Lazarus Cohen: a Jewish trader in Victorian Cambridge

Lazarus Cohen was a Jewish trader in Victorian Cambridge. One of the founders of the town's synagogue in 1847, his commercial occupations conformed to pejorative stereotypes, including sale of used clothing, money-lending and pawnbroking.

In 1847, Lazarus Cohen communicated with the Jewish Chronicle to announce that a synagogue had been established in the town of Cambridge, "being the first Jewish Congregation ever held there". A Sepher Torah (the parchment Scroll of the Law) had been acquired, and twenty people had attended the first service to mark Pentecost. "The offerings were very liberal." In fact, there had been a synagogue, even served by a rabbi, in Cambridge sixty years earlier, which suggests considerable turnover in the town's small Jewish community and a resulting lack of collective memory. The statement in the Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire that the synagogue originally occupied a room at Lazarus Cohen's Hobson Street home does not seem to be borne out by the source cited (nor is it clear that he resided in Hobson Street at that time). Nonetheless, Cohen seems to have been the driving force, initially holding the office of Warden and Reader: there was no permanent rabbi in Cambridge until the early twentieth century. Services seem to have briefly suspended around 1850, when attendance was reported to be fifteen, probably because this was insufficient to muster the required ten adult males to constitute a minyan or quorum for worship.[1] However, by 1851 the congregation was renting a small building behind the Round Church. Disagreement within the community led to a court case that year, in which two local residents "of the Jewish persuasion" – one of them Cohen – disputed responsibility for payment of the rent. It was reported that, during the dispute, one of the parties had removed "the roll of the law, and other things appertaining to the Jewish mode of performing divine worship, which, however, had been restored upon the payment of a certain sum".[2] Cohen's unofficial leadership role within the local Jewish community can also be glimpsed in 1858, when the town's coroner investigated the causes of a fire in the Magdalene Street jeweller's shop of a Jew called Simon Harris. Cohen gave evidence that he had offered to raise £50 "among the brethren" to help their co-religionist get back into business.[3]

Lazarus Cohen was probably born in Middlesex about 1814, and was the son of Sarah Cohen, who was recorded in the 1841 census as a "milk dealer" (in other words, a pedlar). Lazarus, entered as aged 25, was a "general dealer", a description which would fit with his subsequent varied entrepreneurial occupations. He seems to have settled in Cambridge in the early eighteen-forties.[4] At the time of the establishment of the synagogue, he would have been 32 or 33 years of age, perhaps relatively young to claim to such a leading role.

In 1850, Lazarus Cohen briefly relocated to Ipswich, where he rented a shop from a local toy dealer, Moses Levi.[5] This move was presumably connected with his courtship of Levi's daughter, Sarah, whom he married the following year. The Ipswich Jewish community was small, and while the evidence does not justify calling it an arranged marriage, it is likely that Jewish networks were mobilised to bring the couple together.[6] Sarah was about thirty when they married: they would have at least three daughters and one son. Lazarus Cohen had returned to Cambridge by 1851:[7] his brief absence may explain the interruption and subsequent resumption of services at the synagogue. By 1852, he was a tobacconist in Sussex Street, a narrow side turning off Sidney Street.[8]  Cohen's business premises were still in Sussex Street in 1856, but it may have been around this time that the growing household moved around the corner to Hobson Street, alongside Christ's College.  Lazarus Cohen's "general trader" background seems almost to have programmed him into stereotypical business activities. By 1856, he was dealing in second-hand clothes. In a dispute over two coats, a disgruntled customer complained that they were "'old fashion'" and "only fit for country folk".[9] He was also operating as a money-lender, initially probably on a small scale: in 1858, he reported that he had lent the jeweller Simon Harris sums in the order £2 or £3 from time to time, which Harris had always repaid.[10]

Soon after, he became entangled in a larger-scale enterprise, and made a bad choice of client. William Godolphin Osborne was the third son of the second Baron Godolphin, who lived at Gogmagog House (also known as Wandlebury House) in the hills a few miles south-east of Cambridge. Lord Godolphin had a large brood to support, and when William left public school – Marlborough – at the age of sixteen, he was initially granted an allowance of just £12 a year ("treated as a mere schoolboy" as he put it), rising to £100 when he came of age in 1856. Like other aristocratic drones, he turned to money-lenders, at first signing "bills" (IOUs) for amounts of just a few pounds. These documents could be traded, and young Osborne soon found that he owed money to Lazarus Cohen, who was "professedly a dealer in second-hand clothes". In 1859, the young wastrel's prospects seemed to improve: on the death of a childless cousin, his father became the eighth Duke of Leeds, and the drifting debtor was now Lord William Godolphin Osborne. However, it is not clear that the new Duke inherited all the family estates, and his new eminence carried costly social obligations. (Lloyd George famously quipped that a fully equipped Duke cost as much to run as two battleships.) Cohen perhaps assumed he had latched on to a secure investment, but Lord William was to blame his chaotic finances on "not being allowed by his father such an income as he had been led to anticipate".

In 1860, Lazarus Cohen took the lead among a group of creditors in initiating proceedings. If the legal move was intended to force the Duke of Leeds to pay up and rescue his son, it failed, but the bankruptcy hearing provided a certain amount of entertainment. Cohen claimed he had advanced the young man £200, and was owed just short of £250 in repayments and interest: his other business interests had obviously helped him to accumulate a useful sum in disposable capital, and he drove a hard bargain. Lord William insisted he had received nothing like that amount of cash, which was hardly surprising since unreliable prospects like himself were forced to borrow at a premium. When pressed for payment, he had promised "a hamper of [silver] plate" as a security, but explained "that he could not get it out as the butler was in the way". In any case, the silverware was "marked with the family initials", which meant that Cohen could only collect on it if the plate was melted down. Lord William had also hinted that he would soon be able to resolve his financial difficulties by making a suitable marriage. He was supported in court by George Leapingwell, a formidable academic lawyer and expert in bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the only strategy open to Leapingwell was defence counsel's traditional last resort of abusing the plaintiffs, which he did in a "long and energetic address". His theme was that an innocent young man had been led astray by "harpies and sharks", and he predictably singled out the "Israelite" Lazarus Cohen who, he claimed, had been discommuned by the University authorities for preying on students. Discommuning was the power to ban all members of the University from dealing with local tradesmen whose activities were considered objectionable. It was used to ensure that undergraduates were kept away from premises which supported gambling and prostitution, and could be effective in putting the offenders out of business. Cohen hit back in an angry letter to the Cambridge Independent Press. "I never was censured by the authorities of the University in my life." He had been trading in the town for twenty years and he defied anybody to prove he had ever committed a dishonourable act.  Cohen particularly censured Leapingwell for abusing his religion. "Is an inquiry in an English court of justice to be made the vehicle for revilings against the Jew?" The portrayal of Lord William as an easily manipulated victim was absurd: "how could his client be injured … as he never paid back any portion of the money lent? How could his client be injured by never repaying me the money I advanced to save him from a prison, when his 'respectable tradesmen' would no longer rely upon his broken promises?" The Cambridge Independent Press was happy to provide Lazarus Cohen with space in its columns – not least because he denounced the anti-Semitic reporting of its rival, the Cambridge Chronicle, but the editor added a note, explaining "We have altered some expressions in the above letter."[11]

Five years later, the same newspaper obligingly permitted Cohen to vent his anger against its own reporting. In another case relating to money-lending, he objected that he had been brusquely labelled as "Jew", which he alleged was done to create a prejudice against him. "I am a Jew, and, moreover, that I am proud of being one! Having been for 25 years a tradesman in Cambridge, I possess, thank God, many Christian friends, who do not respect me the less because of my being, and of my avowing myself to be, a Jew; and I feel confident that the intelligent public of this town will not consider me, if my acts and my conduct be in consonance with Holy Judaism, (sacred alike to the real Jew and the real Christian) the less respectable because I profess the most ancient religion revealed by God to mankind, a religion without which no firm foundation of society is possible!" The reporter whom he criticised curtly replied: "The word 'Jew' was not written with a view to give annoyance, but as Mr Cohen says he is proud of being a Jew, he of course is equally proud of having the fact published."[12]

Meanwhile, Lazarus Cohen had developed yet another line of trade, buying and selling goods, apparently household items. In 1859, he insisted that "what business I transact, is done in an honourable and straightforward manner". This was probably true: when a local man attempted to "dispose" of a stolen fork to him, he had handed the malefactor to the police. Cohen seems to have also dealt in unredeemed pledges purchased from pawnbrokers, although he protested that he was not a pawnbroker himself, "and never took an article in pawn in my life, nor interfered with that business".[13] This was certainly hair-splitting and may have been disingenuous. At the very least, it would eventually lead to a career change, for by the mid-eighteen-sixties he was undoubtedly trading as a pawnbroker.[14] Perhaps he decided that, if he was going to operate in the credit business, it was better to have a broad range of small customers who pledged their property against repayment rather than risk large sums of money on a risky few who exuded empty promises. 

His new vocation did not add to his popularity and, in 1867, Lazarus Cohen found himself in court facing two charges of business irregularity. A young man called Walter Barton had pawned two saws for a small sum of money: Barton was not much more than a boy, and there was evidently some feeling in the town that such transactions should be discouraged. The first charge was that Cohen had levied a halfpenny fee on the pledge. The complaint was not only petty but also remarkably poorly researched: legislation in 1860, nicknamed the "Halfpenny Act" had specifically allowed pawnbrokers to take such commission on small transactions to make their administration worthwhile. The charge was dropped: the fact that it had been levied at all strongly suggested hostility to the accused, but whether because of his occupation or his ethnicity cannot be known. The second charge was almost as petty, but here Cohen was technically guilty. A Pawnbrokers' Act passed in 1859 had required the names and full addresses of clients to be entered in a ledger, with the initials H (for householder) or L (for lodger) to be added to each. The intention was evidently to highlight those who attempted to pledge goods that they could not possibly own. Lazarus Cohen's barrister pointed out that he did keep a ledger – a pawnshop could hardly operate without one – that was open for inspection by the local police. He regretted that the constabulary had not told his client of the technical requirement and suggested that the business acquire a "ruled book" to facilitate the necessary entries. The magistrates replied that it was not the job of the police to give such advice. Nor were they impressed by the fact that Cohen had initially attempted to deny that he had never handled the saws.[15]

For the remainder of his career, the Lazarus Cohen pawnbroking business was run efficiently and honestly. Indeed, he was often in court to give evidence in cases of theft that he had helped unmask.[16] Thus in 1872, an assistant challenged a woman who insisted that she was pawning her own property if she as in the habit of wearing men's boots: on investigation, they were found to be stolen.[17] The shop was occasionally subject to pilfering,[18] and once fell victim to a dishonest employee. In 1870, Cohen called in the police to investigate suspected thefts by his assistant, Arthur McDonald. As the example of Simon Harris indicated, by the mid-nineteenth-century some Jews bore unexpected surnames, but it seems reasonable to assume that, in employing McDonald, Cohen had gone outside his own community. McDonald was only seventeen and, although he pleaded guilty, there seems to have been some doubt whether he really intended to steal from his employer or had simply indulged in long-term unofficial borrowing of items from the stock. It is likely that Lazarus Cohen realised that the sentence, six months' imprisonment with hard labour, was likely to rebound on his own standing in the town, for he promptly rose to ask the Bench to be lenient with the young man "on account of his respectability" – a plea that produced an instant two-month reduction in the punishment.[19] But retaliation soon followed. Three weeks later, the Cambridge Independent Press ran the facetious headline, "'Uncle' in Court" – "uncle" being a generic nickname for a pawnbroker. Cohen was charged with "hanging goods beyond the line of the street front" at his Hobson Street premises. Although he protested "that it was a hard thing for him to be pulled up for what was done by the town generally", magistrates fined him the paltry sum of two shillings and sixpence (12.5 pence), plus costs.[20] It is likely that there was some feeling in the town that he had been heavy-handed in securing the prosecution of his hapless young assistant – MacDonald might simply have been dismissed without a reference – and the petty prosecution for technical obstruction was almost certainly a spiteful act of revenge. In Victorian Britain, it would not have been surprising if negative reactions to his severity had been linked to pejorative stereotypes about his ethnicity.

There is certainly no evidence that Lazarus Cohen took any part in civic affairs. He did vote in the 1868 general election from his Hobson Street address.[21] A subscription of three guineas (£3, 3 shillings or £3.15p) to the local hospital, Addenbrooke's, recorded in 1873 was probably an annual donation, a goodwill gesture practised by most local businesses.[22] As a prosperous businessman, he had access to the higher echelons of British Jewry. In 1876, his daughter Janet made a good marriage – the groom was simply described as E. Solomon, but he had an impressive address in the London suburb of Canonbury – with the Chief Rabbi, Dr Adler, officiating at the ceremony.[23] It seems that Lazarus Cohen's health began to fail at about this time, and he and Sarah decided to move to London, presumably to be near their married daughter. However, he was still in business in 1879 when the peace of Hobson Street was disturbed by a bizarre incident on an August night. Their son, Phillip Cohen, arrived from London, and tried to force his way into the house, telling a neighbour that "he would shoot his father if he could get at him". Charged with committing a breach of the peace, Phillip offered the bizarre defence that he had intended to shoot his mother, not his father. Understandably, the Cambridge magistrates did not regard this as a reasonable explanation, and he was bound over to keep the peace on condition that he provided hefty securities for good behaviour.[24] There would seem to be two possible explanations for this strange episode. The first would be that the parents were planning to divide their assets on their planned retirement, and Phillip was objecting that his share did not reflect his status as their only son. Perhaps there could have been a dispute over his choice of marriage partner, especially if he wished to marry outside the faith: this might explain why it was his mother who was his alleged target. Whatever the cause, it does not seem that members of the Cohen family were good at sitting down and resolving their differences.

By the time of the 1881 census, Lazarus and Sarah Cohen were living in a villa in Stoke Newington.[25] He was described as a pawnbroker "out of business". Retirement did not last long: he died on 7 August 1882, "after a long and painful illness". The former tobacconist was probably a smoker, and it is likely that he died of cancer. An obituary notice in the Cambridge Independent Press, almost certainly worded by his widow, described him as "for 40 years a respected inhabitant of this town".[26] Despite the information that can be gleaned about him from the local press, Lazarus Cohen remains someone who is perhaps difficult to assess. His role in the establishment of the Cambridge synagogue in 1847 and the passionate statement of his Judaism seventeen years later testify to the importance of his faith to his sense of identity. Yet, however successful he was in his various enterprises, there is an unappealing element of stereotype about his business career. He certainly encountered some hostility in Cambridge during his career, which his assertive personality was prepared to confront, just as he could be unyielding in his dealings. Whether prejudice against him was motivated by his business activities or his ethnicity it is impossible to say: the only explicit recorded attack on him as a Jew came not from ordinary townspeople but from a highly educated academic lawyer. Perhaps there are other sources that can throw further light upon Lazarus Cohen, but this Note is offered as a step towards reconstructing the life of a Jew in Victorian England.


[1] H.P. Stokes, Studies in Anglo-Jewish History (Edinburgh), 1913, 233-5, quoting Jewish Chronicle, 23 May 1847; Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire,  iii, 138; R. Loewe, "Cambridge Jewry: the First Hundred Years", in W. Frankel, ed., Gown and Tallith … (London, 1989), 13-37, esp. 16-17. Undergraduates took control of the synagogue in 1899.

[2] Cambridge Independent Press [cited as CIP], 2 February, 3 May 1851.  The Round Church Lane building was demolished in or soon after 1866 to make way for the Cambridge Union Society building, and the synagogue moved to other locations.

[3] CIP, 25 September 1858. Nobody had been killed, but there was some suspicion of insurance fraud.

[4] Census information kindly supplied by Gail Wood. Estimates of age in census returns were notoriously approximate. The Lazarus Cohen listed here had a brother, Phillip, which was the name given to his own son. In 1865, Cohen claimed to have been a tradesman in Cambridge for 25 years. CIP, 3 June 1865. In 1881, Cohen gave his birthplace as the City of London.

[5] Ipswich Journal, 30 November 1850. Cohen apparently rented the premises but probably did not continue the toyshop business.

[6] Their daughter Janet was described as the granddaughter of Moses Levi of Ipswich, CIP, 22 August 1876. Railways were penetrating East Anglia but, in 1851, there was still a gap between Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds. Mr and Mrs Lazarus Cohen were reported to be among the participants at a fashionable Jewish wedding in Ipswich in 1865. CIP, 16 September; Jewish Chronicle, 3 November 1865.

[7] CIP, 3 May 1851.

[8] R. Gardner, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Cambridgeshire (1851), 204.

[9] CIP, 2 February, 5 July 1856.

[10] CIP, 29 September 1858.

[11] The Times, 2 July; CIP, 14 July 1860. The term "anti-Semitism" had not then been coined. Cohen's claim represented less than a quarter of the young aristocrat's total debts: the second-hand clothes dealer was not responsible for the Lord William's habit of ordering suits in batches of half a dozen and failing to pay for them.  

[12] CIP, 3 June 1865.

[13] CIP, 20 December 1856, 15 October 1859, 28 January 1860.

[14] CIP, 29 September, 3 November 1866.

[15] CIP, 24 August 1867.

[16] E.g. CIP, 8 January, 23 June, 26 November 1870, 7, 21 January 1871.

[17] CIP, 3 August 1872. The assistant was called Henry Capel. It is not known if he was Jewish.

[18] CIP, 21 March 1868.

[19] CIP, 6 August 1870. Jewish communities in Scotland were small until the late nineteenth century, which would seem to make McDonald an unlikely surname.

[20] CIP, 27 August 1870.

[21] Stokes, Studies in Anglo-Jewish History, 234.

[22] CIP, 19 July 1873.

[23] Ipswich Journal, 18 August, CIP, 22 August 1875.

[24] CIP, 30 August 1879.

[25] They were accompanied by their unmarried daughter, Rebecca, aged 20. There was another daughter, Elizabeth, born about 1852. Like most middle-class families, the household employed a young live-in servant: Elizabeth Barton in Cambridge in 1871, Margaret Barton in London in 1881. Neither name would seem to be Jewish.

[26] CIP, 19 August, and cf. Jewish Chronicle, 11 August 1882. His age, given as 68, is likely to have been accurate, and indicates that he had been born in 1814.