Rachel Sassoon Beer: the first lady of Fleet Street

Who would have imagined that the grand-daughter of an Iraqi Jew could have played a leading role in producing two quality British newspapers – and all before women had the vote. Jewish Ideas Daily tells the fascinating story of Rachel Beer, nee Sassoon, now the subject of a biography by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Coren.

Rachel’s grandfather David Sassoon, born in Iraq, was a shrewd entrepreneur dubbed the “Rothschild of the East.” He made his fortune through a global mercantile empire that traded cotton and silk throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas—and illicitly exported Indian opium to China. He educated his sons in sacred Jewish law and ritual and the not-so-sacred customs of commerce. S.D. Sassoon, the third of David’s sons, settled in London in 1858 to represent the family’s business interests there. Suddenly transported to a new world of opulence and shifting social standards, S.D. tenaciously clung to his old-world piety—and added the profits of his sometimes-murky commercial transactions to the family coffers. He and his wife Flora acquired a lavish mansion and a manicured estate. They sent their three sons to Oxford.

S.D. and Flora hadn’t counted on a daughter like Rachel, who refused to play by their rules. Though she was a piano prodigy with a fertile, inquiring mind, she was expected to languish at home, a casualty of 19th-century medical theories that deemed the education of women injurious to their reproductive organs and sanity. But with shrewdness worthy of her grandfather, Rachel circumvented her constraints, using the family’s political and social connections to learn nursing and establish herself as an impresario of music and the visual arts.

Rachel paid a price. Nearing thirty, with her father dead, she found herself autonomous and unleashed but decidedly past her prime. Then, in London in the 1880s, at the high noon of imperial Britain, she met Frederick Beer, the sole inheritor of a fortune made by his German forebears.

The Beer family had earned its wealth through investments in transportation and communications, building railway lines throughout Europe, the Americas, and the Far East and revolutionizing the world by wrapping it in telegraph lines. Frederick, intellectual and scholarly, set aside the family’s commercial interests to assume the reins of his father’s newspaper, the Observer, a Sunday weekly dedicated to the social and political concerns of the rising middle class. Rachel and Frederick, kindred spirits with a passion for one another and the visual and performing arts, as well as a penchant for social justice, joined their ambitions and fortunes in an Anglican church in August, 1887—one day after Rachel, uncoerced by spouse, custom, or law, converted to the Church of England, alienating her family forever.

But, with her marriage, Rachel found her journalistic calling. First, she became a reporter and editorialist for the Observer. When she sought more editorial control, she offended the paper’s male staff; so, Frederick bought his wife a newspaper of her own, the Sunday Times, of which she became editor-in-chief.

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  • The Nissim de Camondo mansion is indeed a Paris gem, with its priceless furniture and antiquities.
    Another contender for the title Rothschilds of the East could be the Ephrussis from Odessa, although they were Ashkenazim. Read their story in Edmunde de Vaal's "The Hare with Amber Eyes".

  • The de Camondos later established themselves in Paris where they were wiped out by the Nazis.

  • The De Camondo family of Kusta [Constantinople] were also called the Rothschilds of the East


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