On the trail of cousin Leo

Duncan Honeybourne uncovers the remarkable story of another piano teacher in the family

The story of Leopold Carl Cohen, later Alexander (1887-1950)

It was in the late 1980s, growing up on the Dorset coast, that I first heard of Leo. I was an instinctively and obsessively musical child in a largely non-musical family, and my grandmother was prompted to dig a vague and unsubstantiated recollection from the deepest crevices of her secret past. My grandfather, who had died almost half a century earlier, had had a cousin who was a musician, she said. She was sure that, like me, he played the piano, and his name was Leo. She had never met him, and she knew nothing about his life or work, but she was convinced that he had existed. For my grandmother, never especially interested in the past and with no musical inclination herself, this was in itself a strikingly decisive memory. Perhaps Leo’s musical gene had resurfaced in her grandson, she wondered.

There were musical relatives in my father’s family, notably a cousin of my grandfather who became a piano teacher and Methodist church organist in my home town of Weymouth, and whose handsome metronome I was later to inherit. And my great-grandmother’s siblings played folk music together, on a motley collection of instruments, at the Greyhound Inn in nearby Bridport, far back in the 19th century. Yet my grandmother’s vague but decisive insistence that my long-deceased grandfather had had a pianist relative nagged at my curiosity down the years. With no surname to go on, knowing little about my grandfather and still less about his wider family, I put the mystery to the back of my mind.

It was whilst studying in my grandparents’ native city, Birmingham, during the 1990s, that I learned considerably more about my grandfather’s origins than I had known hitherto. His mother, I discovered, had come from Leeds, where her own father, Abraham Cohen, was a prominent jeweller and sometime President of the Leeds Old Synagogue. An important figure in the Leeds Jewish community for over half a century, he had arrived from Warsaw in the late 1840s, and lived first in a boarding house run by a woman popularly known as “Blind Mary.” In 1852, at Leeds’ first synagogue in Back Rockingham Street, he married Rosetta, daughter of a Prussian-born furrier, Barnet Fox, who had recently moved to Leeds from London’s Spitalfields. Abraham and Rosetta had nine children, of which my great-grandmother Rosa, born in 1853, was the eldest. One by one I researched what happened to them all, and I was intrigued when I came to track the life history of the second child, Rosa’s brother Charles Cohen - born in 1854 and, like his father, a watchmaker and jeweller. My subsequent research revealed that Charles’s younger son, Leopold, was the Leo of my grandmother’s legend. It transpired that indeed he was a pianist and, over the ensuing two decades, I pieced together what I could of Leo Cohen’s musical career. Let’s place him in a family context first.

Family Background and Childhood

In 1878 uncle Charles Cohen married Helena Casril, daughter of a Hull family of hat manufacturers. Although his wife is named as Helena on her marriage certificate, the new Mrs Cohen seems to have sported a range of spellings of her forename, including Elina, but seemingly preferring the rather exotic Oelina. The Jewish Chronicle of 3rd January 1879 reported that on 11th December 1878, at “the residence of the bride’s parents, 1 Scarboro Terrace, Beverley Road, Hull”, Charles, “son of A. Cohen , Esq., President of the Leeds Hebrew Congregation”, married “Oelina, eldest daughter of Marcus Casril, Esq. of Hull.” The ceremony was conducted by the Rev Dr Joseph Strauss, who had been appointed the first Rabbi of the newly constituted Bradford Jewish Congregation just a month earlier.

On the 17th September 1880, at 1 Scarboro Terrace, Mrs Cohen gave birth to her first child, Alexander Charles. In the census of 1881, the infant “Alex” and his mother are recorded in Leeds with the child’s Cohen grandparents, Abraham and Rosetta, while Charles is listed at Scarboro Terrace with his Casril parents-in-law. Charles and Helena’s second son, Leopold Carl Cohen, was born in London on 12th May 1887, at 83 Mildmay Road, Islington, and was registered on 23rd June 1887 in the Sub District of Highbury. The child’s mother signed the register as Oelina Cohen, stating her husband to be an Optician and Jeweller.

In the 1891 census, the 3 year old “Leo Cohen” can be found living with his Casril grandparents in Hull. Marcus Casril, a Prussian-born hatter, and his wife Julia, lived at 9 ½ King Street, an address that was to have an important place in Leo’s life. His elder brother Alexander, meanwhile, was 60 miles away in Leeds with their Cohen grandparents, and I can’t find the boys’ parents, Charles and Helena, on the census at all. Family life for this branch of the Cohen family seemed decidedly peripatetic, and I wondered whether there might have been an unsettled subtext to the meanderings.

Charles Cohen never reappears on British census returns after 1881, but “Oleane” does, in 1901, when she is recorded back in Hull with her widowed father and her two sons, then aged 20 and 13, again at 9 ½ King Street. I was intrigued to note that “Oleane” was by now a widow, yet there is no record of a death for Charles in England or Wales. I kept digging, and I was in for a shock. Oelina’s young husband had decamped to America.

On 25th December 1892, in Manhattan, New York, English-born Charles Cohen, son of Abraham Cohen and Rosetta Fox, married Irish-born Rachel Stewart, declaring himself a bachelor! There is no record of any offspring having been born to the couple and, less than six years later, on 3rd September 1898, Charles Cohen died. He was buried four days later in Bayside, Manhattan.

By now I was burning to know whether any stories of Charles’s American sojourn had been passed down in the Cohen family. Where was Oelina/Helena at the time of the 1891 census? Did word reach Oelina before 1901 that Charles had died and she was now officially a widow, or did she just write her husband out of her life? Did he abandon her, or was the situation a very great deal more complex? It’s unlikely we shall ever know more, for all those who were in a position to supply answers have long since taken their secrets to the grave. But I had identified the mysterious Leo, my grandfather’s musician cousin, and I was on track to discover much more about him.

Musical Career

The first musical reference I can find to Leo occurs on 29th December 1903, when the Hull Daily Mail listed the examination successes achieved by the pupils of Mr Fred W. Brook, L.N.C.M. The 16-year old Leo Cohen achieved honours in the Junior Division.On 12th May 1905, the same newspaper reported, in an article headlined “Successful Candidates in Music”:
“At the examination held in Hull on May 6th in connection with the National College of Music (London), the following were successful in pianoforte playing.” Two candidates achieved certificates in the Senior Division: J. Fishwick, who was a prize winner, and Leo Cohen. The article tells us that “the local secretary (for the National College of Music examinations) is Mr Fred W. Brook, L.N.C.M., 45, Spring Street, Hull. Nat. Tel. 584x3. Next examination in September.”

Indeed on 7th September 1905, when the Hull Daily Mail next reported on the National College of Music examination successes, pride of place was given to Leo Cohen, now 18 years of age, who was clearly a credit to his teacher, Mr Fred W. Brook. Following a “special examination” held at St George’s Hall, Hull, on September 1st and 2nd 1905, Leo was awarded the Diploma of Associateship, along with three other candidates, by the examiner, Mr. W.J. Moss, F.N.C.M., F.G.S.C. The article concludes with a special mention of Leo’s growing distinction: “Mr Leo Cohen has also been awarded a special prize for continued success in all the local examinations connected with the National College of Music.”

The National College of Music, established in 1894, remains in existence, and still offers the same grade and diploma examinations that set Leo Cohen up for a busy career in music. Clearly he was a pupil of whom his teacher, the NCM’s Hull representative Fred Brook, had every reason to feel proud.

Now professionally qualified, Leo established himself as a piano teacher in the Hull district and, in the Hull Daily Mail of 15th November 1906, his advertisement of professional services heads the “Music, Dancing, &c.” column, directly above “Amy Pry Verte’s Dancing Classes” and the tuition in “Voice Production and Singing” offered by Miss Jennie Langford. His notice reads:
Mr Leo C. Cohen, A.N.C.M., Teacher of Pianoforte Playing. Pupils prepared for Examinations. Terms moderate – Apply 9 ½ , King St., Hull

Whether Leo taught at home or in a rented studio is unclear, but we note the address is that of his maternal grandfather’s residence, where Leo had first been recorded some 15 years earlier as a boy of 3 on the 1891 census. We might surmise that it was probably the home where he had enjoyed the most security, and where he must have lived for the majority of his young life. His grandfather, Marcus Casril, the hatter from Kempen, Prussia, died late the following year, 1907, at the age of 76. He must have been proud of his grandson’s musical success, and perhaps he witnessed some of Leo’s early teaching in his family home. Leo’s paternal grandfather, Abraham Cohen, the jeweller from Warsaw, died the same year, at home in Dorset Street, Leeds, on 13th May 1907.

The Jewish Chronicle of 21st December 1906 recorded an event of some importance in the Hull Jewish community. Surely Leo’s participation in this community-minded enterprise would have gladdened the hearts of his two elderly grandfathers:
“On Monday, a conversazione was held in the Central Hall, in aid of the Hebrew Boys’ School attached to the Osborne Street Synagogue. Over 300 ladies and gentlemen were present….A dance followed. The pianists were Miss Annie Saipe and Mr. Leo Cohen….The conversazione proved a great success in every respect.” It is not clear whether Leo and Miss Saipe played piano solos or duets; but what, I wondered, happened to Miss Annie Saipe? A quick search and a phone call in May 2019 to an old friend supplied the answer. In Hull, just a few months after the “conversazione”, Annie married one Albert Sackin; their grandson, I quickly realised, was the remarkable Leicester University lecturer and musician Michael Sackin. I had once played a concerto in Leicester under Michael’s baton, and enjoyed the company and the hospitality of this charming man. A delighted Michael confirmed that Annie - whom he had known well - was his grandmother, and he was fascinated to learn about the press article. I will forever be grateful to the memory of Leo and Annie for encouraging me to reconnect with Michael in that lengthy and memorable conversation. Michael Sackin died just a few weeks later, and I’d never have spoken to him again had it not been for that wonderfully serendipitous discovery in an ancient edition of the JC.

The Hull Daily Mail of 18th March 1908 again records Leo’s contribution to a community event in an article headed “Jewish Whist Drive”:
“The Hull Old Hebrew congregation held a most successful whist drive in the large hall of the West Hull Liberal Club last night, in aid of the Building Fund, nearly 200 people participating.”
The article tells us that “For the dancing Messrs M Rosenbaum and A. Cohen were able M.C.s. Mr Leo Cohen supplied the strains. A refreshment buffet was provided.” Was Mr A. Cohen Leo’s brother Alex, I wonder?

On 25th November 1908, the Scunthorpe column of the Hull Daily Mail describes a “successful Cinderella dance” held in the town’s Assembly Rooms. “Mr T. Rhodes was the M.C. and Mr Leo Cohen provided the music. There was a large attendance, and the room was tastefully decorated.”

Leo was clearly carving a niche for himself as a pianist and piano teacher in pre-First World War Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire. References to him throughout the district abound in newspapers of the period and, as I leafed through the yellowing pages, I realised I had found the right man. I had built my own career in piano teaching and performing, and I was glad to know that my own grandfather’s first cousin had followed the same profession before me.  

Later Years

But what had become of Leo? And what had happened to his mother, Oelina, for whom I had begun to feel distinctly sorry. I cannot find any reference to her after 1901, but branches of her birth family, the Casrils, remain in Yorkshire to the present day. As for Leo himself, by 1911 he had migrated south-westward and was living in Balby, a suburb of the booming industrial town of Doncaster, in the south of Yorkshire’s old West Riding. On 2nd April 1911, the census records Leo at 6 Furnivall Road, a terraced house he shared with his maternal uncle Harry Casril, Harry’s wife Esther, their daughter Ivy and a boarder, Harry Levy, a 23-year old cigarette maker. Leo, now 23, is listed as a musician. But after that the Leo Cohen trail goes cold. There are simply no records of him after 1911. Did he emigrate, I wondered? No passenger lists I could find made any mention of him, and I considered myself defeated for the best part of two decades.

I visited Furnivall Road in early May 2019. I felt an eerie sense of recognition that this sturdy, red-brick Yorkshire terrace had, more than a century earlier, been home to my relative, that predecessor musician my grandmother had spoken of when I was a small boy. A few weeks earlier I had finally managed to join the dots and piece together Leo’s story. Then I found myself driving south from York, and the opportunity to follow in his footsteps was irresistible. So, what had happened to Leo?

I always had in mind the thought that Leo – and, indeed, his brother Alex - might have changed his name. The unmistakably Jewish surname of Cohen has often been forfeited in favour of something blander and less defining. But trying to find a Cohen who has changed his or her name without having something concrete to go on really is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Nothing – Cowan, Curwen, Conway or anything else I could ever think of - threw up anything remotely likely, even though plenty of Cohens in my own and other families had adopted all these permutations and many others besides.

Then I had an idea. The 1939 register, gathered at the outbreak of the Second World War, is now in the public domain and the listing for anyone born over 100 years ago is searchable online. Crucially, the indexes include dates of birth. Having ordered the birth certificates of Leo and his brother Alex, I knew their exact dates of birth. Instead of searching the 1939 index by surname, I searched for anyone with their forenames whose birthdates matched those I had for the Cohen brothers. This approach did the trick. Immediately they both jumped out at me from the computer screen.

Alexander Charles Cohen had, somewhat improbably, assumed the name of Alexander Charles Alexander. Alex had met a young Irish nurse named Minnie Agnes Geary, who was working in Hull at the turn of the century, and they married in a Nottinghamshire church. It is under this new name that Alex appears in 1911, with his wife and daughter, Sybil, who was destined to die in infancy. A traveller in the mineral water business, Alex settled in Sheffield, where he died in 1951.

In 1911 Leo was, as we know, still Leo Cohen but, later that year or early the next, he too changed his surname to Alexander and migrated 60 miles further south, to the Leicestershire town of Loughborough. There, in 1912, Leo C. Alexander, A.N.C.M., is listed for the first time, as a piano teacher at 2, Toothill Road. Shortly afterwards he moved, with his new wife, May Perry, to 122 Ratcliffe Road, the Loughborough address where he remained for the rest of his life. He taught piano there for almost 40 years, and he and May raised their three sons in the house. Leo or, to give him his full name, Leopold Carl Alexander, died in Loughborough on 13th May 1950, a few weeks short of his 63rd birthday. His widow, May, continued to live there until her death in 1965.

After a comprehensive search I traced Leo’s granddaughter, Diane, now living in Germany. She was delighted both to recall what she knew of her grandfather’s later life and to learn more about his origins. She was under 4 years old when Leo died and had only the vaguest of memories of him, but she adored her grandmother, May, and the house in Ratcliffe Road where she spent many happy times. Diane knew her grandfather had been Jewish, but believed he had been cut off by his family when he abandoned the faith. She didn’t know that Leo’s uncle, Henry, had also married out of Judaism, to the legendary Leeds suffragette, Leonora Cohen who, in 1913, smashed with a hammer a glass case in the Tower of London, and lived to be 105. But Diane was able to tell me that Leo had doted on her as a baby and remembered a photograph of him, long lost, that her grandmother had kept in the front room. Diane would love to find a copy of that picture again (as would I!) but, as Diane says, she still carries that image of her grandfather in her memory. She knows him to have been a remarkable man, greatly respected and much loved. Diane is my 3rd cousin and we are now in regular contact online.

At this late date we can gather little real detail about Leo’s musical interests and professional accomplishments. Many burning questions must stay forever unanswered, yet what remains is nonetheless a warming and inspiring tale. It is the story of a young Jewish boy from the north of England, who worked hard and rose from a complex background to forge a valuable and successful career as a music teacher. He abandoned his ancestral faith for the lifelong love of his devoted wife, and he put down strong roots in a Leicestershire town where he headed a large family and nurtured generations of piano pupils.

And his cousin and contemporary, my own grandfather, with whom he probably shared many a Passover seder at their Leeds grandfather’s strictly Orthodox home, must have long remembered his musical accomplishments. For he mentioned Leo to my grandmother many years later and she, in turn, never quite forgot. It took my turbulent childhood immersion in the piano to bring back her distant recollection of the name of a man she’d never even met.