Jewish immigrants' lasting legacy for adopted home

Sheffield's history as a haven for immigrants began in the 19th century when Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe found shelter here.

Tuesday, 2nd October 2018, 12:09 am
Updated Tuesday, 2nd October 2018, 12:17 am
Montague Burton Limited, Tailors, High Street, Sheffield. This picture pre-dates the Blitz in 1940

From a mere handful of families in 1840, by 1895 there were 400 Jews in the city, and 500 at the turn of the century. Among them were some remarkable personalities. They left a lasting legacy.

Harris Brown, a watch-repairer from Warsaw, started a business selling watches to his workmates in a steel factory. In 1861 he opened a shop in the Lower Don Valley.

Sir Montague Burton, pictured in May 1949

Determined to blend his heritage with his patriotic love for his new country, he joined the Hallamshire Rifles before he could understand the English words of command.

On Queen Victoria's Jubilee, he joined the procession down Fargate in his carriage, from where he could admire floating in front of his (new) shop a blue and silver silken banner bearing the words, 'God Save the Queen' in Hebrew lettering.

H L Brown has remained in family hands ever since, with Harris's great-great-grandson now managing director, the fifth generation in the firm.

The 15-year old Lithuanian immigrant, Moshe Osinsky, arrived in England with nothing more than ambition and chutzpah. He became a pedlar in Chesterfield, selling door to door, before spotting a gap in the market for cheap clothing for working men.

Michael Frampton hands over to his son Jimmy at H L Brown under the watchful eye of their forefather, Harris Leon Brown, in November 2001

In 1906 he borrowed £100 to open shops in Mansfield and Sheffield, bought some ready-made suits from a wholesaler, marked up the price by 30%, and sold them on.

He moved to Sheffield, changed his name to Montague Burton and expanded the business. His big break came in 1914 with the outbreak of war, when production changed from civilian mufti to military uniforms.

When Burton died in 1952, his empire covered 600 shops and 14 factories and was estimated to be clothing a quarter of the British male population. Today, the company trades under the name of Arcadia, the largest privately-owned retail operation in the world.

But the most eccentric of these early figures was Horatio Bright, who set up Turton, Bright & Co, which manufactured high quality dies for the Royal Mint.

Mrs Denis Brown at H L Brown and Son Ltd

In 1891, Bright suffered a personal tragedy when both his wife and his only son, Sam, died within the space of five months. Struck down with grief, he refused to allow the Jewish burial society to come near the bodies and insisted on carrying out the last rites himself.

He personally prepared the corpses of his loved ones for burial and interred them in a private stone mausoleum which he had constructed in isolated splendour in woodland he owned at Hollow Meadows, just off the Manchester Road, with ornamental gardens laid out with mosaics overlooking the crags of the dramatic moorland landscape.

He furnished the interior luxuriously and had glass panels inserted into the lead coffins so that he could sit and gaze upon the faces of his loved ones. He had an organ installed and rode out across the moors in a coach and four to spend evenings playing dirges to their remains, while his groom quietly got on with dusting the coffins.

Bright's outpourings of grief did not last. Four years later, he remarried a young actress who bore him a son as a 70th birthday present. In 1906, he too was buried in the mausoleum.

One of the vast workrooms at the Montague Burton tailoring factory at Hudson Road Mills, Leeds

This stone building, cordoned off by iron railings, is hidden in a copse of trees, whose dark, intertwined branches give it an added mystery. In the 1980s the coffins were smashed open, probably by thieves who hoped to find buried treasure there.

But Sheffield was no latter-day Valley of the Kings. Only bones and desiccated cloth were waiting amongst the bird droppings and debris. The bodies were re-interred in the present-day Jewish cemetery at Ecclesfield, and Horatio Bright was returned to his faith. The original coffins are still on display at the Kelham Island museum, less than a mile from where Bright's factory once stood.

Professor Judy Simons was born and brought up Sheffield. She was Professor of English at Hallam University and editor of Sheffield Jewish Journal. She is writing a book on her Sheffield heritage


Horatio Bright's family at Sharrow Head House
Horatio Bright, hit hard by the loss of his wife and child