Newcomers who built Britain’s future

The JC Essay


By Derek Taylor, January 22, 2013
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Not long ago I was talking to a social worker from Manchester. She was complaining that in her city there were families with three generations who were unemployed; grandfather, father and son. I said that wasn’t really a problem; the youngster should go where there was work and when he’d made enough money, send back for his father and grandfather. The social worker was not convinced; “It’s alright for you,” she said. “You’ve had 2,000 years of experience!”

That’s really the lesson of the Jewish contribution to the British economy over the last 350 years. While there have always been a few rich Jews, we almost all come originally from poverty stricken backgrounds.

Most of our grandparents or great-grandparents were refugees from foreign countries, unable to speak the language, with little or no education. How on earth did we reach the point of being a largely — although not totally — middle class community?

Jews had always been in international commerce. For centuries they ran Moroccan trade because successive Sultans had no idea how to do it for themselves. We had one enormous advantage; we had a complete set of laws on how to conduct ourselves in business. It was all laid down in the sixth century Babylonian Talmud, in the Nezikin section. An Indian Jew trading with a German Jew could work according to those rules in the 12th century or the 18th century, and there was always a Beth Din somewhere to arbitrate if there were disputes. Obviously, it didn’t always work out that way, but it was a base.

Immigrants are often condemned for taking jobs… what is ignored is the possibility that they will bring skills of immense value

Jews, paradoxically, also had the advantage that we were not allowed to join guilds. We were, thereby, excluded from the existing industries. The only industries where Jews were welcome were the ones just starting to get off the ground. The first tobacco shipment was said to have been brought into Europe in the 15th century by a Jew, Louis de Terres, who had sailed with Columbus.

So, throughout history, we learned to look for the hole in the market and we still do. Modern entrepreneurs, like Lloyd Dorfman, whose Travelex Group created the airport currency exchange kiosks, were following in his the footsteps of his ancestors. Likewise Sir Clive Bourne in 1962 with Seabourne Express, his parcel delivery system, or David Goldman, whose Sage Group recognised the need for a computer-based office administration system for small businesses.

Jews love new concepts. They get in on the ground floor. Queen Victoria sent out seasonal greetings messages early in her reign but it was an expensive business. When the government reduced the cost of postage in the 1870s a shopkeeper in the City, Raphael Tuck, created the Christmas card for the masses. He later negotiated with the government a reduction in the cost of sending a letter without an envelope, which led to him printing 40,000 different postcards. His sons created cardboard jigsaw puzzles and resuscitated the sending of Valentine cards. Henry Simon built the first Victorian rolling flour mill which put the windmills out of business, and some years later Dan David built up Photo Me, enabling people to take on-the-spot passport photographs.

Sometimes the Jews arrived with skills they had needed to flourish in the old country. In Lithuania they were pedlars during the summer, but in the winter the roads were cold and dangerous. So in the warmer months they went into the forests and cut themselves a supply of wood. During the winters they made simple furniture, which they then sold in the spring. When they reached Britain they continued to make furniture. Harris Lebus, Shragers, Gomme, Archie Shine and many other fine furniture manufacturers came from that background. The Lithuanian Jews also made amber jewellery, from which we get the name Bernstein.

The women would play their part by mending the old clothes that the pedlars bought. The Jew as the Old Clo’ Man was a favourite caricature, and from that background came Moss Bros, which launched the dress hire system. Then there were manufacturers like United Draperies, Lionel Green’s Windsmoor and the man who provided no less than 25 per cent of the demob suits given to soldiers after the Second World War; Montague Burton.

Jewish women also played a large part in building companies. The first woman newspaper editor in this country was Rachel Sassoon who edited both The Sunday Times and the Observer for some years at the end of the 19th century. Incidentally, the Daily Telegraph had Jewish origins as well (Joseph Moses Levy agreed to print it and then became the proprietor). Then there was the initiator of pet insurance in our own time; Patsy Bloom. Meanwhile Marilyn Anselm founded Hobbs and Elsie Cohen opened the first cinema to show only foreign films, the Academy on Oxford Street.

Many great Jewish businesses started with market stalls. Sir Jack Cohen with Tesco and Michael Marks with Marks and Spencer are two obvious examples. Less well known today is Eric Weiss who came from Germany to Birmingham in 1931 and started supplying the local foundries from a one room office in Birmingham. He provided practical help on how to make better profits. His key customer benefit was a newsletter with good advice. That company is now Foseco, and is simply enormous in the foundry world. Jez San started Argonaut Software in his bedroom in Mill Hill and went on to invent fabulously successful computer games.

Immigrants are often condemned for taking jobs from the local people and being a drain on social services. What is too frequently ignored is the possibility that they will bring skills of immense value to the country. For example, the Saatchi Brothers from Iraq who transformed advertising, or Sir Ronald Cohen from Egypt, who practically created British Venture Capitalism. Or Siegmund Warburg, forced out of Germany by the Nazis, who invented the Eurobond.

It is often thought that Jews are only to be found in a few areas of commerce, but that has simply never been true. Joseph Poliakoff’s Multitone developed a new hearing aid after escaping Russia for the UK following the 1917 revolution. The “Father of Automation” was the Kiev-born Jew Sir Leon Bagrit of Elliott Automation. The Titanic ship was built by the Jewish-born Gustave Wolff of Harland and Wolf (although he was brought up as a Christian). Modern users of the London Underground owe a debt of gratitude to Sir Edgar Speyer, the American-born financier and philanthropist who chaired the Underground Electric Railways Company of London for more than a decade, during which time he oversaw the development of three deep tube lines.

Jews have also being instrumental in combining poorly performing companies and making them great in their time. Lord Arnold Weinstock built up the General Electric Company, Sir Alfred Mond amalgamated companies into the ICI chemical company and Sir Charles Clore brought numerous shoe companies together as the British Shoe Corporation. Lord David Alliance essentially staved off the collapse of the British textile industry for many years when he put together Coats Viyella.

Of course, the Jewish contribution has not been merely to build businesses, but to set the right example to industry. When considering working conditions, it was companies like Marks and Spencer and Burtons — founded by Montague Burton — whose subsidised canteens and medical care made the national case for looking after staff better. The contribution of Sir David Salomans to the creation of Joint Stock banks is buried in the past, though in 1873 The Times noted the fact that: “To his unremitting care and attention to its interests and progress are greatly due… the development and importance of the body of Joint Stock banks in London.”

Some of the Jewish founders of great companies have been totally forgotten. A penniless Victorian British Jew, called Joe Nathan — the son of a tailor — finished up in New Zealand. He started a a shop and built the Jewish community in Wellington. At the end of the 19th century — having seen that the dairy industry in New Zealand had found a way of powdering milk — he returned to London and bought the distribution rights. He named the product Glaxo — a name you might just recognise. Or what about Calmer Levy, who became the banker to the King of Denmark? He decided he needed a new surname and chose his birth place; Hamburg. Only the registrar spelt it wrong, paving the way forthe Hambro bamking dynasty.

Jews have not traditionally been conformists in business. The fact that something has been done the same way for centuries has not tended to cut any ice with us. If it can be done better, then we tear up the rule book.

For instance, in the late 19th century, Marcus Samuel turned the oil industry upside down by arranging for a fleet of steamers to carry bulk amounts from Russia to Japan on the newly built Suez Canal. Five years later the company became known as Shell.

While we often highlight the contribution of those Jews who came to Britain in the latter part of the 19th century, Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis also did a great deal for the British economy. They were encouraged to set up in parts of the country that needed new businesses; Whitehaven owes an enormous amount to Lord Frank Schon at Marchon, Nottingham to the Djanoglys and Swansea to the Mettoy toy company. Where new ideas were needed for the publishing world, refugees created Weidenfeld and Nicholson, André Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn’s Octopus, Bela Horowitz’s Phaidon, Walter Neurath’s Thames & Hudson and Ernest Hecht’s Souvenir Press.

And after the war came the major Jewish contribution to repairing the damage. About 70 per cent of the property developers were companies of Jewish origin. It was the only industry we ever dominated and companies like Land Securities, Oldham Estates and City Centre Properties led the way.

If all of this was achieved by poor Jews, did the rich ones do anything useful? Well, they financed Charles II in exile, loaned William III the money to campaign in 1689 and held up the pound when the City panicked in 1715 and 1745 following the invasions of the Old Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Not to mention that they raised a great deal of the money to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. The Rothschilds even loaned Disraeli the money to buy the Suez Canal.

A fantastic record and I haven’t even mentioned such luminaries as Isaac Wolfson, Max Rayne, Rosser Chinn, Stanley Kalms, Vidal Sassoon, the Salmons and the Glucksteins, John Ritblat, Max Joseph, Alan Sugar, Philip Green and Sidney Bernstein. Or our contribution to the world of films — Odeon, Gaumont British and Essoldo — or to the making of them: Ealing Films, Powell & Pressburger, Lew Grade, and Alexander Korda. Or Kangol, Bunzls, Lex, the St Ives Group, British Land and French Connection… the list goes on. And our community remains as innovative as ever. In the last 30 years Jews have helped to build up such great companies as Ted Baker, Holiday Autos and XStrata.

Many of the entrepreneurs are also very conscious of the Almighty’s clear instruction at Yom Kippur; that charity can avert the severe decree. The support given to both Jewish and non-Jewish charities in the past decades has been massive. It’s also nice to know that just some of our traditional skills are still alive and well. When Prince William married Kate Middleton the bridegroom’s uniform was meticulously tailored by Russell Kashket, the Royal Warrant Holder, as were the great majority of the uniforms of the Brigade of Guards.

In my book, I cover more than 350 Jewish companies over the centuries. The lesson our story offers is that in Britain an ethnic community doesn’t have to settle for the bottom of the pile, the back of the bus, or the scrapings. With enough hard work and determination, it can pull itself up by its bootstraps. Jews don’t have Hamlet’s problem. They know that it is nobler to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.

Derek Taylor’s book ‘Thank you for your business: The Jewish Contribution to the British Economy’, with a foreword by George Osborne, is out now (Vallentine Mitchell)

Last updated: 12:45pm, January 22 2013