Curator Talk Podcast: Episode 7, David Lionel Salomons and his Family Transcript

SIR DAVID LIONEL SALOMONS & HIS FAMILY

David Lionel was born in 1851 into a distinguished Jewish family.  His parents Philip and Emma sadly died when he still young, and he and his two sisters were brought up their uncle, also called David Salomons, at Broomhill near Tunbridge Wells.

THE FIRST BARONET

The first David Salomons was a pioneer in the fight to gain full civil rights for Britain’s Jews and other minorities.

David Salomons was born in an age when Jews were barred from playing an equal part in local or national government.  Most public offices required people to take an oath ‘on the true faith of a Christian’.  David Salomons campaigned to break down these barriers, becoming the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London in 1855.  In 1851 he was elected as a Member of Parliament.  But when he arrived in the House of Commons, he was forced to withdraw because he refused to take the Christian oath – although not before making a speech in defence of his cause.  It was only after seven more years of campaigning that the law was changed and he was finally able to take his seat.  His achievements were recognised in 1869 when he became Sir David Salomons, 1st Baronet.

DAVID LIONEL SALOMONS

David Lionel Salomons was interested in science and technology from an early age.  He succeeded his uncle as the 2nd Baronet in 1873 and came to live at Broomhill.

In order to support practical research into new technologies, he added an entire new wing of workshops and laboratories to the original house.  It took 100 men 2 years to complete.  DLS did his own architectural designs and organised the local workforce without an outside contractor.

A witness in 1908 described the workshops as the most complete installation of mechanical tools for the making of all kinds of scientific instruments in the world. Here, at any moment’s notice, any of the machines may be set to work turning, drilling, twisting, slotting, cutting or otherwise shaping almost any wooden or metal object that the heart of man can desire or his head invent. It was said he could make anything from a steam engine to a watch.

Along with the workshops, David Lionel installed a magnificent Science Theatre, This was used for conferences gathering together the leading scientists of the day, as well as for popular demonstrations of new discoveries and inventions to groups from interested organisations.

The latest addition was what was then the largest known electrical organ, made in Germany and the last components shipped over just before the start of the First World War.

David Lionel Salomons’ special interests were electrical technology – on which he wrote a widely used textbook – and the development of the motor car or ‘horseless carriage’.  In 1874 he built an electric powered horseless carriage, but soon realised that battery technology was not adequate to the task of powering motor vehicles.  He came to see that for the moment the future of motor transport lay with the internal combustion engine.

He took a keen interest in the development of petrol driven cars in France, and took part in early trials there.  Finally in 1894 he proudly brought across the Channel his first Peugeot horseless carriage, only the second motor car to be seen in Britain.

But there were obstacles to anyone wanting to drive a motor car on the roads of Britain.  Road transport came under the ‘Red Flag’ Act of 1865, which said that motor vehicles were only allowed on to the public highway if they in charge of three men, if they went no faster than four miles per hour, and if they were preceded by a man carrying a red flag.

David Lionel Salomons launched a campaign to repeal the Red Flag Act.  In December 1895 he founded the Self-propelled Traffic Association, the forerunner of the RAC of today.

At a time when most people in Britain were very suspicious of motor transport, David Lionel’s advocacy showed what this new technology had to offer To promote more interest in motor transport in Britain, he organised the first motor show at the Tunbridge Wells Agricultural Showground on 15 October 1895.   This was attended by between 6000 and 8000 people, including enthusiasts and journalists from America, France, Germany and several other countries.

The press, both local and national, was fascinated.  The local Courier newspaper asked the question: Will the horses of the future be fed upon petroleum instead of oats? This, the journalist went on, is a very tangible question which probably occurred to many among the thousands who assembled in the Agricultural Show Ground on Tuesday afternoon to witness Sir David Salomons’ public trials of horseless carriages. Those who observed the ease with which Sir David’s elegant carriage, propelled by an unseen motor, moved round the show ring must be impressed with the fact that we are on the eve of a great revolution in our means of highway locomotion… France has been allowed to get ahead of us, which is not a credit to an engineering nation like our own, and with the unknown possibilities of a new industry being opened up in this country, it is no small honour to Tunbridge Wells that it should be associated with the first organised attempt to give the horseless carriage a standing in this country. 

In the campaign to change the law, David Lionel Salomons became one of the earliest examples of a parliamentary lobbyist.  When new legislation was brought forward, he was asked to draw up the technical clauses and the subsequent regulations, because no one in the civil service knew enough about vehicles and their operation.

An early motoring magazine wrote in 1905: History is made very rapidly nowadays, but rarely we should think has history been made so quickly as in the case of the motorcar. It seems hardly possible that it was only ten years ago that Sir David Salomons proved the practicability of motor cars by organising a show and demonstration at Tunbridge Wells. Ten years only has passed, and in spite of the most persistent prejudice, in spite of the ingrained conservatism of the British, the motor vehicle is the commonest object in our streets and on the country roads and the motor industry is rapidly becoming one of the greatest in the country.

David Lionel Salomons also took a great interest in medical technology, especially X-rays, and he had an experimental X ray laboratory at Broomhill. Over the years, he presented various updates of X-ray equipment to the Tunbridge Wells General Hospital, of which he was a trustee.

David Lionel Salomons was keen to share an understanding of science with the general public – and the science theatre at Broomhill was regularly used for popular demonstrations of the latest discoveries.  There are vivid descriptions of these public lectures involving all the latest audio-visual technology which people fond quite magical.  As well as scientific papers and textbooks, he also wrote short booklets in simple language explain new technology for a wider audience.

David Lionel Salomons was invited to serve as Mayor of Tunbridge Wells for the year1894-5.  As Mayor, he presided over a year in which Tunbridge Wells found itself at the centre of national media attention as a showcase for the latest technology. No one, reported one national paper, has done so much as the present mayor to infuse into the sleepy hollow of this most charming Kentish inland watering-place the life-blood of the latest scientific improvements.

On 9 October 1895, just a few days before his pioneering motor show, David Salomons inaugurated the town’s first electricity system, introducing another of the several technologies which he had helped to pioneer.  His home at Broomhill had had electricity since 1874.  Again the national press took a great interest.  The Daily News said that People who imagine the Wells, the Pantiles and all the pleasant surroundings of this noted resort to have become old-fashioned and out-of-date would have been agreeably surprised to see yesterday’s installation of the most modern illuminant. At a reception hosted by Sir David at the Friendly Societies’ Hall in Camden Road, guests were entertained by tales of the opposition that was encountered when the prospect of mains electricity was first raised.  One lady had written to the Council declaring that ‘she would not have an electric lamp in her house if it was supplied for nothing, and that the lights which it was proposed to erect in the roadways would be certain to wither the trees.’

Following the reception, the guests proceeded through decorated streets to the new generating station near the Grosvenor Bridge, where Lady Laura Salomons switched on the power. Subsequently, one of the national papers related, a procession of police, military, firemen, local clubs, the tradesmen’s association, officials and members of the Corporation, the Mayor and Mayoress, escorted by the Yeomanry, and in which Sir David Salomons’ petroleum carriage was a conspicuous object, paraded the streets as far as the Town Hall.   There at the Town Hall an exhibition had been set up to demonstrate to a perhaps still sceptical public the possibilities of this new technology.

REGINALD SALOMONS

David Lionel Salomons had one son, David Reginald, who would have become the 3rd Baronet.  Before the First World War, he travelled extensively in Europe and the Far East.  In 1910 Reginald spent three months in Japan, returning with a deep respect and enthusiasm for Japanese culture and spirituality that he wanted to share with others.  He wrote a book about his experiences to help British people better understand the country and its people.

Reginald and his father were both enthusiastic supporters of the Territorial Army movement.  In the years leading up to the First World War, Reginald helped to recruit a local unit of the Kent Fortress Engineers.  On the night of 28 October 1915, Reginald was travelling with his unit towards Gallipoli on board the troopship Hythe.  Sailing without lights to avoid enemy shelling, the Hythe was in collision with an empty troopship that was leaving harbour and sunk rapidly with the loss of 155 lives.

Survivors reported that Reginald could have saved himself, but he stayed on board the sinking vessel to help his men to safety first, giving his lifebelt to one of them.

VERA SALOMONS

David Lionel Salomons died on the 19th of April 1925, and he was buried in the family cemetery near his home.

But the family’s great tradition of public service was continued by David Lionel’s daughter, Vera Salomons, who lived on until 1969 and dedicated her life to promoting religious tolerance. From 1925 Vera lived in Jerusalem, where she set up many educational and housing charities. Vera founded the L A Mayer Institute for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, a museum which was designed to promote understanding between people of different faiths. 

It was Vera Salomons who donated Broomhill to Kent County Council in 1938.  She also established there what is now the Salomons Museum, which you can still visit today to learn more about this remarkable local family.