The Hon. Edward Aaron Cohen

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

The Hon. Edward Aaron Cohen

First published in J-Wire March 28, 2023

Portrait of Edward Cohen (1822–1877)
1869 Portrait of Edward Cohen (1822–1877)

The Hon. Edward Aaron Cohen was the second Victorian Parliamentarian whose example and commitment to both the Jewish and general community inspired many of Australia’s Jewish public figures.

Edward Cohen was born in 1822, in London, the second son of Henry and Elizabeth. Along with his mother, four sisters, and five brothers, Edward arrived in Sydney in December 1833 – three days after his father was convicted of accepting four stolen Glastonbury bank notes with a value of 30 pounds – which he was intending to pay back at a specific time. Henry was sentenced to transportation to the Colony for fourteen years.

Henry Cohen was listed as a ‘special’ convict as he was considered not a threat to anyone. He also had skills that were useful to the community. He was ultimately pardoned and went to Port Macquarie to work as a domestic servant. When his family followed, Elizabeth brought a considerable amount of money with her from England. They became well-known traders in the district with their own vessel – the Elizabeth Cohen – which ferried goods and passengers between Sydney and Port Macquarie.

In 1842, Edward moved to Melbourne and, together with a business partner, bought an auctioneering company. The partnership was dissolved in 1854 when Edward returned to Sydney for several months. On his return to Melbourne, he joined his brother Samuel’s auctioneering firm. In 1863, Edward and Samuel retired, and in 1864 Edward became a tea merchant and general importer. He was later joined by his brother-in-law Benjamin Benjamin. Their business association broadened to include real estate and company finance.

Next came the purchase of ‘’Canally’’ – a sheep station on the Murray River. Edward was for many years a director as well as Chairman of the Colonial Bank of Australasia, a director of the Hobson’s Bay Railway Co. and the Australian Insurance Co.

Charicature of Edward Cohen when he was Commissioner of Customs

Edward was said to have had a likable personality. He was eloquent, as well as financially prosperous, which helped him with his involvement in colonial affairs. Whilst unsuccessful in 1857 and 1859 in the Victorian elections for the seats of Melbourne and West Melbourne, he represented East Melbourne in the Legislative Assembly from 1861 to 1865 and then again from 1868 to 1877. He was Commissioner of Trade and Customs from 1869 to 1870 and then again from 1872 to 1875. In 1870 he served on the Royal Commission on Charitable Institutions. Edward was also active in local government affairs, having been first elected as a city councillor in 1854 but retired from local government as his views conflicted with those of other councillors. He was re-elected in 1962 and became mayor in 1863, to be followed in 1865 as an elected alderman and remained in local government as a member until 1877.

Edward always found time to be involved with his community and served on the Board of Management of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation as well as its President in 1863. In 1850, together with others, he petitioned for state aid to the Jewish religion on the grounds of equal citizenship, common loyalty, and equal rights with other denominations. In parliament, however, he consistently advocated the abolition of state aid to religion because it contributed to colonial divisiveness and anti-national sentiment. When serving as synagogue president in 1854, he conducted appeals for the relief of poor and needy Jews in Palestine, recommending to Moses Montefiore that the money collected be used to settle these Jews in agricultural colonies rather than distributing the funds to the poor.

Edward did not stand still and, when elected mayor in 1863 as well as president again of the synagogue, he joined the committee for raising funds to assist Polish Jews. He was opposed to any encouragement of the non-British Jewish poor to migrate to Victoria. 1873 saw him become the first President of the newly established Anglo-Jewish Association, whose aim was to ‘work for the emancipation and moral progress of Jews everywhere, and to aid persecuted Jews’. Edward’s philanthropic activities were not restricted to the Jewish community. His wider community activities extended to being Treasurer of the Melbourne Hospital for over twenty years. It is noted that whilst his later reputation was that of a ‘silent, solid, urban Conservative’, it was not substantiated by the progressive position he took in Jewish or general colonial matters.

Edward’s most lasting contribution to Australian history was education. There was difficulty in providing a state-controlled and appropriately conducted education system rather than a progressive movement. It was Edward who passionately championed this. He saw the practical dilemma of sectarian divisiveness, but his chief motives for supporting state education were idealistic. He didn’t want to drive religion out of state education but wanted there to be school facilities for every child, irrespective of their faith. At the same time, he supported the establishment and continuation of a Jewish day school, although he would have preferred it to provide free tuition, such was the case at the Jews’ Free School in London. Edward was convinced there was a provision for universal education with no restriction.

When the Jewish community felt that the secular spirit of the Education Act was being undermined and destroyed by the inclusion of references to Christianity and religion in the Irish National Readers that were used in the state schools, Edward wasted no time and acted as the Jewish representative, leading two deputations to the Minister of Public Instruction in 1873 and 1874. Unfortunately, due to illness at the time, he was unable to do more. However, the successful conclusion of the textbook grievance in July 1877 vindicated the tolerance that he had championed throughout his life.

Edward passed away after three years of illness and an accident at the age of fifty-four on April 13, 1877. His funeral was attended by many notable political and business leaders. His life had been devoted to the principles he cherished and to the welfare of his fellow men. His passing was a blow to the Jewish and general community, and his example inspired many later Jewish public figures. Edward was survived by his wife Rebecca, four sons, and two daughters.


  • Australian Dictionary of Biography;
  • Victorian Government Archives;
  • National Portrait Gallery;
  • NSW Convict Records;
  • National Library of Australia;
  • Illustrated Australian News


From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​