Jonathan Miller in Fournier St
Jonathan Miller, comedian, polymath and celebrated intellectual, visited 5 Fournier St last week, to see the house where his grandfather Abram lived and brought up his family more than a hundred years ago. Abram came to London from Lithuania in 1865 and worked as furrier in the attic workshop, the same room where Lucinda Douglas Menzies took this portrait of Jonathan.
Jonathan does not know when Abram acquired the surname Miller. His grandfather arrived in the Port of London as an adolescent and found work as a machinist in the sweatshops of Whitechapel, where he met Rebecca Fingelstein, a buttonhole hand, whom he married in 1871. Somehow Abram worked his way up to become his own boss during the next ten years, running his own business from premises at 5 Fournier St by the time his son (Jonathan’s father) Emanuel was born in 1892, as the youngest of nine siblings. Emanuel’s sister Clara remembered how the children fell asleep listening to the whirr of sewing machines overhead.
As a supplier of fur hats to Queen Victoria and bearskins to the Grenadiers, Abram aspired to be an English gentleman with a pony and trap. Yet, at 5 Fournier St, the horse had to be kept in the back yard which meant leading it through the front hall, blindfolded in case it reared up at the chandelier.
Jonathan’s aunt Janie wrote her own account of her childhood there - “We lived in a large Queen Anne House in Spitalfields and part of the house was taken over by my father’s business who was a furrier. Needless to say, we all had coats trimmed with fur… My earliest recollection was my first day at the infant school in Old Castle St, and I remember the summer holidays we spent in Ramsgate for two weeks, year after year.”
Janies’s younger brother Emanuel looms large in her narrative - “We moved to Hackney when he was eight and he went to Parminter’s School, and from there got a scholarship to the City of London School and then another scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge. I remember spending a really lovely week in Cambridge for May Week, attending the concerts etc and meeting all Emanuel’s friends. After leaving Cambridge, he went to the London Hospital in Whitechapel where he qualified as a doctor and served in the 1914 war as a Captain RAMC, and helped to cure the shell-shocked soldiers.” It was a long journey that Emanuel travelled from his father’s beginnings in Whitechapel and, as Janie records, he rejected the family trade in favour of the medical profession, “Emanuel refused to go into the business, as he had been to Cambridge and wanted to be a doctor, and he won the day.”
Jonathan Miller does not recall Emanuel speaking about the East End. “I never talked to my father very much because I was always in bed by the time he was back from his work, so I was completely out of it” he admitted to me, “I am only a Jew for anti-Semites. I say ‘I am not a Jew, I’m Jew-ish!’”
Although intrigued to visit the house where his father was born and where his grandfather worked, Jonathan was unwilling to acknowledge any personal response. “I’m not interested in my ancestry,” he joked, “I’m descended from chimpanzees but I am not interested in them either.” Like many immigrant families that passed through Spitalfields, in Jonathan’s family there was a severance – the generation that moved out and rose to the professional classes chose not to look back. And for Jonathan it was a gap – in culture and in time – that could no longer be bridged, even as we sat in the attic where his grandfather’s workshop had been a century earlier. “I know nothing about their life here,” he confessed to me, gesturing extravagantly around the tiny room and wrinkling that famously-furrowed brow.
As one who has constructed his own identity, Jonathan rejects distinctions of religion and ethnicity in favour of a broader notion of humanity to which he allies himself. Yet he was proud to tell me that his father came back and founded the East London Child Guidance Clinic in 1927, acknowledging where he had come from by bringing his scholarship to serve the people that he had grown up among. “He was interested in juvenile dilinquents and he was really the founder of child psychiatry in this country,” Jonathan explained me, and the work that his father began continues to this day – with the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services on the Isle of Dogs housed in the Emanuel Miller Centre.
So I found a curious irony in the fact that the son of a leading figure in the understanding of child development in this country should admit to no relationship to his father, and therefore none to his family’s past either. When 5 Fournier St was renovated, the gaps between the floor boards were found to be crammed with clippings of fur and every inch of this old house bears the marks of its three hundred years of use. Constantly, people come back to Spitalfields to search for their own past in the locations familiar to their antecedents, yet often the past they seek is already within them in their cultural inheritance and family traits – if they could only recognise it.
Clearly, Jonathan Miller’s choice to study medicine was not unconnected to his father’s career. When Jonathan reminded me of the familar Jewish joke about asking the way to get to Carnegie Hall and receiving the reply, ‘Practice, practice!’, he suggested that the pursuit of fame as musicians and as comedians had proved to be an important means of advancement for Jewish people. And I could not but think of Jonathan Miller’s own distinguished work in opera and his early success with ‘Beyond the Fringe.’ It set me wondering whether ancestry had influenced him more than he realised, or was entirely willing to admit.
Eighteenth century roof joists, exposed during renovations, still with their original joiner’s numbers which reveal that the roof was made elsewhere and then assembled on site.
Weatherboarding revealed between 3 and 5 Fournier St during renovations, indicating that until the mid-eighteenth century number 5 was the end of the street, before number 3 was built.
Abram Miller arrived from Lithuania in 1865 and is recorded at 5 Fournier St in the census of 1890 .
Wallpaper at 5 Fournier St from the era of Abram Miller.
Watercolour of Fournier St, 1912 – the cart stands outside number 5.
Emanuel Miller was born at 5 Fournier St in 1892.
“I remember the summer holidays we spent in Ramsgate for two weeks year after year.” Emanuel is on the far right of this photograph.
Fournier St in the early twentieth century, number 5 is the third house.
5 Fournier St today, now the premises of the Townhouse.
The hallway where the blindfolded horse was led through.
Emanuel Miller as an old man.
Portraits of Jonathan Miller © Lucinda Douglas Menzies