This Day in Jewish History / Sun Sets on London's First Jewish Sheriff

Sir David Salomons was a trailblazer in establishing the right of England's Jews to hold public office, eventually serving in Parliament.

On July 18, 1873, Sir David Salomons, the man who led the fight for full Jewish participation in English political life, died, at the age of 75. A trailblazer in both the financial and public-service worlds, Salomons was the first Jewish sheriff in the City of London and the City’s first Jewish lord mayor, as well as one whose willingness to fight for equality also made it possible for Jews to enter the British Parliament.

David Salomons was born November 22, 1797, to the English-born Levy Salomons and his wife Matilda da Metz, originally of Leiden, the Netherlands. Being limited, by dint of being Jewish, in the educational opportunities open to him, Salomons followed both his father and grandfather by entering the financial world. At the age of 26, he joined the London Stock Exchange, where he pushed for legislation that made it possible for banks to expand outside of the 65-mile radius to which they had been limited, and to become joint-stock (that is, publicly owned) institutions.

In 1832, Salomons became a founder of the London and Westminster Bank (today known as NatWest), London’s first joint-stock bank. Two years later, he became an underwriter.

Although Salomons came from a family of means, his marriage in 1823 to Jeanette Cohen brought him into a whole new class, both economically and socially. Jeanette was a niece of both Nathan de Rothschild and Moses de Montefiore, who, among other things, were at the heart of the Jewish establishment struggling for full rights before the law for the country’s Jews. At the time, Jews were denied the right to vote, to hold public office and even the right to attend university, as Salomons himself had discovered first-hand. For him, rectifying this situation was a top priority.

David Salomons sought to make his mark by attaining office in the City of London. After becoming a member of the Worshipful Company of Coopers, one of the “liverymen” companies, or professional guilds, he ran for the position of sheriff. Each year, the members of all the City livery companies would elect two members as sheriffs. Although today, the position is largely ceremonial, in the 19th century, it still had judicial responsibilities. By custom, too, the lord mayor of the City of London – an important post within the business community, though not to be confused with mayor of London - would be elected from the ranks of people who have served as sheriffs. (This custom still goes on today.)

Salomons won the election, but initially could not serve, because, like all other public posts, the position required swearing an oath that included the phrase “upon the true faith of a Christian.” Though not Orthodox in his observance (Salomons was actually involved in the Reform Jewish movement), he was unwilling to take the oath, and Parliament, in what was called the Sheriffs’ Declaration Act, took the step of legislating a change in the text. Salomons then took office as sheriff.

Next up was to become an alderman, a member of the governing body of the City. When a vacancy occurred in the legislative body in 1835, Salomons ran, and was elected. Again, he found himself facing an oath he could not profess to, but this time, the law was not changed – at least not until a decade later – and it was Salomons who found his selection nullified.

Finally in 1845, with the passage of Lord Lyndhurst’s Act, were Jews permitted to hold municipal office, and Salomons became an alderman. A decade later, he was elected lord mayor. He also trained as a lawyer, and in 1849 became England’s first Jewish magistrate, a position equivalent to justice of the peace.

The only hurdle left was election – and admission – to Parliament. In 1851, having already run unsuccessfully several times for the House of Commons, Salomons ran as a Liberal candidate from Greenwich in a by-election. Victorious, this time his tactic was to take the oath of office, but omit the offending words from his declaration, and thereupon assume his seat in the House. This did not pass. After taking part in three votes “illegally,” Salomons found himself removed bodily from Parliament, and fined 500 pounds.

Salomons was not the only Jew attempting to break the barrier to membership in the Commons, and it was actually Lionel de Rothschild who was the first to attain that goal, in 1858, after the passage of the Jews Relief Act, which permitted them to take the oath while omitting the phrase professing Christian belief. David Salomons followed a year later, when he was again elected from Greenwich. He continued to serve the district until his death, 15 years later.

David and Jeanette Salomons had no children, so that when he died, on this day in 1873 (Jeanette had predeceased him, in 1867, and he remarried, to Cecilia Samuel), his title as baronet went to his nephew, David Lionel Salomons, the son of his brother Philip. His estate included the country house, Broomhill, that he and Jeanette had purchased in Tunbridge Wells. Today it is the Salomons Museum, which includes a Judaica collection, and also the scientific and other collections of David Lionel Salomons, who was both an electrical engineer and a barrister.

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