The Lyon Family: A Biography
While the Lyon Archive has been structured about A.S. Lyon's diaries, it would be impossible to study them without a fuller exploration of his family and their robust literary and educational endeavors. The historiography begins with A.S. Lyon's father, Solomon Lyon (1755-1820), a Hebrew scholar born in Bohemia in 1755. His great-great-great granddaughter, Naomi Cream, also a scholar, explains in her groundbreaking article, “Revd Solomon Lyon of Cambridge, 1755-1820” that the Bohemia of Solomon Lyon’s era was not particularly welcoming to Jews.
In the wider community, anti-Semitic rules prevailed as Lyon grew up: laws regulated settlement, trade and occupation. The Jewish population was restricted by a system which allowed marriage only after the age of twenty-four and on receipt of a ‘Familiant’ number, which passed to an eldest son on the death of his father. A junior son had to wait for his elder brother to die before he, in his turn, could inherit the number and get his own marriage permit. Furthermore, had these young men lived in Prague [not far from Bohemia], they would have had to wear the Jewish badge, described variously as a yellow collar over the coat or a yellow strip on the left shoulder. (31)
Not surprisingly, Solomon Lyon left Bohemia for England in 1781, settling in Portsmouth and eventually marrying Rachel Hart. The couple produced sixteen children. Solomon and Rachel moved to Cambridge in 1789 so that Solomon could begin his career as a Hebrew teacher. Cream explains that “The study of Hebrew at Cambridge was waning by the end of the eighteenth century. There was little demand for formal instruction, although knowledge of the subject was necessary for a fellowship in some colleges” at Cambridge University (Cream, 42). Solomon could therefore work as a Hebrew tutor to students enrolled at the University; however, he could neither enroll as a student nor work as a faculty member. Cream adds, Cambridge University “functioned as an institution of the Church of England; Catholics, Dissenters and Jews were barred because they could not declare themselves to be members of the Church on graduation” (Cream, 41).
Remarkably, Solomon Lyon was able to find enough work in Cambridge for the next seventeen years. However, in 1806 the family moved once again, this time to London in search of work. After falling into debt and spending two months in London’s Fleet Prison, Solomon managed to acquire a certificate of bankruptcy, which was necessary to secure his discharge from prison. Following his release, he brought his family to Oxford University and later to other places throughout England.
Solomon Lyon published three books during his lifetime: A Compendious Hebrew Grammar (1799); Explanation of and Observations on an Antique Medal (1810); and A Theological Hebrew Grammar and Lexicon entitled A Key to the Holy Tongue (1815). According to the Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, this last work included an impressive subscription list containing over 300 names. “That list, comprising more Christians than Jews, containing many prominent names, including nobleman, high-ranking clerics, academics from Oxford and Cambridge, and masters at Eton, some of whose scholars took private lessons in Hebrew with Lyon” (628). Despite the respect he earned from colleagues and friends, Solomon Lyon struggled throughout his life to support his family. The challenge of finding work was further complicated by Solomon’s loss of vision. He underwent cataract surgery in 1815 which helped to recover some of his vision. He died five years later in 1820.
Eight years before his death, Solomon’s eldest daughter, Emma Lyon (1788-1870), attempted to ease her family’s financial troubles with the publication of Miscellaneous Poems (1812). She was twenty-three years old at the time of publication. According to Cream, Emma Lyon is the “first Jewish woman writer to be published in England” (66). She received support from over 300 people whose names appear on her subscription list, many of prominent figures in Britain. The sale of the book brought the family £500.
Emma Lyon’s book can be accessed on The Lyon Archive, making this rare edition of her poetry widely available for the first time since it was published in 1812. “The Soldier’s Farewell,” included in Miscellaneous Poems, was set to music by one of Solomon Lyon’s former students, Isaac Nathan (1792-1864), and was performed by the famous tenor, John Braham (1774-1856) (Scrivener 105). David Conway notes that “The three most remarkable Anglo-Jewish musical careers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—those of Michael Leoni (Myer Lyon), John Braham and Isaac Nathan—began firmly in the Synagogue. Two if these careers, that of Lyon and his nephew John Braham, developed under the aegis of Isaac Polack, chazan [cantor] of the Great Synagogue,” also known as the German synagogue located in London’s East End (Conway, 75). Emma and her diary-writing brother, A.S. Lyon, lived just a few blocks from the Great Synagogue. And they also seem to have maintained ties with the Nathan and Braham families. On December 17, 1823, A.S. Lyon writes in his diary, “Went up to dress myself at half past 8 o’clock to go to a ball at the West End, Brewers St, to celebrate the marriage of Miss Nathan with Mr Braham.” Leoni’s career diverged from his musician connections, but foreshadows A.S. Lyon’s own path. Leoni performed in London for the last time in 1788, just before he “sailed to Jamaica to become chazan for Kingston's Jewish community, where he died and was buried in 1797” (Conway, 78). A.S. Lyon followed Leoni’s footsteps, settling in Kingston in 1839 after considering Barbados and Jamaica as potential new homes. The ties between the East End and the Caribbean are well documented both in the Lyon family diaries as well as other publications from this period. Yet, the diaries also hint at a diaspora story of exile, documenting A.S. Lyon's migration from his beloved city of London where he was unable to secure a financial future.
Emma Lyon married Abraham Henry (1789-1840) in 1816, a union that produced ten children. According to Michael Scrivener, “Some of her poetry after her marriage was recited at the Jews’ Hospital and the Jews’ Free School, and we know that she continued to write poetry but ‘en amatrice,’ as an amateur. Her manuscript poems still might show up eventually, but as for now, they are not known to have survived.” (Scrivener, 105). Emma Lyon’s youngest son, Michael Henry (1830-1875) is perhaps the best known of her children through his work as editor of The Jewish Chronicle from 1868-1875, the leading Jewish periodical in London and read widely throughout the Atlantic world. Naomi Cream has argued that, “His critical early development was strongly influenced by his mother and therefore indirectly by Solomon Lyon” (67). The Jewish Chronicle wrote on the occasion of his early death,
At a very early age he showed evidence of genius and poetical imagination far beyond his years and it was deemed necessary to prevent him from pursuing any studies lest he should overtax his strength. He however managed to acquire a larger amount of knowledge than most of his companions and when about six years old used to astonish visitors at the house by the extent and variety of his information. His favourite play-thing was a terrestrial globe and his favourite amusement to write scraps of poetry, which even at that early age he did with amazing facility. (Qtd. Late Michael Henry, 21)
Cream adds, at aged nine he composed prayers for his own use and aged thirteen wrote a novel (67).
While Michael Henry was a strong student, he was forced to leave school at the age of fourteen to earn a living. As an adult, Michael Henry developed a commitment to charities throughout London, including the General Benevolent Association; Stepney Jewish Schools; the Royal National Lifeboat Institution; and the Committee for Providing Free Lectures to Jewish Working Men and Their Families (Palgrave 418). Michael Henry died in 1875 when a candle flame set fire to his clothing. At the time of his death he was just forty-five years old. Michael’s brother, Richard Loewe Henry (1819-1898), printed The Late Michael Henry Obituary Notices, Letters of Condolence, and Other Mementoes in 1875. The statements and expressions of grief made on the occasion of Michael’s death offer biographical fragments of a man deeply committed to philanthropy and leadership within his community.
While Michael Henry’s brother Richard is not known to have produced writing of his own, his daughter Lucy Henry (1852-1923), granddaughter of Emma Lyon and great-granddaughter of Solomon Lyon, published The Roll Call (1891), a collection of children’s stories. Lucy Henry was a student at the North London Collegiate School where she was educated under the leadership of Miss Buss. (Palgrave, 418). According to the school’s website,
North London Collegiate School was founded in April 1850 by Frances Mary Buss in the family home at 46 Camden Street, Camden Town. All the family assisted in the school including her brother Septimus and her father, R.W. Buss, who illustrated Dickens’ novels. . . Miss Buss was Headmistress for 44 years and was a notable figure in the struggle for the education of girls in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Cream adds that Lucy and her sister Emily “were at one time the only Jewesses” at their school and Lucy became one of Miss Buss’s favorite students. In addition to publishing her book of children’s stories, Lucy published articles in periodicals over the course of her short life.
As the son of Solomon Lyon and brother of Emma Lyon, perhaps it’s no surprise that Abraham Septimus Lyon (1804-1872), or A.S. Lyon, turned to writing as a way of documenting his progress as a young man making his way in London. His first known diary was written almost daily in 1823. A.S. Lyon kept a second diary intermittently from 1826-1839. The final pages of the second diary chart A.S. Lyon’s travels to Kingston, Jamaica where he settled and married Sarah Lindo (1823-1906). In the months prior to her marriage Sarah Lindo also kept a diary detailing her wedding preparations and travels to France. A digital edition of Sarah Lindo’s 1840 diary will soon appear on this site alongside Naomi Cream’s transcriptions of that work (Winter 2019).
One final diary appears on this site, which has been temporarily called “the mystery diary” because its author remains unknown. The mystery diary is believed by family members to have been written by a son of A.S. and Sarah Lyon. The diary documents the writer’s year-long visit to New York City from 1876-7. Lyon family members have saved and passed down the diary from one generation to the next. It is now kept in the same cedar trunk in the home of Annabel Foster-Davis, tucked in alongside family photos and the other three diaries brought to the US when Annabel and her family left Jamaica. A digital edition of this diary will appear on this site (Winter 2019) alongside transcriptions completed by Sarah Wyer, a recent MA student from the University of Oregon. My hope is that once we can begin to research the diary we’ll be able to determine the identity of its author.
Biddlecombe, George. “Braham, John” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition accessed April 7, 2017).
Conway, David. Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Cream, Naomi. “Revd Solomon Lyon of Cambridge, 1755-1820” Jewish Historical Studies 26 (1996): 31-69.
Eric Nye’s Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency site (https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm) (accessed on August 30, 2017)
The Late Michael Henry Obituary Notices, Letters of Condolence, and Other Mementoes. Printed for Private Circulation, Collected by Richard L. Henry (London: J. M. Johnon and Sons, 1875).
“Lyon, Solomon” and “Henry (née Lyon), Emma” in The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, Ed. William D. Rubinstein, Michael A. Jolles, and Hilary L. Rubinstein (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: 2011): 627-628.
North London Collegiate School, http://www.nlcs.org.uk/357/about-us/history-of-the-school (accessed August 31, 2017).
Scrivener, Michael. “Following the Muse: Inspiration, Prophecy, and Deference in the Poetry of Emma Lyon (1788-1870), Anglo-Jewish Poet” The Jews and British Romanticism: Politics, Religion, Culture Ed. Sheila A. Spector (New York, US and Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: 2005),105-126.