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