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Cohen, George Judah (1842–1937)

from Sydney Mail

George Cohen, by Greenham Studios, 1919

George Cohen, by Greenham Studios, 1919

Newcastle Region Library, 345 000317

Mr. George Judah Cohen, who had been a leading figure in the commercial life of Sydney and the State for three-quarters of a century, died last Friday at the great age of 94 years. The late Mr. Cohen was also associated with many philanthropic movements, and his death removes from us a man who was at once the leader of the local Jewish community and a great power for good in the city with whose life and fortunes his own have been so closely interwoven.

When Mr. George Judah Cohen came to Sydney from Maitland in 1879, important directorate after important directorate fell to him. He was invited to take others, and did, but his name was never associated with a failure. His word on financial matters seemed final. He was elected chairman of directors of such organisations as the Commercial Bank of Sydney, the Australian Gas Light Company, Tooths Ltd., and the United Insurance Company.

In the Equity Court it was stated at one time that shares in any company in which the name of George Judah Cohen appeared on the directorate could be regarded as a trustee security — there was absolute safety in investment in them.

Mr. Cohen retained his hold upon his big directorates as chairman until he reached or exceeded the great age of ninety years. His brain was skill keen, his judgment unimpaired. It was only during the last few years that physical infirmity caused him to relinquish his responsible work. At that time he had been director of the four important companies named for terms averaging 45 years— a remarkable if not a unique record. Before he resigned, the assets of the big companies alone totalled £25,000,000. His indirect influence went farther, and there was tremendous personal and family wealth.

Mr. Cohen did something that was a great deal greater than making money; he made for himself a life that was very happy. His marriage with a cousin, Miss Re Levy, was as close to the ideal union as a marriage could go. It lasted for over sixty years; and at the close of the day's work it was the habit of his wife to call for him, so devoted was their companionship. When he was pressed to enter public life — among other inducements he was offered, in 1898, a seat in the Legislative Council — the chief cause of his refusal was a fear that there would be a necessary interruption of his home life.

There was, moreover, romance in the story of his life. What was almost an accident led to the establishment of the Cohen family in Australia. Samuel Cohen, the father of the future great financier, arrived in Sydney in 1833, a youth of 21. He belonged to a Hull (England) Jewish family with an English history going back to the time of Cromwell; his mission was the adjustment of some family business. But the voyage out, in the Glendower, spread over five and a half months filled with every conceivable hardship. Storms, calms, food that ran short and was bad, quarrels amongst the passengers, and disagreeable officers helped to make a nightmare such as the young Samuel did not care to face again. He decided to stay in Australia.

He became accountant to the firm of Cooper and Levey, and the principal partner became Sir Daniel Cooper after amassing a huge fortune by foresighted investments in land about the young Sydney settlement. Though glad to have such an efficient employee, both partners urged that he was wasting his time in an office; on their advice he established himself in a business. He joined with a brother, Lewis Cohen, who had arrived in Sydney in 1831; but that partnership was severed in 1839. A more permanent partnership was formed with another brother, David, who came from England to join him. The firm of David Cohen and Co. this year celebrates its centenary.

George Judah Cohen was born on April 27, 1842, in a house facing Bridge-street and adjacent to the Tank Stream. The home was later a substantial residence in O'Connell-street with two fine pine-trees standing before it, which later, turned into legal chambers, became Blackstone Chambers until it was demolished to make room for the Permanent Trustee building. It is typical of the man that a sentimental attachment should have remained for the greatly changed locality where he played as a boy. The offices of David Cohen and Co., always his headquarters, have always remained in the vicinity.

His father, who had attained to great esteem in the young colony, was a member of the magistracy, and for a time represented Morpeth in the New South Wales Parliament, died unexpectedly at the age of 49. He died intestate. George Judah Cohen, as his eldest son, inherited his fortune. The English law of primogeniture had not been superseded at that time by local legislation.

Young Cohen did not think that fair. He was only nineteen at the time; directly he was 21 and could legally act, he saw about the formation of a trust, to which he transferred the property for the mere nominal sum of £1, in order that his brothers and sisters could share equally with him.

The same exceedingly high standard of ethics was shown when, in 1887, he and his partner, cousin, and brother-in-law, Benn Wolfe Levy, became entitled equally to a third of a million pounds left by their uncle David Lewis, of Liverpool (England). The uncle had suggested in a private letter that if his nephews had no need for the money it should be used for the poor of the North of England; but the gift in the will was absolute. The beneficiaries, however, felt bound by a moral obligation. Not a penny of the money was touched. The David Lewis Trust, which they caused to be formed, has established hospitals, clubs for working men, and parks in Liverpool and Manchester, and still supplies help for the needy.

Young George Judah Cohen once had a leaning to the law, but he was head of the house now, with a responsibility to his younger brothers and sisters. He took charge of the business in Maitland, putting aside legal ambitions; there he gave a foretaste of his remarkable business acumen. The business flourished amazingly.

Maitland, then, was a most important town. It was the supply depot for all the settlers who had moved out to the north and north-west. David Cohen and Co. were their suppliers; they also supplied the coach extensions from the main coach service from Sydney. So big did this part of the business become that when Mr. Cohen asked the coaching foreman, a man named Gill, to make an assessment of the value of the plant it was given at £54,000.

At that price, with nothing for goodwill, the coaching business was offered to Gill, and although he lacked the money for the venture it was found for him. Gill made a personal fortune out of the arrangement.

In those days at Maitland Mr. Cohen learned the habit, which lasted all his life, of getting up before 6 a.m. He was busy until 10 p.m. He even, at times, helped to load the waggons, frequently bullock-waggons, which took the goods out to the backblocks. It was a mixed community to work amongst. On one occasion Mr. Cohen picked up a tin which proved to contain a ticket of-leave; by that means he learnt that a man who had become a very wealthy and respected citizen was really a ticket-of-leave man. Mr. Cohen, afraid that the man would be shamed to realise that he knew the secret, had the ticket-of-leave returned anonymously; and he never breathed the man's name, even to his family.

There was in those days a constant fear of bushrangers, but the coaches of the firm were never held up on a single occasion. Their drivers' reputation for benevolence may have had something to do with that. Mr. Cohen from the earliest times displayed an inclination towards good conditions for others. The standard wage at that period was 6/- per day; his employees were paid 7/-. Some twenty years ago, when the Sydney Clerks' Union published a report upon the conditions of bank clerks, it was mentioned that the best conditions prevailed in the Commercial Bank of Sydney. Of that bank Mr. Cohen was chairman of directors.

In Maitland he was concerned with every public movement. He helped to make the School of Arts the finest institution of its kind in Australia. He was a member of the Jockey Club. He arranged finance to enable the Maitland Gas Company to extend its services, became its chairman of directors, and for ten years acted as manager — at a salary of £50 per annum! In his term the price of gas was reduced from 25/- to 10/- per thousand cubic feet.

When he left Maitland there was a demonstration of public esteem such as was rare in those days. A public send-off, at which all the leading citizens were present, included representatives of all the churches.

The railways had come, changing completely the system of business. Mr. George Judah Cohen removed his headquarters to Sydney, to be recognised at once as a financial guide of exceptional ability. He was still only 37, and young men were regarded with disdain in those days. Yet in 1884 he was invited to join the United Insurance Company as director; in 1885 he joined the directorate of the Commercial Bank, the capital of which was then £600,000. It rose to £12,000,000, with enormous reserves, during his time. In 1888 the Australian Gas Company requisitioned his services on the board. In each case he shortly became chairman of directors. After that it was regarded as success merely to have George Judah Cohen interested in a company. Actually he had never been in a hurry to make money. He insisted on everything he touched being sound and honest, and had an ability for detecting weakness or sensing probable success which seemed like wizardry. His caution was increased by a sense of responsibility to thousands of investors who were eager to follow his lead in investment. His boast was that no man had ever lost a penny by faith in him; in many cases their gains were substantial. He was for decades regarded as the head of the Jewish community, and was very proud of being a Jew; he was also very proud of being a British Jew. When the Boer War broke out, his £1000 was one of the first sums posted to equip a Bushmen's Contingent. He was a heavy subscriber to patriotic funds in the Great War. Mr. Sam S. Cohen, his eldest son, tried to enlist, but was declared too old. The only two of his sons who were eligible, Major Alroy Cohen and Mr. Sefton Cohen, saw service.

His knowledge of the Bible was comprehensive; he could quote chapter and verse and give the quotation off-hand, fitting a Biblical phrase to every human emergency. His claim was that the Scriptures contained guidance in all things. Samuel, chapter xii., verses 2 and 3, he declared, covered what a man should be able to say at the end of a well-lived life. It was the standard of George Judah Cohen, and nothing better could be said of a man who reached a wonderful old age with honour.

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'Cohen, George Judah (1842–1937)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cohen-george-judah-5711/text31838, accessed 25 November 2017.

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