The Lyon Family: A Biography
An entire archive on a family unknown to most people may seem strange. While studies of the Lyon family are growing, most scholars of nineteenth-century literature have never heard of this family. One notable exception is Karen Weisman's recent Singing in a Foreign Land: Anglo-Jewish Poetry, 1812-1847 (Univ. Pennsylvania, 2018), which includes a chapter on Emma Lyon's poetry.
Maria Polack's novel, Fiction Without Romance (1830), led me to the Lyon family. Polack was an East End writer and is believed to be the first Anglo-Jewish novelist. She was also a member of Lyon's social circle. A copy of her very rare and out-of-print novel has been made available on The Polack Archive, a sibling archive on the East End Digital Library.
My chance encounter with Diane Lyon Wead, a member of the Lyon family, opened up the world of the Lyon family, an event I describe in greater detail in The Archive's East End (forthcoming 2022). Diane shared copies of A.S. Lyon's unpublished diaries. That first encounter and my excitment about the diaries led to the development of The Lyon Archive.
My first step was to create a pathway and context to help users understand why Lyon's diaries are so spectacular. This biographical essay is designed to do just that, and to set the diaries in helpful historical and cultural contexts.
The family 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,” 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.
Solomon and Rachel Lyon produced sixteen children. They made their way 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. By 1806 the family was forced to move to London so that Lyon could find new employment. His inability to do so, however, led to his imprisonment for debt in London’s Fleet Prison. Ultimately, 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--a 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 gradual loss of vision. He underwent cataract surgery in 1815 and died five years later.
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 her book's publication. According to Cream, Emma Lyon is the “first Jewish woman writer to be published in England” (66).
Emma Lyon’s Miscellaneous Poems can be accessed on The Lyon Archive, making this rare edition of her poetry widely available for the first time since it appeared in 1812. The subscription list, which has been preserved in the digital edition of the book, indicates that Emma Lyon had over 300 subscribers, including prominent figures throughout Britain.
“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. They seem to have maintained ties with the Nathan and Braham families during the period of their residence in London. 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.” The Soundscapes Map on this site includes a speculative reproduction of Lyon's attendance at the ball on Brewers Street in London.
Leoni’s career diverged from his musician connections. Anticipating A.S. Lyon's emigration, Leoni performed in London for the last time in 1788, just before moving to Jamaica to serve as Cantor for Kingston's Jewish community (Conway 78). Leoni died and was buried in Kingston, Jamaica in 1797. A.S. Lyon followed, settling in Kingston in 1839, and becoming part of the Jamaican Jewish community in his new home.
Familial, economic, and cultural ties between the East End and the Caribbean are well documented both in Lyon's diaries and other publications from this period. The diaries hint at a diaspora story of exile, situating A.S. Lyon's migration from his beloved city of London, where he was unable to secure a financial future, to the colonial space of Jamaica. The diary ends with his arrival in Kingston. No known records of his life in Jamaica have survied. He marries Sarah Lindo Lyon(1823-1906), whose original diary has been digitized on this site alongside a transcription of her diary and a "Mystery Diary" (digital edition and transcription) kept in 1876. Family members believe that this diary was written by one of A.S. and Sarah Lyon's sons.
Emma Lyon married Abraham Henry (1789-1840) in 1816, a union that produced ten children. According to Michael Scrivener's account of Emma's reception, “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 of Michael Henry 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. in 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, he developed an interest in and 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.
Michael Henry’s brother, Richard Henry, doesn't seem to have produced writing of his own, but 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 which has been digitized and housed on this site. 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 transcription of his diary by Naomi Cream has been included on this site. A.S. Lyon kept a second diary intermittently from 1826-1839. The final pages of the second diary chart his travels to Kingston, Jamaica where he settled and married Sarah Lindo.
One final diary appears on this site, which has been temporarily called the "Mystery" Diary because its author is unknown, although the family suspects it belongs to a son of A.S. and Sarah Lyon. The diary, a transcription of which can be found on this site, documents the writer’s year-long visit to New York City from 1876-7.
Lyon family members have preserved the diaries, passing them down from one generation to the next. They are housed in a cedar trunk in the home of Annabel Foster-Davis, tucked in alongside family photos that Annabel brought with her when she left Jamaica in the 1970s to move to California. She recounts her story of migration and preservation of the diaries on her podcast interview.
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.
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