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Decca Days - the career of Wilfred Sampson Samuel, 1886-1958

Edgar Samuel

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Decca Days? the career of Wilfred Sampson Samuel, 1886-1958* EDGAR SAMUEL This paper, written in the centenary year of my father's birth, is concerned mainly with his career?an interesting one, made possible by the fact that Britain, of which he was a native and subject, is a liberal country in. which 'careers are open to the talents'. The study concentrates on his achievements in two very different professions: as an industrialist and as a naval intelligence officer. As an industrialist he helped, as one of a team, to build up a small but new British manufacturing and exporting industry. As a naval staff officer he made a small contribution, again as one of a team, to the defeat of the German Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic and thus towards the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. It is the story of a junior leader?a centurion rather than a legate?but a man of talent and ingenuity whose achievements were also significant. Wilfred Sampson Samuel was born on 29 November 1886 at his paternal grandmother's house, 4 Clifton Gardens, Maida Vale. He was the third child of Sampson Samuel and his wife Julia Cowen. His father was by then seriously ill, and an inmate of a private mental hospital in Islington. The family regarded Sampson as good as dead, and his youngest child Wilfred was therefore given the distinctive Hebrew name reserved by custom for a posthumous son. He was named Shimshon ben Shimshon after the father he never knew. Sampson died two years later in 1888; The death certificate gives the cause as General Paralysis. Julia (or Julie) Samuel was only twenty-five when Sampson died, and she was left a widow with three young children. She was prevailed upon, under heavy family pressure, to give her elder son, Bertram, then aged five, away for adoption by her brother-in-law Philip Samuel, who was going out to Sydney, New South Wales, to settle. The two younger children, Ella Martha (or Daisie) and Wilfred, were brought up by their mother and by a faithful housekeeper named Rachel Levy. Julie was left with a leasehold house, 127 Alexandra Road, St John's Wood, a small annuity allowed her by her father David Cowen, a retail silversmith in * Paper delivered to the Society on 28 November 1986. 235</page><page sequence="2">Edgar Samuel ^||^ ^^^^^^^^^ Plate i Sampson Samuel (1851-88). 236</page><page sequence="3">Decca Days?Wilfred Sampson Samuel, 1886-1958 Plate 2 Sampson Samuel in fancy dress. Plate 3 Julia Samuel with Bertram, Daisie and Wilfred, c. 1887. South Manchester, and an even smaller annuity given to her by her Samuel brothers-in-law. Wilfred and Daisie were sent to private schools in Maida Vale, and then, when Wilfred was eight, Julie decided to let her house and to move to Brussels, where the cost of living was lower than in London and where the children could learn French.1 Wilfred was sent to 'Kahn's International Boarding School', in Brussels, which advertised in the Jewish Chronicle and whose former pupils included Samuel Montagu, Rufus Isaacs and Marcus Samuel, the founder of 'Shell'.2 The family boarded with Mme Erdinger, a well-educated Belgian Catholic lady, who was very similarly situated to Julie Samuel, having been widowed young, with three children to bring up, and possessing little but the house in which she lived, so that she Was obliged to take in lodgers. The two women became firm friends and Wilfred remained a close friend of her daughters and grandchildren for the whole of his life. He learnt to speak some Flemish, and his French was soon as fluent and idiomatic as his English. When Wilfred was eleven his brother Bertram was sent back to his mother, after a deprived and unhappy childhood for which he never forgave her.3 In the following year the family returned to London, where the children continued 237</page><page sequence="4">c o .3 * L s: o co oo 2z Oh in o ? ^ o *0 i 00 n rj 00 O ^ J4 S 00 00 -q m 00 "I ? r PS n ;3 ."? cu u c 0^ o h-05 3 C 5 h ? 5 flQ H ? CQ C&gt; -?- -q ? ?3 ? m H O 1 ~ eg n ? 00 S CT, ; O 00 ! goo* cu h SC w 3 3 "3 CO :co cu . o&gt; ?3 X3 3 3 co O CO CJ - o _, ^ oo ? I? ill's ?&lt;8 i ? a - ?#is~ 3 .2 h 5 3 S CO co ?5 00 :2 3 - ? s w c3 ? E5 2 &lt;u 3 ? ? ti ^ a "71 &lt;u CO ^ oo G . T3 _ C _ L/"5 r-^ ^ &gt; r* 3 g g Q M</page><page sequence="5">Decca Days?Wilfred Sampson Samuel, 1886-1958 their schooling. Wilfred attended a small private school, the Maida Vale School, 36 Warrington Crescent, run by one John Ryan, who was a very fine teacher; and then two-and-a-half years later Daisie and Wilfred were sent to boarding schools in Germany?Wilfred attending a Jewish school, the 'Baermenn'sche Realschule', at a small town in the Palatinate called D?rkheim an der Hardt, for a further eighteen months. There he learnt to speak fluent German, including the local dialect, well enough to pass among Germans as a native. After another six months in Brussels, he left school at seventeen and entered the family business, Barnett Samuel &amp; Sons, as a management trainee.4 He also studied Italian in later years, under the guidance of Dr Lazzaro Belelli of Corfu.5 Barnett Samuel &amp; Sons, which Wilfred Samuel joined in 1903 and in which he made his career, originated as a section of a business established in 1832 in Houndsditch by Wilfred Samuel's great-uncle Henry Solomon as a steel pen and watch manufacturers. Before long it became a wholesale house specializing in pens, knives, cutlery, silverware, watches and clocks. From clocks it was a logical step to musical boxes, and from musical boxes to the full range of musical instruments. The business developed into a regular warehouse with a specialist musical-instrument department. In 1868 Henry Solomon sold the musical-instrument department to his brother-in-law, Barnett Samuel, whose sons and grandsons developed it during the next sixty years, first into the leading British musical-instrument wholesalers, and then into a major manu? facturer and exporter of gramophones. In 1928 the Samuel family sold the business, and after some vicissitudes as the Decca Gramophone Company Limited, it was developed by Sir Edward Lewis into a leading gramophone record and electronic manufacturing and exporting business. After Lewis's death in 1975 Decca was taken over by Racal. The origins of the business are worth tracing in detail. Henry Solomon's grandfather had come to England, from Lissa in Poland, as the Hazan and Shochet of the Exeter synagogue, whose congregation was too small to afford a fully-fledged rabbi.6 His father, Jacob Solomon, was born on the Continent in 1782, while his mother, Sarah Phillips, was born in Plymouth in 1789.7 Jacob Solomon first appears in the Exeter directories in 1825 as a jeweller in Mint Place, but by 1830 he had changed his trade to 'quill dresser and cutter', and in the same year the family migrated to London, by sailing ship, where he established a wholesale hardware business in Westminster. It is not certain where they lived at first, but by the time of the 1841 census they were to be found at 60 Tothill Street, Westminster. Jacob Solomon's eldest son, Josiah, remained in Exeter in charge of the quill business, and another son, Isaac, opened a fancy-goods warehouse in Plymouth. The location at Tothill Street, near to Westminster Bridge, had apparently been chosen because of its proximity to the roads to the West Country seaports, where Jacob Solomon's 239</page><page sequence="6">Edgar Samuel friends and relations were in business. The hardware business appears to have had two purposes: firstly, to sell quill pens shipped from Exeter to the London wholesale stationery trade, and secondly, to buy cutlery, clocks, watches, brass and silverware to stock jewellers' and pawnbrokers' shops in Exeter, Plymouth and Portsmouth and, of course, wherever else they could be sold. Jacob Solomon's third son, Henry, seems to have been trained initially as a watchmaker, but his interest was excited by the commercial possibilities of the steel pen. He therefore took a job as a penmaker with one of the few manufacturers in this new trade. He learnt the manufacturing technique and then set up in business on his own account as a steel-pen manufacturer. At first he must have worked in the family home, because he later claimed to have established his business in 1832.8 Three years later, in 1835, he acquired his first traceable premises, at 31 Houndsditch, Aldgate. Not only did 'Decca' originate in this warehouse, but so did another great British business, 'Shell'.9 Moreover, they both started as wholesale businesses of a very similar kind. It is difficult nowadays to think of the juicy steel dip pen as a technological marvel, let alone the basis of a growth industry, for even the Post Office has discarded steel pens in favour of ball-points, but so it was in the early nineteenth century. The steel pen gradually rendered the quill obsolete, because it did not need resharpening and frequent replacement and was far harder and more durable. The London directories of the 1830s are full of advertisements for steel pens, rhodium pens, and even for ruby pens that never wear out. Henry Solomon recognized the huge potential demand for steel pens and was early in the trade. The sale of pens, pencils, penknives and sealing wax, in nineteenth-century London, was mainly in the hands of Jewish street traders, and this probably explains why Henry Solomon opened his first premises in Houndsditch, where they bought their wares. The Exeter quill-dressing business seems to have been geared to the same market, for a country town was an excellent place to buy quills from farmers and poulterers and from pedlars who hawked their wares to the country villages and farms. The second aspect of Henry Solomon's business?watch manufacture?arose from the fact that Houndsditch was a good place to sell watches, because watches, being light in weight and high in value, were very suitable stock-in-trade for a pedlar; and German and Polish Jewish pedlars of jewellery, and provincial retailers, bought their supplies there because the warehouse owners in this Jewish quarter could speak German or Yiddish and were prepared to give them credit. The 1839 directory describes Henry Solomon's business as: 'manufacturers of clocks, watches, steel pens, etc. Birmingham and Sheffield warehousemen and importers of French and German manufactures, etc. etc' By this time he seems to have taken over his father's business at 60 Tothill Street, Westminster, which now appears in his name as Henry Solomon &amp; Company. 240</page><page sequence="7">Decca Days?Wilfred Sampson Samuel, 1886-1958 Plate 4 Pages from Henry Solomon and Co's 1861 Price List. Once he had established an effective sales network, Henry Solomon proceeded to acquire French and German agencies for various products, including musical instruments. As the railway system developed, London became the centre of a nation-wide distribution system as it had never been before. By the 1860s Henry Solomon was selling cheap German fiddles for as little as twelve shillings a dozen,10 and they were beginning to edge out bagpipes in the Outer Hebrides. He was no doubt partly responsible for the change. With the growth of the railway system, the business of supplying provincial shopkeepers with their stock entirely replaced that of supplying pedlars and hawkers. By the 1850s Henry Solomon was a well-established businessman. He married Sarah, daughter of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, settled in FinSbury Place in the City, and set about arranging suitable marriages for his sisters, as was the Jewish tradition. In due course his sister Priscilla married a watchmaker named Philip Cohen, who had probably worked for him. Henry set him up in business on his own account as a watch manufacturer in Coventry. The arrangement seems to have been that he placed a regular bulk order with Philip Cohen on very favourable terms, and was spared the need to supervise the watch-manufacturing side of his business. Philip Cohen's surviving keyless gold pocket watches are superb 241</page><page sequence="8">Edgar Samuel examples of English watch manufacture in its heyday, before restrictive practices drove the watch trade to Switzerland. In 1849 Henry Solomon's sister Caroline married Barnett Samuel, and Henry set him up in business in Sheffield as a penknife manufacturer and buying agent, presumably on similar terms to Philip Cohen. Whereas Henry Solomon was English-born and never lost his Devonshire accent, Barnett Samuel was born in Prussian Poland, in the cathedral city of Gniezno, in 1816. According to his nephew, Max, Barnett Samuel started out as a pedlar covering a territory in South Wales.11 He drew supplies from the Solomon family's warehouse and met his future wife Caroline there because she worked in the business.12 On his marriage certificate he is described as a 'hardware merchant'. Barnett Samuel does not seem to have been able to compete with the established Sheffield cutlers, and he soon abandoned penknife making for tortoiseshell-veneered horn knife handles and door knobs, and tortoiseshell combs, of which the last seem to have been the most successful.13 Barnett Samuel became the Marriage Secretary and then President of the Sheffield synagogue,14 and he also wrote a long letter to the Sheffield Times in January 1848 which shows that he was quite well read and had a good command of English, even though the letter is somewhat prolix and repetitive. Among other details he repeats a remark of Frederick the Great, which suggests that he may have attended a secular Prussian school. The occasion for the letter was that the Liberal Town Council had voted to petition for the admission of Jews to Parliament, but had refused to support the People's Charter. This prompted a Chartist councillor named Ironside to make some anti-Jewish remarks which Barnett Samuel rushed into print to refute. Henry Solomon was not content with provincial enterprises alone. He sent his brother Daniel out to India and his brother Isaac out to Australia and traded with them. He then entered the world of finance and was one of a group who launched a new insurance company, the Ocean Accident and General Guaran? tee Corporation, which proved very profitable. He became a director of the Continental Union Gas Company and ended his days living at 14 Kensington Palace Gardens, in 'millionaires' row'. He worked hard, was a very flexible and skilful entrepreneur and attained the success he deserved. As Henry Solomon became involved in mercantile and financial activities, he decided to retreat from the more time-consuming aspects of the wholesale hardware trade. He offered Barnett Samuel the opportunity of buying a branch of his wholesale business and paying for it by instalments out of earnings.15 Barnett accepted with alacrity, and after inspecting the warehouse, chose the musicaHnstrument business. In 1862 he and his family moved from Sheffield to London and took a house at 19 King Street, Finsbury, a modest, middle-class district within walking distance of Houndsditch. In 1868 the name of the 242</page><page sequence="9">Decca Days?Wilfred Sampson Samuel, 1886-1958 musical-instrument wholesale business was changed from 'Henry Solomon &amp; Company' to 'Barnett Samuel'.16 Barnett Samuel worked hard for the rest of his days to build up the musical-instrument business he had bought from his brother-in-law and which he was to bequeath to his sons. Before the change of ownership, Henry Solomon had acquired agencies for a number of Continental houses, probably through the efforts of his French brother-in-law, Jacques Ely. Some of these were as follows: F. Besson of Paris (brass instruments); Busson's (harmoniflutes and flutinas); Bord &amp; Debain of Paris (pianos); and Nicole Freres of Switzerland (musical boxes and harmoniums).17 As Barnett Samuel was German-speaking, he tended tq acquire more German agencies in the course of time. Barnett Samuel's eldest son, Sampson?who was born in Sheffield in 1851, and educated at Jews' College School in Finsbury Square?came into the business. His second son, Selim, was adopted by Philip and Priscilla Cohen, who had no children of their own, and entered, and eventually inherited, their Coventry watch-manufacturing business.18 In 1869 Barnett's third son, Nelson, also joined his father's business. So did his fourth son, Philip. The brothers travelled regularly in the provinces and slowly expanded the salfes and built up new connections. In 1870 the firm moved into larger premises at 243</page><page sequence="10">Edgar Samuel 32-34 Worship Street, and the lease of 31 Houndsditch was taken over by an old school friend of Nelson's, Marcus Samuel, who was just starting out on his own account as a shell merchant and shell-box maker.19 In due course he was to achieve fame, fortune and a Viscountcy as the founder of the Shell Transport and Trading Company Limited. According to family tradition, on one occasion he borrowed ?100 from Barnett Samuel &amp; Sons when he was hard-pressed and, needless to say, repaid it promptly. In 1872 Barnett Samuel took advantage of the new suburban railway system to move out of the City, to 4 Clifton Gardens, Maida Vale.20When his sons married they too settled in the salubrious suburbs of Bayswater and St John's Wood. In 1873 Sampson was made a partner and the firm became 'Barnett Samuel &amp; Son', duly changed to '&amp; Sons' in 1878 when Nelson was made a partner.21 Barnett had a brother named Moritz Lublinski who was a physician in Berlin, and he persuaded him to take his second son, Max, into the business. Max duly came to England in 1874 and became a useful member of the firm, being made a partner in 1880 and cementing the relationship by marrying Barnett's daughter Bertha. Max was brought up in Berlin and spoke excellent German. He was therefore made responsible for buying musical instruments in Germany and for the acquisition of new agencies. One of his early responsibilities was to set up a harmonium factory in London. He travelled to W?rtemberg, engaged crafts? men and bought machinery, and set up a factory in Luke Street, making good-quality instruments. In 1889 Philip Samuel was sent out to Australia to open a branch warehouse.22 Barnett Samuel died in 1882, and left his business charged with annuities of ?100 or ?200 for each of his unmarried daughters and with one of ?800 per annum for his widow. This seemed a colossal amount to his sons, who complained that she kept a carriage and 'lived like a duchess'.23 They tended to forget that it was because of her that the family had acquired the business opportunity in the first place. These prior charges meant that if the partners were to earn enough to support their own families and finance the expansion of the business they must get out on the road and work, and this they did. They travelled regularly to Scotland and Wales and the northern markets, won new customers and established the firm solidly in the old musical-instrument trade. With all these active partners in the firm, it experienced steady growth and the policy was always to plough back a large part of the profits.24 Max, who was by now in charge of buying and manufacturing, started up a piano factory, and this was followed by opening five piano shops in the London area, which in the twentieth century increased to twelve. These were later to become a subsidiary company under the name of Boyd Limited.25 However, the safety of the firm was hazarded by Sampson who gambled on the Stock Exchange with the partnership funds and lost. He was dismissed from the 244</page><page sequence="11">Decca Days?Wilfred Sampson Samuel, 1886-1958 partnership and taken on as an employee. Fresh capital was found by selling a partnership to Selim, who had inherited and sold Philip Cohen's watch manufacturing business in Coventry and had money to invest. Selim had a pleasant personality but, according to his nephews, he was far less able than the other partners and excessively cautious.He was put in charge of financial control, for which he was well suited by temperament, as well as of exports and provincial piano sales, which were then minor responsibilities, but called for careful financial management, because the firm had to finance its sales by discounting customers' bills.26 After Sampson's scrape it was no doubt a relief to Nelson and Max to feel that they could sleep easily at night. In 1901 Barnett Samuel &amp; Sons became a limited liability company. In 1905 Nelson, who was in charge of the main business of home musical-instrument sales, had the enterprise to get out an expensive catalogue illustrated with monochrome and coloured lithographic plates, prepared from photographs. The impressive effect was however slightly marred by some of his own idiosyncratic remarks. We read that: 'Duretta and Duretta Supreme strings are manufactured from the BEST SELECTED ENGLISH GUT. They are made in our GERMAN FACTORY, as experience has taught us that English climatic conditions are prejudicial to the production of finest quality violin strings,' a case, it would seem, of the bad workman blaming the weather for his want of 'know-how'. However, when it comes to flutes and clarionets it was the German trade that came in for a knocking: 'These instruments are now produced under our supervision from the best materials obtainable, in contrast to the almost general method obtaining abroad, where most of these goods are made as a village house industry by irresponsible workmen, and purchased by agents mainly intent on obta