Sampson Gideon was a Jewish financier who gave valuable service to the British Government during the 18th century and helped to break through the anti-Jewish glass ceiling prevailing at the time.
He was born in London in February 1699, a descendant on his father’s side of Portuguese immigrants. Jews had been prevented from living in England for 300 years before they were allowed back by Oliver Cromwell in 1656 but by the mid-18th century there were still only around 8,000 Jews in the country.
Sampson made his early fortune through wise investment and lucky speculation; for example, he was one of the relatively small number of people who profited from owning shares in the South Sea Company. He then directed his attention towards foreign funds and marine insurance and came to the notice of Horace Walpole and Henry Pelham (respectively Britain’s first and third Prime Ministers).
His main service to the Government was given during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). This was in the form of raising loans from his fellow wealthy Jewish financiers. In this he was extremely successful – it is estimated that during a single year (1759) he raised as much as £350,000, which was a staggeringly large amount at that time. Given that the latter war laid the foundations of Britain’s overseas empire, the money was well spent, and Sampson Gideon’s contribution should therefore not be overlooked.
Gideon could have expected the highest rewards that his country had to offer, but this was not to be. The problem was his Jewishness at a time when Jews were not entitled to British citizenship.
He had been active in the campaign for a law entitling Jews to apply for citizenship, which led to the passing of a Jewish Naturalization Act in 1753. However, public pressure forced the Government to repeal the Act the following year and Jewish emancipation would have to wait for another 100 years to come and go.
Sampson Gideon could only obtain preferment by becoming a Christian, and this is what he did. He bought a large mansion in Kent, had estates in several counties, and was granted a coat of arms. He was, however, refused a peerage because he was still seen as a Jew by most people. He died on 17th October 1762 at the age of 63.
Sampson Gideon married a Christian and had a son who was also called Sampson. The younger Sampson was educated in a thoroughly “establishment” way at Eton and Oxford and was an evangelical Christian. He found it much easier than his father to get ahead in Society and was granted the baronetcy that his father had been refused. It is from the younger Sampson Gideon that the Gideons International Bible Society takes its name, this being the organization that leaves Bibles in hotel bedrooms.
© John Welford