L Frumkin and Company - Wine Merchants

For more than a century, the name of L. Frumkin and Company, Wine Merchants, was known throughout the London community - not only as a wine shop, but as the place where poor Jewish immigrants to London's East End could come for advice and practical help.

For more than seventy years of that century, Aaron Frumkin (Zichrono Livracha - may his memory be for a blessing) worked for the firm. In his latter years he spoke and wrote eloquently about its history. Aaron narrated a programme "Frumkin - a tale of two Wine Shops" broadcast by BBC Radio 4. The following piece is compiled by Brian Sacks, in very large part from the wealth of material Aaron left us.

Click here to see a collection of Frumkin Wine Labels , Photo of Shop in Commercial Road

The founding of the Firm

Arye Leib Frumkin, his wife Sheina and family arrived in England in late 1893 and settled in London's East End. The East End was the home of two distinct Jewish communities: North of the Whitechapel Road lived the older-established Sephardi Jewish community while south of the Whitechapel Road lived the many thousands of Jewish immigrants who had fled from persecution in Eastern Europe. The East End's Docklands was also an area frequented by seamen, an area of vice, gin palaces and whore houses.

Arye Leib found no vacancies in the pulpit - many Rabbis had recently come to London from Russia. He also found that he was not cut out to be a tailor (no pun intended). Soon the family rented a Public House off Commercial Road, but then found that the Law demanded that the Pub stay open on Shabbat - so this enterprise came to an abrupt end. The venture that was to follow would operate for more than a century, and would never during that time open on Shabbat or Jewish festival.

The family decided that, having wide links with the large Jewish community, who were living mainly in the East End, they would sell Kosher wines. During 1894, Arye Leib negotiated the purchase of a building site on the corner of Commercial Road and Cannon Street Road, in the heart of the East End. He invited a Mr. Lusk and his partner to join him in its development. On completion of the buildings, L. Frumkin and Company (Wine Merchants), of 162 Commercial Road, and Luck and Bennett (Hosiers) of 164 Commercial Road, came into existence. Later on (around 1907), the side portion of 162 Commercial Road was let to J.L. Fine J.P. as a Travel Agency.

The first twenty years - 1894 to the start of the First World War

Once the wine business had been set up, Arye Leib turned largely to writing books. Sheina took over the business and established a link with the Company who had taken over the Vineyards that Arye Leib had set up in Palestine years before. Wines from this source were then imported for many years.

By the early 1900's some of the wider family also worked for the firm. Arye Leib's son Elias (Eliyahu Ephraim) compounded liqueurs, particularly Cherry Brandy for which the Company became famous. He also canvassed for customers. Business was brisk, with an average of 300 customers at any one time. But these customers generally paid off their purchases at threepence per week and sometimes absconded to America leaving debts unpaid.

Arye Leib's daughter Rachel manufactured Raisin Wine and blended imported wines to produce wines of differing strengths. She also worked as a saleslady in the shop. In 1907 Rachel married Rabbi Zecharia Dimson, who also became a partner in the firm. To expand the business, Zecharia canvassed for customers further afield. On one sales visit to Notting Hill he met a beautiful young lady, Rachel Radogowski, and urged Elias to meet her. Elias and Rachel married in 1909.

In 1911 Arye Leib and Sheina returned to Palestine, leaving the business in the hands of their children.

L. Frumkin and Company had become during these years, not just a business, but an institution. The corner of Commercial Road and Cannon Street Road was known as Frumkins' Corner, the outstanding landmark of the area. Sheina had quickly been recognised by the local Jewish residents as a woman to be consulted on many subjects, particularly health and family relationships. Frumkins' became the place where new immigrants, after a few nights lodging at the Mansell Street Jewish Shelter, would be sent to receive monetary help and advice on finding work and a place to live.

The First World War

The War changed all aspects of life in the East End. Many young men went away to fight. Frumkins' Corner became a Speakers' Corner. Every day a podium would be set up and speakers pressed the need for volunteers; at the same time Suffragettes, including Emily Pankhurst, preached for Votes for Women.

In 1916 the Russian Convention was signed. Under this agreement, all Russian Nationals not eligible to serve in the British Army, were to be shipped back to serve in the Russian Army. The night before the deadline, thirty young men assembled above the shop and were given a meal, drinks, clothing and a hearty send off. Only two are known to have survived.

During the war years the price of spirits trebled; whisky rose in price from three shillings and sixpence to ten shillings and sixpence a bottle. Opening hours were also restricted. The family had been living above the shop but in 1917, German bombing forced the family to evacuate to Twyford in Berkshire. In late 1918, after the end of the war, Elias and family moved back to Upper Clapton. In 1919 Zecharia Dimson and family also moved to Clapton.

After the War

After the war ended, the British people turned to living life to the full, and Frumkins' had its part to play in this change of mood. Engaged couples, having chosen their ring at Kutchinsky's, would cross the road to place their Drinks order with Frumkins'. On average Frumkins' supplied thirty wedding orders per week.

Rabbi Zecharia Dimson often visited the City to buy wines of all types, and to attend Wine Auctions. On these visits he dressed impeccably in frock coat and top hat, and was remembered for many years after his death by City gentlemen.

Zecharia's great love was for Palestine. During 1924 he was asked by the Jewish National Fund to inspect land in the North of the country, with a view to purchase. During this visit he contracted typhoid, and died several days later in Jerusalem. He was only 38 years old. His death was a terrible shock to the whole family.

Zecharia's widow Rachel Dimson was too distressed to continue to work in the firm. The main responsibility for the business fell to Elias' wife Rachel Frumkin. But she herself had devoted her childhood to looking after her elder sister. She had not received any education, and could neither read nor write. Her son Aaron, though he was only fourteen, felt that he had leave school to join the firm. Guided by members of staff he learned to appreciate wines, and by age 15 he was attending wine auctions on his own. The senior cellarman, Reb Moishe, taught Aaron all he knew about producing and bottling wines and running the cellar.

Rachel Frumkin

From 1926 onwards, Rachel Frumkin had complete charge of the counter, though at busy times everyone helped. Her personality developed and she had a wonderful memory for names and faces. People would travel long distances to talk with her - about drinks or about other matters.
Rachel's advice would be sought about minor or major matters - even matchmaking, family concerns and birth control. Her matchmaking efforts resulted in many a happy union.

All who came would be offered a drink and a slice of cake - Len Deighton referred to this in his 'London Dossier'. Rachel's advice on wines was almost always taken, and she was very successful in securing wedding orders. Her charm won over suppliers as well, and if there was ever a shortage one could almost guarantee that the goods would still be forthcoming.

Rachel Frumkin realised that at times like Passover there were very many willing purchasers. At the same time there were widows and old men in dire need of some income. Rachel recognised that the firm could offer some of these people work as agents, to secure further sales. At one time the firm had 50 of these 'travellers' on the road. Christmas-time was the other busy period, with East End firms fostering their relationships with their clients by giving gifts of wines or spirits. Aaron wrote that for the three weeks before both Passover and Christmas he would not see his bed, but perhaps snatch an hour's sleep a night on the floor behind the counter. One of his duties before Passover was the preparation of 500 bottles of raisin wine for distribution to the needy; his mother insisted that everyone should be able to drink wine at Passover.

Aaaron tells this story, showing something of Rachel's personality: One Sunday morning, at about 11 o'clock, the shop was full and a long queue had formed in the street. The Law did not permit the sale of any liquor before noon on a Sunday, and a neighbour telephoned the Police. In due course, a Police inspector arrived and said "Mrs. Frumkin, it seems to me that you are breaking the Law". Rachel replied "How can you say that? You know it is before our Jewish holidays - all these people are personal friends, who have come to wish me well."

During these years, the business had many distinguished customers: the Bishop of Stepney bought clarets and loved to converse with Rachel; Mrs. Sebag Montefiore bought Kosher wines, especially Mizrachi No. 4. One young man working for the firm would dress up elegantly, enter the House of Lords, and sell liqueurs to several members who were regular purchasers.

During the American Prohibition, the Mayor of New York bought the best wines that the shop had to offer. His courier was a seaman who made the New-York-to-London round trip every six weeks, and sewed 12 bottles into the lining of his coat.

The 1930's

Unfortunately, Elias Frumkin made a number of investments that proved very costly when the Stock Market Crash occurred in 1929. This meant that the 1930's was to be a period of fighting back for the firm. Aaron decided that it was necessary to secure as many wedding orders as possible, and he put four travellers on the road for this purpose. The most successful of these was a Mr. Abrahams. A price war resulted amongst the Jewish wine merchants, but the firm was generally very successful, averaging orders for 30 weddings and several Bar Mitzvahs per week.

After the rise of Hitler in 1933, Frumkins' received many appeals for help from German Jews. Rachel committed herself to helping as much as she could. She obtained, over a period, permits for six girls to come and work for her. She also advised German citizens who were in England only on a temporary visit, how to best tackle their problems. For some years she almost lived in the Foreign Office and Home Office, and due to this persistence, a number of families were permitted to live in England. Rachel always maintained that this was the greatest period of her life.

By the end of the Second World War, Rachel, Elias and Aaron had been joined at 162 Commercial Road by Elias' sons-in-law Wilfred Goldberg and Rabbi Meyer Frydman.

1950 onwards

The 1950's saw a migration of the London Jewish Community out of the East End into the suburbs of north-west London, and the growth of the Jewish clothing trade in the West End.

Frumkins' responded to these changes by setting up an Edgware branch which operated during the Fifties and Sixties, while Aaron set up a West End branch in Great Titchfield Street in 1959. He acknowledged that this move was influenced by his second wife Yetta working in the West End, and by tensions between himself and his brothers-in-law Wilfred and Meyer. Meanwhile, Rachel, Wilfred and Meyer continued to run the East End branch, with occasional help from Rachel and Elias' youngest daughter Libby Sacks. Rachel passed away in 1968 and was deeply mourned by the hundreds of people who had become her friends. The East End branch closed in 1970.

The Great Titchfield Street shop was smaller but more up-market than its Commercial Road parent. At first it catered to a mainly Jewish clientele, but this changed as the 'rag trade' shrank. Two break-ins in the early 1980's hastened a change in the nature of the shop. On each occasion, the shop window was broken and a few bottles stolen, and so Aaron decided to only keep dummy bottles in the window. The most interesting dummies, ranging from miniatures to Jereboam sizes, were champagne bottles. Thus came about the shop's emergence as a specialist in champagnes.

The atmosphere of the shop was captured in the 1990 Radio 4 programme 'Frumkins: a tale of two wine shops', which featured Aaron, his daughter June, Phyllis Seymour and Ben Nathan. By the time of this programme, Ben had worked with Aaron for 55 years and Phyllis for 33 years. Ben and Phyllis both talked of Frumkins' as 'home' and 'family' - a family occasionally joined behind the counter by Aaron's sister Libby and his son Lionel. It remained, as it always had been, a family that supported not just its own members but whoever stepped inside the door.

Aaron, however, spoke in the programme of the threat to small businesses posed by high West End rents. Frumkins' was also now a family whose younger members had chosen the professions rather than trade. The firm celebrated its centenary in 1994, but in 1997 closed its doors for the last time.

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