This is a story of an Eastern European fleeing from Russia, and the tale of a refugee who ended up in Sheffield.
Harris Leon Brown, jeweller, diamond merchant, and horologist, was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1843, the son of a Russian government contractor, Baruch Brown.
He received his education at Warsaw Seminary Schools, and became an apprentice to Moses Neufeld, one of the largest firms in Warsaw engaged in the Sheffield trades.
When only 17, he was a revolutionary in Poland, one of the many who could not tolerate the oppression which Russia sought to impose upon his country. His part in the insurrection was of short duration, for he saw too many of his friends either shot by the military or hanged in the streets, so he determined to seek refuge in England. This was no easy task, for in those days the passage of Poles through Germany was fraught with the danger of being caught by the Germans with the inevitably painful process of being pushed back to Poland.
But sleeping during the day and the friendly conveyance of market carts during the night enabled him to make progress to Hamburg, then a ‘free’ port, where he took a boat to Hull.
Sheffield was his destination, and with no money to his name, and a ‘stranger in a strange city’ he was introduced to Alfred Beckett and Sons (with whom Moses Neufeld did extensive business) and Burys Ltd. These firms, especially the former, treated him in a paternal manner, and through their guidance he remained in Sheffield.
With his instinct for trading, and by strictly honourable dealing, he founded a lucrative business in 1861 as a watchmaker; he began trading from 29 Gower Street in 1867; by 1876 H.L. Brown was situated at 24 Angel Street and in 1877 connected directly to Greenwich, with the introduction of the 1.00pm clock time signal.
Around 1888, the firm moved to 71 Market Place (where the earliest known image of the premises exists).
In 1896 the firm moved again to 65 Market Place and by 1906 he had opened a branch on Regent Street.
Harris Brown married a Sheffield woman, Ann Kirby (daughter of Charles Kirby, Cutler) at St Mary’s Church, Bramall Lane, in 1865. Instead of giving a dinner for his golden wedding anniversary, he sent a cheque for £100 to the Lord Mayor to distribute among various war charities.
During his early years in Sheffield, unable to speak English, he saw a review of troops at Wardsend, and feeling grateful to his new homeland, joined the Hallamshire Rifles, and took pride in doing ambulance work with the local corps. It was characteristic of him that he presented to the St John Ambulance Association a silver shield for competition.
He became the oldest member of Sheffield’s Jewish community, and for many years was Chairman of the Sheffield Jewish Board of Guardians and served as President of the Sheffield Hebrew congregation. He was a prime mover in building a Synagogue in North Church Street, as well as a new place of worship at Lee Croft. He also helped secure a Hebrew burial ground at Ecclesfield. In 1910, he was elected a member of the Jewish Board of Deputies, the first occasion on which a Sheffield Jew had been so honoured.
H.L. Brown and Son had contracts with the Government’s Admiralty and India offices for their watches, and had obtained, for excellence in workmanship, several Kew (Class A) certificates. In their goldsmith’s workshops they manufactured the jewelled key which was presented to King Edward when he opened the University of Sheffield in 1905.
In 1914, he was on holiday with his wife in Germany when war was declared. After eight nerve-racking days, they made their way home, avoiding the gauntlet of military patrols, before escaping back to England.
When in Sheffield, he resided at Kenyon House, 10 Brincliffe Crescent. He died, aged 74, following a seizure at his London residence, 23 Briardale Gardens, West Hampstead, in 1917. He was survived by his wife, three sons, and four daughters. One of his sons, Bernard Brown, succeeded him in the business.
At the time of his death, it was said that “he took pride in recognising all the obligations which the adoption of English nationality should entail.”
His interment was at the Jewish Cemetery, Edmonton, London. He had great aversion to any kind of display, and by his own expressed wish, the funeral ceremony was simple. No flowers were sent, the coffin was covered in plain black, and the obsequies were conducted with the strictly simple solemnities of the Jewish ritual. In accordance with the custom of that ritual, no ladies were present.
He left property of the value of £29,785 and gave £100 each to the Jewish congregation in North Church Street, the Central Synagogue, and the Talmud Terah School, as well as donations to the Sheffield Royal Infirmary, Sheffield Royal Hospital, Jessop Hospital for Women, and the Sheffield Hospital for Sick Children.
In the 1920s and 1930s, H.L. Brown opened branches in Doncaster and Derby, with Bell brothers of Doncaster joining the family business.
During the Sheffield Blitz (1940) H.L. Brown’s was bombed and business moved to 70 Fargate, at the corner with Leopold Street. The firm moved to its current location of 2 Barker’s Pool when Orchard Square was built in 1986. To this day, the 1,00pm time signal still sounds daily.
James Frampton (Harris Brown’s great great grandson) joined the business in 1989 after qualifying as a gemologist and training in the jewellery trade in Switzerland and London. He became MD from 2001 onwards.
In 2020, the store was modernised, and a Rolex showroom introduced.
Today, H.L. Brown operates in Sheffield and Doncaster (still using the Bell Brothers name), as well as Barbara Cattle (York), James Usher (Lincoln) and Bright and Sons (Scarborough).
©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.