Cohen, Arthur 1829-1914, lawyer, was born in London 18 November 1829, the youngest son of Benjamin Cohen, a prosperous bill-broker. His grandfather, Levy Barent Cohen (1740-1808), came to London from Holland about 1770. Through his mother, Justina, the youngest daughter of Joseph Eliahu Montefiore and sister of Sir Moses H. Montefiore [qv.], he was connected with the great Jewish families of Montefiore and Mocatta. At an early age he was sent to a tutor at Frankfort. When about seventeen he became a student at University College, London. His family, conscious of his ability, were anxious that he should go to Cambridge. Entrance to Trinity College was found to be impossible for a Jew, and it required the help of his uncle, Sir Moses, who invoked that of the Prince Consort as chancellor of the university, to secure his admission to Magdalene. Even then he had to pass in Paley's View of the Evidences of Christianity, as part of his entrance examination. He became a fellow-commoner in 1849, wore the gold-laced gown and velvet cap of that rank, and dined at the high table. He had not hitherto enjoyed much youthful companionship, and, furnished with a good allowance, he entered with zest on the life of an undergraduate. He was secretary of the Union Society in 1852, and its president in 1853. He rowed for at least one year in the Magdalene boat, and this is the only recorded instance of his indulgence in strenuous exercise. It was probably due to these diversions that his name appeared only as fifth wrangler in 1853, to the disappointment of his family, who with reason hoped to see him in a higher place, if not in the first. As a Jew he could not take his degree until after the passing in 1856 of 19 & 20 Vict., cap. 88. He was the first professing Jew to graduate at Cambridge. Later on the university made him amends; in 1879 he became counsel to the university, and in 1883 an honorary fellow of Magdalene College.
On leaving Cambridge Cohen became a member of the Inner Temple. He was a pupil of Mr. Dodgson, a special pleader. In May 1857 he won the studentship of the Inns of Court, and in November of the same year he was called to the bar. He was helped in his start by his uncle, Sir Moses Montefiore, who was chairman of the Alliance Assurance Company. But he had enough of ability and of industry to get on without backing, and he was soon busy, especially in commercial cases. He was fortunate in his time. Commercial law, the creation of Lord Mansfield in the days of small ships, was being adapted to the larger problems of steamers and of the growth of trade, and for many years Cohen appeared in nearly every important case. In 1872 he was selected by Sir Roundell Palmer, the attorney-general, to be junior counsel for Great Britain in the Alabama arbitration at Geneva. In 1873 he was given by Chief Baron Kelly the ancient post of tubman in the court of Exchequer, having previously been postman. In the same year he was a member of the royal commission on unseaworthy ships, the result of the agitation of Samuel Plimsoll [qv.]. In 1874 he became a Queen's Counsel, being the junior but one in a batch of fourteen. In 1875 he was appointed judge of the Admiralty Court of the Cinque Ports, a sinecure which he only resigned in the year of his death. In 1876 he became a bencher of the Inner Temple, and he filled the office of treasurer in 1894.
In 1874 Cohen stood unsuccessfully for Lewes as a liberal. In April 1880 he headed the poll at Southwark, his fellow-member being Thorold Rogers. In 1881 Lord Selborne offered him the senior of two judgeships then vacant. At the request of Mr. Gladstone, who feared a by-election in the borough, Cohen declined. There was an understanding that Cohen should be offered a judgeship later on. But he never had another chance; and for many years new judges, answering letters of congratulation from Cohen, uniformly assured him that he ought long ago to have been on the bench himself. Cohen sat for Southwark from 1880 to 1887. He was not very successful in the House of Commons and seldom spoke, but when he did so he was listened to with respect. Even in court, at least to a younger generation who heard him in his later years, his manner of speaking was somewhat artificial, and it was probably too forensic for the House of Commons. In 1887 Cohen resigned his seat, chiefly because of the serious illness of his wife. In the year following he suffered a severe blow by her death. He had become engaged to Miss Emmeline Micholls, of Manchester, when she was a schoolgirl of fifteen, and they were married in 1860 when she was seventeen. It was a happy marriage, and they were happy in their family of three sons and five daughters.
In 1893 Cohen was appointed standing counsel to the India Office. In 1903 he was counsel for Great Britain in the Venezuela arbitration at The Hague. In the same year he was made a fellow of the British Academy, chairman of the Bar Council, and a member of the royal commission on trade unions—not a bad record for a man of seventy-four. In 1905 he was made a privy councillor by the conservative government. It was thought at the time that he would sit as one of the Judicial Committee, but there were technical difficulties which made this impossible. In 1906 he was appointed chairman of the royal commission on shipping combinations. In 1910 he wrote the article on Insurance in Lord Halsbury's Laws of England. This was his only published work of any length, and being upon a subject of which he had been long the acknowledged master it forms perhaps the most valuable section of that vast encyclopaedia. He continued his practice at the bar until about 1911, appearing at times with some junior who was born after his leader had taken silk. When he died, Lord Halsbury alone was his senior among the benchers of his Inn.
Cohen was a very great lawyer. To a fine intellect he added an untiring industry, and a passion for legal principles. In dedicating to Cohen his learned Conflict of Laws, A. V. Dicey said that his mastery of legal principles was surpassed only by the kindness with which his learning and experience have been placed at the service of his friends. He was a slow worker, and made elaborate notes of his arguments. He was not a great advocate, in the popular sense, and in a court of first instance might be outmaneuvred by a man of much less ability. But for the argument of a question of law before an appellate tribunal he has had few equals. In all probability no advocate has so often addressed the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee.
Cohen was tall and handsome, with a mass of dark hair, brown eyes, and a fresh complexion. He was a kindly man, with very courteous but rather stately manners. Although reserved and somewhat shy, he had many friends, and was universally esteemed by the members of the bar; to his juniors there he was ever kind and helpful. His main intellectual interest, apart from the law, was in mathematics; within a few months of his death he was reading books on the differential calculus. For his vacations his chief diversion was in foreign travel. As he would never take more work than he could properly do, and was slow and conscientious in doing it, he was never a rich man. About the acquisition of money he was as careless as he was lavish in spending it. His daughter records that he only once tried the experiment of riding in an omnibus; his brother, a bill-broker who died a millionaire, was never known to ride in anything else. Cohen was always a professing Jew, and proud of the traditions of the race. He was for many years president of the Jewish board of deputies. It was characteristic of him that he resigned when the first of his children married outside the Jewish community. His portrait was painted by J. S. Sargent in 1897. He died 3 November 1914, at his house in Great Cumberland Place, and was buried by the side of his wife in the Jewish cemetery at Willesden.
The Times, 4 November 1914
Memoir by his daughter, 1919
Law Quarterly Review, January 1915
Contributor: F. D. M. [Frank Douglas Mackinnon]