Book of Life Stories

Sir Lewis Cohen – Adelaide’s First Jewish Lord Mayor

Lewis Cohen was born in Liverpool, England, on December 23rd 1849, into an affluent family of Jewish merchants. With his parents Henry and Elizabeth he arrived in Sydney in 1851. His parents subsequently had twelve more children. Henry was an outfitter and businessman.









Education: Lewis returned to England in 1863, at the age of 14, to complete his education at the Jewish College at Edmonton, near London. Three years later, in 1866, he returned to Sydney.

Fiji: Lewis first worked in his father’s office. Henry then financed Lewis to enter a partnership with a school friend, Adolphus Meyer Brodziak, to go to Fiji to trade in cotton, copra, trepang and tortoise-shell.
In 1872 Lewis became a member of the first Fijian Legislative Council in Levuka. In 1976 my husband Keith and I saw in the Suva Museum in Fiji a photo of the young Lewis taken at that time.

Conflicting dates for Lewis’s time in Fiji.
The Dictionary of Biography says that Lewis returned to Australia in 1873.
The Cyclopedia of South Australia 1907-1909 says that Lewis Cohen went to Fiji in 1870 and returned to Australia in 1873.
The Adelaide newspaper “The South Australian” of July 8th 1926 states that he went to Fiji in 1866 and stayed there for 4 years, that is until 1870.
In the book “The Jews in Australia” Hilary Rubinstein says that Lewis’s brother Isaiah, who was known as Reginald, joined Lewis in Levuka, (Fiji), in 1874.
Lewis’s Obituary in an Adelaide newspaper says that he returned to Sydney from Fiji in 1873.

Marriage: Lewis married Selina Marks in Melbourne on 9thApril, 1873.
Details of the marriage of Lewis Cohen and Selina Marks from “The Jewish Victorian – Genealogical Information from the Jewish newspapers 1871 -1880″. (Transcribed and edited by Doreen Berger):
“Lewis Cohen
Marriage 9.4.1873 at the residence of the bride’s parents, by Rev. A.F.Ornistien, assisted by Rev. L.Goldstein, eldest son of Henry Cohen, Sydney, to Selina 5th daughter of Mark Marks, Victoria House, Albert St., East Melbourne.”

There exists a photo of Selina taken in Fiji. Therefore we can assume that either Selina visited Lewis in Fiji before their marriage (I am sure well chaperoned), or that Lewis returned to Australia in 1873, married Selina and she then went to Fiji as a young bride. If that is the case their first child, Henry, who was born in 1874, may have been born in Fiji.

Adelaide: In 1876 Lewis and Selina came to Adelaide to live. Lewis was an asthmatic and it was suggested to him that the climate of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, would be beneficial to him. So in 1876 Lewis and Selina and their two young children, Henry and Hannah, moved to Adelaide. Lewis was aged 27.

Business: He opened a branch of the Melbourne based London Loan and Discount Bank. In time he prospered, became a stockbroker and wealthy businessman of the young colony.

Member of Parliament: Lewis was a member of the South Australian House of Assembly for the seat of North Adelaide from 1887 to 1893 and from 1902 to 1906. He was a staunch protectionist and rejected the free trade policies of New South Wales.

Adelaide City Council: He was a member of the Adelaide City Council for 28 years between 1886 and 1927. He was Mayor 7 times and Lord Mayor from 1921 to 1923. A great defender of the parklands, he declared in one of his speeches “Hands off our Park Lands”. He was aware of the parklands being a unique feature of the city. Controversy about the use of the parklands still continues today.

In 1911 Lewis and Selina went to London to represent the City of Adelaide at the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary. While in London Lewis initiated the campaign to have Adelaide granted a Lord Mayoralty. This finally took place in 1919.

Jewish Community Work: Both Lewis and Selina were active in the Jewish community in Adelaide. At different times Lewis was president and treasurer of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. For three years he was chairman of the Synagogue School. He defended ritual reforms inaugurated by the congregation. He was also interested in Liberal Judaism. He attended at least one Service at Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne. In “The Jews in Australia: volume 1 1788 to 1948″ the author, Hilary L. Rubinstein, says that Lewis Cohen was one of the Jewish community’s natural spokesmen “who rarely surrendered an opportunity to counter aspersions on (the Jewish) people”.

Other Interests: Other organisations in which Lewis Cohen was active were:-

Also from Morton “The Mayoral dinner was a grand affair held annually in the banqueting room at the Town Hall. Paid for by the mayor personally, this function had a restricted guest list, but for a while at least it included many if not most of the corporation’s staff. The one of July 1910 sponsored by munificent Mayor Cohen, ended with free front seats at Prince’s Pictures, the cinema company which then operated in the Town Hall on Saturday nights”.

When Lewis Cohen entertained privately it was with style. Dinner at the Cohen home at Barnard Street, North Adelaide, was a formal occasion. The butler and maid waiting at the table wore white gloves. However Lewis was not a large eater, and when he had finished eating the guests and family were presumed to have finished eating also. The meal was over!

The 9th April, 1933, was Lewis and Selina’s Diamond Wedding Anniversary. Invitations were sent out for a Dinner at 1pm at the Pier Hotel, Glenelg, to celebrate this occasion. At the age of 83 Lewis still desired to entertain on a grand scale. Unfortunately the function had to be cancelled due to his failing health.

Lewis the Man: Lewis was a handsome man, not tall, always well dressed, and maybe rather vain. A large painting of him hangs in the Council Chamber of the Adelaide Town Hall. The artist was A. McCormac. The painting was presented to the council in 1891. The face area was re-painted in 1904 by George Webb. Family evidence suggests that this was done because Lewis considered the original did not do him justice.

Selina’s beautiful gowns were usually written up in the social pages of the Adelaide newspapers, and Lewis often assisted Selina in the choice of her dresses. Lewis was very conscious of the public image of himself and his family. As well as the obvious very human reasons for this there was no doubt another reason – he was a Jew in a Gentile society. In “After Light” Peter Morton writes “To the end Cohen remained a stickler for the civic dignity. He was not an arrogant or a pompous man, but he was the purest form of romantic tory. Like his co-religionist Benjamin Disraeli, he had that concern with the trapppings of office often characteristic of those who, deep down, feel themselves outsiders”.

Knighthood: Lewis Cohen was knighted in 1924.

Death: He died at his Colley Terrace, Glenelg, home on Saturday 24th June, 1933. Selina died three months later. Sir Lewis Cohen Avenue, which runs north -south between South Terrace and Greenhill road, was named in his honour before he was knighted. After he received his knighthood the name was changed from Lewis Cohen Avenue to Sir Lewis Cohen Avenue.


Lewis and Selina had 6 children.
Henry Jessel 1874 – ?
Hannah Maude BRIDGLAND 1876 – 1959 (my grandmother)
Mark Victor Napoleon 1878 – 1926
Horace Alan Louis 1880 – 1900
Jessel Rupert 1882 – ?1948
Gladys Elizabeth KRANTZ LEVY 1885 – 1966

I Remember Lewis and Selina. I was their first great grandchild and I called them Pa and Ga. They died when I was three years old.

Margot Bailey AUA (nee Bridgland)
11th May 2002


Jewish Mayors of Adelaide

John Lazar 1855 – 1858
Judah Moss Solomon 1869 – 1871
Lewis Cohen 1889 – 1891; 1901 – 1904; 1909 – 1911
Isaac Isaacs 1915 – 1917

Jewish Lords Mayor of Adelaide

Lewis Cohen 1921 – 1923
Walter Lewis Bridgland 1966 – 1968
Henry Ninio 1993 – 1997

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