Manny Weiss's father, Morris Weiss, was born into a Jewish family, settled in Botosani in north-eastern Romania, in about 1890. Morris's father married Rachel die Weiss (sometimes Rebecca die Weiss) who was so called because she was fair. This was the origin of the family surname which suggests that, like many east European Jews, they had not previously adopted a surname.
Morris Weiss became a saddle-maker who made saddles for the Romanian army's horses. He was, however, anxious not to be conscripted into the army and, being concerned about anti-Semitism and stories of pogroms across the border in Tsarist Russia, immigrated to Britain in 1911. His brothers also emigrated from Romania and a sister went to the United States.
In Britain, Morris obtained lodgings in Stepney and worked in the clothing trade in which his natural dexterity enabled him to become a pattern cutter in a comparatively short time.
He therefore determined to marry and returned to Romania to find a bride – perhaps by arrangement. In 1913, he came back to Britain with Tsivia (known as Sarah) Rubinstein, whose parents lived in Botosani, and took up residence in Nelson Street off the Commercial Road in Stepney, east London. The couple spoke Romanian and Yiddish but only gradually learnt English. Morris obtained work as a cutter, employed by Messrs Bernstein in Wardour Street W1.
Their first child Aaron, born in 1915, died but the second, Mendel (meaning ‘of the tribe of Menasha’), was born in February 1916, but he was registered late and was put down as having been born on the 5th March 1916.
Language was a problem and although Mendel was named as Weiss, his sister Frieda – born in 1917 – was named on her birth certificate as Worris. A brother Reuben (known later as Lew) was born in 1918 and was given Wise as a surname. As was Jack born in 1921. Two further children were born in the 1920s – Paul and Percy – and they also had a surname other than Weiss. This led to problems because Frieda was not recognised as the sister of Mendel at school, since their surnames were different.
When he grew older, Mendel adopted the name Manny (he is above speaking at the British Legion in 1946) and standardised the spelling of the surname for all the children as Weiss, despite the fact that this did not necessarily conform to the name given on the birth certificate. When the family expanded, Manny’s father Morris obtained the tenancy of a house in Morris Street, parallel to Watney Street, with three rooms on the ground floor, three rooms upstairs plus a basement. The two best rooms on the ground floor were however rented to lodgers and one of the upstairs rooms was used as a workshop to enable Morris to become self-employed. Here he worked very long hours with Sarah his wife, who was a trained furrier, to earn sufficient to support his family. But this was not easy – particularly during periods when there was no work. In such cramped conditions, all six children slept in one room in two beds – head to toe. When, however, Frieda got older, she was moved out to a small room downstairs leaving the room to her five brothers.
Morris Weiss was a quiet, inoffensive man who was absolutely law abiding and an orthodox Jew. During the General Strike of 1926, when Manny brought home a hand of bananas taken from a lorry which the strikers had stripped, his father struck him and told him to take them back, as they were stolen. Manny had to give them away to assuage his parent's anger.
Manny went to school in Lower Chapman Street (now Bigland Street) School and at eleven years of age, was one of a handful selected to go to a High or Central School. Manny was sent to St George's-in-the-East Central School, situated in Cable Street, and remained at school until 15 years of age.
Life in the East End of London in the 1920s: Manny’s growing interest in communist politics
In Morris Street, there were a few Jewish families, mixed with Gentiles, but in the next street, Planet Street, the population was entirely Gentile and a number of tenants were market traders. They were inclined to be anti-Semitic and Jews avoided going through. Opposite the Weiss's house there was a Jewish baker and next door a stable. On the corner of the street there was a public house which attracted some locals who drank heavily and left their children hanging about in the street outside. Morris – although he occasionally drank a glass of cherry brandy – never allowed beer into the house and was very critical of those who took a drink.
Despite the fact that the area was poor, that rats were a problem and there was a smell from the stable, the population was law-abiding and people rarely kept their doors locked. Manny went into Lower Chapman Street, which was a favourite pitch with local children, to play football and cricket, but he was very serious. He attended synagogue on Saturdays and became a devout Jewish boy. His parents at one time hoped he might become a rabbi. However by the time he left school in 1931, he had thrown off religion and become interested in politics.
This was not surprising as unemployment was at a very high level and anti-Semitism was in the air. One of his friends, who later became a doctor and changed his name to Harvey, was the son of an anarchist sweet shop owner, Mr Himmelfarb, where Manny earned himself a cheap ice cream by turning the handle of the ice cream machine.
Another friend, Jack Susmann, had joined the Communist Party and was later the Secretary of the Young Communist league (YCL). Yet another friend, Harry Green (originally Greenbaum), had an elder brother who was in the Communist Party. Manny went on long walks with his friend's brother and had long discussions with him on history and Marxism. It was as a result of this that he broke with religion. Under the influence of his friend's brother, Manny also began to read books seriously and to listen to classical music.
Upon leaving school, he took employment as a clerk for Leverhulme but upon being told that the only prospects for improving involved going abroad to the Gold Coast, he left. He went to work for his father, who had by now obtained premises away from the home and had become a tailor. Manny attended classes at Sir John Cass School and obtained prizes for his work, as the result of which he was able to obtain a job with a firm based in Fournier Street. He had not really liked working for his father and so he took the job at Fournier Street until 1940 when he was called up for army service. He worked as a pattern cutter and became the main family earner and even provided his sister with the dowry she required to marry, as his father was continually without work.
During this period, Manny became more political and moved to the left. Many Jews were Zionists and he became sympathetic – at least with the general current of ideas – and then with the left wing Hashimir Hatzeir. He was, however, discussing political issues with Communists.
In 1934, he saw the Hunger Marchers arrive in London and having seen his father unemployed, felt that there must be a different system. He decided at this point to join the YCL, and seeing non-fascists ejected from a Fascist rally at Olympia strengthened his convictions.
Manny, however, was not just interested in serious issues. As a child, he had been taken by his mother to the Yiddish theatre at the Pavilion, Whitechapel. He translated into Yiddish anything that was said in English so that she could understand. He enjoyed this and was also a keen dancer and fan of jazz.
Manny joins the YCL: the Battle of Cable Street
Upon joining the Stepney YCL he was given the job of Social Secretary. As such he organised dances and drew people into political activity on this basis. This did not, however, mean that he avoided political work. The YCL was organised in street cells. He told members whom he recruited not to leave other clubs which they had up to then attended. He organised the sale of the YCL journal "Challenge" on the streets and 'whitewash squads' to paint slogans on walls. This led to his arrest on several difficult occasions.
During the Cable Street battle of October 1936, Manny was involved in helping to prevent the Fascists from marching through. The YCL headquarters were in a lemonade factory and the YCL smashed hundreds of bottles to get out the marbles therein contained at the time and threw them over the barricades to unseat mounted police.
The membership of the YCL in Stepney at this time rose to 1,500 and in Manny's view this was more responsible for stopping Mosley getting through than the Communist Party (CP)’s presence, which was much less numerous. He believes tactics, which he pursued as Social Secretary and as a holder in turn of numerous other offices in the organisation, were directly responsible for Stepney YCL becoming the biggest in the country. YCL members were present in many clubs – even those which were not left wing.
Manny meets Rita his future wife
His parents understood his struggle against anti-Semitism but not his membership of the Communist Party. His father had been a member of the Workers' Circle in Great Alie Street, which was less inclined to Conservatism than other such organisations. However, with all their misgivings Manny was supporting the family and there had to be tolerance of his views among its members. It was as a result of his activity that he met Rita Hodis – born in 1921 and five years younger – who eventually became his wife. The daughter of an orthodox Jewish couple, with a grandfather who was an official at the Nelson Street Synagogue, she was slightly higher in the social scale, had been born in Britain and was more at home with the culture and the language than Manny's parents. (See separate entry on Rita Weiss.)
Rita worked with a girl who had already joined the CP and was a member of the Brady Street Girls' Club. She first met Manny when she attended a YCL dance he had organised.
Manny, in addition to dances, however, organised a band, football teams, boxing and political lectures. The lectures were his particular interest and not only the Communist speakers but others were invited. Krishna Menon, James Cameron and Hannen Swaffer were examples of non-communist speakers and 200 people would be present to hear what was said, on most occasions.
Manny’s broader work in the 1930s
Manny particularly believed in working with non-CP members and formed a close liaison with Ted Willis, then a left wing member of the Labour League of Youth. Out of this arose a United Front against Fascism in which Liberals, League of Nations members and the Labour League of Youth were asked to participate alongside the YCL This led to the break-up of the Labour League of Youth which split – those defying the prohibition of the Labour Party were forced to leave. Prior to this the Labour League of Youth which included people such as Nat Lewis – afterwards members of the CP – was the biggest political group in Mile End despite the fact that the YCL was the biggest in Stepney.
The close association with Ted Willis led to efforts to organise dramatic productions which became Unity Theatre. Ted Willis wrote pieces and Manny sometimes acted. In addition there were lectures on many cultural subjects – Beethoven, ballet etc. Manny was also friendly with others, who later became well known, including Alfie Bass. Another close friend was Jack Carter who had a bookshop.
Despite the friendships, however, Manny had reservations about Ted Willis, some of which were derived from a different attitude to women. Manny was a strict moralist.
In many cases, those who are active in trade union affairs are drawn into politics but, in Manny's case, the opposite was true. As a politically committed Communist, he accepted the importance of trade unionism and joined the Ladies Tailors' Trade Union with its headquarters in Great Gardiner Street in 1936.
With the development of Fascism in Europe, Manny had no doubt of the importance of the anti-Fascist struggle. He did not volunteer to go to Spain, as he was his family's chief breadwinner but he participated fully in the solidarity campaign. He lectured and argued strongly for opposition to Nazism and campaigned against appeasement. His white- washing forays resulted in "No Pasaran!" and anti-Chamberlain slogans going up all over the area in which he lived.
The Second World War
When therefore the Second World War came, in September 1939, he was strongly behind the stance adopted by Harry Pollitt. When this was changed, he did not change his view but accepted democratic centralism and remained a member of the CP. However, when he was called up, he was not prepared to take an anti-war posture. Ted Willis and Mick Bennett, who were called up with him, were, however, thrown out of the army as a result of their behaviour.
Manny Weiss was sent to Crownhill Barracks, Plymouth to join the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He soon found that he was ahead of many fellow recruits educationally and this gave him a head start. When educational courses were arranged, he suggested a debate on the nationalisation of the mines, as many of the soldiers were former miners. He became the speaker in favour against the Provost of Stow Public School.
He won the debate and as a result of his speech he was approached by a Lt Colonel, in charge of education, and asked to set up courses, on his own basis, in disused living quarters at the camp. This accompanied military training in which he also came out well. As a result he became first a Corporal, then a Sergeant and was sent on an OCTU course. However, as expected, in view of the fact that he was known as a Communist, he failed to obtain a commission.
While training, he was forced to participate in the full glare of the sun, as a result of which he collapsed. Realising that he was physically vulnerable in hot countries, the army authorities did not send him to Singapore with the rest of his unit, who were unfortunate enough to fall into Japanese hands with the collapse of British power, very soon after their arrival.
Manny was transferred to the 6th Battalion Yorkshire and Lancashire and then to the Pioneer Corps. In this capacity he went on courses on mine lifting, sanitation, hospital and health care etc. At the same time, he continued lecturing for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs.
With the invasion of Normandy, he crossed the channel on the fourth day and landed at Arromanches. As a member of the Pioneer Corps, he was engaged in repairing railways, setting up field hospitals and other work of this kind. Having a knowledge of German, which he had been studying, he was later put under an officer in charge of a Prisoner of War Camp and spent time there.
Afterwards he accompanied the army on the drive to the borders of Germany but fell ill and had to be flown home. Just as this occurred his godfather and family were killed by the last flying bomb of the war as it struck their home in Hughes Mansions, Brady Street. Manny was sent home to Britain from Germany with medical problems and taken to Worcester Hospital. In March 1945, he was found to be medically unfit and was demobilised shortly before VE Day. On the 13th June 1945, he was declared unfit for further service.
Still suffering from a duodenal ulcer, he joined his wife Rita and newly arrived daughter, Tamara, in a flat in Fountayne Road, North Hackney. However, the landlord, who had originally let the property to Rita when she was on her own, objected when Manny arrived on the scene. The landlord installed a relative who complained they were noisy neighbours.
On the 19th December 1945, their second child Leonard was born but soon afterwards they were evicted and had to find alternative accommodation, which was very difficult.
Life for Manny, Rita and their family after the war
Manny, after a period of convalescence subsequent to his discharge, went to work for Rita's father, Harry (Henry) Hodis, who had a small tailoring business in Clapton. He wanted Manny to sell the coupons he received as a former serviceman, classed as disabled, to raise money for the business and become a partner. Manny refused to do this because he objected to such dubious behaviour and because he had no wish to become an employer and leave the ranks of the working class. His father-in-law regarded him as a fool. Manny refused to stay with him and instead obtained employment as a cutter with Spiegel Brothers tailors at Peckham. Shortly before this a third child had arrived – Michael, born in January 1947.
By this time the Weiss family had obtained the tenancy of a prefabricated house (‘prefab’) at 19 Church Crescent, Hackney, which resolved their housing problem. Manny's duodenal ulcer flared up anew and he had to return to hospital for three months at the end of which he was again unemployed. After some short term jobs, including a spell working for Posner and Lewis, Manny obtained a place with Davis and Frost, who employed several hundred tailoring workers at Titchfield Street in the West End of London. He was taken on as a marker maker, i.e. laying out designs.
Communist candidate in Hackney, and trade union work
Upon returning to civilian life, Manny had resumed his political activity in the Communist Party in Hackney and stood as a Communist candidate for the Council in Park Ward, along with Freda Lucas and Charlie Drew. Although not elected he achieved a respectable vote.
As a Communist, he resumed his activity as a trade unionist, after renewing his membership of the Ladies Tailors Trade Union based in Great Garden Street (later Greatorex Street, E1). Outside the offices, unemployed tailoring workers would congregate and the employers would come to recruit them. Shopkeepers and others would sometimes object and call the police to clear the pavement. Ironically, Rita's mother's sister Leah was married to Adolph Cohen, a well-known hairdresser, who had a shop nearby and was one of the objectors.
When Manny took a job at Davis and Frost, there were few members of the trade union among the workforce and Manny slowly began to win recruits from them. Davis and Frost took the products of another West End tailoring factory, Lewis and Goldstein’s Clothing factory in Warren Street, where a strike broke out. One of the shop stewards there was Joe Jacobs, a fiery militant, who had previously been expelled from the Communist Party in 1938, for undisciplined behaviour and was only readmitted after the end of the Second World War. He demanded that the trade union should call out its members at Davis and Frost to increase pressure on the employers – a proposal which Manny unsuccessfully opposed on the grounds that such a move would only expose their weakness.
When he found the majority of the branch level had gone against him, Manny came out on strike, but as he had predicted, only a handful of his fellow employees joined him. He nonetheless threw himself into the work of organising support and was responsible for a march of the strikers through the West End.
It was, however, a futile struggle and after several months on strike, the workers at Lewis and Goldstein were forced to return, and the best that Manny could persuade the employers to accept was that all would be offered their jobs back except Joe Jacobs and one other. Manny was unable to return to work at Davis and Frost and got work at Lewis and Goldstein but this only lasted a fortnight before he was dismissed. After so long a strike, he did not attempt to bring the workers out again. Joe Jacobs blamed Manny and threatened him with violence.
Having a wife and three children who he had had to support on strike pay of £2 a week for some months, Manny was under severe financial pressure. He now suffered several months’ further unemployment, as most employers black-listed him and refused to employ him. Even during the strike however, Manny had been active in the Communist Party.
Delegates seeking to attend the World Youth Festival in the GDR had been turned back, and although there was little food in the house, Manny put ten of them up temporarily and Rita begged food from friends to feed them.
Eventually, S & I R Cohen, a tailoring firm in Islington, offered Manny work, as one of the brothers, who was a partner in the firm, was a Communist Party Member, engaged in the Party's anti-fascist campaigns. At first, he was asked to refrain from all trade union activity but he eventually secured agreement that this condition should be withdrawn. In the end, he worked for this firm for some fifteen years – from 1956 until 1970.
His trade union work during this period increased and he soon became a shop steward and the convenor. In the Ladies Tailoring Trade Union Branch, he became a key figure and following amalgamation into the Tailoring and Garment Union, Manny became President of the London Ladies (Women's Wear) Tailoring Branch which at its peak had a membership of 10,000. As there were two other London branches – a Gentlemen's Tailoring Branch and a bespoke branch, based in the West End, the Tailor and Garment Union had a powerful London base where Manny became a prominent member. Manny became a regular delegate to national conferences of the Union and served three or four times as a delegate to the TUC. He became very well-known and helped train many new delegates in the work of the union and assisted them in framing speeches.
The tailoring industry was however badly paid: 90 of the employees were women. In the 1950s and 60s there was a steady influx first of Greek Cypriots, then Afro-Caribbeans and still later of Bengalis who were by no means easy to recruit to the union. The firms were often small and frequently employed relatives of the employer. Such workers were not very willing to join a trade union. Later there was an influx of Turkish Cypriots.
Wages and conditions were the main issues in labour relations. Sit-ins and short strikes were organised but the work force depended on the Wages Council to settle the main guidelines and all-out conflicts were avoided.
Manny worked with many well-known figures in the tailoring trade union movement. Alec Smith, who later became the London Branch Secretary and later still the General Secretary of the Tailor and Garment Workers union, worked as a presser for Steinberg's. He was originally very active in the Labour Party at Barking and in Essex and was a member of CND and of the Committee of 100. Manny knew him well and co-operated with him.
In the post-war period Jacob Fine was an official of the union followed by Mick Mendel. Sarah Wesker became an organiser under Mick Mendel and was very well liked. Tubby Rosen and Maurice Levitas were also very active. Benny Birnbaum was a member of the branch committee until he went off to Ruskin College and to University. August Smart, wife of Bill Smart, a militant in the building industry, was another well-known shop steward with whom Manny worked closely.
In 1979 Manny retired from work as a tailor and devoted himself full-time to Co-operative business. He had already served for many years on the London Co-operative Society (LCS) Education (later Member Relations) Committee, during its heyday when co-operative sponsorship of folk song, film, theatre and other cultural and international activities was instrumental in widening participation. Later Manny became a Director of the LCS.
In 1971 he and Rita had moved to 40 Brightwell Avenue, Westcliff-on-Sea. In Southend, after retirement, Manny became involved with Southend & District Pensioners Campaign and was in due course elected as its chairman. This became a major form of activity. As in his youth in Stepney, Manny was anxious to build a movement capable of drawing in members who were not necessarily committed left- wingers. In this he was very successful with the result that the Association became both large and influential. As its chairman, Manny was often in the news locally and was sometimes asked to take part in programmes on Essex Radio. On this work, Rita was equally involved.
Similarly their tireless work for the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in raising many thousands of pounds to send essential supplies – which they helped to resource and despatch – was a joint venture for them in their later years. Both Rita and Manny remained members of the CPGB until its end and thereafter they joined the CPB to which they continued to belong actively until they each passed away: Manny on 1st June 1999, having finally succumbed to long-standing skin cancer. Rita survived him for twelve years, carrying on his political and social work until her death on 27th September 2011 following an accident at home.
Memorials to both Manny and Rita Weiss have been placed on a park bench in the small park (left) at Prittlewell Square, facing the sea.
Edited and updated by Claire and Len Weiss in March 2014, from an original text written by Stan Newens (former MP for Harlow and MEP for London Central) during Manny’s lifetime.