This Day in Jewish History, 1897

A Knight With a Golden Touch, Who Liked Giving Away His Money, Is Born

Son of immigrants to the UK, Sir Isaac Wolfson had a knack for business – but being old-school, thought it indecent to keep it all.

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September 17, 1897, is the birthdate of Sir Isaac Wolfson, who was as well known in the United Kingdom for giving away his money as he was for making it - and is the only man other than Jesus and St. John to have had colleges named for him at both Oxford and Cambridge.

Isaac Wolfson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and grew up in that city’s Gorbals section, like many other Jews of Eastern European descent. He was one of the 13 children of Solomon Wolfson, a cabinet maker from Bialystok, in czarist Russia, and his wife, the former Necha Sarah Wilamowksi.

According to family lore, when Isaac was as young as nine, his father was already telling people that, “I know I am not much good at business, but I have a son who is a financial genius.”

Isaac attended Glasgow’s Queen’s Park School, but left at age 14 to work with his father – first in the woodshop, helping to make furniture, and later as a traveling salesman.

By 1920, Wolfson had moved to London. There he began marketing clocks and other household items.

His big break came when, attending a trade fair in Manchester, he met George Rose, who together with his brothers Abraham and Jack owned a mail-order retailer called Universal Stores – soon to be renamed Great Universal Stores, or GUS -- and who ordered 500 clocks from him.

The business relationship between the two men was supplemented by a friendship, and Wolfson soon became a buyer for GUS, while continuing to run his own business. In 1932, he was appointed managing director of the Rose brother’s mail-order firm. This coincided with the flotation of the company’s stock on the London Stock Exchange, and a number of crises that left GUS in precarious shape.

By now, Wolfson was married to Edith Specterman, daughter of the owner of a chain of movie theaters, who was able to loan his son-in-law the capital to help shore up GUS, in return for shares in the firm. Soon, he controlled the company, and so astute were his financial skills that it went from a loss of £55,000 pounds in 1932 to a profit of £330,000 the following year.

One of Wolfson’s great talents was his ability to read a balance sheet and to divine a company’s hidden strengths, including under-utilized assets. He began an aggressive campaign of buying, leveraging revenues to make additional purchases, so that within five years, GUS had become one of the largest mail-order houses in Britain. In time, he had GUS buy out some 200 other retailing firms, and had nearly 3,000 outlets under his control.

An old-school Jew

Diversification followed, with Wolfson taking the company into the fields of banking and insurance, real estate and transport. If GUS had been worth £700,000 in 1932, by the end of World War II, it was valued at £16 million.   

As an old-school observant Jew, Wolfson liked to say that no man needed more than £100,000 to live comfortably, and that “the rest should go to charity.” In his case, it did.

In 1955, he established the Wolfson Foundation, which funded projects connected to education, health and young people in the UK, and later the Wolfson Trust, which used profits from Paz, an energy business Wolfson helped build in Israel in 1958, to support similar projects here. (He sold his Paz interest in 1980.)

In addition to naming colleges at Cambridge and Oxford (the latter under the leadership of Isaiah Berlin), Wolfson also supported five women’s colleges at Oxford and other British universities. In Israel (where he also built himself a home), he funded programs at the Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute and the Technion, among others, and built the home of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, Heichal Shlomo, named for his father.

By the 60th anniversary of the Wolfson Foundation, this year, it had distributed some £800 million in grants, to more than 10,000 projects.

Sir Isaac suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his later years, and died on June 20, 1991, at age 93. He was succeeded at both Great Universal Stores and in the Wolfson philanthropies by his son, Leonard Wolfson (1927-2010).