The stereotype of the Jewish tailor has its basis in reality, in Leicester as elsewhere. In the second half of the nineteenth century, an influx of refugees from Russia and Poland included many single men in their twenties living in lodgings as they tried to establish themselves. They were concentrated in north-east Leicester in the closely-packed houses of the streets around Crafton Street, which by 1876 was the location of the synagogue. Some of these, such as Nathan Blumenthal, Morris Rothstone and Hyman Balsam, moved on but others made their homes here and formed a significant part of the congregation. They had come to Leicester because of the long-established tradition of tailoring and above all because of the existence of the firm Hart and Levy. It is a matter of interest that the leading members of that firm, despite their continuing contributions to the economic and civic life of Leicester are buried elsewhere.
In the 1890s Wacks Brothers had a tailors and outfitters shop in Haymarket, Leicester and in Holborn, London before branching out as wholesale clothiers, with factory premises in Humberstone Road and then Fleet Street. In 1911, always quick to spot a marketing opportunity, Wacks & Co were promoting a child-sized sailor suit for boys, named the Coronation Suit. This was designed to take advantage of the popular enthusiasm for the new King, George V, who had served in the Royal Navy.
A long standing Leicester family of tailors were the Felsteins. Hyman, his wife Annie and daughter Leah initially went to Bristol, which had a well-established community. Sons Leon and Louis were born there in 1887 and 1889. Hyman was working as a tailor. It may be that opportunities were better in Leicester because this was where he chose to settle and build up his business. By 1899 he was employing nine men in his workshop behind the Three Cranes pub in Wharf Street off Humberstone Gate. As the children grew up they joined the business, Leon and Louis operating sewing machines to produce the coats in which they specialized.
When Louis returned from military service in 1918 he was able to pick up the threads and was later joined by his son, Neville to form Ellaneff, the name derived from their initials. They had premises on Evington Road, producing made-to-measure suits and coats including the brightly-coloured teddy boy style jackets made for the Leicester band, Showaddywaddy.
Coleman and Son
The 1911 census shows a Simon Coleman lodging with the Felsteins. Simon’s name was originally Kaalman. When he arrived from Poland at the age of 18, he could speak no English. The customs officer wrote his name as Coleman and that is how it has been ever since. He began his own tailoring business in 1919 after his demobilization and sold hand-made suits for four guineas each. His son, Henry, was in the RAF during the war. When he was stationed in the Hebrides he spent his off-duty time making Harris Tweed suits for the crofters. After the war he restarted the family tailoring business in premises in Halford Street. It was a difficult time with clothing coupons and cloth shortages but he built up the business and soon moved to East Bond Street, where the business remained until it moved to London Road in 1966. The closure of the business in 2014 brought ninety-five years of master tailoring and suit-making to an end.
The Fisher Sisters
The majority of immigrant tailors and dressmakers were operating from small workrooms. A typical example is Alice Fisher and her sisters who were a Yiddish speaking family from Latvia. They worked from their home in Whitechapel in the East End of London and were undertaking alterations and private dressmaking orders for Sam Jacobs’ Leicester shop before the Second World War. The sisters, along with their vast extended family, evacuated to Leicester during the war. Most members of the family returned to London when war was over but the Fisher Sisters remained in Leicester. They created a small workshop in the front room of their house in Woodhill, Leicester and continued working as private dressmakers until they retired in the 1970s.
(Note from the compiler: the Fisher Sisters were my Grandma Bessie (working under her maiden name) and my Great Auntie Alice who can be seen in the photo on the left – Rosalind Adam)
The Michaelson Brothers
Harry, Jack and Sam Michaelson grew up in Westcliffe-on-Sea with their parents Louis and Sarah. Their father had a tailoring factory in the East End of London in Mile End Road and that was where the three young men learnt their tailoring skills.
They came to Leicester during the war to make army greatcoats. After the war all three stayed in Leicestershire. Jack lived and worked in Coalville where he made children’s coats under the brand name Goldilocks. Sam and Harry set up in business in Free Lane, Leicester, where they had a factory making ladies coats on two floors, ground floor and second floor with the Hungry I Pancake House sandwiched in the middle. Harry ran the cutting room on the ground floor with his son John. Sam ran the making-up room and did all the administration on the second floor. In the 1950s they employed many Jewish tailors and you could often see one of the men sitting cross-legged on a workbench stitching away as he would have done in his own country before coming to England as a refugee.
As Sam grew older he became known as ‘Mr Reversible’ because he had cornered the market on reversible coats. The brothers loved their work and continued into their 70s before retiring.
And What About…
There are some tailors not included on here because they have their own story page on this Website. Others have been omitted because we are unaware of their trade. If you know of any who can be added to this page then please contact us.