Sir Moses Montefiore

Joseph Jacobs, Goodman Lipkind, Victor Rousseau Emanuel, Thomas Seltzer, Isidore Harris, Israel Davis


English philanthropist; born in Leghorn, Italy, Oct. 28, 1784; died at Ramsgate, England, July 25, 1885. Moses Ḥayyim Montefiore and his wife, both of Leghorn, settled in London in the middle of the eighteenth century. One of their seventeen children, Joseph Elias Montefiore, took his young wife, Rachel, daughter of Abraham Lumbroso de Mattos Mocatta, on a business journey to Leghorn, where their eldest child, Moses, the subject of this article, was born. On their return they lived at Kennington, where Moses went to school and was apprenticed to a provision merchant. Later he entered a counting-house in the city of London, and ultimately became one of the twelve Jewish brokers then licensed by the city. His career was not entirely uncheckered by adversity. In 1806 he was deceived by a man whom he had trusted in a large transaction in Exchequer bills, and had to ask for time in which to settle certain obligations. This his high character and popularity enabled him to secure. His brother Abraham joined him in business; and they remained in partnership till 1816. Moses married (1812) Judith, daughter of Levi Barent Cohen. Levi Barent Cohen was an Ashkenazi, and it was a sign of indifference, on the part of the Montefiores, to current prejudice that, although they belonged to the London Sephardim, they married German Jewesses. Moses lived in New Court, close to his friend Rothschild; and the brothers Montefiore, as the brokers of that financial genius, became wealthy men. Moses was able to retire from the Stock Exchange in 1821; and in 1824 he assisted in founding the Alliance Assurance Company, of which he was the first president.

He was among the founders of the Imperial Continental Gas Association, which extended gaslighting to the principal European cities; and he was one of the original directors (1825) of the Provincial Bank of Ireland, which gained for him the honorary freedom of Londonderry. For a short time he was also a director of the South Eastern Railway. In 1836 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society; and in 1837 he was elected sheriff of the city of London, being the second Jew to fill that office (see Salomons, Sir David). In the same year he was knighted by Queen Victoria on her accession. He had become acquainted with her in 1834, while she was staying at Broadstairs with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, to whom he had been able to show courtesy by placing at her disposal the secluded grounds of his house near that seaside resort. In 1846 he was created a baronet, and in 1847 became high sheriff for Kent. He was a deputy lieutenant and a magistrate in more than one jurisdiction. At an earlier period of his life (1810-1814)he had been captain in the Surrey local militia and [practiced] assiduously the bugle calls and drill. In part he owed his stately bearing to these early days of military training.

While Sir Moses was winning wealth and social distinction, he was living the life of a most pious and observant Jew. His diaries record his regular attendance at the synagogue, his scrupulous performance of the functions of a member of the ancient Society of Lavadores, which made it a sacred duty to perform the last rites for members of the synagogue; and they show also that under great difficulties he strictly complied with the dietary laws as well as with those which enjoin rest and forbid travel upon Sabbaths and festivals. In pursuance of inflexible principle, he resisted all attempts at congregational reform. The following is an account in his own language of his life in 1820:

“With God’s blessing, rise, say prayers at 7 o’clock. Breakfast at 9. Attend the Stock Exchange, if in London, 10. Dinner, 5. Read, write, and learn, if possible, Hebrew and French, 6. Read Bible and say prayers, 10. Then retire. Monday and Thursday mornings attend the Synagogue. Tuesday and Thursday evenings for visiting.” “I attended,” he says on another occasion, “many meetings at the City of London Tavern, also several charitable meetings at Bevis Marks, in connection with the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue; sometimes passing the whole day there from ten in the morning till half-past eleven at night (Jan. 25, 1820), excepting two hours for dinner in the committee-room; answered in the evening 350 petitions from poor women, and also made frequent visits to the Villa Real School.”

He cooperated also with the Rothschilds and the Goldsmids in the movement for parliamentary emancipation of the Jews. In 1814 he became treasurer of the Sephardic Synagogue in London, and in due course passed through all its highest offices, being six times warden-president. From 1838 to 1874 he was president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews; and on his retirement £12,000 was subscribed as a testimonial to him and was used by his wish in aid of building industrial dwellings at Jerusalem. His time in office was vigorously employed in the relief of his suffering brethren.

Seven times Sir Moses Montefiore visited Palestine, in 1827, 1838, 1849, 1855, 1857, 1866, and 1875; being accompanied by his wife each time before her death in 1862, and making the last journey when he was ninety-one years old. Another regular companion was Dr. L. Loewe, who became his literary executor. In the Holy Land he endowed hospitals and almshouses, set on foot agricultural enterprises, planted gardens, and built synagogues and tombs. He not only gave bounteously of his own means, but administered public and private subventions, among others a fund bequeathed by Judah Touro of New Orleans, who left 50,000 to be applied, as Sir Moses thought fit, for the benefit of the Jews in the Holy Land. The events of these journeys were carefully narrated in his own diaries and in those of Lady Montefiore, some of which have been published in full, while others have unfortunately been destroyed, though not till extracts from them had been printed. Besides passing references to interesting personages whom the travelers met, the diaries furnish incidentally a history of the gradual development of the means of travel. In their early adventures the courageous couple encountered serious dangers; even in England they were shot at, presumably by highwaymen, on the Dover Road. But they were not deterred by the fears of slavery and imprisonment which then beset travelers in the East, or by breaking ice or by wolves in Russia. On one of his journeys (1840) Sir Moses obtained from the Sultan of Turkey a firman denouncing the inveterate charge of ritual murder brought against the Jews.

He obtained promises of friendliness from two czars (1846 and 1872), crossed the desert of the Atlas and at the age of seventy-nine won for his brethren the favor of the Sultan of Morocco; made an unsuccessful journey to Rome to obtain the return to his parents of the boy Mortara (1858), and went to Rumania (1867), where he presented himself at an open window to a mob at the imminent risk of his life. It was at the age of seventy-six that he went to the office of the London “Times” after midnight, with a letter soliciting relief for the Christians of Syria. His own contribution was £200, and he collected over £20,000.

The affection which his magnetic personality and his native goodness inspired can not be exaggerated. In Palestinehis brethren flocked to kiss the hem of his garment. On his entering into his one hundredth year (Nov. 8, 1883) Queen Victoria, Albert Edward Prince of Wales, and many hundreds of his most distinguished fellow citizens sent telegrams of congratulation. The birthday was a public festival at Ramsgate, where he passed the evening of his days.

Sir Moses was buried at Ramsgate, near the synagogue he had founded, side by side with his wife in the mausoleum which he had erected for the purpose, a reproduction of the building known as the Tomb of Rachel on the Bethlehem road. By his will (proved at £370,000) he directed the continuance of many and various charities, and among others added to the endowment of the Montefiore College and Library, Ramsgate, which he had first established in memory of his wife. The college is now devoted to a few learned men who spend their days in the study of the Law. For a time an institution for younger students was also maintained, but the trustees in lieu thereof make an annual subvention to Jews’ College, London.

Sir Moses Montefiore had no children; but the baronetcy was revived by the crown in favor of Francis Montefiore, grandson of Abraham, Sir Moses’ brother and partner; while his seat at Ramsgate became by his will the property of Joseph Sebag (afterward Sir Joseph Sebag-Montefiore), son of Sir Moses’ sister.1

1This article was originally published in The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 8, in 1905.


Works Consulted

The Times (London), Oct. 22, 23, 1883; July 29, 1885.

Jew. Chron. Aug. 28, 1885; June 13, 20, 1902.

L. Loewe, Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore, 1890.

Israel Davis, Sir Moses Montefiore: a Biographical Sketch, 1884.

Lucien Wolf, Sir Moses Montefiore: a Centennial Biography, London, 1884.

Lady Judith Montefiore, Diary, of a Visit to Egypt (privately printed, n.d.).

Liebermann, Internationales Montefiore-Album, 1884.

Ḥayyim Guedalla, Keter Shem Ṭob, 1887.



Montefiore, Moses, and Judith Montefiore. Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore. Edited by Louis Loewe, Belford-Clarke Co., 1890.