Salomons Museum

David Salomons and the fight for Jewish rights in England

Joseph Cohen: “It is the thin end of the wedge and there is no knowing where it will end.”

David Salomons : “I don't mind inserting a wedge when I have to break through a solid mass of prejudice and ignorance.”

Salomons as Lord Mayor of London.

'Salomons as Lord Mayor of London.'

Less than a hundred years ago in England you could vote, become an M.P., hold public office, go to university… but only if you were a man. And a member of the Church of England. And – if you wanted to vote – you were a property owner.

The great reformers of the nineteenth century set out to change all this. In 1829 Catholics achieved almost equal rights; in 1832 the Reform Act was passed, greatly extending the franchise (though still only to about 20% of adult males); and in 1832 the first Quaker was elected to Parliament. David Salomons set out to ensure that Jews also acquired these rights.

To take your seat as a Member of Parliament or to hold all sorts of public jobs it was necessary to swear an oath which contained the words “upon the true faith of a Christian”. Some Jewish families (the Disraelis, for example) allowed their children to be brought up without religion or as Anglicans, in order that more professions should be open to them, but others set out to change the law.

Through marriage to Jeanette Cohen, David Salomons became connected with the leading Jewish families in England , and, like the Cohens, the Rothschilds and the Montefiores, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the struggle for equal rights and social reform. While others set out to achieve change by lobbying, petitions and government bills, Salomons set out to achieve public office himself, so that others might follow. As a financier he chose the institutions of the City of London as a route to political power.

His first step was to join a livery company, the Worshipful Company of Coopers. Each year the City livery companies elect two Sheriffs, who carry out duties with the Lord Mayor of London . Salomons was elected as a Sheriff in 1835. Although the oaths of office for a Sheriff were in a form unacceptable to a practising Jew, the Government changed the law (the Sheriffs' Declaration Act) and Salomons was able to take up his post.

The next test was to become an Alderman – part of the governing body of the City of London . A vacancy occurred in December 1835, and Salomons won the election. As before, he was unable to take up the office due to the official oath and the election was declared null and void. This time it was not until ten years later that the Government changed the law and Salomons was finally elected Alderman for Cordwainers Ward in 1847. The Lord Mayor is elected from amongst the aldermen, and in 1855 Salomons became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London .

Plaque from St Alphege's Church, Greenwich, celebrating the creation of David Salomons as a baronet.

'Plaque from St Alphege's Church,
Greenwich, celebrating the creation of
David Salomons as a baronet.'

Next came the big challenge – Parliament. Although there had been several bills presented to Parliament between 1830 and 1850, they had all been rejected by the House of Lords and failed to become law. Public opinion was in favour though – the Jewish Emancipation Bill of 1830 was supported by a petition signed by 14,000 citizens of London .

In 1847 Baron Lionel de Rothschild was the first Jew to be elected as an M.P. When he refused to swear the oath of office using the phrase “on the true faith of a Christian” he was unable to take his seat and he stood down. In 1850 he was again elected as M.P. for the City of London , and left out the phrase when he took the oath. A long debate followed, but Rothschild was not allowed to take his seat.

In 1851 David Salomons was elected as a Liberal M.P. for Greenwich in a by-election. He was determined to take his seat in Parliament and duly turned up on 18 July 1851, taking the oath but omitting the words “on the true faith of a Christian”. Ignoring the request to withdraw, Salomons took his seat on the Government benches, but left when asked a second time.

Three days later he tried again. In the heated debate that flared as he took his seat, Salomons was asked by a Liberal M.P. what he intended to do. Seizing the opportunity to speak, he addressed the House, stressing that as he had been elected by a large majority, he was carrying out the wishes of the people in being there. He took part in three votes in the House of Commons before eventually being removed by the Sergeant-at-Arms. He was fined £500 for voting illegally.

Eventually, in 1858, the law was changed and Jews could become Members of Parliament. Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish M.P. He had again been elected in 1857 and took up his seat as soon as the law was passed in 1858. In the general election of 1859, at the age of 62, David Salomons was elected for Greenwich and served as M.P. until his death in 1873.

It was not until 1890 that all religious inequality was removed. However, Jewish women – like all women in Britain – would have to wait until 1918 before they too were allowed to vote!

To find out more about Lionel de Rothschild and his part in the struggle for Jewish rights go to http://www.rothschildarchive.org/ib/?doc=/ib/articles/BW1Home