Sir Moses of Montefiore
Portrait by George Richmond 1809-96 from The Royal & Sun alliance Collection, London
Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Baronet (24 October 1784 - 28 July 1885) is one of the most famous British Jews of the 19th century. Montefiore's 100th birthday was celebrated as a national event in Britain and by Jews all over the world.
Many experts claim that Sir Moses’ family came from Montefiore dell’Aso, but others deny this, claiming instead that his family lived in another Montefiore.
Moses Henriquez Pimentel, a well-known Jewish author from the Netherlands, wrote in an article in 1884: “some family members (of Moses Montefiore) think that they have their roots in the town Montefiore, near to the Apennines in the province of Ascoli Piceno …”.
Another possible town of origin of the family was Montefiore Conca, which is situated in the province of Emilia Romagna and only thirty-five kilometres from Pesaro. There is no doubt that the family lived for a considerable period of time in this region of Italy, and that it was a common practice for immigrant Jews to take the name of their adopted home.
There are numerous but inconclusive pieces of evidence to support both claims, but it is also possible that the family had branches in both towns.
Which came first, in their journey from ancient probably Spanish Sephardic origins will probably never be definitively proved. It is known that Montefiore dell’Aso had had a thriving Jewish community since the 13th century.
As far as the family connection with Montefiore dell’Aso and Pesaro are concerned, most of the evidence comes from two historical artefacts:
The first is the family coat of arms, which is based on an extremely early Torah ark curtain, richly embroidered in silver and gold threads on red silk background. This was made in 1620 by Rachel Olivetti of Pesaro, in honour of her husband Judah (Leon) Montefiore (born in 1605). Rachel Olivetti and Judah Montefiore are thus apparently the founders of the Montefiore family in Italy. Apparently the family's origins in Italy are Pesaro. Members of the Montefiore family went to other towns in Italy, but it seems the majority moved to Ancona, where a branch of the family was active in late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century.
The second is an old manuscript in the Montefiore estate in Ramsgate, England, dated 1741, testifying that its original owner and scribe, "Joseph, the son of the old sage Jacob Montefiore of Pesaro", married Justina, the daughter of Ancona's chief rabbi at the time, the Rev. Isaac Alconstantin. The original coat of arms, dated 1690, proves beyond doubt that even before Joseph's move there was already an established branch of the Montefiore family in Ancona.
There is, therefore, convincing evidence that the family had combined roots in Pesaro as well as in Ancona.
The previous history of the family is impossible to ascertain, as there had been Jewish communities in Italy even in Roman times, so it is not entirely safe to assume that the family came from Spain.
What is certain is that Moses Montefiore was born in Livorno, Italy in 1784. He began his career as an apprentice to a firm of grocers and tea merchants. He later left for London, and became one of twelve "Jew brokers" in the City of London. There he went into business with his brother Abraham, and their firm gained a high reputation.
In 1812, Moses Montefiore married Judith Cohen (1784-1862). She was related by marriage to the Rothschild family, for whom Montefiore's firm acted as stockbrokers. Nathan Rothschild headed the family's banking business in Britain, and the two brothers-in-law became business partners. In business he was an innovator, investing in the supply of piped gas for street lighting to European cities via the Imperial Continental Gas Association. He was among the founding consortium of the Alliance Life Assurance Company, and a Director of the Provincial Bank of Ireland. However, Montefiore retired from his business in 1824 and used his time and fortune for what he felt to be his civic responsibilities.
A Government loan raised by the Rothschilds and Montefiore in 1835 enabled the British Government to compensate plantation owners and thus abolish slavery in the Empire.
In 1837 Moses was awarded the coveted title of Sheriff of London (being only the second Jew to be awarded that status).
In 1838 Queen Victoria (with whom he was on friendly terms) awarded him a knighthood, and in 1846 he was elevated to the rank of Baron, in recognition of his services to humanitarian causes. His Yahrzeit (anniversary) is observed yearly by the institutions which are maintained even today from the funds established for this purpose.
In 1831 Montefiore purchased an impressive country estate outside the then fashionable seaside town of Ramsgate. The property had previously been a country house of Queen Caroline, when still Princess of Wales. Soon afterwards, Montefiore purchased the adjoining land and commissioned his cousin, architect David Mocatta, to design a private synagogue, known as the Montefiore synagogue. It opened with a grand public ceremony in 1833. One can now visit the Montefiore Museum here, which contains a large collection of gold and silver artefacts that Sir Moses received as gifts from kings and rulers, as well as documents of great historical importance.
Jewish philanthropy and the Holy Land were at the centre of Montefiore's interests. He travelled there (by carriage, ship and camel) seven times, sometimes accompanied by his wife. Montefiore donated large sums of money to promote industry, education and health. These activities were part of a broader program to enable the Jews of Palestine to become self-supporting, in anticipation of the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Montefiore was renowned for his quick and sharp wit. A popularly-circulated anecdote, (possibly apocryphal), relates that at a dinner party he was once seated next to a nobleman who was known to be an anti-Semite. The nobleman told Montefiore that he had just returned from a trip to Japan, where "they have neither pigs nor Jews." Montefiore is reported to have responded immediately, "in that case, you and I should go there, so it will have a sample of each".
Sir Moses Montefiore registered his coat of arms in 1819, based on the family badge embroidered on an Ark curtain presented to the synagogue of Ancona by an ancestor in 1635.
Sir Moses lived till the ripe old age of 100, and he and his wife are buried on the family estate in Ramsgate.