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John Jacob Cohen (1859–1939)

by H. T. E. Holt

This article was published:

John Jacob Cohen (1859-1939), by unknown photographer

John Jacob Cohen (1859-1939), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 02383

John Jacob Cohen (1859-1939), architect, politician and judge, was born on 20 December 1859 at Grafton, New South Wales, third son of London-born parents Samuel Cohen, storekeeper and pioneer in the Clarence River district, and his wife Rosetta, née Menser. Aged 11 he would rise at 3 a.m., row his father and a heavy set of scales several miles to weigh bags of maize before walking to Ulmarra East Public School; at night he used to make out invoices for the maize. He later became dux at both Grafton Grammar School and Calder House, Redfern, under Dr J. D. Sly. From St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, he won a blue for Rugby football and graduated B.A. in 1879 with first-class honours in mathematics, (M.A., 1881). He was articled to Norman Selfe, consulting engineer, and did practical engineering at Davy & Sands; at night he studied architecture.

In 1882 Cohen moved to Mackay, Queensland and set up as an architect and engineer, planning and supervising water installations for the sugar industry. Two years later he moved to Brisbane, became a founder and treasurer of the Queensland Institute of Architects and in 1892 was elected a life member. On 12 March 1889 in Sydney he married Bertie (Bertram) Hollander. Soon afterwards the economic depression decided him to read law in Sydney.

Admitted to the Bar on 31 May 1894, Cohen devilled for (Sir) William Cullen, acted as crown prosecutor and was engaged in arbitration cases involving building and engineering works. A hard-working supporter of Federation, he was a member of the Australasian Federation League's literary committee and in 1898 won the Petersham seat in the Legislative Assembly for (Sir) Edmund Barton's National Federal Party. Cohen held the seat until 1919 as a Liberal and later for the National Party. In 1907-10 he was chairman of committees and Speaker in 1917-19. An ardent monarchist, he denounced in the House in 1912 the action of two Labor members who had refused to remove their hats during the playing of the national anthem; in 1917 Cohen castigated the Industrial Workers of the World and criticized Labor sympathy for them.

He resigned his seat on 30 January 1919 and next day was appointed to the District Court Bench. The translation brought protests from the Bar and other places on the grounds that Cohen's practice had been negligible. H. B. Bignold said that in nineteen years 'he had never yet seen Mr Cohen in robes' and that there had been political bargaining. His supporters maintained that he had a fairly good practice at the Bar and that no other member of the assembly had upset so many bills on legal points. He sat in the northern district courts and from 1921 in the metropolitan district. In 1926 he shocked lawyers by permitting a layman to appear for an accused person at a criminal trial at Darlinghurst. On his retirement in 1929 tributes were paid to his fair-mindedness, ability, integrity, common sense and loyalty.

Cohen took a diverse interest in public affairs and was a director of the Hospital Saturday Fund of New South Wales in 1893-1936, a member of the board of management of the Great Synagogue from 1900, and of the Captain Cook's Landing Place and the La Pérouse monuments trusts for many years; he was a founder and director of the University Club from 1905. An honorary member of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales, he published a pamphlet, Some of the legal aspects of an architect's practice (1912). On the outbreak of World War I he joined the executive committee of the State division of the Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society. Both his sons served with the Australian Imperial Force—Cedric Keith (1890-1952) became a distinguished ophthalmologist in Sydney, and Colyn Keith (b.1896) a well-known solicitor in Newcastle. In 1923 he chaired the Commonwealth royal commission to inquire into the supposed loss of the Sumatra and, next year, the royal commission into proposals for the establishment of new States.

Survived by his wife and two sons, Cohen died on 23 March 1939 at his residence in Ocean Street, Woollahra, and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £4824.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Judge John J. Cohen—Memoirs (np, priv print, 1940)
  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 Mar 1917, 10, 11, 15 Jan 1919
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Apr 1917, 9, 10, 15, 17, 31 Jan 1919, 27 Mar 1939
  • Daily Guardian (Sydney), 26, 27 Mar 1926
  • Evening News (Sydney), 27 Mar 1926.

Citation details

H. T. E. Holt, 'Cohen, John Jacob (1859–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 May 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

John Jacob Cohen (1859-1939), by unknown photographer

John Jacob Cohen (1859-1939), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 02383

Life Summary [details]


20 December, 1859
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia


23 March, 1939 (aged 79)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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