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Alf Rubinstein, The Purse King

February 1, 2021
by Sam Roberts

Ghost signs expert Sam Roberts tells the forgotten story of Alf Rubinstein, The Purse King, drawing upon the research of Faith Carpenter

It is easy to miss this ghost sign on Stoke Newington Church St, fading up high on a Georgian terrace. Yet – once noticed – it is hard to forget, not least for the faint proclamation of ‘Alf, the Purse King’ under the top two windows on the left. Although he was only present in this building for a few years in the middle of the twenties, Alf Rubinstein enjoyed a successful life in the leather trade with an East End empire that stretched as far afield as Great Yarmouth.

Alf’s story may have been lost to history had he not commissioned this painted sign. He was born  around 1876 to Marks and Sarah Rubinstein who had arrived from Poland in the early eighteen-seventies. His birth name was Abraham but he later adopted Alf, a common transition among the Jewish community at that time. In fact, his second wife’s family took a step further, adopting the surname King in honour of the business Alf built.

Marks and Sarah’s young family lived first at Goodmans Fields in Aldgate and then Commercial Rd where, in 1891, Marks was working as a ‘money purse manufacturer.’ He was assisted in this endeavour by a sixteen-year-old Alf and a lodger, the ‘fancy purse cutter,’ Wolf Lipperlitz. By the turn of the century, this cottage industry had expanded and Alf was selling their wares on a stall at Petticoat Lane Market which continued until long after his death in 1941.

Alf married his first wife, Lena, in the last years of the nineteenth century and by 1901 they were living with their two children on Anthony St, near to his parents’ home on Commercial Rd. A year later they set up in an eight-bedroom house on Paradise Row in Bethnal Green where the family eventually grew to seven children. After Lena’s death Alf married again, this time to Ninka, a dancer with whom he had more children, the last of which was Samuel, born in 1934 when Alf was in his late-fifties.

The leather trade suited Alf and he made a great success of it with shops in Brighton, Luton, Sutton, Victoria and Wood Green, in addition to Petticoat Lane. The factory in Stoke Newington was a relatively short-lived affair but the ghost sign references a shop much further away in Great Yarmouth where Alf opened a kosher guesthouse and an outlet selling his leather goods. That shop was managed by his youngest son Samuel well into this century although the premises were destroyed by fire in 2016, four years after Samuel’s death.

Since this last outpost of the firm’s hundred-and-twenty-year history went up in flames five years ago, the faded sign Alf commissioned in the twenties is all that remains as testimony to the family business he built in his father’s footsteps. Alf Rubinstein is eternally the Purse King.

A close-up of the sign

A reconstruction by Roy Reed of how the sign once looked

Alf Rubinstein behind his stall c.1920

You may also like to take a look at

The Ghost Signs of Stoke Newington

The Ghost Signs of Southwark & Bermondsey

10 Responses leave one →
  1. February 1, 2021

    Thank you very much for publishing this piece, and helping Alf’s story reach a wider audience. For those interested in more observations on the ghost sign itself, please visit where you can find our longer article ‘Alf the Purse King: Stitching Together the Story of a Ghost Sign from North London to the Norfolk Coast.’

  2. Sheena Ward permalink
    February 1, 2021

    Hello, thank you for publishing this piece. I am wondering if there may be a connection to my very first employer, Mr Lolly King. When I was 13 years old in 1975 I got my very first Saturday job at ‘Ralph Kings: Handbags and Leather Goods’ shop in Sutton High Street. The shop was run by Ralph’s son, Lolly, and his mother, Mrs King, who would attend the shop on Saturdays, having travelled from there home in St Johns Wood. I know that Lolly had other shops, and ran his market stall in Great Yarmouth. Might there be a connection?

  3. February 1, 2021

    Do they know about this, at the V&A? Their current show is about bags — literally every
    iteration of handbags, carriers, purses, etc. Surely, they would like to know about Alf and
    his exploits?

    Thanks for the continued attention to ghost signs. I’ll look into the expanded article, mentioned above.

    Stay safe, all.

  4. Adele Lester permalink
    February 1, 2021

    Fascinating how many businesses started as a ‘cottage industry’. Thanks for this GA.

  5. Bernie permalink
    February 1, 2021

    Hardly surprising I suppose, but in my youth I commonly took a 73 bus into town from Church St and one of the many interesting things I must have ignored was this old house and its fading sign. Sad to say!

  6. Amanda permalink
    February 1, 2021

    Thank you so much for this article about leather working.
    l have never found any history of a similar family’s industry.

    The way everyone is posing, beaming for the photo, at Alf’s stall is heartwarming.

    l will follow the link to enjoy more of this family’s fantastic ambition and success.

    My great grandfather Peter was a “Fancy Leather Worker” as was his son Harry in this exact era, born Clerkenwell near Leather Lane, the same year as Abraham.

    They too made leather bags, purses, attaché cases, tobacco pouches ….
    and l presume grandmother’s teeny STAMP purse she wore on a silver chain swishing over her long skirt.
    The size of a thumb, just big enough for a silver thr’penny piece and 3 stamps. All still hiding inside it, conserved in my treasure box.

    She wrote many letters,
    (l have the responses of 100 years ago) therefore her mini stamp purse would have been as important to her as ourselves carrying a mobile phone today.

    The description “Fancy Leather” in those days l presume meant good quality.

    My grandmother’s brother emmigrated and made a decent living from his leather crafting in America because he rented a beautiful detached home and furnished it himself

    And in his letters l still treasure, he sent fortnightly money back to support his sister and family, now in Portobello.
    “Here’s 2/- bob for Dad and another 2/- for you.”

    He mentioned one job was well paid but not so challenging and he moved on to even better remuneration finding offers for his skills plentiful. l often wondered how uncommon his dedication may have been.

    It IS sad when we set off to make a new life and it pans out so well to begin with, but fate has other ideas.

    The 1918 “Spanish” Flu in the US sadly cut him down aged 40 in the prime of his healthy life.
    The same mysterious happening which has repeated itself today.

  7. Ros permalink
    February 1, 2021

    It’s interesting that you published this just 3 days after the post on Jill Green, a contemporary ‘Purse Queen’, two of whose beautiful purses I own. I guess you meant us to compare and contrast. Both of them make other things in leather besides purses, though Jill has branched out into other kinds of work too, both could be said to be owners of cottage industries, and both have been influenced by and in turn have influenced public taste. I know this was an article triggered by ghost signs, but do you have any examples of Alf’s leather work to show us?

  8. February 2, 2021

    I don’t know how to reply to specific comments, so here goes.

    Sheena. It sounds likely from the evidence you have that it is the same firm.

    Ros. We didn’t find any surviving articles from the Rubinstein empire, but would love to see a label or similar if one were found.

  9. Robert Wares permalink
    February 2, 2021

    I love a ghost sign. It gives the building a certain patina. Although many a time, the paint is so faded that it is indecipherable. I love how they’ve reconstructed it.

  10. Sheena Ward permalink
    February 6, 2021

    Thank you Sam, I shall read your article. Lolly was a kind and quiet man, and a very nice first employer. My main duty each Saturday was to polish every bag! Which I diligently did. Thank you.

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