The Sassoon Family

The Sassoon Family
The Sassoon family were the custodians of Trent Park from 1909 to 1939. Initially bought from the Bevan banking family by Sir Edward Sassoon (1856−1912), before passing to his son Sir Philip (1888−1939) in 1912. The Sassoons, known as ​‘the Rothschilds of the East’, were a family of Baghdadi Jewish descent who especially under the leadership of David Sassoon (1792−1864) would make their fortune in the cotton and opium trades, property, and banking, based in nineteenth-century British-controlled Bombay (now Mumbai).

“Silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat – whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Company. ” — An unnamed contemporary commenting on the success of ​‘Sassoon & Co.’

The disruption to global cotton supplies caused by the American Civil War – where the cotton-rich Confederacy was successfully blockaded by the Union Navy – provided highly lucrative opportunities for the Sassoon family’s cotton trading business. An essential part of British imperial in-roads into China at the same time was the trade in Indian-grown opium. During the nineteenth-century, opium would amount to approximately 14 percent of British income in India. The Sassoons would control 70 per cent of this trade.

David Sassoon was evidently a canny economic and political operator. Although he himself kept oriental dress and never learned English, he consistently backed British imperial rule in India – a good example of this being during the 1857 Indian Rebellion where he promised to the support of the Bombay Jewish community to the colonial authorities.

​“David Sassoon not only honoured the British and his God but he accomplished an extraordinary number of good works in Bombay and Poona.” — Historian Peter Stansky referencing the many synagogues, medical and educational institutions, and civic architecture built through the benefaction of the Sassoon family.
These ties with Great Britain would be further strengthened by sending sons to London both for business but also to establish close relationships with the establishment. Abdullah ​‘Albert’ Sassoon (1817−1896) – Sir Edward’s father and Sir Philip’s grandfather – was so successful in these efforts that in 1872 he was knighted as a member of the Star of India and in 1873 was given an honorary Freedom of the City of London, the first Jew to be given that specific honour. Albert became a key player in the circle of the Prince of Wales and was made an baronet in 1880 – Sir Albert Sassoon of Kensington Gore and Eastern Terrace, Brighton.

​“He [Albert] has splendid palaces in India, yet he has elected to live in Kensington, and he has met with a reception in London which cannot fail to convince him that England is the proper home of the chosen people. ” — Vanity Fair, 1879

“Sir Albert Abdullah Sassoon / That Indian auriferous c**n, / Has bought an estate called Queen’s Gate / And will enter upon it in June.” — From the sporting paper The Pink Un. A reminder than not all welcomed the Sassoons.

Sir Edward would continue the family tradition of close links with the Prince of Wales, integrating himself within the ​‘Marlborough House set’. Connections with other prominent Jewish families were also maintained, particularly through his marriage to Aline Caroline de Rothschild (1865−1909) in 1887. He would serve in the Duke of Cambridge’s Hussars for fifteen years, reaching the rank of Major, and would be elected MP for Hythe, Kent. Wealth and personal charm would open many doors for Sir Edward and his family, but it does seem that their ​‘foreignness’ and Jewish identity denied them universal and complete acceptance by British upper-class society.

​“On the whole I had a delightful morning marred only by the thought that poor Sassbags [a nickname for Aline, Lady Sassoon] was bored with me; we have so little in common […] Tomorrow we can taste the joys of freedom & stringy meat & a vagabond life in the Quartier Latin free from Semite patronage & hot rooms, constraint & orchids & champagne!” — Violet Asquith writing about a visit to France in November 1904. Suggestive perhaps of how English society was happy to accept wealthy Jewish hospitality but did not consider them ​‘one of us’.

References & Further Reading:

Damian Collins, Charmed Life: The Phenomenal World of Philip Sassoon (London: William Collins, 2016).

Stanley Jackson, The Sassoons (London: Heinemann, 1968).

Cecil Roth, The Sassoon Dynasty (London: Robert Hale, 1941).

Joseph Sassoon, The Global Merchants: The Enterprise & Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty (London: Allen Lane, 2022).

Peter Stansky, Sassoon: The Worlds of Philip and Sybil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).