Manny Silverman, Tailor
Manny Silverman, aged nine in 1941
Manny Silverman has a lucky ticket. It is a bus ticket numbered 9999, punched with a single hole to indicate the destination as Brick Lane and it dates from Manny’s childhood, growing up in Bacon St in the nineteen forties. Until this day, Manny keeps the ticket as a talisman, and, “I’ve been very lucky,” Manny assured me several times while he was telling me his story. Yet while it is apparent that Manny has enjoyed good fortune in his life, it soon became clear there were other forces than simply good luck at work in shaping Manny’s destiny.
Diminutive of build with delicate hands, weary eyes, and a gracious deferential style, Manny wears his history lightly. Fastidiously groomed and neatly dressed, he picked me up from the station at East Finchley in his two seater open-topped Mercedes. At home, Manny produced photocopies of his birth certificate, his indenture papers as an apprentice, his medal for performing King John, his letter offering a directorship of Moss Bros and – of course – his lucky bus ticket. Speaking of the ups and downs of his life, Manny was neither apologetic nor swanky, instead his tone was that of wonder at how it has all turned out.
“I was born in Mother Levy’s Nursing Home in Whitechapel in January 1932. My parents had only come from Lithuania a few months before, so I arrived just in time. My father Abraham was a tailor and my mother was Altke, known as Ettie, and I had a younger sister, Lilli. At first, we lived in Myrdle St, and then we moved to Bacon St where I spent my childhood. We shared two rooms, the four of us, and in the winter the pipes froze and when the spring came they burst. We had no running water and the toilet was in the yard. Each week, we used to go the Hare St (now Cheshire St) public baths and pay one penny to have a wash.
When I saw those baths, years later from first class carriage of a train coming into Liverpool St Station, I thought, ‘You’ve been lucky somewhere along the line.’ If you are the child of first generation immigrants, the first thing they want you to have is a trade that you can carry, because if you can sew or cut hair then you always have the opportunity to make money at your finger tips. And I thought, ‘Here I am, after all this time, still doing the same thing, even if they don’t ask me to sew a suit anymore.’
I only spoke Yiddish when I went to school in Wood Close at the age of four, and my schooling was limited because I was evacuated several times during the war. At twelve, I overcame the shyness that is still with me, braved the blackout, and made my way along to join the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys Club in Chance St. My first experience was seeing Maxie Lea and I made lifelong relationships there, not necessarily friends, but when we meet up it is as if time has stood stood still. I was never athletic but really good at drama and when we entered the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs contest, all the members came along to support us. At seventeen, I won a medal for playing King John and I’ve still got the script. I also got a good crit for my performance as Cassius, I always played heavies.
After I left school in 1946, at the age of fourteen, I was overseen by the Jewish Board of Guardians. My father had been ill for a while and they were helpful to me when he died. Harry Moss, Chairman and Managing Director of Moss Bros, was one of the patrons of the Boys Club. (They started as Moses Brothers but decided that ‘Moss Bros’ sounded better than ‘Moses Bros.’) He said to me, ‘Look, you can join us in our workshop in Covent Garden.’ In those days, Moss Bros still did bespoke tailoring and they had six cutters.
At twenty-one, I got itchy feet and left on good terms, on the understanding I could come back. And then, when Monty Moss who produced our plays at the Boys’ Club got engaged, I dropped in to wish him congratulations and he said, ‘You’re not working?’ He took me into Harry Moss’ office, and I told them I didn’t want to be a tailor anymore, so Harry said, ‘Start work as a porter in the secondhand department.’ The business had begun in the 1850s with Old Moses, who bought unredeemed pledges of suits and sold them in Kings Cross and Covent Garden, wheeling a barrow between both places. In the secondhand hand department, I recorded what I thought the suits were worth alongside what they had been bought for and in no time, Harry Moss said, ‘Will you do a bit of buying for me?’ I saw a lot of opportunities for the company that no-one else could see.
In the following years, I was made production director, deputy managing director, chief executive, and unemployed – replaced by a member of the Moss family. After forty years with the company, I found myself in my mid-fifties, out of work with a young family and a large mortgage. Some friends of mine asked me to join them and in 1987 we bought Norman Hartnell, the Royal Couturier, which was in administration, with a view to relaunch it. We made worldwide news and employed Marc Bowham from Dior as designer on the principle that if he brought 10% of his clientele with him, we would have a success. But we ran out of cash and that was the end of that. Since 1985, I have been working as an expert witness in the fields of criminal negligence and insurance claims. I say to people, ‘I will never tell you what you want to hear, but – whatever I advise you to do – I will always explain.’ This is how I operate.
I left the East End when I moved to East Finchley in 1969. I always admired the scarlet geraniums outside this house and when it came on the market I was lucky enough to be able to buy it. I try to go back to the East End, with my son who is in his forties, once a year. He says, ‘Dad, I already know where you went to school.’ But I do like to go back, I’m an unashamed romantic, when it comes to the past. It’s not just to look at where I came from, it’s part of who I am. You can’t not be what you are, and I was a cockney.”
Manny Silverman’s lucky bus ticket to Brick Lane.
Manny at his Bar Mitzvah in 1945.
Manny learns tailoring at fourteen years old.
Manny won a medal for playing the lead in Shakespeare’s “King John” at seventeen.
Manny in the swinging sixties.
Manny was Chief Executive of Moss Bros from 1980 to 1987.
Manny bought Royal Couturier Norman Hartnell in 1987
Manny (Emmanuel) Silverman
Read my other Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys Club Stories