Our books don’t always document the lives of individuals or families. Sometimes we’ll write and produce the story of a company. The ups and downs of a business can be just as intriguing as a life story. So, when Vivienne Metliss contacted us about writing the story of her family and her family’s furniture business we were delighted to help.
Vivienne’s grandparents, Minnie Blitzstein and Woolf Kasitzky, had travelled to England from Ukraine in 1907 or 1908. The couple were Jewish and had been living in a shtetl with the local Jewish community. Sadly, a violent wave of anti-Semitism swept across Ukraine around this time, leading many Jewish people to flee their homes in search of safety. The violence was probably the catalyst for Woolf and Minnie gathering up their family and climbing onboard a boat bound for England.
Eventually the couple would have seven children — Alf, Morry, Fanny, Doris, Jessie, Samuel and Sidney — and settle in the East End of London. To support his family, Woolf started to make and sell beautifully crafted furniture, as the book describes:
It was at Little Pearl Street that Woolf, who had red hair and a Russian-style beard and was always smartly dressed, began to make small pieces of furniture, which he would sell. Using the skills he had learned in Ukraine, softly spoken Woolf carved, sanded and varnished wood, making cabinets, tables, chests of drawers, and whatever was required. On Doris’s birth certificate (1908) his rank/profession was described as ‘Cabinet Maker’. Woolf was a highly skilled craftsman and could make anything with wood—dovetail joints, beautiful inlays, curved edges. Today a beautiful ornate mahogany table with perfectly rounded sides, carved by Woolf, has pride of place in his daughter-in-law Sylvia’s hallway. This was the start of what would become a thriving family business.
Eventually Alf and Morry joined their father and the firm became incorporated as M Woolf Furniture Ltd. The company moved to bigger premises and began manufacturing mainly bedroom furniture, which was sold in department stores around London and beyond.
During the war, materials became scarce and furniture production came to a standstill. Instead the factory began repairing and making ammunition storage containers or bomb boxes.
“Sometimes the brothers found bits of parachute in the boxes,” recalls Irene. (Alf’s daughter) Her mother Hettie would turn these scraps into handkerchiefs. This old parachute material was widely sought after during the war by resourceful young women. Because the parachutes were made of cream silk, and any new fabric was in short supply, prospective brides tried to get hold of these silk scraps and turn them into bridal gowns.
Woolf Furniture made the most of the postwar years, when demand for new furniture was high. Younger brothers Samuel and Sidney joined the firm, and they began to incorporate innovative designs. Sam was particularly proud of Woolf Furniture’s wardrobe doors, frequently claiming that they were ‘the finest sliding doors in the country’. The company went from strength to strength. Even a catastrophic fire in 1950 could not knock it off course, and before long Woolf Furniture was sold in most of the major London department stores and beyond.
Unfortunately, with the advent of cheap, mass-produced furniture in the 1970s, Woolf Furniture went into decline. It just could not compete with the likes of large firms like MFI, although Woolf’s grandson Bernard would follow in the family footsteps and set up another successful furniture business, specialising in office furniture.
The book was written in collaboration with Vivienne and her extended family. This proved a great opportunity for a number of family get-togethers, bringing together the older and younger generations to share stories and memories. The hardback, cloth bound book, incorporates the original Woolf logo into its design and proved a hit with both older and younger members of the Woolf family. “Everyone loved the book and thought it was very well done,” says Vivienne.
Extracts © Vivienne Metliss 2017