Portrait of David Sassoon, attributed to William Melville

How to lose an empire

The rise and fall of the Sassoon family, whose yearning for social acceptance brought titles at the cost of success


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A province of the Ottoman Empire, Baghdad in the 1820s was governed by a wãli whose habit was to make money by arresting members of the wealthiest families and demanding a ransom for their release. Amongst those detained was David Sassoon, a member of one of Baghdad’s most prominent Jewish families, whose father was the pasha’s treasurer. Upon the father paying his son’s ransom, David fled to Bushir in southern Iran in 1830. The following year, he took his family with him for a new life in Bombay.

As a refugee in a new land who had lost his wealth and status in Baghdad, David Sassoon chose to identify with the British Empire, then the world’s strongest power. When in 1853 he was granted British citizenship, he signed his oath of allegiance to the Empire and East India Company in Hebrew — for although he spoke Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish as well as learning Hindustani, he never bothered with English.

However, he employed tutors to ensure that his children did so. In 1858 he dispatched his son Sassoon David (S.D.) to London to make his way there, financially and socially. This he did, acquiring — with his father’s subsidy — Ashley Park, an estate in Surrey, for £48,500.

Abdallah Sassoon

When David died in 1864, he left a will anointing his oldest son Abdallah as the family trading company’s next leader. However, David’s second son, Elias, refused to abide by the will. After three years of futile negotiations, the family split into two competing firms: the Bombay-headquartered David Sassoon & Co. and the Bombay and Shanghai-headquartered E. D. Sassoon & Co. Both firms traded in a range of commodities, including tea, silk and pearls. But until the 19th century’s end it was the trade in cotton and opium that dominated both companies’ transactions, helping Britain’s policy to export opium to China to balance its imports of silk and tea.

Meanwhile, Abdallah was itching to move to London because he felt that as chairman of a global firm, he should be close to the locus of British imperial power and decision-making. The opportunity came when, in 1872, he was knighted for his public service in India. Duly anglicising his name (as did all the other family members who moved to England) to Sir Albert, he relocated David Sassoon & Co’s headquarters from Bombay to 12 Leadenhall Street (on the site of the former East India Company headquarters and later that of Lloyd’s of London). From its top floor, a staff of translators handled bills of lading and marine insurance written in Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Hindustani.

At a large gathering to honour him at the Guildhall, Sir Albert was awarded the Freedom of the City of London in recognition of extraordinary efforts to serve the Empire. “This is the first time an East Indian merchant has been admitted to the honour highly prized by its possessor and much coveted by the aspirants to City fame”, recorded the commemorative brochure. “It is the first time that the freedom of the City of London has been presented to a Jew.”

Despite the country’s relative homogeneity, rigid class system and antisemitism, Britain proved hospitable to the Sassoon family. They arrived at a time when the liberalism of the Manchester School — and the idea that free trade would bring about a more prosperous and equitable society — was at its most influential. David Salomons became London’s first Jewish Lord Mayor in 1855 and three years later, albeit after a protracted legislative process, Lionel de Rothschild finally took his seat in Parliament.

All the while, the Conservatives were being led in the House of Commons by the (Anglican baptised) Jew, Benjamin Disraeli. There were limits to this tolerance, of course, and possibly one reason why the Sassoons’ reception into the British aristocracy went so smoothly was that, unlike the Warburgs or Rothschilds, they were not primarily associated with their moneylending business.

Unsurprisingly, they began to equate success as much with being accepted as members of the British aristocracy as with wealth and invested much time, energy and money to this end. Lavish entertainment was always high on the agenda. Besides their grand houses in London and Brighton, the family also owned estates in the English and Scottish countryside.

Meanwhile, Reuben Sassoon settled at 1 Belgrave Square, described in an 1882 compendium of England’s twelve most beautiful houses as modern, with “very little Oriental about it”. Unusually for the time, the house had three lifts: one for dinner, another for domestic staff and one to connect the stable with the street outside. It was seen as one of the most technically advanced homes in London — the numerous bathrooms had showers, and the lift in the stables had been installed so that the horses could be housed above ground level to benefit from natural light. There were reportedly “so many ingenious mechanical arrangements in Mr. Sassoon’s house, that an engineer is in residence to answer for their perfect working order”.

The Sassoons were enthralled by royalty and established a strong relationship with the Prince of Wales that began during a visit to Bombay and continued for decades, even after he became King Edward VII on the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

Rachel on a label from the family mill

Yet more doors were opened through marriages with predominantly Jewish elite European families, such as the Rothschilds and the Poliakovs in Russia. Later, marriages to non-Jewish families became more widespread. For instance, Sybil Sassoon was married in 1913 to George Cholmondeley, the future fifth Marquess of Cholmondeley and Lord Great Chamberlain. S.D.’s Bombay-born daughter, Rachel Sassoon, converted to Anglicanism upon marrying the newspaper owner, Frederick Beer (himself a convert from Judaism) and, through his ownership, became the editor of the Observer in 1891, the first woman to edit a national newspaper. Then, upon purchasing its rival, she became editor of the Sunday Times.

By the fourth generation, the links with their Baghdadi Jewish heritage were broken. By the 20th century Sir Philip Sassoon (grandson of Sir Albert and son of Edward, who became the family’s first MP after marrying Aline de Rothschild) avoided acknowledging his ancestry. It was rumoured that he wanted to remove from the family’s coat-of-arms the Hebrew script above its Latin motto, Candide et Constanter.

Sir Philip achieved what many Sassoons aspired to: in 1912 he succeeded his father as Unionist (Conservative) MP for Hythe, became Under-Secretary of State for Air and later Chairman of the National Gallery. From Port Lympne, his country house in Kent, he entertained a Who’s Who of the early 20th century: the Curzons, Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Virginia Woolf and Charlie Chaplin. But under his chairmanship, David Sassoon & Co. went into decline.

The poet Siegfried Sassoon epitomised the disconnect between the family’s origins and immersion in British society. His father Alfred married out of the family faith into the English upper class, and Siegfried had no idea about his Baghdadi origin or his family’s religion until his father died when he was a teenager. Siegfried, who died a Roman Catholic, loathed those engaged in business, as one poem showed: “I accuse the rich of what they’ve always done before”.

He was far from the only Sassoon to feel the impact of the First World War. At least 14 grandsons and great-grandsons of the original David Sassoon held commissions in the British Army. Siegfried’s younger brother Hamo, a second lieutenant with the Royal Engineers, died at Gallipoli in November 1915.

The British branch of the family’s focus on social acceptance came at the cost of fostering innovation and seeking new market opportunities. In particular, it was too slow to move the family business away from the opium trade, which was curtailed by the 1907 agreement between Britain (and India) and China.

The Sassoons’ decline stemmed in part from their success. The titles, social and political standing and the friendships with royalty seemingly came at the cost of what had brought them riches in the first place. The firm David Sassoon built became marginal in every sphere. After Sir Philip’s untimely death in 1939 and the disruptions of the Second World War, what remained was managed by outsiders — who were eventually declared unfit by the Bank of England in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, most of the leaders of the second Sassoon branch (E. D. Sassoon) stayed in the East. Headquartered in Bombay and Shanghai, their empire lasted longer. But even a more attentive attitude was no guarantee of making the right calls in a politically turbulent world.

They made what transpired to be the wrong bet on China in the 1920s and lost most of their assets with the nationalisation that accompanied the Communists’ victory. In 1978, Charterhouse Japhet Ltd acquired E. D. Sassoon Bank and Trust, and the Sassoon name — synonymous as the global merchants and “Rothschilds of the East” — slipped from the annals of international trade and finance.

The desire for acceptance and status is not particular to the Sassoons. Something more than money had been lost between the founder and the fourth generation. One astute observer likened the shape of the dynasty to a diamond, “starting at a point, widening out rapidly, and tapering disastrously towards the bottom”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover