Joseph Benhacok 1750 – 1811, The mystery of his oak chests.

Joseph Benhacok 1750 – 1811, The mystery of his oak chests, researched and written by Dr Phillip Kirby.

As part of my ongoing research into the Sephardic Jews UK wills I discovered an unusual reference in the probate of Joseph Benhacok regarding the destruction of his financial documents and letters (will written 1809 and proved 1811 London-PROB 11/1524).

18th cent chest -1stdibs.co.uk

Joseph Benhacok was married to Esther Varicas 7 March 1787 (Bevis Marks Records). They were probably descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews expelled from those countries in the 1490s. Many of these Jews settled in Tetuan Morocco and later Gibraltar. In his will he refers to his sisters Estrella widow of Moses Nabboro, sister ‘filia of Menahem Aloof’, Esther wife of Isaac Palache and to investments he held in Gibraltar.

The Gibraltar Census records of 1777 and 1791 have the names Isaac Palache 1777 born Leghorn age 38 with 15 years residence; Esther Palache 23; Estrella Nabaro 1791 age 52 widow. It is possible these are the relatives of Joseph.

The couple appear to have had no children based on the will extracts. In her will (1822 PROB 11/1664) Esther left bequests to the children of her late brother Abraham of Stafford Essex. Her brother was a bankrupt in 1811 living at Founders Court, City of London a merchant and underwriter (The London Gazette 8 October 1811). His house was advertised for sale including contents in 1811. Her nephews and nieces were named as Paloma, Judah and Abraham.

Her brother Abraham died in 1814 (Nuevo Burial Records 25 July 1814). His widow Esther died 23 December 1876 at 162 Euston Road. (See Cemetery Scribes ID 2859 Esther Varicas nee Brandon-parents Gabriel Israel Brandon and Leah de Joshua Israel Brandon and JewishGen 1851 Anglo Jewry Data base ID 30289).

Research confirms that Abraham Robert the son of Abraham Varicas married Louisa Sarah Salaman (she died 1846). See Synagogue Scribes will extract NA2468 Abraham Varicas (1864) for further data on the line. Initial research suggests that I have a distant connection through marriages to the Salaman/Solomon/Solome/ through my Hart lines.

The couple became wealthy Jews as recorded in their wills with both of them leaving various bequests to the Portuguese Synagogue London and associated London Portuguese Jews charities.

They were originally buried Nuevo Cemetery Mile End but the bodies were re-interred at Brentwood in an unmarked communal grave. Their tombstones were either lost or destroyed.

Joseph was in partnership with Haim Azulay. They appear as joint insurance policy holders at 51 Mansell Street 7.10.1803; 12 Bury Street 12.1.1807 and 17 and 18 Mansell Street Goodman’s Fields 10.1.1807.

The business partnership suggests that Joseph was the senior partner and the company called Joseph Benhacok and Co. It is not clear precisely what trade they were involved with but the National Archives UK have a record for the application of a licence to ship five clocks and four gold watches from Dover to Calais in 1797. There are also online references to Benhacok clocks suggesting that this was an area of trade specialism (Vulliamy Musical Clocks for the Turkish Market: The Benhacok Clocks, R. Smith and D.Thompson. Antiquarian Horology and the Proceedings of the Antiquarian Horological Society (London) 1993 pp118-131). See also the work of Benjamin Vulliamy 1747-1811 clock maker to King George 111 and his son Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy.

In the Old Bailey trial 8 May 1799 Joseph Benhacok appeared as a witness regarding theft of a warrant held by himself and Haim Azulay. During the trial he stated “I am in partnership with Haim Azulay”

There is little known about Haim Azulay in current UK records. He maybe the same individual who appears in the Gibraltar Census in 1777 age 30.

There are various records of other Azulay living on Gibraltar including Judah Azulay a licensed porter in 1774. It is possible that Haim Azulay was living in Gibraltar at the time of his death but there is no record. Alternatively, he may have re-settled in Tetuan Morocco where many Jews lived.

The Register of the Jewish Burial Society in Tetuan (Yaakov Bentolila.Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) shows that a common family name was Azulay for the period 1896-1987.

In his will Joseph Benhacok referred to his ‘good friend’ and ‘my old partner Haim Azulay ’and asked for the residue of his estate to be given to the next of kin of Haim Azulay. He also referred to ‘the widow of Azulay ’This suggests that Haim was dead by 1811 and there is no joint insurance policy with Joseph Benhacok post 1807.

The accounts of the siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783 provide a vivid description of the impact on the Jews living on the island including many leaving for Morocco and some to the UK. Similarly, the Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815 profoundly affected Gibraltar as did the Peninsular wars with Jews being caught up in the varying conflicts. Given their relatives in Gibraltar it is likely that concern for their well-being affected Joseph and his wife.

In his will Joseph Benhacok made a range of requests regarding his burial and what should happen to his private papers and business documents.

For his burial he requested that it should be based on the custom of Gibraltar with sufficient ground left for his wife to be buried next to him. He also gave his date of birth 21 May 1750 and asked that it be inscribed on his tombstone with the Hebrew dates.

He stated that pulverised lime be placed on the ground underneath and at the sides of his coffin. His coffin should have the bottom left open so that his body lay on the lime.

Unusually, he requested that his “ amount books, letters, papers ledgers, journals be lodged into two or three strong chests with iron hoops and six holes of two inches in circumference on the four sides and as many on each top “.

The chests were then to be taken to the deepest part of the River Thames or into the sea between Gravesend and the Downs and put into the water. The task was to be undertaken by ‘a person to be relied on’. His ‘faithful clerk‘ Felix Vandiol was to be responsible for the arrangements.

GRAVESEND 1814J. Farington R.A. delt. J.C. Stadler sculpt. (Published) by J. & J. Boydell, Shakespeare Gally. Pall Mall & (No. 90) Cheapside (London) Drawn by S. Owen. March 31, 1814 https://thames.me.uk/

There are no records to confirm why he requested these arrangements or whether they were carried out. When his wife Esther died in 1822 she made no reference to the chests.

The key questions regarding the mystery of the chests were:

  • What did the documents contain that required them to be disposed of in such a way?
  • Why couldn’t the documents be burned or destroyed in another manner?
  • Were the chests actually dropped into the River Thames or sea?
  • If the chests were disposed of as per the will instructions who carried out the process?

It would be speculation to determine the reasons for Joseph seeking to dispose of the chests in the manner her specified. However, did the documents affect any bequests he made or undisclosed settlements to his relatives or creditors? Were there issues affecting his partner Haim Azulay and widow referred to in the will?

Did the documents reveal any trade with the French, Spanish, and Portuguese during the Napoleonic wars which may have caused Joseph and his wife or relatives problems if disclosed?

Were his relatives in Gibraltar or Morocco in any way made vulnerable if his papers and documents were disclosed?

There are many other questions which could be asked.

These all remain unresolved questions which may or may not have relevance and it is unlikely that the mystery of the oak chests would be resolved without further evidence.

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