Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cohen, Sir Samuel Sydney (1869–1948)

by Martha Rutledge

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

Sir Samuel Sydney Cohen (1869-1948), businessman, was born on 11 March 1869 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, eldest son of native-born parents George Judah Cohen and his wife Rebecca, daughter of L. W. Levy. Brought up at West Maitland, he was educated there and at Royston College, Sydney. At 16 he joined the family company David Cohen & Co. and soon became a partner. He later visited China, Japan, the United States of America, England and Europe on behalf of the firm and on his return became manager of its Newcastle branch. On 18 April 1901 at her father's house in East Melbourne he married with Jewish rites Elma (d.1946), daughter of Alfred Hart, a merchant.

Cohen soon became prominent in the Newcastle district—he was president of Royal Newcastle Hospital board, a founder and president of the board of management of the Newcastle Synagogue, a member of the board of the Newcastle Club, a committee-member of the Newcastle Jockey Club and patron of innumerable cricket and football clubs. He was also vice-consul for Greece from March 1905, 'anything but a sinecure', and later acting-consul in Sydney until 1923. He declined several requests to stand for parliament.

In 1915 the Cohens returned to Sydney and later lived at Ocean Street, Woollahra. His business acumen was soon recognized: he was sometime chairman of David Cohen & Co. Ltd, the Australian Gas Light Co. (1939-47), John McGrath Ltd (1919-39), agents for Chevrolet and Cadillac cars, Paul & Gray Ltd, ship's-chandlers, the Newcastle and Hunter Steamship Co. Ltd (1944-47) and North Western General Stores Ltd (1948); he was also a director of Tooth & Co. Ltd in 1934-48, and the Royal Exchange of Sydney in 1936-48. As chairman of the Australian Gas Light Co. during World War II he contended with frequent shortages of coal causing threats to the gas supply. In 1947 he organized the merger between the Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd and Paul & Gray Ltd.

Concerned about the low standard of local government administration, Cohen was a foundation executive-member of the Citizens Reform Association from 1921, and until 1936 shared its presidency with Sir Arthur Cocks and Sir James Murdoch. As president of the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales he worked for the extension of free kindergartens in industrial areas. He was also a director and vice-president of Sydney Hospital, vice-president of the British Orphans Adoption Society, honorary treasurer in 1930-41 of the Women's College Council, University of Sydney, a trustee of the Queen's Jubilee Fund and an executive-member of the Lord Mayor's Patriotic and War Fund; he served on the board of the Big Brother Movement and the Council of Social Service of New South Wales. He was knighted in the coronation honours of 1937.

A devout Jew, Cohen sat on the board of management of the Great Synagogue from 1915 and was made a life member in 1939 when he resigned after seven years as president. He was founding president in 1937 of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society and gave liberally to the New South Wales Jewish War Memorial. From the mid-1930s he was deeply disturbed about Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany: he founded and was president of the Australian Fund for German Refugees, which by 1938 had helped 600 men and women to come to Australia where work had been found for them. He was also patron of the local Mizrachi Palestine Committee, a world wide organization for the return of Palestine as a Jewish homeland.

As a young man Cohen was dark with a luxuriant moustache; in his later years he was clean shaven and totally bald. A horse-lover, he rode in Centennial Park and at his farm at Bowral. He was a member of the Australian Jockey Club and raced many horses. A voracious reader, he enjoyed the theatre. He frequently visited England and was a member of the Devonshire Club in London, as well as the Warrigal and New South Wales clubs, Sydney, and the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron.

Sir Samuel died in St Luke's Hospital on 27 August 1948 and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by a daughter, and by two sons who served with distinction in World War II and took the name Cullen in mid-1941 as a precaution in the event of being captured by the Germans. His estate was valued for probate at £85,012.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 2 (1944-48)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1935, 11 May 1937, 7 July 1938, 3 Aug 1939
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Cohen, Sir Samuel Sydney (1869–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/cohen-sir-samuel-sydney-5718/text9671, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 October 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

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