The Jewish Chronicle is a London-based weekly newspaper that was founded in 1841, making it the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper anywhere in the world. With the release of another 43 issues from the war years into TheGenealogist’s Newspaper and Magazine Collection, this resource can be useful for researching Jewish ancestors mentioned in its pages.
A glance at the March 26, 1915 edition has an intriguing subheading of “Accident to Jewish Aviator.” It is in the section titled ‘The War’ and comes after the names of some men who had been Killed in Action in the Neuve Chapelle Battle and others who had been wounded in the same action. Just ahead of the names of men who featured under “Some Recent Promotions”, we are able to read three lines that can’t help but draw us in. More importantly, this piece in The Jewish Chronicle will actually be evidence that we can use to prove a date that other sources have got wrong by a whole year!
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Lieutenant E. V. Sassoon of the Royal Naval Air Service, we read, had sustained injuries in an aeroplane accident. Subsequently, it goes on, he developed pneumonia, though the paper was pleased to be able to give its readers the news that he was then “progressing favourably”.
The Jewish Chronicle snippet from March 26, 1915 is tantalising and begs for further research to be undertaken. Firstly, with the surname Sassoon, we begin by wondering if he was a member of the famous family of merchants with that name? If so, how was he related to the celebrated WW1 poet soldier, Siegfried Sassoon? Using TheGenealogist’s many records we are going to find this out, and much more.
Turning at first to the military records on TheGenealogist allows us to find an early First World War example of an Operations Record Book (ORBs) from the time before the formation of the RAF. In this Lt. Sassoon makes it onto a list of pilots injured accidentally. We discover from this official military record the date 4th of February 1915, but learn nothing more. However, also from TheGenealogist’s Military Records is a page in the Navy List 1918 that records Flight Lieutenant E.V. Sassoon was in receipt of a pension for wounds received in the service. The date in this book, 4 February 1916, appears to be a year to the day of his accident, although biographical sources online give this as the date of the incident, this may have been the date of the pension. We, however, have the benefit of the paragraph in The Jewish Chronicle from March 1915 and backed up by the RFC/RAF ORBs, both of which we have found on TheGenealogist and are thus able to identify that the accident must have taken place in 1915 and not 1916.
While the original piece in The Jewish Chronicle, that had started this research, alluded to the Naval aviator having caught pneumonia, but had been progressing favourably at the time, it seems that the crash wounds were much more serious than they made out. He broke his right arm and dislocated his hip and for the rest of his life would be in pain and forced to walk with the aid of sticks.
Sassoon had only joined the RNAS in November 1914 and it was just the following February when he crashed his Avro 504 at Dover. As a result of his injuries he was grounded from flying and put to desk duties, though this didn’t prevent him from being promoted to Captain in the newly formed RAF, as we can discover by perusing further in the military records on TheGenealogist.
The Navy List 1918 reveals to us that his first name was Ellice and so aids us to identify where he fits into the Sassoon family. A search then of the Educational records at TheGenealogist reveals his entry in the Harrow School Register which provides us with his full name, Ellice Victor Sassoon and that he is the son of Sir E.E. Sassoon, 2nd Baronet. We can also glean from this useful record that he went to Trinity College, Cambridge and became a Merchant Banker in India, London and China. In the Great War he was first in the RNVR, to rise to Captain in the RAF. Succeeding to the Baronetcy in 1924 he had served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in India 1922-23 and then on a Royal Commission for investigation of Labour Conditions in India 1929.
Pre-war prang while flying at Brooklands
While searching for earlier aviation records on TheGenealogist, a number came to light relating to his flying before WW1 as a civilian. In the Royal Aero Club Aviators Certificates on TheGenealogist we find that he was issued with certificate No 52 on January 28th 1911 at Brooklands. It is reported by the website British Jews in the First World War that he was the first British Jew to obtain this licence.
A copy of Flight Magazine, published December 21 1911 and a part of TheGenealogist’s Flight Occupational records, refers to events at Brooklands Aerodrome in which a passing mention is made to him having a crash landing in 1911. Not the only pilot that day to suffer misfortune, he seems to have had a lucky escape when he seriously pranged his plane.
“Shortly afterwards Sassoon, who had been flying circuits on the Big Bat, and was finishing a vol plané, apparently “landed” about 25 feet from the ground. Switching on too late, he pancaked and broke the propeller. The machine bounced an enormous height in the air, and on returning to earth broke its landing chassis and then stood on its head, spinning round on the stump of the propeller. The pilot, luckily, escaped without injury.”
Widening our search for Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon within the records on TheGenealogist we turn next to another of the Occupational Records where we discover his entry in The Directory of Directors 1936. By this date he is listed as being “of Shanghai” and is the governing director of E.D. Sassoon Banking Company Limited of Bishopsgate, London EC2
The Family and its Business Empires
Now that we know that he is descended from the line that established the E.D. Sassoon Company we can make sense of where he fits into the extensive Sasson family.
Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon was born on December 30, 1881 in Naples, Italy, where his parents had stopped while en route to India. The family were British Sephardic Jews who could trace their origin to Iraq. His great-grandfather, David Sassoon, had moved to Bombay fleeing anti-semitism in Baghdad and set up the family business empire trading between Britain, India and China in many things, including opium. David Sassoon had many sons that headed up the various branches of the company. In 1852 first one of those sons, Abdallah Sassoon (1818–1896) joined him as a partner in the firm, shortly followed by his second son Elias David Sassoon (1820–1880).
Then, in 1867, three years after the death of the business’s founder, David’s second son, Elias David Sassoon, broke away from his family’s company and set up his own firm, called “E.D. Sassoon & Co.”. Elias was the grandfather of our intrepid First World War pilot and this new enterprise began trading in dried fruits, nankeen, metals, tea, silk, spices and camphor from small offices in Bombay and Shanghai. As we have seen above, from the Directory of Directors 1936 on TheGenealogist, Sir Ellice Victor became the governing director of this breakaway family firm and would move its centre of business from India to Shanghai, China. He foresaw the independence of India being unfavourable to foreign businesses such as his and at the time China was more open.
Now that we have established to which line our subject was descended from, we are able to determine that he and Siegfried Sasson, the War Poet, were first cousins once removed. They both shared the same great-grandfather in David S. Sassoon however, Siegfried’s father, Alfred Ezra Saaaoon, had married out of the Jewish faith and so was cut off from his family because of this.
Having arrived in Shanghai in the early 1930s, Sir Victor, as he was more often than not known by this time, had a reputation for chasing horses, women and wealth with an equal energy. Back in the 30s he had many mistresses and did not marry until in later life when his American nurse, Evelyn “Barnsie” Barnes, became his bride despite a large age gap. In Shanghai he often held many lavish parties where he was famous for the beautiful young women that attended these events. Mixing his love of photography and beautiful women he was well known for getting them to agree to be photographed minus their clothes.
In his time there he did much to raise the city’s reputation as the undisputed pleasure capital of the East, as he also did to raise its skyline with buildings. Sir Victor would buy up land in the city and then he began to build the tallest buildings outside the United States on these plots. His massive art deco edifices quickly became landmarks of Shanghai.
The Jewish Chronicle is a fantastic resource that can provide researchers with all sorts of background to people, places and events. The latest batch gives us the chance to find information about British Jews mentioned in the London-based weekly newspaper from the First World War. In this case study it was a news snippet about Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon as a young Royal Naval Air Service aviator that is important as it is one of the records that we have been able to use to successfully challenge the date of the accident circulated by others. A date that has been published in a number of places online which wrongly state that Sir Victor’s accident with its life-changing injuries occurred one year later than it did.
From a number of other records on TheGenealogist, we have discovered that this was not his first brush with aircraft crashes, that he was a very early aviator with certificate number 52. From The Directory of Directors 1936 we have found his place in the Sassoon family and discovered the business for which he inherited but continued to build. A colourful character, Sir Victor died aged 79 in 1961 in Nassau, Bahamas where he had moved after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.
1. Sir Victor Sassoon (SAS2644): British jews in the First World War. Available at: https://www.jewsfww.uk/sir-victor-sassoon-3087.php (Accessed: 27 July 2023)