Jacobson, Lionel and Jacobson, Ruth
1905-1978 and 1919-2009
Menswear Industry Leader; Philanthropist
Lionel Jacobson (1905 -1978) is best known as chairman of the tailoring group that in 1953 brought together under single ownership the Montague Burton and Jackson tailoring businesses. Both firms had their roots in the Jewish émigré tailoring community. When Montague Burton died in 1952, it provoked a crisis amongst shareholders who, in effect, installed his main rival, Lionel Jacobson, as leader of the combined organization. Jackson the Tailor, based in Newcastle, was much smaller than Burton, based in Leeds, but it was a rising power in the industry, and Lionel had won a reputation as a shrewd commercial operator. By the early 1960s, the Burton group was the largest clothing business in the world, with more than 600 retail outlets and selling 50,000 suits a week manufactured in-house. Its Hudson Road factory in Leeds opened in 1921, employed 10,500 people at its zenith. The Burton Empire, however, which consisted of retail outlets, distribution centres and several factories, was run from Clayton Street in Newcastle by Lionel Jacobson.
The Jacobson family, headed by Lionel’s father Moses, had prospered since the founding in 1900 of its Newcastle tailoring business. It began with a small shop in Clayton Street financed by a loan of £100, and soon established a reputation for style, quality and fair prices, in time setting up new shops across the region under the banner Jackson the Tailor. Moses had enough money to send Lionel to be educated at Newcastle Grammar School and then Clifton College in Bristol, which had other Jewish boarders. He went from there to St John’s College, Oxford, to study law, and thence to London where he qualified as a lawyer and called to the defence Bar. At Oxford, he shared rooms with David Karmel who later married Montague Burton's daughter, Barbara, and it was David who acted as go-between and peace-maker at the time of the merger between the family firm, Jackson the Tailor and Burton "Tailor of Taste".
After a few years in London, in 1928, Lionel abandoned his legal career and returned to Newcastle to join the family business, which at the time had seven shops. He proved to be an excellent businessman, increasing the turnover of Jackson the Tailor fivefold within a decade. When the war was declared in 1939 it had 30 shops. During the war, his business produced uniforms for the government and in 1945 he acquired The Donegal Tweed Company, which helped the business grow to 70 shops. Growth resumed post-war as Jackson the Tailor focused on supplying more fashion conscious young men. Burton, in contrast, was out of touch with the market and beginning to lose money. The banks and insurance companies that had backed Burtons were insistent on a change of management and Jacobson was the Burton family's preferred choice.
Lionel, who preferred to be called Lenny, married Ruth Cohen (1919 – 2009), youngest daughter of Rabbi Dr Abraham Cohen of Birmingham, in 1937. The couple settled in Gosforth and had three children, Valerie, Pamela and Malcolm. They established the Ruth and Lionel Jacobson Charitable Trust shortly after the Burton-Jackson merger with shares from the business. The trust was run from the beginning by Ruth who over decades meticulously recorded the family’s donations in an account book, at one time running at between 30 and 40 a week, to a wide variety of charities in the fields of education, health, elderly care and medical research. The synagogue of the United Hebrew Congregation of Newcastle upon Tyne is named after Lionel Jacobson in recognition of the family’s support for the community. One of the family’s largest gifts established a Chair in Clinical Pharmacology at Newcastle University. This post was held between 1973 and 2006 by Sir Michael Rawlins, who over the course of his 33-year tenure made a great number of advances in pharmacological treatments. Sir Michael was President of the Royal Society of Medicine between 2012 and 2014.
The Jacobsons were keen collectors of contemporary art and made many generous loans to Durham and Newcastle Universities. Lionel died in Newcastle in 1978, aged 72. After his death, Ruth continued her charitable work. She served as in many capacities in the civic life of Newcastle and nationally: chairing fundraising committees, serving as a governor of Rutherford High School, founding the league of Jewish women in Newcastle, acting as Lady Mayoress of Newcastle, and serving on the national executive committee of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), UK. She was a life member of the Friends of Laing Art Gallery and the first female board member of the Metro Radio station. In 1989 she was awarded an MBE for her contribution to charitable services. She passed away in 2009, aged 90.
Harvey, C. (2018). Interview with Malcolm Jacobson, Newcastle, Newcastle University.
Investor Chronicle (1960). Men Who Matter: Lionel Jacobson, July 15th.
Newcastle University. (2018). Executive Office – Sir Michael Rawlins, Available here (Accessed 06/09/2018).
The Jewish Chronicle. (2009). Obituary – Ruth Jacobson, Available here (Accessed 05/09/18).