Jacob’s cross in Lavenham

HAD IT NOT BEEN FILLED WITH parked cars, Market Square in Lavenham (Suffolk in East Anglia) would probably be recognisable to those who lived in the town several hundred years ago. The square is surrounded by old buildings, many of which are half-timbered. The most impressive of these is the Guildhall that was built in 1529. This large building attests the former wealth of the town, when it was an important centre of the wool trade in East Anglia. In its heyday, cloth from Lavenham was sent all over Britain and exported to Holland and Spain via the port of Ipswich. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547), Lavenham was the fourteenth richest town in England.

Lavenham boasts a 16th century market cross. Market crosses were erected to indicate that an area had been designated as being a market square by a bishop, or a baron, or the monarch. Lavenham’s market cross is made of stone. A three stepped pyramid supports a slender column surmounted by a stone sphere. A metal plate informs the visitor that:

“The market cross was erected in 1501in accordance with the will of William Jacob”.

So, who was William Jacob?

Jacob was one of Lavenham’s wealthy clothiers, involved in the wool textile trade. Despite his surname, it was highly unlikely that he was Jewish because most Jews had been expelled from England in the 13th century (and it was not until the mid-17th century that Jewish people began returning).  According to text on the website deverehouse.co.uk:

“William Jacob was the tenth wealthiest clothier and businessman in England, making an annual profit of 67 marks and with a gross turnover of 223 whole cloths (a gross turnover of £12m in today’s money, around 400 marks).  On his death he paid for the erection of the market cross that is still there 520 years later.  He did not branch into “straites” or “narrow cloths” and within 25 years of his death the cheaper narrow cloth was dominating the market and Jacob’s family were seeking other work.”

In his will, dated 1500, he wrote:

“I will have a cross made of my perpetual cost that shall be set upon the market hill in the village of Lavenham.”

The cross that was erected in Lavenham in 1501 was a copy of the market cross already present in the city of Cambridge. The Cambridge market cross has long-since disappeared. The stepped base is all that remains of the cross paid for by Jacob’s estate. The slender shaft that now stands on it was put up in 1725. It is interesting to note that far away in Florence (Italy) Michelangelo was beginning work on his famous statue of David in 1501. That sculpture was completed in 1504. Although many visitors come to Lavenham, many more visit Florence.

Suffolk was the most important clothmaking county in 15th/16th century England. William Jacob was one of the county’s 100 clothiers in business between 1480 and 1500. Other counties had far fewer members of this trade. Although William Jacob was the tenth most wealthy, the wealthiest was Thomas Spring III (c1474-1523) of Lavenham. By 1500, Suffolk was the most industrialised and urbanised county in Britain, but by 1700, the county had become a rural backwater. Suffolk and much of the rest of East Anglia might be regarded as a bit of a backwater nowadays, but it is a largely picturesque one with wonderful landscapes and a great architectural legacy due to its past prosperity during the golden age of the wool trade.

Hooked on rugs

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I would never have thought that I would have enjoyed reading a book about rug-making cottage industry in Nova Scotia, but I have. Recently, a Canadian friend brought me a book that focusses on hooked rugs and their promotion by a lady called Lillian Burke (1879-1952), who was born in the USA.

Just in case you (like me before reading the book) have no idea what comprises a hooked rug, let me explain by quoting from Wikipedia: “Rug hooking is … where rugs are made by pulling loops of  yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. The loops are pulled through the backing material by using a crotchet-type hook mounted in a handle (usually wood) for leverage.” 

Edward Langille’s book discusses in detail Lillian Burke’s significant involvement with the hooked rug manufacture carried out by housewives in small settlements in the remote Cape Breton district of Nova Scotia. Ms Burke, who was born in Washington DC, was  highly acccomplished in teaching, music, and art. During both world wars, she helped pioneer what is now known as ‘occupational therapy’. She was a highly-regarded teacher. It was this skill that brought her into contact with the family of Alexander Graham Bell, the scientist and inventor of telephony. The Bells employed Lilian Burke as a tutor for their offspring. She developed a lasting friendship with the extended family, who owned a country retreat in the region of Nova Scotia where hooked rug making was a prevalent occupation of the local housewives.

Langille describes how Ms Burke helped to develop what had been a local craft into a viable money-making venture. Using her highly developed artistic skills, she helped the housewives produce rugs with artistically sophisticated designs that made them appealing to fashionable interior decorators in the USA (mainly). 

Traditionally, the housewives of Cape Breton wove their rugs with scraps of  coloured material. Ms Burke designed the patterns and the housewives did the ‘hooking’. She encouraged them to begin using locally-produced wool which they had dyed. One thing that particularly interested me was that Ms Burke showed the ladies how to use knots and paper masking to dye a skein of wool in varying colours, so that a single thread of wool would vary in colour along its length. This technique is used in Patan in Gujarat (Western India) to produce the silk threads with patterns of varying colour, which are used to produce the highly valuable woven Patola textiles. I would be curious to know whether Ms Burke had been aware of this century’s old method of dyeing.

Langille’s book is a remarkable, well-written, and readable biography of a remarkable woman, who is probably hardly known outside of Nova Scotia and beyond a few enthusiasts of hooked rug making. She deserves to be better known, especially in the light of what Langille’s book reveals about her dedication to the development of rehabilitation and occupational therapy. Professor Langille’s detailed and carefully researched book may well help give Lilian Burke the wider recognition she deserves.

REVIEW BY AUTHOR OF “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”, about Indian patriots in London between 1905 and 1910

 

ISBN: 9781926448404

Reflecting on the Lehman Brothers

I have just seen a performance of the much-hyped, sold-out, “Lehman Trilogy” at London’s National Theatre. It is written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini and ‘adapted’ into English by Ben Power. Starring Simon Russell Beale and two other actors, the three-and-a-half-hour drama charts the rise and fall of the Lehman brothers and the financial establishments they created. It is in three parts separated from each other by intervals. The first part and the beginning of the second narrate the Lehman’s family saga clearly, entertainingly, and quite interestingly. Then, the latter part of the play seems to ‘lose the plot’.

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Seligmann store in Barkly East, South Africa

The Lehman bank’s operations literally collapsed in 2008. Although I am the son of an eminent economist, I do not understand the subject at all. I was hoping that the collapse of the Lehman Bank might be explained in relatively simple terms as the “Lehman Trilogy” drew towards its finale, but it was not. Rather than explore the dramatic possibilities of what was surely a very dramatic demise of a great financial establishment, the playwright and his ‘adaptor’ merely hinted at the disaster but made no obvious attempt to depict the momentous events that led to a frightful ending that greatly impacted on worldwide news and financial affairs. So, as you can gather, I was not altogether satisfied by the play itself. However, it got me thinking about my own ancestors, who, like the Lehman brothers, left Bavaria in the mid-19th century to seek their fortunes away from Europe across the oceans.

The Lehman brothers, who migrated to the USA in the mid-19th century, were born in Rimpar (Bavaria), near Würzburg. Heinrich (later’ Henry’) Bergmann, my great-grand uncle, was born 50 kilometres south-east of Rimpar in Ditenheim (Bavaria). He was only a few years younger than the Lehmans. In 1849, aged 18, he sailed to Cape Town in South Africa. Soon after arriving, he became the manager of a general store opened in the newly-established town of Aliwal North in the same year. Like the Lehman brothers, Heinrich became very successful as a middle-man. Like the Lehmans, during bad times he gave the farmers (his customers) credit, which they repaid when the wool harvests were brought to his shop (to be sold on to wool merchants). By the early 1860s, soon after marrying the daughter of a Jewish banker in Frankfurt-am-Main, he became the manager of one of the Aliwal’s three banks. Eventually Heinrich’s bank took over its two rivals. For reasons that are not at all clear, young Henrich shot himself in 1866.

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The grave of Heinrich (‘Henry’) Bergmann in Aliwal North, South Africa

Heinrich’s death was not the end of the story. During his time in the Cape, Heinrich was joined in South Africa by his brother and some of his cousins. The cousins in question came mainly from Ichenhausen in Bavaria, 163 kilometres south of Rimpar. Heinrich’s brother married Klara, a daughter of Jakob Seligmann, a successful merchant in Ichenhausen.  Klara’s only brother Isak Rafael Seligmann and his wife had 18 children, of whom 15 lived to adulthood. One of the sons, Sigmund, Heinrich’s nephew, migrated to South Africa from Ichenhausen. He did not join his uncle, but began working for another German, a merchant in Lady Grey, which is not far from Aliwal North. Other young men from Ichenhausen including Sigmund’s brother Jakob and the Reichenberg brothers, one of whom joined Heinrich Bergmann, migrated to South Africa.

Sigmund Seligmann was offered a partnership in the business in Lady Grey but turned it down. He left Lady Grey to open his own shop in Dordrecht, a small place in the Cape. Soon after this, he opened a branch in Barkly East in the heart of a sheep grazing district. Like the Lehman brothers who bought cotton and sold it on, and also acted as bankers for the cotton-growers, Sigmund bought wool from his farmer customers and sold it on as well as lending money to the farmers when times were lean.

The Lehman brothers set their sights high. They moved from being merchants to becoming brokers, and then bankers. Their descendants continued the progression until, finally, others took over the running, and eventual ruining, of the business. Sigmund and many others like him, who went from what was to become ‘Germany’ to South Africa, more often than not retired to Germany when they had made their fortunes. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, life in South Africa was a lot less comfortable than in civilised Germany or the USA, parts of which were becoming very sophisticated. Those who returned to end their lives in Germany had to face WW1 and then later the advent of Hitler’s regime. Sigmund and his children left Bavaria for Palestine, thereby escaping the fate of many Jews who remained in Germany.

Before Sigmund left to retire in Germany, he left the running of his by now very successful business in the hands of some of his very numerous nephews. One of these, who arrived in South Africa in about 1903, was my grandfather Iwan Bloch. Hardworking Iwan, like his father-in-law the future Senator, Franz Ginsberg (an industrialist in the Cape, who had migrated there from Prussia), maintained the successful running of his business as well as entering politics. Iwan became the first and only Jewish Mayor of Barkly East. His life was cut short by ill-health, but had he lived longer I feel sure that he would have entered national politics following in the footsteps of his father-in-law Franz.

With the exception of Iwan’s ill-fated uncle Heinrich Bergmann, this extended Bavarian Jewish family did not take the same road toward high finance as the Lehmans did, but they started at the same point.

Furthermore, the Lehman fortune began to be built from the labour of black slaves in Alabama. This is skirted around casually in the play. Although formally, there were no black slaves in South Africa when my ancestors arrived there, much of the dirty work required to make their fortunes was performed by black Africans, whose treatment by the white Europeans was very far from admirable.

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Adam Yamey’s grandfather, Iwan Bloch, brought the railway to Barkly East in South Africa

I am glad I saw the “Lehman Trilogy” because it is engaging and, although there is little acting, what acting there is was good. Also, it got me thinking about my own history. However, like the doomed bank, the quality of the plot declines gradually as the three and a half hours pass by. Would I recommend it? The answer is “no”.