Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cohen, Sir Lewis (1849–1933)

by Eric Richards

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

Sir Lewis Cohen (1849-1933), merchant and politician, was born on 23 December 1849 at Liverpool, Lancashire, England, son of Henry Cohen, outfitter and businessman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Harris. The family arrived in Sydney about 1853 and Cohen was educated there until, at 14, he went to school at Edmonton near London. Three years later he returned to Sydney and worked in his father's office for twelve months. With capital provided by his father, in 1868 Cohen entered partnership in Fiji with a school mate, Adolphus Meyer Brodziak, handling cotton, copra, trepang and tortoise-shell, in an expanding and profitable barter trade. He later recollected that he had contributed usefully to negotiations for constitutional government in Fiji. In 1872 he sat on the first municipal council at Levuka.

In poor health, Cohen returned to Sydney in 1873 and in Melbourne, on 9 April, he married Selina Marks. Three years later on medical advice he settled in Adelaide, opened a branch of the Melbourne-based London Loan & Discount Bank, and became a wealthy businessman. Soon active in the Adelaide Hebrew congregation, he was also associated with the Independent Order of Oddfellows, South Australian Ancient Order of Foresters' Friendly Society, the Freemasons, Australian Natives' Association, and the United Ancient Order of Druids, of which he became grand president.

In 1886 Cohen was returned for the MacDonnell ward of the City Council. He was mayor in 1889, six more times by 1911, and that year represented the city at King George V's coronation. He campaigned strongly for a lord mayoralty for Adelaide; this was achieved in 1919—he was lord mayor in 1921-23. Proud of the city's development, he felt that it had 'no compeer in the matter of parks, squares, roads, and the general municipal improvements'. He initiated the wood-blocking of King William Street and the asphalting of Rundle and Hindley streets. An elegant dresser, while mayor he gave several huge balls for the citizenry.

Cohen was a member of the House of Assembly for North Adelaide in 1887-93 and Adelaide in 1902-06. In 1893 and 1906 he failed in elections for the Legislative Council, and in 1915 for the assembly. Strongly protectionist, he advocated the sale of crown lands to eliminate government deficits. He supported free and compulsory education, closer settlement of pastoral lands, progressive income tax, payment of members of parliament, introduction of the totalisator, and eight-hour legislation for government employees. He feared that Federation would threaten local industry, thought that government expenditure for work should be placed with private firms and opposed coloured immigration. He declined a portfolio in (Sir) J. A. Cockburn's cabinet (1889-90) and also the position of agent-general in London. In 1917 and 1918 he campaigned strongly for the Liberal Union. In January 1924 he was appointed K.C.M.G. and in 1927 he retired.

Cohen died on 24 June 1933 survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, two other sons having predeceased him. His estate was sworn for probate at £36,955. His portrait hangs in the Adelaide Town Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • The ‘Register’ Guide to the Parliament of South Australia (Adel, 1887)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Cyclopedia of Fiji (Syd, 1907)
  • H. Munz, Jews in South Australia, 1836-1936 (Adel, 1936)
  • The Official Civic Record of South Australia (Adel, 1936)
  • Australian Municipal Journal, 30 June 1922
  • Pictorial Australia, Mar 1891
  • Register (Adelaide), 27 Mar 1893
  • Observer (Adelaide), 11 May 1889, 5 Jan 1924
  • Gadfly (Adelaide), 14 Mar 1906
  • Mail (Adelaide), 26 Aug, 30 Dec 1922
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 June 1933
  • diary (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Eric Richards, 'Cohen, Sir Lewis (1849–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/cohen-sir-lewis-5716/text9667, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 May 2018.

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

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