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Leopold Wacks (1867–1937) and Julia Wacks nee Braham (1866–1959) were the head of a large family living in Leicester at the start of the twentieth century. Six members of the family are buried in Gilroes. As English-born Jews, they played a prominent role in the emerging Leicester Jewish Community and contributed significantly to the wider Leicester society and economy.
Their early life
Leopold was the younger son of a Hungarian Jewish couple who arrived in England in the mid-nineteenth century. Leopold attended Stepney Jewish School where records show that he was a prizewinner in 1879.
Julia Braham was one of eleven children. Her father was an outfitter and it could have been due to his influence that Leopold entered the trade after he married Julia in 1887. Julia’s sisters married sons of De Solla and Berger, who also have family members buried in Gilroes Cemetery.
Family Life in Leicester
The Wacks’ eldest child was born in Stoke Newington but by the time their second child was born, in the 1890s, they had moved to Leicester. They initially lived in New Walk but as the family grew they moved, first to Saxe-Coburg Street and then, in 1899, to Upper Tichborne Street, a moment’s walk from the newly opened Synagogue. By 1909 there were seven daughters and four sons. Another daughter, Winifred, died in infancy in 1903.
With eleven children, family life must have been animated. In 1910 the first of their daughters was married and the succeeding years saw nine more Leicester weddings, interspersed with Bar Mitzvahs, for the Wacks family. When war broke out, Leopold’s eldest son, Joseph, served as a lieutenant in the Leicestershire Regiment. His younger brother, Reggie, enlisted in the air force towards the end of the war.
Involvement in the Congregation
Leopold and Julia made a major contribution to Leicester Jewish life. Leopold was a member of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation committee from 1890, occasionally treasurer and President, leader of the choir and a member of the building committee of the new Synagogue. The couple were active in the Leicester Hebrew Social, Literary and Debating Society, later known as the Literary and Dramatic society.
In the 1890s Leopold was trading as Wacks Brothers, clothing manufacturers, with premises both in Holborn, London and in Haymarket, Leicester. There appears to be no reason for the title ‘Brothers’ as his only brother, Morris, was a cabinet maker. The business moved to Leicester’s Humberstone Road and later Fleet Street. Below is a photograph entitled ‘Coronation Suit’ along with a section of the original description. Both documents have been provided by the National Archives.
Between 1924 and 1936 his clothing company, Wacks and Speedwell, was based at premises in Burton Latimer, Leicestershire.
During his time as clothing manufacturer, Leopold Wacks and his brother Morris registered a number of patents suggesting improvements to clothing manufacture and related items. Copies of these patents can be seen on the links below:
Improvements in or relating to Articles of Clothing and especially Sporting Coats and other Garments.
Improvements in, or relating to the Method of Fixing Buttons, Studs or Fasteners to Under-wear Garments and Washing Garments.
Improvements in Fittings for Swing Glass Mirrors and the like.
Improvements in or relating to Hinges.
An Improved Coat Collar.
As Leopold’s business expanded, the family moved to Leire, near Lutterworth. Their house on the green was named The Retreat and perhaps that is what it was for them. Their arrival in Leire seemed to cause quite a stir. They were the first Jewish residents. A villager recollects members of the family being taken by pony trap each day to the next village to catch the train to school and work in Leicester.
After the war they moved to Linden House in Countesthorpe, a substantial house with six bedrooms, reception and dining rooms, ample kitchen quarters, a tennis court, kitchen garden and vinery. It even had some central heating. Active as ever, Leopold became the chairman of the Red Triangle Institute in the village and donated land in the centre of the village to the Institute.
By 1937 Leopold and Julia retired to Birmingham, where he died aged 70. Julia lived for a further twenty-two years until her death in Hove in 1959. In both cases they were brought back to Leicester for burial. Their lives had spanned the years of growth and consolidation in the community, and they had used their energy and commitment to ensure the congregation’s progress.