Harold L. Cohen was born in Liverpool in July 1873, the son of Louis S. Cohen, an alderman of Liverpool who had served as the city’s Lord Mayor.
After being educated at Liverpool College, Clifton College, and overseas, Harold returned to Liverpool to a job at Lewis’s Ltd., the largest department store chain of its day. This was the beginning of a 45-year connection with Lewis’s, during which time Cohen would rise to become the company’s chairman, and a well-known figure in Liverpool’s business community.
Cohen played an active role in the city’s public life, albeit by all accounts in a modest way. He was made a magistrate in 1924. Among many other roles, he served as chairman of the Liverpool Conservative Club and joint treasurer of the Liverpool Unionist Association. He also founded the Harold House Jewish Lads’ Brigade, and was President of the Prince’s Road Synagogue.
To members of the University, his name is a familiar one due to the library which bears it. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a benefactor of the University, as Louis had endowed the Chair of Dental Surgery in 1920. Harold made several gifts to the University, including £2,500 for equipment for the Students’ Union library in October 1930. It was his final gift, however, that would prove to be the most generous of all.
In the early 1930s, the University was suffering from a crisis of library space and resources, as the old Tate Library in the Victoria Building could not keep up with increasing student numbers. By March 1933, the situation was noted by the Senate as requiring urgent attention. In July the following year, Cohen stepped forward with a munificent gift of £100,000, the largest the University had received up to that date, for the construction of a new library. University Treasurer R.H. Armstrong later recounted his meeting with Cohen at which the gift was signed over: “He unlocked a drawer in his desk, and took out a pen in regard to which he said that, though of no monetary value, the pen so exactly suited him that he kept it under lock and key, for his experience had taught him that, if a good pen were left exposed, it generally disappeared.”
University Council met on 6th November and accepted the gift, agreeing that “Mr Cohen’s generosity makes possible the full solution of the University’s most urgent and most anxious problem, and affords the prospect of a notable addition to the University’s resources, both in teaching and research.” Council suggested that the new library bear Harold Cohen’s name, and he agreed. He was present at the first meeting of the New Library Building Committee, which approved architect Harold Dod’s design for the building.
On 19th May 1936 University Council proposed to confer an honorary law degree upon Cohen. The ceremony was to take place on 27th July, the same day as the foundation stone for the new library would be laid by Cohen himself.
Having travelled up from his home in London to Liverpool the night before the ceremony, Cohen was suddenly taken ill, and died the following morning. The University community and the city as a whole were profoundly shocked by his sudden death. Tributes spoke of a modest man who acted not out of personal ambition but from a desire to improve the lives of the citizens of Liverpool.
In November, the University conferred upon Cohen his LL. D. This was the first case of an honorary degree being conferred posthumously by the University of Liverpool.
The Harold Cohen Library was opened by former Prime Minister Earl Baldwin of Bewdley on May 21st 1938. Mrs Cohen was presented with book-end replicas of the symbolic figure of learning above the library’s entrance, carved by sculptor Eric Kennington. The Vice-Chancellor, Arnold D. McNair, gave the following oration:
“Alike for Science and for Letters, the inmost shrine of a University is to be found in its library, and it will not be forgotten that the builder of that shrine for us was Harold Cohen.”
“Myself I am of that baser metal which Lord Baldwin referred to, and I am going to leave it to the plaque to tell Mrs Cohen of the gratitude we feel to her late husband. It will stand longer than any spoken word, telling successive generations of students what we owe to his generosity.
The Cohen family have given much to Liverpool in peace and war, and we are grateful to look upon them as the most generous donors that any city has ever had.”