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WHO WERE THE SASSOONS?

By Philip Morgan

“Brighton is a sea-coast town, three miles long and one mile broad, with a Sassoon at each end and one in the middle.” wrote newspaper owner Henry Labouchere in the late nineteenth century. When a poem by the great anti-war-poet Siegfried Sassoon, possibly the only Sassoon still recognised, was published in 1927 containing the lines- “I accuse the rich of what they’ve always done before – Of lifting worldly faces to a diamond star.” – on the day his aunt, another Sassoon, died he wouldn’t have known that she would leave him enough money to buy a house. However, he would have known that the money could be traced back to Bombay in 1832 and his great-grandfather David Sassoon.

When David Sassoon was born in Baghdad in 1793, his father, Sheikh Sassoon ben Salah, was Pasha Dawud’s treasurer and a leading figure in the Jewish community. But when David was kidnapped by Dawud in 1830, they had to fly for their lives to Iran. There, in 1832, Sheikh Sassoon died, and David, now the head of the family, moved to Bombay (Mumbai).

There, David recognised the trading potential of its position at the heart of the British empire. Armed with an address book and a determination to restore the family’s fortunes, he, with the help of the three eldest of his eight sons, set up a business trading first in cotton and then opium, which would not become illegal in the UK until 1920.

David exploited his diplomatic skills and government contacts to ensure that his company got the most benefit from the trade resulting from the Opium Wars.When the British government forced China to accept opium from India.

The profits from the opium trade formed the basis of the family’s enormous wealth. Within ten years, a competitor complained that: “Silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat — whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon & Co.” The company bought ships to carry their and other people’s goods and built docks for the ships to moor up in and warehouses to store the goods. They took control of the production of the goods they sold and the mechanics of selling them. They established hubs in Hong Kong, Singapore and London. When David died in 1864, he left over £4 million, £6 Billion in today’s money, in immediate wealth. In just over thirty years, he had created a worldwide trading empire.

So, what next? The company was a huge success, and the family massively wealthy.

Their success and wealth rested on the British Empire. So, what better ambition than to become part of its ruling class. They had long been anglophiles. In 1853, David Sassoon became a naturalised British citizen. In 1858, SD became the first member of the family to move to England. Others followed him in increasing numbers anglicising their names in the process. They bought mansions in West London and several properties in Brighton with its established Jewish community.

When Abdullah, now known as Albert and head of the company, followed his two half-brothers, Reuben and Arthur, to Brighton the focus of the organisation and the family came with him. From 1867 to his death in 1896, he lived in and ran his empire from 1 Eastern Terrace Kemptown.

While Albert had to spend most of his time running the company, neither Arthur nor Reuben demonstrated any interest in the business. What they excelled at was hospitality and being in the right place at the right time. They both acquired a reputation for entertaining the great and the good and Arthur’s wife, Louise, was recognised as a great beauty and a charming hostess.

Running a house at that level wasn’t cheap. On census day in 1881, Arthur was at home in Number 6 Queens Gardens Brighton with his thirteen servants while next door at Number 7 his brother was at home with his fourteen servants.

As a result of mixing in the right circles, Arthur and Reuben become close friends of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. This lifelong friendship which lasted until a few weeks before the King’s death, was based on the lavish hospitality, expensive gifts, and indirect financial assistance (placing bets on his behalf) and unquestioning companionship they offered to the future king. It seems highly likely he was introduced to one of his future mistresses, the actress Lilly Langtry, in Reuben’s house.

Royalty in those Victorian times was immensely significant due to the reach and influence of the British Empire. Reuben and Arthur would have justified their expenses and time as valuable to the company and the family. As it proved to be when Albert was made a baronet in 1890 due to Reuben’s lobbying the Prince of Wales. However, the family’s focus on high society and luxurious living continued long after it could be helpful to them or the company. Their lack of attention to business, the two world wars which undermined their particular model of international trade, and their moving their operations from India to China just before the communist takeover spelt slow disaster for the dynasty. David Sassoon & Co. eventually went into liquidation around 1988.

Now the only visible remains of the Sassoons in Brighton are their mausoleum turned pub in Kemptown and a plaque in St Anne’s Well Gardens.

However, the significance of their relationship with royalty should not be underestimated in making Brighton what it is today, a destination of choice for the rich and famous.

Posted in History on Nov 01, 2023