Early Years: Monty Simmons (1918-2008)
Morris Simmons, later known as ‘Monty’, was born in Stepney in London’s East End at the end of the First World War, growing up in a large, close-knit religious family. He was the second oldest of ten children. The circumstances of his early life were those of material poverty but spiritual richness.
At 14, he went to work for his uncle in Hackney who, in 1940, sent him to manage a branch of the tailors’ trimmings business in Belgrave Gate, Leicester, as part of a national policy to geographically distribute manufacturing capacity away from the bombing of London and closer to where military uniforms were made.
Anne Simmons (1916-1997)
Anne Stecker was born in Whitechapel, in an East End family also of ten children.
Arrival in Leicester, Marriage and Trade
Anne and Monty married in June 1941 and came to live in Leicester.
When the war ended, Monty bought out his uncle, taking over the shop in Belgrave Gate and living above it. Both Monty’s and Anne’s families were Londoners who perceived Leicester, 100 miles away and ‘north of Watford’, as remote. The couple’s original intention had been a temporary stay in Leicester until the war ended. But in Leicester, they had made good friends, became active members of the new Leicester Maccabi and were absorbed into the life of the local community. They visited London often, but never returned there permanently.
In 1947, at the suggestion of their good friends, David and Ann Jacobs, Monty and Anne bought the house next door but one, in Carisbrooke Road on the southern edge of Leicester.
Initially Monty had traded largely in the way he learned from his uncle, supplying a wide variety of trimmings to clothing and boot and shoe manufacturers so they could minimise capital investment in stock and respond swiftly to changes in style and fashion. He also realised the advantages of manufacturing and as that side of the business expanded, he moved to larger premises in Church Gate and opened a branch in Nottingham.
In the post-war consumer boom that ran from 1945 to 1971, some national and international orders for tailors’ trimmings were far larger than the capacity of any single supplier to fill, so Monty made arrangements with some of his ‘competitors’ to fulfil them.
In 1955, disaster struck Monty’s business; an intense fire starting in the printer’s workshop above his premises, gutted the entire building. But next day, Monty obtained new premises in High Cross Street and by the end of the week, he had some machinery and his loyal staff were back at work. He achieved this, in part, through some of his competitors loaning him spare equipment.
The manufacturing side of the business (P&S Fabric Belts) gradually expanded further and he moved the business out of the centre to Wordsworth Road in Knighton Fields, Leicester.
Involvement with Leicester Hebrew Congregation
It was during his time at Wordsworth Road that Monty, as well as membership of Bnei’ Brith and Chevra Kadisha, began his formal involvement as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of Leicester Hebrew Congregation. He also represented Leicester Hebrew Congregation on race relations committees in Leicester where his moral stand on such issues was well-known.
One of Monty’s younger brothers, David, was a gifted sign-writer who painted the ‘Prayer for the Royal Family’ in Hebrew and English on the panel beside the ark in Leicester Synagogue.
When Monty’s long-standing friend and neighbour David Jacobs, President of Leicester Hebrew Congregation, died in office in 1972, Monty was asked to take on the role and was reappointed three times, culminating in the role of Life Vice President. Monty was very proud to have been honoured this way by the Jewish Community.
These public roles required some courage on Monty’s part because of their requirement for public speaking. He had suffered all his life from a severe stammer that was crippling on occasions, though curiously, never when speaking or singing Hebrew.
For 30 years, Anne was Treasurer of Leicester Young WIZO. She was a member of the Ladies Guild; an active volunteer with the Shalom Club; and a volunteer with the League of Jewish Women, rolling bandages and cutting gauze squares for Leicester General Hospital. Then there was baking for charity events, coffee mornings and helping with the Shalom Club. Anne’s famous specialty was apple-strudel, made to an authentic, incredibly labour-intensive recipe that she had perfected over many years. Her strudels always sold immediately at coffee mornings. In her later years Anne Simmons was Chairman of the Chevra Kadisha.
Anne was a talented needlewoman and developed this further in needlework classes. In 1981, Monty and Anne presented a bimah cloth to the synagogue to mark their 40th wedding anniversary. Anne designed, embroidered and made the cloth with Zelda Fisher.
Religious observance had always been a very important part of Monty’s life. Rabbi Chaim Ingram once paid him a tribute: ‘Monty was such a stalwart minyan man, that if ever, rarely, he failed to turn up before time, people feared the worst’! He also conducted two large family Seders in London, up to 100 people each. They were started by his and Anne’s fathers and were written up in the Jewish Chronicle.
Anne died in 1997 and Monty remained in Carisbrooke Road for a few more years. For months afterwards, he was astonished when walking in town, how many people approached him from the non-jewish community, to express their condolences as a result of some act of kindness Anne Simmons had performed towards them.
Monty was cared for during the last seven years of his life, in the community at Nightingale House in Wandsworth, London, where he wanted to be known as ‘Morris’. After Anne died in 1997, he could not bear to be called ‘Monty’, a nickname Anne had always used. It had first been used during the war, after Field Marshal Montgomery. He said the joke had run its course, his true birth certificate name said Morris and he wanted that name used again.
He suffered from early stages of Alzheimer’s and at the end, reduction of inhibitory brain impulses manifested itself occasionally as slight belligerence. He continued to be a regular shul-goer and he read every page of every issue of Leicester Bulletin. Mercifully, apart from an overnight stay in hospital for tests many years earlier, 6th June 2008 was his first admission to hospital as an in-patient in just over 90 years. 0n 9th June 2008, Morris died peacefully, during Shavuot.