George Benjamin (1799-1864)
The Sash Our Forefathers Wore
George Benjamin was the son of Emanual Hyan Cohen and Hannah Benjamin. He was born in Brighton, England on April 15th, 1799 as Moses George Cohen to a family with Sephardi ancestry.
Believing that being Jewish was an obstacle to success, he changed his name to George and took his mother's maiden name.
George emigrated from England in 1832 to the United States and lived for a time in North Carolina.
Between 1832 and 1834, George married Isabella Jacobs in New Orleans, Louisiana. They would have 14 children, 12 of whom survived to adulthood.
Leaving North Carolina, George and Isabella arrived in York, Upper Canada in 1834 where George became acquainted with James Hunter Samson, member of the assembly for Hastings and the leading barrister of Belleville.
Encouraged by Samson, Benjamin purchased a printing press and established himself as a printer in Belleville. Publication of the Belleville Intelligencer began in 1834, a newspaper that consistently upheld a conservative point of view. George hired a young apprentice by the name of Mackenzie Bowell who eventually became his partner and then owner of the Intelligencer. Mackenzie would go on to become a member of parliament in the first election after Confederation and in late 1894, the fifth prime minister of Canada.
In 1836, George became the Grand Master of the Loyal Orange Association of British North America replacing Ogle Robert Gowan. He would hold this position for seven years when he was replaced by George L. Allen.
Also in 1836, George accepted the role of notary public and town clerk of Belleville until 1847.
George was appointed a captain in the Belleville militia where his volunteer company would go on to repel Canadian rebels and American infiltrators in the Gananoque area in 1838. This action no doubt enhanced his prestige amongst his political friends in Hastings County.
George was appointed registrar of Hastings County, town clerk of Thurlow and clerk of the Belleville board of police in 1847.
When Hastings County was separated from the Midland District in 1849, George was one of the commissioners appointed to settle the financial aspects of the separation.
George acquired these lucrative and relatively prestigious offices through his political influence and that of his friends, Ogle Robert Gowan, Edmund Murney and James Samson.
The appointments helped George consolidate his power in the county, but his connections with the Orange Association brought him wider prominence.
At this point in time it was estimated that there were approximately 50,000 Orangemen in Upper Canada who, since 1836, had become an important element in the electoral strength of the Tory party.
In 1848, George ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the legislature for North Hastings.
In 1856, after the resignation of Edmund Murney, George was elected by a substantial majority to the legislature for North Hastings. This would be the beginning of a modest but useful parliamentary career that lasted until 1862.
After leaving the legislature, George sought election as councillor for Hungerford and Warden for North Hastings but his election was voided on technical grounds. He did not contest his seat in the provincial election of 1863.
In January of 1864, both George and his wife were baptized at St. Thomas' Anglican Church in Belleville. George never publicized the fact that he had been Jewish though it was widely known.
Nine months later George passed away on September 7th, 1864 from a prolonged illness in Belleville.
He was buried at the St. Thomas' Anglican Cemetery.
With information from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Portrait of George Benjamin in 1857.
In Memory of George Benjamin for seven years Grand Master of the Orange Institution of British North America. Died 7th Sept 1864 Aged 65 Years. Erected by his Brethren.