At a time when both public parks and disease vaccines are at the forefront of news, today’s blog of 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex tells the story of a woman who championed both to make a difference to the communities she lived in.
Flora – born Farhar Gubbay – was a member of the influential and wealthy Sassoon family by both birth and marriage. Impeccably educated, she was fluent in six languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic and Hindi by age seventeen. Various members of the family had played a decisive role in the development of Mumbai and built docks, hospitals, schools, fountains and synagogues. When her husband, the businessman, Solomon Sassoon died in 1894, Flora stepped up to fill his shoes and managed to run the family’s vast business empire while bringing up three children.
She’s still remembered in the city today for championing Ukrainian biologist Waldemar Moredcai Haffkine’s new cholera vaccine. Following a series of devastating outbreaks in the city in 1896 Flora led a campaign to have the city’s children innoculated despite widespread suspicion of the vaccine. It’s been estimated that Flora Sassoon’s involvement in and support of this campaign led to thousands of lives being saved.
In 1901 Flora relocated to England primarily because she thought that her daughter, Mozelle, who suffered from poor health, would benefit. Living in London, and also Adelaide Crescent in Hove, Flora set about finding good work to do, supporting charities and attending to the many appeals and funds that solicited her attention.
An orthodox Jew, Flora Sassoon was scrupulous about keeping to the traditions of her faith, never travelling without her own prayer quorum of ten Jewish male adults and a ritual slaughterer to ensure her food would always be kosher. She achieved renown – unprecedented for a woman at the time – as a Hebrew scholar, and an expert in oriental Jewish texts, who wrote scholarly articles for the Jewish Forum, was often consulted on questions of Jewish law, and conversed with rabbis on an equal footing. She also took on numerous public religious roles, which, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive, were ‘highly unusual for an Orthodox woman of her time’. Visiting Baghdad in 1910, she read from the Torah in synagogue and in 1924 she presided over Speech Day at Jews’ College, the institution for training rabbis, in London, proclaiming it to be ‘a great honour to be the first lady-chairman at an Annual Speech Day.’
St Ann’s Well Gardens in Hove don’t only offer visitors and residents a beautiful and tranquil green space just minutes from the usually busy Western Road shopping thoroughfare, they have an intriguing history. From eighteenth century therapeutic spa to pleasure garden to location of some of the earliest film studios in Britain, they also captured the heart of Indian born Flora Sassoon, who bought an acre of land and donated it to Hove Borough Council so that they could enlarge it.
At the time of donating land for the extension of St Ann’s Well Gardens, Flora, whose philanthropic acts occasionally took on an eccentric bent, also donated an amount of decorative objects such as deer antlers, Grecian urns and animal heads for display. The land that she had donated was opened to the public at a ceremony in May 1913. Originally used as croquet lawns, the area is still being enjoyed today as a scented garden for the blind and tennis courts.
St Ann’s Well Gardens are not the only legacy left in Brighton and Hove by the Sassoon family. Many members of the family settled here, including Flora’s maternal grandfather, Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, who built the Sassoon family mausoleum, now a pub and night spot on St George’s Road, Kemptown, and Flora’s brother-in-law, Arthur Sassoon who contributed to Hove’s Peace statue.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett
With thanks to the Jewish Women’s Archive, www.jwa.org