History of the Cohen family

Wesley College has a long and proud tradition of educating generations of Jewish families, and the Cohens are one such family with an extraordinary history. This history was researched over many years by Trevor Cohen (OW1955) and published in late 2022.

The Greatest Gift: Trevor Cohen (OW1955) proudly holds his family history in his hands alongside author, historian and friend, Geoffrey Blainey (OW1947)

Spending time rummaging through his grandfather’s garage at 15 years of age ignited Trevor Cohen’s passion for both his own family’s history and Australian history. When COVID struck and lockdowns were in place, Trevor began writing about his family’s 200-year connection with Australia, particularly Melbourne, where his great-great grandparents settled in 1840.

After receiving encouragement from his dear friend Professor Geoffrey Blainey (OW1947), who read an early draft and commented that it should 'reach a wider audience than your king-sized procession of ancestral families,’ Trevor finished the book, and in November 2022 The Greatest Gift was finally launched.

The story begins with a wedding in 1815 London, followed by the trial, conviction, and transportation of two teenage brothers to Georgetown, Tasmania. Earning their freedom after years of severe punishment, they embraced the opportunities available in their new homeland and before long, Trevor’s great-great-grandparents, along with numerous other family members, began making the migration to Australia.

We also learn of Michael and Betsy Cashmore – Trevor’s great-great grandparents, who were shipwrecked on the 90 Mile Beach on New Year’s Eve 1841, whilst on their honeymoon! Cashmore played a significant role in Melbourne’s early history and became a highly respected figure who was involved in many of its first institutions.

He was the first President of the Jewish Congregational Society, an active Freemason and member of Melbourne’s first Masonic Lodge (later to become Master of the Lodge), member of The Mechanics Institute and the first Jew elected to Council as a member for the Latrobe Ward, City of Melbourne. He also sat on the ‘Separation Committee,’ actively supporting the separation from NSW to become an independent colony.

Michael and Betsy Cashmore, whose ten children included the first Jewish girl born in Melbourne, lived and worked on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets where they ran a drapery store. This address was the site of Melbourne’s first multi-story brick building. Using a contemporary lithograph from Trevor’s extensive private collection, its image has been reproduced on the front cover of this beautifully produced and illustrated book.

Continuing a family tradition on both his paternal and maternal sides, Trevor began his Wesley College journey at the Junior School Campus in 1945 and stayed until completion of his Higher School Certificate. Old school friends and classmates, teachers and principals, sports days, education, swimming sports and punishments during his time at the College are recalled with vivid detail. There are many wonderful illustrations throughout the book, including a photograph of the Wesley College Primary School Footballers of 1922, which includes Trevor’s father, Godfrey, and two other family members, standing with Sports Master W T Kennedy, whose nose was broken following a collision with Godfrey on the football field.

The Wesley tradition has continued, with future generations of the wider Cohen family having attended the College; in particular, both of Trevor’s sons and five of his grandchildren.

The book also traces the arrival of his maternal family from Europe during the 1850s following the discovery of gold at Ballarat, whilst the final chapters are a personal reflection of his youth, growing up in Melbourne during the war, living by the Elwood foreshore surrounded by his huge extended family, romance, marriage and family, all shared with warmth and good humour!

The book contains a wonderful foreword written by Geoffrey Blainey where he describes The Greatest Gift as 'One of the most unusual books written about an Australian family… a story of frictions as well as friendships, it is exceptionally frank, judged by the standards of most family histories.’

Trevor’s dedication and commitment to the preservation of Australian and Jewish Australian history and heritage has seen him commit to a number of committees and restoration projects in the hope that our past is preserved and our future protected. In 2019, he was honoured with a Membership of the Order of Australia for ‘services to heritage and to the Jewish community.’

For further information about The Greatest Gift, please visit www.thegreatestgift.info

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