The great British actor Warren Mitchell passed in November 2015, which was a great shame. He was well known to the British public of a certain age for his portrayal of “Alf Garnet” an outspoken East London working class character, who ridiculed bigotry by holding it up to the spotlight and showing it as laughable. One of the long running jokes in the series was that his put upon wife would knock him back into place when he started on an anti-semitic rant by pointing out that he was Jewish, and that his Grandfather was called Solly Diamond, much to Alf’s anger, frustration, and denial. This was a case of art immitating life, as Warren Mitchell was in fact Jewish himself, born as Warren Misell in 1926; of course the irony was deliberate.
Time Detectives couldn’t let Warren’s passing go unmentioned, so, what was the mystery of Warren Mitchell’s (and perhaps indirectly Alf Garnet’s) Jewish Misell roots?
Cromwell and Illegal Immigrants
The Misell’s were a long established Jewish family, with records going back to the early 1600s in England, indicating that they were part of the clandestine Jewish community that lived and traded in England, technically illegally, as the original Jewish community had been outlawed since the time of King John in the 1290s. However, more records for the Misells start to appear after 1660 indicating that they could act more freely in the community after Oliver Cromwell relaxed the the overtly anti-Jewish Laws in 1655 that had been in place before the English Civil War. Cromwell did this after an approach from Menasseh Ben Israel, a Rabbi from Amsterdam.
Like everything Cromwell did, it wasn’t done for religious tolerance and brotherly love, rather it was done for purely pragmatic reasons; the Jewish population of Amsterdam was very rich, and well able to act as agents for loans, and, being a regicide Cromwell was in desperate need of finance to help rebuild the country after the Civil War. Although Cromwell couldn’t revoke the original laws banning Jews from England, due to massive opposition from various, mainly religious, opponents, he made it clear that the law would not be actively enforced, which then allowed the Jewish community that was already clandestinely in the country, to practice their religion more openly, and they in turn were joined by many hundreds of Jewish Merchants and their families, predominantly from the Low Countries and Germany, as well as Spain and Portugal.
Georgian London and Ipswich
We catch up with Warren Mitchell’s Misell line in the Georgian period of the early 1800s, during the Napoleonic Wars, when Amelia Ansell (Warren Mitchell’s Great Great Great Grandmother) married into the Misell Family via an Isaac Misell in 1809, and bore a number of children in Ipswich; David, Moses, and Benjamin, between 1809 and 1818. From the 1700s the Ansell family had been important in the Jewish community of Ipswich, having helped to get the first Synagogue and cemetery built in 1795/6.
During this period many working class jews in London put their religion to one side publicly (although most would still have practiced privately) in order to fit in with employment and social norms. In fact some jobs were not open to Jews as it was not possible at that time to be a Freeman in a Trade Guild in London and the rest of the UK and also be a non-Christian, so to be publically Jewish and try to carry on a trade, was near impossible having to operate outside of the recognised Guild system. This the Misells got around by going into trades like Art dealing, that needed no Guild backing, just good connections and a great understanding of net worth to buyer and seller. Being Jewish also meant that there was potentially a ready market to pick up works of art at knock down prices from Jewish refugees fleeing from the Revolutionary terror in France, followed by the Napoleonic Wars raging across the continent, in Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
The Napoleonic Wars brought some respectability to Jews in Gentile London Society, especially as many patriotic Jewish volunteers flocked to the colours to help fight Napoleon. This was important enough for the Royal Family to visit Beavis Marks Synagogue to give thanks and to be entertained by the Chief Rabbi. In order to join the Army the Volunteers were required to swear the Protestant oath of allegiance to the Crown on the Bible, the Chief rabbi had given special dispensation for the Jewish Volunteers by cleverly ensuring that the Book of Leviticus rather than the New Testament was used. Unfortunately some prejudice still existed, and the visit was lampooned by caricaturists, as shown above, albeit aimed more at the Royal Family than the Rabbis.
With the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of more industrialised Cities the axis of trade and wealth in England began to change from East Coast Ports like Ipswich to be concentrated in and Commercial Cities like London, Manchester, and Liverpool, and much of the Jewish community followed it. Amelia herself had been born in London (Middlesex) and the Misell family had returned there in about 1819, and it was here that the next three children, Woolf, Joshua, and Julia were born.
Social Rise in Salford
The elder brothers David, Moses, and Wolf made a move to the bright lights of Salford in Manchester, industrialisation had brought big opportunities to Manchester, and the brothers gravitated to wards it, hawking and selling initially on the streets, living in lodgings, and competing with the already well established old Jewish families of the area. These old families controlled the local Jewish community and trade, which made it hard for newcomers to break in to society, and most failed, but the Misell brothers were smarter than the average, and managed to get a foothold, rising from hawkers and street traders to merchants in their own right, Woolf and Moses dealt in art, and David opened a Tobacconists with his wife Caroline. The Family realised the advantage of dealing in more upmarket produce like Art which could be sold for higher gain to middle class buyers, rather than than the common cheap goods usually hawked in markets and on the street to working class customers.
The other thing the brothers had as an advantage was that they stuck together, even when dealing in different areas of the market, they could always guarantee to back each other up and at the very least provide support and a roof over the heads of each other’s families, this in the mid 1800s was a big advantage. The brothers all married girls from Jewish Families, Jacobs, Solomons, and Isaacs. The Brothers’ families became established in Manchester; David and Benjamin as Tobacconists, Woolf and Moses as Art dealers, they all did well, most having live in servants, mainly from the Irish Community.
In 1846 David went so far as to partner with a German Jewish immigrant, Julius Seelig, to get a copyright issued for their development of “London and Cumberland prepared black lead pencils” which they held in a warehouse and sold through a network of 17 agents, refusing to sell through smaller hawkers.
But all things must end, and in 1863 David died and left the Tobacconist shop in the capable hands of his wife Caroline, whilst Moses returned to Islington in London, to eventually retire. In the meantime Woolf the youngest brother had moved to Liverpool setting up as a watchmaker, and his elder brother Benjamin sometimes came by working as a travelling merchant, whilst keeping a foothold in Manchester with a Jeweller’s and Gentleman’s outfitters. When the brothers travelled for trade and to broker deals they stayed with each other’s families, their children’s families, and their wives families.
We now come to an interesting fact, Moses Misell’s eldest son Montague Misel married David Misell’s eldest daughter Rachael, his cousin, which means that the two brothers are both Warren Mitchell’s Great Great Grandfathers. Not that uncommon an arrangement, and common in communities that wish to keep both religion, and importantly, inheritance within the close family. It does pose some risk with genetic diseases, as two carriers of a recessive gene are more likely to pair up if closely related, and this is reflected in the number of such diseases that can show up in the Jewish Community.
Montague Misell, Warren Mitchell’s Great Grandfather, Made a living from the Art World dealing in Fine Art, he had been born and raised in Manchester, and had prospered in the middle class community, to the extent of joining the local Masonic Lodge in 1878, where he would have made many lucrative connections for a Dealer in Fine Art. These connections reached as far as New York USA, which Montague had visited in his dealership in 1865, where he was described as a “Peddler 4th Class” and paid $2.50 in tax to the government for his activities over a 3 month period, before returning to the UK and marrying his cousin Rachel. The couple had ten children, although Rachael would die prematurely in 1898. Montague brought three of his sons, Hayman, Alfred, and Joseph, into the Art Dealing Business, and his eldest son David joined a Manchester Masonic Lodge like his father, but was apprenticed into the Chemical Industry as a Merchant.
Hayman (also called Hyman) would carry on life as a Fine Art Dealer, travelling around the Manchester area, staying in cheap boarding houses with Labourers and other Travelling Salesmen, and even spent a two week stretch in a Manchester Workhouse in 1910, possibly due to ill health whilst on the road. He married out of the faith to a local Manchester girl.
Sharp Dealing and then The Army
Montague’s third son Alfred had ups and downs of his own, being arrested in Manchester in September 1910 “Having on 17th June, 1910, by means of false pretences, unlawfully obtained from Margaret Gillibrand, a certain picture, with intent to defraud.” He was found not Guilty and Discharged. No doubt the difference between a smart deal and a fraudulent one could be small, and sellers with less knowledge than buyers would often feel hard done buy in retrospect, a hazard of Dealing in Art.
Having said this, it seems that Alfred was not above altering the truth when necessary, albeit in a good cause, as in 1914 we find him lying about his age (saying he was 6 years younger) and religion (claiming to be Church of England) in order to join the Rifle Brigade in London at the ripe old age of 40 at the outbreak of The Great War. Quite what his wife and seven young children thought of this is anyone’s guess, but his age caught up with him, and he was discharged as “Medically Unfit” during basic training.
Undeterred Alfred re-enlisted in 1915 initially with the Manchester Regiment, later transferred to the Lincolnshire Regiment, the local Regiments being less picky in the state of men they took in compared to the Elite Rifle Brigade. Alfred was promptly sent to Calcutta in India as part of the Garrison there, mainly consisting of older and less able soldiers in reserve Battalions, who would have found life at the front too much to handle. Alfred spent three years in India, managed to get disciplined in 1916 for “washing plate & basin on upper veranda”, then goes on a bit of a binge in 1917 and was confined to barracks for 14 days for:
1. Using obscene language to an NCO
2. being Drunk in his bungalow
A month later Alfred was found guilty of “being drunk in barrack rooms and creating a disturbance” for which he gets another 14 days.
Alfred came home in 1919 with a dose of Malaria for which he received a small army pension until 1921, suffering a 30% disability.
Even Sharper Dealing
Montague’s youngest son, Samuel, was a Dealer, and was and all together different kettle of fish, he had numerous run ins with the law, starting in 1921 when he was in his thirties, when he was convicted at Bow Street London of stealing two cases of rings getting 6 months inside for that one, in 1925 he stole a ring and got 4 months in court in Manchester, the same year he was convicted of Gaming (gambling) at Strangeways and bound over to keep the peace, then in 1926 3 cases of larceny (theft) for which he received 3 months, 1927 12 months from a Salford court for Housebreaking and larceny, 1928 one month at Wrexham for “Frequenting” which could mean a number of things legally, but may have meant he was loitering with intent, i.e. casing a place to rob, 6 months in Buxton for stealing a medal and a ring in 1928, and 9 months for shopbreaking in Manchester in 1930. He sported a scar above his right eyebrow and across the right hand side of his neck, showing the violent side of his dealings, all in all, he was a real piece of work. The rest of his upstanding middleclass family must have been appalled by him.
The Family in Canada
Benjamin, one of the younger sons, seems to have fallen out with his Father and elder Brothers after his Mother’s death, he went from a fairly low level job as a Tailor’s cutter, to running away from home down to Gosport in Hampshire, about as far away from Manchester as you could get without leaving the country, where he enlisted in The King’s Royal Rifle Corps in January 1904, once he had reached the age of maturity. This didn’t last, and the following year he was “Discharged for Misconduct” a dishonourable discharge, which would have meant no reference, and no chance of finding anything but the most menial of jobs.
Benjamin stayed in touch and held a strong friendship with his younger sister Rosie (Rosalind) but there was little else to keep him in England, and by the end of 1905 he had jumped a ship bound for Halifax Nova Scotia in Canada, with the aim of heading for Winnipeg Manitoba in the Canadian Mid-west, to work as a general labourer, a massive difference from his Fine Art Dealer Brothers and Father! Manitoba as a destination seems random, until we see that his Great Uncle Wolf had gone there with his family some years before.
Whether Benjamin ever meets up with Wolf is unknown, and he next turned up volunteering for service in Canadian forces in WW1, after having spent a short time in Princess Patricia’s Militia. He is 5ft 4ins, black haired, dark brown eyes, and with a dark complexion, he claims to be Church of England, and is covered in tatoos a “Young America” tatoo across his chest, a girl with a Union Jack flag and a Ship, “Ben & Rosie” on his left arm, and Princes Patricia’s Regimental Crest on his right arm, and lastly, two clasped hands above a heart on his right arm. He had also had an old injury of a burn scar in the centre of his back, when he joins up in 1915, he had been working as a waiter. After joining up in Canada further records cease for Benjamin.
In 1874 Woolf was operating in Montreal as a fine art importer and raised his family as a respected member of the local community. One of his sons went into the Tobacco trade as a travelling salesman, and joined the travelling Salesman’s Lodge of Masons, so the family in Canada carried on the recipe for success that had worked for them in the UK, Travelling Sales, Tobacco, and the Masons, with a background Business in Art Dealing for Patriarch of the Family.
America, The Misells invent the Flashlight
While Wolfe, his family and Benjamin were in Canada, David Misell, Montague Misell’s brother (Warren Mitchell’s Great Grand Uncle) had headed for the USA around 1870, lived in New York and Boston for a while, then back to Brooklyn New York. It is likely that he was able to do this off the back of the connections made by his brother Montague in his trip to New York 5 years previously. David worked variously as a Lawyer, Lithographer, and Electrician, but his claim to fame is that he invented the Falshlight as we know it today.
David started inventing in the 1880s with a new design for an Electric Battery, followed by an Electrically Illuminated Clock and an Electric Cigar lighter in 1894, an electric light in 1895, an electric signalling light in 1896, a bicycle lamp in 1898, a lamp for a gas lighter, and the first functional Flashlight in 1899, see diagram below. These were the first Flashlights used by the New York Police Department.
His design was later improved upon after the sold the patent, and the the company he sold it to went on to become Eveready, the huge multinational electrical company.
David himself lead a good life in new York, he married a Jewish girl from the West Indies, Zillah Stine, a few years after arriving in 1876, and lived through to 1920 when he died and was buried in Manhattan.
The other David Misell, Warren Mitchell’s Grandfather
Returning to Warren Mitchell’s direct line, we come back to Montague Misell, Warren’s Great Grandfather, the Fine Art Dealer, he had gone bankrupt in 1908, mainly due to heavy gambling losses on flat racing at the horses, especially in Ascot week. He returned to London to live with his family and for a time sold off his paintings and his wine seller to pay off creditors, before eventually returning to fine art dealing in later life.
Montague’s eldest son, David (Warren Mitchell’s Grandfather) the Chemical Merchant and Freemason, who unlike his flighty brothers who had got tattooed and travelled to Canada, or wound up in the courts, carried on working as a travelling salesman and Chemical Merchant moving from Manchester down to London around 1899. David made a reasonable middleclass living in London without all the excitement and drama of his brothers. Unusually for the time, the family had an Indian Student named Jalal boarding with them. David had married Rebecca Cohen, from a Jewish family in London, they had 7 children, 4 boys and 3 girls.
One of his sons, Solomon, would serve in the Royal Flying Corps in WW1, joining up as soon as he was old enough, which, fortunately for him, turned out to be 1918, so he served for six months as a Cadet Pilot, then a Pilot, and a Senior Pilot, before the war ended.
Montague Misell, Warren Mitchell’s Father
When he died in 1957 David left his disposable cash a £228 to his son Montague, Warren Mitchell’s Father, a Glass importer. Montague lead a slightly more colourful life than his father.
Montague’s first wife, and Warren Mitchell’s mother, was Annie Luberoff, the Hackney born daughter of Woolf and Nancy Luberoff, Woolf having been born in Merlekoff, Kreson, Russia in about 1857, Woolf was originally a Cabinet maker, then a Fishmonger, after passing on his trade to his sons. Woolf had brought his wife and children to England in the early 1890s, where the family prospered and grew.
During WW2 Montague worked as a Supply Officer for the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
Unfortunately Annie died in 1942 leaving Montague £591 in her will, and the following year Montague married Sigrid Corbet, Sigrid was a widow, originally called Sigrid Mann, the daughter of Saul Sigmund Mann and Bonna Mann. Sigrid’s father Saul Mann was originally from Cracow in Poland, at the time a subject of the Austrian Empire, and he and his family were naturalised as British Citizens in 1911, the naturalisation Certificate being granted by none other than Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. They had come to the country in about 1905, and ran a boarding house down by the Docks in the West India Dock Road. Obviously they had some means when they arrived, and were wary of sounding too Jewish, claiming to be Swedish and Danish in the 1911 census, and boarding many Scandinavian and German sailors in their lodgings. Interestingly Montague’s daughter Betty (Warren Mitchell’s sister) married a member of the Mann family at the same time as her Father in Edmonton, so the families may have been close for a while.
Warren was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish Family, but never had much time for religion when he was young, and was an Atheist when he got older. This is perhaps best illustrated when he bunked off from Synagogue to play football for his school team, and when they won 3:0 he asked “So where’s the thunderbolt?”. he abhorred all forms of religious fundamentalism whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, and had no time for religious ceremonies, especially not Christmas. However he was always culturally Jewish, despite changing his name early on in his career to sound more like a gentile.
He studied at Oxford University, but left early to join the Royal Airforce, like his Uncle Solomon had in the First World War, and then took up an acting career, encouraged by his friend from the RAF, the actor, Richard Burton.
Although he played many serious roles in a long career, he will always be best remembered for Alf Garnet, where art imitated life.
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