Elizabeth Anne Finn, 1825-1921

Born in 1825 in Warsaw to the future professor of Hebrew at King’s College London, Elizabeth Anne McCaul; later Finn, started and ended her life immersed in the history of Palestine.

Elizabeth Anne Finn

Elizabeth’s upbringing and early life prepared her perfectly for her future. By age five, she had received tutoring in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Greek and Latin, and had completed a translation of Lavater’s Maxims from German by age twelve. Her father was a member of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (later renamed to the London Jews’ Society), and her early exposure to Jewish history and culture through Rabbi Rav Avrahom undoubtedly went on to affect her activities in Jerusalem later in life.


She was married to James Finn in 1846 and the couple headed to Jerusalem. James Finn was appointed British consul to the Ottoman administration in Jerusalem; the couple would end up living in Palestine without returning to Britain until the end of his tenure in 1863. Elizabeth continued building her portfolio of languages she could command in Palestine, learning Arabic and the Judeo-Spanish language of the Sephardic Jewish communities in the region. The influence of the British consulate grew significantly throughout the period, in many parts due to its longevity and to the rotating door of Turkish regional governors limiting the reach of the Ottoman administration in the region.


The couple originally resided with a series of Anglican clergymen near the Jaffa Gate, before moving into the house of the previous Consul next to the Anglican Jerusalem Christ Church. The building would eventually become the left wing of the Church and is now a hostel. Despite the quality of many of the residences they lived in, life in Jerusalem was not as safe as it is today. As with many urban centres in the 19th Century, hygiene and public health were not in excellent states and could be dangerous. Elizabeth’s memoirs describe seasonal fever attacks and the tragic loss of two children in 1846 and 1847.

British Consulate
A ‘Talbottype’ print copy of a photograph, taken of the British Consulate building and the adjoined Christ Church. Believed to have been produced by Rev. George Wilson Bridges.

Elizabeth undertook a great deal of humanitarian work while in Jerusalem, and her work helping the poor Jewish communities of the Old City has in many ways become her most famous legacy. Her and her husband raised the money to purchase Karm al-Khalil (Kerem Avraham) outside the Old City, where they employed poor Jewish workers and aided in training them to become more productive, even producing soap to sell. Similarly, Elizabeth established an organisation to aid Jewish women, providing them with work sewing to earn money to sustain their families.


The British consulate was fundamentally tied to the Anglican Church and indeed a wider protestant movement in Palestine and Britain. Geopolitically, the growing interests of the British missionary movement in Palestine was part of a wider trend in increased European penetration into the Ottoman Empire, which had become an important strategic stabiliser in a region believed to be crucial to Imperial trade and in controlling Russian expansion. Indeed the original building in 1846 of the Jerusalem Christ Church, the first Anglican Church in Jerusalem, was permitted only if it was regarded as the consulate chapel. While the Church was finally recognised as independent in 1858, there remained an intangible link between the British consulate, the Church and the London Jews’ Society which provided much of its funding. After this, the couple moved into a large house near the Damascus Gate.


Elizabeth is also remembered as being one of the first to begin identifying real locations of Biblical sites. She accompanied her husband on consular tours around the region, giving her opportunities to travel and survey the countryside and inland areas of Palestine. She often utilised her extensive knowledge of Semitic languages when evaluating sites, considering the etymology of place names and how they linked to biblical sites. This was notoriously misleading in many cases, but the Finn’s work in identifying Ras el Ain as the city of Afek (Antipatris) in the Hebrew Bible was ahead of its time in accuracy.

Watercolour drawing
A watercolour drawn by Elizabeth Anne Finn in 1855, appearing to depict the construction of a building.

In 1849 Elizabeth was introduced to the possibility of photography to document the region: A clergyman by the name of Bridges had used Calotype ‘Talbot Types’, named after William Henry Fox Talbot, to photograph Jerusalem. In 1853 James Graham came to Jerusalem as the secretary of the London Jews’ society, bringing with him photographic equipment and the skills to use it. Elizabeth obtained many of these photographs and eventually entrusted them to the Palestine Exploration Fund – you can see more of them here.

A photograph of Jerusalem from the North East, taken by Felix Bonfils.

The Finn’s interest in archaeology and photography led to the founding of the Jerusalem Literary and Scientific society, which sought to investigate subjects related to the history of Palestine and the Holy Land. It was founded in 1849 with the patronage of Lord Bishop Gobat, and convened once a week, with members being required to contribute something at least once every two months. The society attracted many biblical archaeologists and scholars, and presentations often featured items collected from the regions Ottoman, Medieval and pre-Islamic history, although some looked at current issues affecting Jerusalem such as public health. The first secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, George Grove, was involved in the society while in Jerusalem in 1858, and made frequent use of the society’s resources. After the society’s dissolution after the First World War, its remaining resources were given over to the PEF.


Despite Elizabeth’s return to England in 1862, she remained linked to the history of the region and the PEF, which in many ways carried and expanded the legacy and goals of the society. She was asked to help fundraise for the Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine in the 1870’s, and continued to lecture on the Fund’s activities. The survey continues to serve as an invaluable historical resource right up until the present day. She also served as a translator for the Patriarch of the Syrian Church on a trip to the United Kingdom in 1875. In many ways this became her greatest legacy, facilitating and promoting the study and research of Palestine both within Britain and in Jerusalem. She died in 1921 at her home in Hammersmith, aged 95.