Flora Sassoon was born in Bombay, India in 1859, to an incredibly affluent dynasty. Her father, Ezekiel Gabbai, was a trader and businessman, who moved to India from Baghdad. Her mother, Aziza, was the granddaughter of David Sasson. David Sasoon was the founder of the Sassoon dynasty. As a leading trader of cotton, he served as the treasurer of Baghdad from 1817 to 1829.
Unlike many young girls at the time, Flora was incredibly well educated. She attended a Catholic school, though her Jewish roots were not neglected. The six Sassoon children received private tutoring from rabbis from Baghdad. This education meant Flora was familiar with Jewish texts, being well versed in Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, halachah, and Jewish philosophy. Additionally, Flora was able to speak six languages including Hebrew, Aramaic and Hindustani. A 1936 article called Flora ‘one of the world’s most learned women.’
Flora was connected to the Sassoon empire both by blood and marriage, creating complex family ties. David Sassoon was her great-grandfather. In 1876 at age fourteen, Flora married Solomon Sassoon, David’s youngest son. This made David both her great-grandfather and her father-in-law, while Solonon was her husband and great-uncle.
Flora involved herself in her husband’s business. During their marriage, Solomon was serving as head of David Sassoon & Co, running the Bombay office, while holding significant roles in a multitude of other organisations held by the Sassoon family. After her husband passed away in 1894, Flora took over his business responsibilities and remained a widow.
Flora was a grand hostess. She held famous parties, though all were strictly kosher. Reflecting on the hosting prowess of Flora, a 1936 article wrote ‘Her meals were lavish Eastern Banquets and there was no greater crime in her eyes than to refuse the dishes, which she pressed on her guests. It is known that some of those invited to her home abstained from food earlier in the day so that they could do justice to her hospitality.’
Flora had three children: Rachel born in 1877, David Solomon born in 1880, and Mozelle born in 1884. All three children had illustrious careers, although Rachel warrants particular note. Rachel, later Lady Ezra, was active in public affairs and was elected president of the Jewish community in 1947.
Flora relocated to England in the early 1900s. Some sources say the move occurred in 1901, although Hove History reports ‘the local Directories record that she was resident at 37 Adelaide Crescent, Hove, from 1894 to 1919; the house having previously been occupied by Frederick Sassoon and his wife.’
Many of the Sassoon family resided in Hove, and were particularly friendly with the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII. Henry Labouchere described Brighton as “four miles long and one mile in depth with a Sassoon at each end and another in the middle.”
The Argus newspaper even reports a tale of Flora’s eccentricism. On a hot day in Hove, a policeman on traffic duty was perspiring. In response, Flora bought a multitude of melons for the police so they could keep cool. Flora is reported to have often ‘walked along Hove seafront, a small, neat figure dressed in black carrying an ornate parasol.’
In 1913, Flora purchased an extra acre land and donated it to Hove council to expand St Ann’s Well Gardens. This land bought by Flora is where the Scented Garden for the blind is, alongside the tennis courts. A plaque can be seen at the site honouring this donation and the grand opening ceremony. [add this image http://hovehistory.blogspot.com/2014/12/hove-plaques-index-s-t.html]. Interestingly, the park was opened by the Mayor Barnett Marks, also Jewish.
Flora found her hostessing prowess was in great demand, and received many philanthropic requests which she would respond to by hand. It is reported ‘every Sephardi Jew in the world or any person hailing from the East saw her as the focus of philanthropic promise.’ Active in philanthropy in Brighton and abroad, more details of Flora’s donations can be found described by Hove History.
Flora remained true to her Orthodox Jewish roots, and in particular to the religious traditions of their family in the East. A minyan is the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for some religious obligations. It is said Flora always traveled with her own minyan and shohet for ritual slaughter. As a staunch Zionist in support of a Jewish state, Flora was strongly in favour of the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
What was truly notable about Flora was her scholarship. She had a wealth of knowledge about Jewish texts, being able to discuss subjects with rabbis ‘on equal terms.’ She was particularly learned on Eastern manuscripts, holding great knowledge and details only found in manuscripts. This knowledge is shown in her articles about Rashi, published in The Jewish Forum. Perhaps based on this foundation, Flora held public religious roles. This is uncommon for an Orthodox woman.
Upon her death in 1936, Flora left an impressive legacy as a businesswoman, philanthropist, famed hostess and Jewish scholar.