Globe Girdling

13 Nov

My great grandfather had an extraordinary life.  He was born Meshe Osinsky in a small town in the Kovno province of Russia, which became Lithuania after WWI.  The large Jewish community was severely restricted, being confined to the area known as the Pale, prevented from practising most professions and denied both the vote and access to secondary school.  As a scholarly child, Meshe’s only option for further education was to become a Rabbi.  During the latter part of the nineteenth century, a new wave of anti-Semitism sparked pogroms in towns throughout the Pale resulting in the widespread destruction of property, infliction of injury and murder on a largely helpless Jewish population.  My great grandfather talked little about why he left his home, but it is not difficult to guess.  It is estimated that despite severe restrictions on travel, over 2 million Jews left Russia between 1880 and 1925.

In 1900, aged 15, Meshe arrived in Hull on the East Coast of England.  The family story goes that he wanted to go to New York, and ended up in England by mistake.  It was often the case that immigrants speaking no English were easily fooled, with the boat crews pocketing the difference in their fares.  Whether this is true for Meshe or not, we don’t know, but we do know that he ended up living with a family in Chesterfield, working by day as a tailor and teaching himself English by night using the school books of his host’s daughter.  People who remembered him from this time later talked about how hard he worked.  Within four years he had set up his own small tailoring shop and changed his name to Maurice Burton, which was later to become Montague Burton.

He continued to work hard and by the time he died in 1952, his empire covered 600 shops and 14 factories and he was clothing an incredible one in four men in Britain.  After World War II,  he was a major supplier of de-mob suits to returning soldiers.  The expression “the full Monty” is believed to refer to the fact that they were given one of his three piece suits.

He was a generous employer, making every effort to keep his staff happy.  His factory in Leeds had the largest works canteen in the world, along with a comprehensive pre-welfare state health and pension scheme and Christmas parties for workers’ children which are still remembered today.

As well as working hard, he also enjoyed his success, being an enthusiastic and frequent traveller.  In the 1930’s letters written to his daughter, my grandmother, were published in two volumes called ‘Globe Girdling’, giving a detailed record of his trips, often with hour by hour descriptions of his itinerary.  The list of countries he visited is impressive, including almost every single country we are planning to visit on our round the world trip and many, many more in Africa, South and Central America and Europe.  It makes fascinating reading, and not just because he’s my great grandfather, although it is a wonderful insight into the character of a man I never knew.  He obviously took great delight in his family, reporting word for word conversations he had with my infant aunt, and he clearly had a close and loving relationship with my grandmother, a woman I remember as being rather distant and strict when I visited her grand, gloomy house.  He had a very dry sense of humour, saying that a Broadway show “would have been tolerable had it only lasted an hour” instead of the two and a half he sat through.  He enjoyed meeting fellow industrialists around the world, but took just as much, if not more pleasure, from meeting their children and grandchildren.

He is naturally interested in manufacturing and shops in other countries, and visits establishments of all sizes, describing what they sell and how they are managed, from the department stores of Ginza, the main shopping street in Tokyo, to Army and Navy shops  in Delhi and Hong Kong and a Gastronomic Centre in Russia.  He’s a keen observer of all he sees, writing detailed descriptions of amongst other things, the burning ghats in India, the Yanggona Ceremony in Fiji, the outfits of US Customs Officers and schooling in Sierra Leone.  He visited Palestine a number of times, where he met with many Jews who were instrumental in founding Israel.  He also revisited the country of his birth, then part of the USSR, searching for evidence of the region’s Jewish history and visiting the Yiddish University in Odessa.  He also enjoyed doing typically touristy things like a ‘Houses of the Stars’ tour in Hollywood and visiting the Waitomo glow worm caves in New Zealand, which he thought magnificent.  I like the thought of using his books when planning our itinerary, I’ll have plenty of ideas to choose from.

The two volumes together total about 1,000 pages and I am working my way slowly through them.  Some of the letters are perhaps most useful to historians of industry, with comparisons of wool prices in each country and detail about American department store leases.  But I am determined to do the whole book justice.  At it’s best, it is a wonderful snapshot of the world in the 1930’s with its growing political tensions, rampant modernisation and traditional cultures and religions.  As he said, “While I am interested in historic buildings, ancient monuments and beautiful things and scenes created by man and nature, I am still more interested in living people, their circumstances and manner of life, their efforts and achievements, their striving and struggles, their frequent defeats and occasional triumphs.”  I have a lot to thank Montague Burton for, not least that he is part funding our big trip.  I like to think that our plans would have met with his approval.


This post is part of Photo Friday at Delicious Baby. For more lovely travel pictures, click here


21 Responses to “Globe Girdling”

  1. Pippa 13/11/2009 at 10:34 am #

    Wow, what a great history to have access to! I’m assuming those stores are Burtons?

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 13/11/2009 at 6:32 pm #

      yes, indeed!

  2. Helly (Travel by the Calendar) 13/11/2009 at 10:39 am #

    How different travel must have been back then. But some things are the same, his comment on what interests him on his travels still resonates today.

  3. Liz 13/11/2009 at 1:01 pm #

    What an utterly fantastic family history and what an amazing man your Great Grandfather was. My Grandfather wore one of his suits when he was demobbed and kept it till he died 🙂

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 13/11/2009 at 6:35 pm #

      Thank you for telling me about your Grandfather wearing a Burton’s suit, it’s kind of cool isn’t it?

  4. Kat 13/11/2009 at 2:48 pm #

    What an amazing story! One of my Great Uncles used letters and diaries to create out family story the first two volumes of which he completed before he died. I think there is something very special about knowing those who came before us. Before my Great Aunt Dorothea was a woman who sent a £4 cheque on my birthday but I now know her as ‘Dorfy, would be mother of six’ who pestered her brother (my Great Grandfather) for conception advice while she was in Burma and he was in Fiji! I only wish the latter volumes he had planned were written.

    I wonder what your Great Grandchildren will make of your trip?

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 13/11/2009 at 6:34 pm #

      I hadn’t even thought about what future generations would think! At least I’ve started on the blog, so they’ll all be able to read it!

  5. Sharlene 13/11/2009 at 6:45 pm #

    Wow! What an amazing story. You must be so proud of your grandfather and all that he accomplished.

  6. Marina K Villatoro 13/11/2009 at 10:52 pm #

    That’s a very nice story. I’m sure you are very proud of him.

  7. Brit In Bosnia 14/11/2009 at 9:17 am #

    What an amazing story. I love that you know so much about him. Makes me think we should all be writing books for our descendents to find out about us.

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 14/11/2009 at 8:16 pm #

      We are sort of, aren’t we? As long as they can still read our blogs, they’ll get an amazing insight into our thoughts and our everyday lives.

  8. Coding Mamma 14/11/2009 at 5:44 pm #

    What an amazing man, and how lucky you are to have such a glimpse into his life. And it seems like wanderlust is genetic!

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 14/11/2009 at 8:19 pm #

      I definitely think there is something in that, as I have immigrants and travellers in every branch of my family. I don’t know whether it’s nature or nurture as I grew up with exotic tales of ranches in Wyoming and tea plantations in Kenya. Perhaps I should write about some of the others sometime.

  9. Malta Vacations 14/11/2009 at 5:54 pm #

    Wow that is amazing! You must be so proud of your grandfather. I love reading these stories of how people used to live in those days and what they did to become successful.

    Don’t know, there’s something really heart warming when you read a story like that … a man who struggled against all odds and made it! Awesome stuff 🙂

    I didn’t know that it was the norm for people in those days to be tricked liked that and often ended up in an another country!

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 14/11/2009 at 8:20 pm #

      Thank you for leaving a comment. It’s true that you can’t help but be inspired when you hear of someone achieving so much in their life.

  10. Dominique 14/11/2009 at 6:54 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your great grandfather’s story! How lucky you are to have such a detailed account of his travels and thoughts. I always wonder what my relatives did and what they thought about their lives as they were living them.

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 14/11/2009 at 8:21 pm #

      Having this book is great, I only found out about it recently when my mother’s cousin gave me a copy. I’m loving reading it.

  11. Linda 25/11/2009 at 10:08 pm #

    Just amazing. I hope you are following Ellie L’s advice and pitching something on this to a paper? x

  12. Samira 11/02/2011 at 8:52 am #

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I enjoyed reading

  13. Bob Beers 16/02/2011 at 10:56 pm #

    Your grandfather belongs in the history books with other truly great men and women, for whom wealth was incidental and possessed what can only be called a deep love for their fellow human beings. His attitude and policies toward workers and customers reminds me very much of Louis Bamberger, who founded a wonderful department store in Newark, New Jersey. If we are lucky, maybe in 500 years his attitude will have infiltrated human thinking in a more general and persistent way. In the meantime, we can be grateful that he was here, with others like the Mayo brothers, Viktor Frankl, and many others the world at large has never heard of. I think he was a saint, not in the naïve sense of suffering for a vain and insecure god, but because he partook in the essence of a loving God.

    • itsasmallworldafterallfamily 21/02/2011 at 11:43 am #

      Gosh, what a lovely comment, thank you very much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: