I'll read anything Thomas Harding writes, but this extraordinarily rich and meticulously researched history of modern Britain is a tour de force. Harding tells the story of his maternal ancestors, refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the early 1800s. Lehmann Gluckstein and his family moved to Whitechapel and worked tirelessly to escape poverty, founding a small tobacco factory that grew to become the largest catering company in the world: J Lyons & Company, of Corner House fame. It's a paean to the immigrant contribution to our nation.
Each chapter of Legacy shows the company growing, reaching ever higher points of success (and we are regularly reminded how remarkable this was for a family of German-Jewish immigrants). Thomas Harding is a descendant, and he is a little indulgent in writing about his relatives. We are given blow-by-blow accounts of multiple infant deaths in the 19th century and details of daily life at Bedales in 1912, while an entire chapter is devoted to a family member standing for parliament.
A fascinating private story runs parallel to the imperial expansion. Early on, Monte established a central fund that would entail all income and assets being shared equally among the families. This collective enterprise underscored the tribal nature of the Salmon-Glucksteins: when one branch of the family moved west to prosperous Kensington and Holland Park, the rest followed. There was a proviso: women would be taken care of financially but were strictly excluded from involvement in the business. The fund would have unhappy repercussions inside the family later on, notably in the case of their celebrated painter, Hannah Gluckstein, AKA Gluck, who lived from 1895 to 1978, and whose Eton crop, mannish suits and bohemian lifestyle set her at odds with her parents. Such were her connections that she had to beg her mother not to invite members of the royal family to her shows at the Fine Art Society (they came anyway).
This is a fascinating story and one relevant to Britain in 2019, when we risk cutting ourselves off from our wider European heritage. It is a tale that needs to be told and read. Has it secured a worthy chronicler in Harding? I have my doubts. Harding is a member of the Salmon family and custodian of the family’s archive, so he is in control of much of the information he imparts. His writing is, to my taste, bland. He is no historian: every digression (and there are many) into the wider historical context is littered with errors. There is no ‘Christchurch district of east London’ (he means Spitalfields). The police did not prosecute J Lyons & Co for ‘gross negligence’ in 1917; rather, Hammersmith Council brought a prosecution against the company for selling food unfit for human consumption. American troops didn’t get to the Western Front in large numbers in 1917 but in 1918; British warships weren’t sunk off the coast of Singapore in November 1941; Bletchley Park is not on the south coast of England.
Nevertheless, it’s a terrific story and Harding is surely right to describe the Glucksteins and Salmons as “pioneers, democratising luxury and globalising taste”. Legacy is a big story, bigly told, worthy in its scale — and in its prose style — of its Jeffrey Archer-ish title.
Harding, who is related to the Glucksteins on his mother’s side, is to be congratulated on this panoramic history of an institution that was as British as Victoria sponge.
Following the family’s fortunes from 1808 to the present day, Harding’s history is also the story of Britain’s shift from the Victorian to the modern era. It is history on a scale at once intimate and grand: while a chronicle of any individual family over five generations would tell a story of changing Britain, the Salmon and Gluckstein family influenced tastes in ways that have persisted long after Lyons’s dominion ended... Harding’s extremely readable book pays tribute to his family’s ambition, care and camaraderie: his leading characters become friends, though no less fascinating are the supporting cast – often the women of the family, like the flamboyant painter Gluck, or Monte’s indomitable sister Lena – whose stories lurk beneath the surface of these annals. Legacy, Harding insists with his customary panache, is a “tale of tragedies, triumphs, loves, losses and, above all else, the loyalty that bound the family together”.
For the last 20 years Lyons had been obliged to sell off bits of its business. Nestlé got the Mivvis, Allied took the tea, Trust House Forte acquired the keys to the hotels. At points like this in Harding’s narrative it’s hard not to feel as if one is being asked to plough through a particularly doomy shareholders’ report. But such longueurs are a small price to pay for this mostly brisk, accessible account of how one Anglo-Jewish dynasty provided 20th-century Britain with the materials it required to imagine itself fondly as a land of cosy comfort.
Harding, himself an offshoot of the Gluckstein/Salmon family tree, sometimes treats his ancestors a little too tactfully. He ably combines his story with British social and political history, darkened by the shadow of anti-Semitism and xenophobia that hung over the family well into the 20th century. But the litany of births, marriages, deaths and Lyons annual meetings occasionally becomes tiresome.
Thomas Harding’s Legacy is not a social history of Britain told through the prism of J. Lyons, fabulous as such a book could be. It is, instead, a combination of family memoir and business history,
Thomas Harding’s Legacy is not a social history of Britain told through the prism of J. Lyons, fabulous as such a book could be. It is, instead, a combination of family memoir and business history, written with love, imagination and occasional (but glaring) historical inaccuracy by the author of two prize-winning popular histories. It is also a book in which Jewishness and themes of immigration and identity loom large.
written with love, imagination and occasional (but glaring) historical inaccuracy by the author of two prize-winning popular histories. It is also a book in which Jewishness and themes of immigration and identity loom large.