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Murder most foul: death of a Jewish officer that moved Queen Victoria

Sussex Police and Jewish community join forces to put up plaque at Town Hall

    Murdered: Henry Solomon (Photo: The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove)
    Murdered: Henry Solomon (Photo: The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove)

    A plaque is to be unveiled in Brighton in memory of the UK’s first Jewish chief constable — 170 years after he was murdered with an iron poker in his office.

    When Henry Solomon died in 1844, thousands of mourners lined the streets, while Queen Victoria donated the sum of £50 to support his widow and nine children and the Brighton Town Commissioners gave £500.

    Mr Solomon was Brighton Synagogue’s vice-president and became chief constable of Brighton Police in the late 1830s, in charge of 31 officers.

    But he became the victim of a hefty blow to the head by a suspect he was questioning for stealing a roll of carpet. At the time, the police headquarters were in the Town Hall, with the cells in its basement.

    The attack was with such force that the poker bent and smashed his skull, and Mr Solomon died soon after, believed to be the only chief constable ever to be murdered in his office.

    Queen Victoria donated £50 to support his widow and nine children
    Queen Victoria donated £50 to support his widow and nine children

    The perpetrator, John Lawrence, was tried and became the last criminal to be hanged in public at Horsham Jail. During his trial, three jurors were excused because they were Jewish.

    According to the Annual Register for 1844, the “most sudden and wanton murder” occurred after Mr Solomon turned to talk to another person. “Lawrence asked for a knife to cut his throat, as life was a burden to him; and presently, springing to the fire-place, he seized the poker and felled the chief constable to the ground with a blow to the head.”

    The “late dreadful murder” , as the JC put it, prompted an appeal “with great confidence to the Hebrews of the British Empire, distinguished as they are for acts of the most unbounded charity, to aid the exertions now making on behalf of the Widow and Nine Orphan Children of the late Mr Henry Solomon”.

    Next year, thanks to sponsorship from Sussex Police and members of the Sussex Jewish community, a blue plaque is to be placed on the front of the Town Hall building. Brighton and Hove City Council only budget for one new plaque a year, but with private money to support the estimated £1,100 cost, it can go up in March 2014, 170 years after Chief Constable Solomon’s untimely death.

    David Seidel, chairman of Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation, is encouraging other communal organisations to back the campaign in the same way that “the Jews really rallied around at the time. It’s an engaging story, it really is. If you saw it on TV you wouldn’t believe it. It’s a great piece of Jewish history.”

    The son-in-law of Emanuel Hyam Cohen, a founding member of Brighton’s Jewish community, and the brother-in-law of Levy Emanuel Cohen, who founded the Brighton Guardian newspaper, Mr Solomon came from a prominent family, but it is not known what became of his wife Matilda, nor his children.

    Though Mr Solomon was buried in the Old Jewish Burial Ground in Florence Place, his ghost is rumoured to haunt Brighton Town Hall. In 2004 a bus was named after him in a drive to promote tourism in the city.

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