Leeds nostalgia: Origins of M&S... Part 1

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n the first of a series on Marks & Spencer, historian Mike Harwood illuminates the origins of the famous Leeds store...

Honestly, nothing could be more English than Marks & Spencer. Where, so I’m told, middle-aged ladies, English ladies bought – still buy for all I know – their sensible knickers. I am not mocking; I buy my sensible, winter long johns there.

And yet... founded in Kirkgate Market, Leeds, by Michael Marks and Tom Spencer, Russian Pole and Yorkshireman; Jew and Gentile; native and immigrant, yet today nothing could be more English and, I guess more rightly respected. And nothing could be more English than Kirkgate Market. He was born a Polish Jew, in Slonim, in the province of Grodno, then part of Russia, today in Belarus. It is believed his mother died in giving birth in 1859, as suggested by his naturalisation papers in 1897; though when he married Hannah Cohen at the Great Synagogue on Belgrave Street, Leeds, in 1886, his marriage certificate suggested a birth in 1863.

Michael Marks was not alone, as a Jew, in Leeds at this time. The first reliable news of a resident Jew is in the burial register of Leeds Parish Church in 1735 recording that Israel Benjamin ‘was born of Jewish parentage, became a Christian and was baptized at Dublin aged 45. A growing trickle followed, many encouraged by the foundation of the tailoring industry (with which the name of Leeds became synonymous).

But like so many refugees, Michael’s family was not just seeking a change of scenery. In so many cases the immigrants were fleeing famine, conscription into the Russian Army (which might last 25 years), and endemic persecution that intensified in the wake of the assassination of the Tsar in 1881; the assassination led to pogroms (the organised assassination) of Jews which spurred a mass emigration to the West...

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