THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
David Lubelski (1849 – 1903)
Clothing Manufacturer and Campaigner
On 9th May 1888, led by a brass band and a banner reading ‘Down with Sweating,’ three thousand Jewish clothing workers marched on strike to a mass rally outside Leeds Town Hall. Trapped in unbearable working conditions, treated ‘little better than slaves’, they were asking for a 58 hour week, living wages, tolerable conditions. They heard stirring speeches from the strike leaders and the Socialist League and then an emotional address from the one employer who supported their action – the lone voice of Jewish workshop master David Lubelski.
David Lubelski had arrived in Leeds from Warsaw in 1866 when he was just 17, the forerunner of many others escaping the restrictions imposed by Russia on the Jews of Poland. Leeds offered work opportunities in the newly developing clothing industry, where he could use his skills to build a new life. His first job was as machinist in a Jewish workshop making jackets and coats for John Barran’s flourishing clothing firm. This system of sub-contracting – straightforward garments made in the factories, mostly by women workers, skilled work sent out to Jewish tailoring workshops – supported the massive growth of the Leeds clothing industry over the next decades, fed by a huge influx of impoverished Jewish immigrants. The industry became the city’s major employer, but its success was built on men and women condemned to sweatshop conditions.
When he was 23 David Lubelski found the funds to set up his own workshop. He had just married Leonora Deutshman, a machinist from the Jewish quarter in the Leylands. By 1881 they had moved to St Columba Street (under the inner ring road now) with their growing family, including his mother from Warsaw, and ultimately eleven children. He became a British citizen in 1887. By then he was running a large workshop in Cross Park Street near the Town Hall, employing 60/70 hands. But life was still a constant struggle, with his large family to support and workers dependent on him to put food on the table. There was cut-throat competition for work and corruption was rife – the workshop ‘middlemen’ had to bribe the factory foremen for orders, squeezing wages and hours of work to breaking point.
As a radical advocate of workers’ and women’s rights he was distressed by the injustice of this system, and was moved by the terrible conditions of the tailors and the women workers, ‘old and bent before they were 30.’ He encouraged and supported their strike action. He alone had the courage to stand up against his fellow masters, heroically resisting insults and threats of legal action. But after three weeks the strike failed for lack of funds: hunger forced the defeated tailors back to work. He later reported that local shopkeepers had been persuaded not to give the strikers credit and to ‘let them all starve.’
Reports of the strike helped to raise public awareness of the garment workers’ shocking conditions. In 1889 David Lubelski risked his livelihood by giving compelling evidence before a House of Lords select committee set up to investigate the sweating system: ‘The workers live very wretchedly and are very poor…the long hours they work are abominable’. He described in forthright terms the bribery system and its inequalities, the pressures and irregularity of work, the terrible strain on women having to work at home overnight. His passionate concern for fairness and justice in the workplace shines through. The Leeds press called for improvement but progress was slow.
He gained respect for his stance and by the 1890s was well established as a clothing manufacturer. His sons joined the firm, which expanded rapidly, moving to a larger factory in Holbeck described in 1896 as ‘spacious, well-lit, clean and comfortable’. He was now a man of wealth and standing: President of the Jewish Young Men’s Association, President of the Leeds Great Synagogue, active in a range of charitable and sporting interests. He moved to a fine detached house at 51 Louis Street, Chapeltown, reflecting his hard-won success and status. It was there that he died suddenly in 1903, aged 53.
He left a legacy. The firm he founded was carried on by the family into the 1920s, and as the Utilus Coat Co. survived into the 1970s. His son Jack was elected as Leeds’ first Jewish Councillor (Liberal) in 1904; his youngest son Walter won the Military Cross in WW1; later generations gained distinction in various fields. Still treasured as a family heirloom is a magnificent silver tea service presented to him on his Silver Wedding in 1897 by his employees, a mark of their respect and a poignant reminder of the remarkable role he played in fighting corruption and standing up for the oppressed and ignored.