government Statist, Melbourne, he married Ethel Mary Keon of Launceston, Tasmania. Cohen retained Jewish associations but his wife was a Catholic; their three sons and two daughters, who adopted the name Keon-Cohen, were brought up as Anglicans and attended Presbyterian schools.

Cohen's career progressed slowly in the depressed 1890s: reputedly his one brief in his first two years netted him two guineas. He taught backward boys at night, mastered shorthand and became a court reporter. However, after a widely reported case in 1906, he began to prosper, building up a large practice in all jurisdictions except the criminal. He became a King's Counsel in December 1920.

At a by-election in May 1921, Cohen succeeded Sir Henry Weedon as a Nationalist member of the Legislative Council for Melbourne Province. He held the seat until 1937 when redistribution made it a Labor stronghold. As the elected unofficial leader of the Legislative Council in 1922-23, 1924-28 and 1935-37, he examined and spoke on every bill before the chamber in what was ostensibly a house of review. He also held several ministries, mostly for very brief periods: he was an honorary minister from September 1923 to March 1924 in the Lawson-Allan ministry; commissioner of public works, minister of mines and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works from March to April 1924 under Lawson. He held the same portfolios under (Sir) Alexander Peacock from April to July; he was also attorney-general and solicitor-general for one week in July. He was leader of the Legislative Council and minister of public instruction from November 1928 to December 1929 under Sir William McPherson, and minister of water supply and in charge of electrical undertakings for a fortnight in March-April 1935 under (Sir) Stanley Argyle. In 1937 he contested Higinbotham Province but lost to (Sir) James Kennedy.

Regarded as 'zealous and uncompromising' in considering the principles underlying proposed legislation, Cohen chaired the parliamentary select committee on race-courses and race meetings (1928) and in 1935 became first chairman of the parliamentary Public Works Committee. He was chairman of the Parliamentary Sports and Social Club in 1931-37.

Cohen was a trustee of the Melbourne Exhibition for twenty years from February 1922. Active in welfare movements during the Depression, he was a member of the Slum Abolition Council and the Big Brother Movement and was president of the Children's Welfare Association. He was widely read in the classics and mathematics, enjoyed music and followed sport avidly, particularly bowls, racing and golf. He was a foundation member of the Old Scotch Collegians' Club and was president of the Association in 1921-22. In the 1920s he held several company directorships. However, parliamentary service crippled his income at the Bar and prospects of judicial appointment, and he received no official recognition. Predeceased by his wife, he died at Armadale on 20 December 1942 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1942, p 2324
  • Punch (Melbourne), 21 Apr 1921
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 11 Apr 1929
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 June 1937
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Dec 1942
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Dec 1942
  • S. Merrifield, biographical notes (Victorian Parliamentary Library).

Citation details

Barry O. Jones, 'Cohen, Isaac Henry (1872–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 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]

Alternative Names
  • Cohen, Henry Isaac

21 February, 1872
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 December, 1942 (aged 70)
Armadale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.