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So Long, Jonathan Miller

November 28, 2019
by the gentle author

A few years ago I met Jonathan Miller, the comedian, polymath and celebrated intellectual who died this week at the age of eighty-five, when he came in search of his East End roots

Jonathan Miller visited 5 Fournier St once, 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 his grandson.

Jonathan did 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 did 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 am 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 rejected distinctions of religion and ethnicity in favour of a broader notion of humanity to which he allied 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 delinquents 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

Jonathan Miller

Portraits of Jonathan Miller © Lucinda Douglas Menzies

25 Responses leave one →
  1. November 28, 2019

    He was multi-talented, wasn’t he? So it is difficult to understand why Jonathan Miller visited the house where his grandfather Abram lived and brought up his children – only once. And even that was very late in his life 🙁

    I wonder why he was so disconnected from his father, his ancestry, the family’s religion and ethnicity.

  2. Carolyn Cartwright permalink
    November 28, 2019

    Thank you for this illuminating background information on Jonathan Miller. Curious that he professed disinterest in his ancestry when, in fact, it was so interesting. I had no idea that he had, like so many of us, East End roots.

  3. Jane Jones permalink
    November 28, 2019

    The most interesting obituary I have read so far of this remarkable giant. Reminding us yet again what incredible gifts immigrants have given us.

  4. November 28, 2019

    Thank you. This is the best piece about Jonathan Miller that I’ve read since his death was announced

  5. November 28, 2019

    Such a fascinating read and was amazed that the house is revealed to be the Townhouse where I had some of my paintings last year. I had no idea of its history as a furrier’s and the connection to Miller. Is the account by his aunt published?

  6. Bernie permalink
    November 28, 2019

    So many potential connections with my own family’s story! Russian Poland 1870; Spitalfields-Whitechapel-Mile End until the 1930’s or later; a furrier’s workshop on the top floor in Wilkes St; craftsmanship; success in business; migration to north London and beyond; mixed retention of Jewish culture; academic success, etc. But now it seems all to be dissolving as children of the second and third generation reach the ends of their lives.

  7. Margot Aagesen permalink
    November 28, 2019

    Thank you for this tribute. He was old and ill and his death should not have shocked us so. But a great light has gone out in our beautiful worlds of art and science, music and laughter. He hated the term Renaissance Man, through disappointment that such men may have become remarkable and rare. I am not surprised that he made his visit here only once. Many of us leave it late to examine our origins, through simply being young and busy. My message to my students today is to be, and remain, curious.

  8. James permalink
    November 28, 2019

    A man of gravitas and integrity. If only there were more like him on the public stage in this age of inanity and vanitas. An inspiration!

  9. November 28, 2019

    Thank you for posting this very interesting piece about Jonathan Miller and the development of his immigrant family from Spitalfields to Cambridge and fame as an intellectual. Its interesting that he didn’t seem moved by the early story of his family. Perhaps the state of mind has to be to look forward and not backwards?

  10. Kenneth Sherwood permalink
    November 28, 2019

    What a lovely evocation of a life well lived.
    A talented man in so many fields who I fondly recall hosting medical and cultural programmes on TV (BBC and Ch4?)
    Hopefully some retrospective of that work may be shown as a tribute.

  11. Linda Granfield permalink
    November 28, 2019


    This article, the photographs, and the man.

  12. Cheryl permalink
    November 28, 2019

    A fine obituary . I find it intriguing that a man with such eclectic interests had such a minimal interest in his antecedents and where he came from. After all his family’s story was, in microcosm, the history of 18th and 19th century Europe – beyond just Judaism.

  13. Eric Forward permalink
    November 28, 2019

    So sad that he has passed but as noted, he was a good age and achieved so much in his life. Wonderful that you got to meet him and another lovely story that illuminates corners others do not.

  14. November 28, 2019

    Mr Jonathan Miller — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  15. November 28, 2019

    Thank You for the life of Jonathan Miller and the history of his family. I enjoyed it so much!!???????

  16. November 28, 2019

    On my way back from Columbia Road flower market this Sunday gone, the 24th, I decided to go and look at 1 Fournier Street, David Kira’s shop that the GA wrote about a few days earlier. Whilst standing and admiring these beautiful buildings I looked at 5 Fournier Street, trying to read the wording above the window. Now I am reading about the history of the property just a few days later in a sad way.

  17. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 28, 2019

    Fascinated to hear of his direct connection to the Townhouse…

    I also wondered if he met Clive James in real life? They were both such multi-talented and funny men and the world is a poorer place without them.

  18. Jillian Foley permalink
    November 28, 2019

    My heart is broken. Three people who I adored have passed away today. gary Rhodes the brilliant cook and Clive James who was out of this world. But Jonathan Miller who I saw at the Theatre Royal in the sixties – Brighton in Beyond The Fringe when he said I am not a Jew I am Jewish! I sat in my seat and marvelled! He had such a sense of humour! My late mother in law the lovely Polly Foley always referred to me as the shiksa – I adored her and my late husband Norman Foley was the most wonderful man on this earth – he was the film cameraman on Henry V with Laurence Olivier – what an amazing man Jonathan Miller was – the world is so much emptier without him.

  19. November 28, 2019

    This is fascinating and a brilliantly written piece, wonderful to find out that this illustrious mans ancestors lived at the Townhouse (a special place to many readers, even those of us who haven’t been yet) and so close to David Kiras banana trading house!

    I think that like traces of the past are written on houses, not always visible but often indelible, the lives of those who raised us and those who raised them shapes us in ways we cannot always fully understand, like palimpsests where the previous writing is obscure but still present under the fresher ink.

    Dr Miller, rest in peace.

  20. Holly Warburton permalink
    November 28, 2019

    Dear Gentle Author,
    Thank you so much for your beautiful articles, many have touched me deeply . I have intended to reply many times but life and its challenges and the consumption of time have got in the way.
    Tonight I have to write, despite all those things, to say Thank you .
    I loved Jonathan Miller , He was an incredible , wonderful man in so many ways that inspired me greatly. I loved your article about him.
    I sat next to him once at a concert of Bach’s St Matthews Passion at St Georges Church , Hanover Square . We shared a few words and I felt as if I was in heaven . I have enjoyed many operas he has directed , his acting master classes and his lectures on biology and science . He will continue to inspire me and he will remain in my heart.
    May he rest in Peace.

  21. Dain Keating permalink
    November 29, 2019

    Thank you, GA, for that fascinating insight into Jonathan Miller, whom I have always revered for his massive intellectual curiosity. How odd that he felt no connection with or interest in his roots. Loved the piece of wallpaper from Abram’s time!

  22. November 29, 2019

    Thank you for this remembrance of the late, great Jonathan Miller. I didn’t know he had Spitalfields connections as do I, via my maternal grandmother. She was born at 14 Pelham (now Woodseer) Street in around 1870 soon after her parents and siblings arrived from Vilno (Vilnius). He father was a furrier too by trade but did not thrive. He found work as a cap maker and a shopkeeper, his older daughters also joining the rag trade. Some years ago I had the unexpected good fortune to be able to go inside 14 Woodseer Street and then to discover that the ground floor layout had, unusually, been preserved intact rather than opened up. The original stair case too remained. Your very touching account of Miller’s visit allows me to speculate that his grandfather may have known my great grandfather or if not they would at least have walked in each other’s footsteps. Like Miller’s, my relatives moved away as soon as they were able and retained no sentimental attachment to Spitalfields. I believe I have been the only one of a large number of descendants to make the same equivocal pilgrimage.

  23. Bernie permalink
    November 29, 2019

    Please forward this to Natasha de Chroustoff

    I am excited to read of your knowledge of 14 Pelham St because I have been searching without success for illustrations of that street’s buildings to complement my family history. One maternal aunt and her family lived in 3 Hobson’s Cottages, Pelham St from around 1910 to 1920+ and my mother stayed there in the years before her 1918/19 marriage. Any nearby photograph or knowledge of the Cottages would be greatly valued.

    Please contact me at either or .

  24. November 29, 2019

    Brilliant research. Thank you.

  25. Jeremy Prior permalink
    December 1, 2019

    With so many people commenting giving thanks for such a good Obituary to Sir Jonathan Miller’s life I wonder if we can hope that the BBC might consider returning more intellectually based programmes and broadcasting material to our screens, that is aimed at the segment of population who have an element of intelligence? Instead for far too long we over 50s have to put up with so much pap and trivia of today that is aimed largely at 10 to 15 year old children. Many people must be fed up with competitive games being made of everything from cooking to comedy to music and art.

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