Guest post by Diane Maybank

April 2023

Anglia matchbox

Ensign matchbox

As your eyes skim the objects in the Connections display cabinets you might miss the two match boxes. Placed side by side, looking a little faded and fragile, you would never guess the story these neat structures of wood and paper have to tell. Their brand names, Anglia and Ensign appear undeniably British but their story is pan-European.

They contained safety matches and were manufactured in the mid-1930s by The Anglia Match Company, Letchworth. Founded in 1934, the Company was in business for 20 years. Aerial photographs from 1953 show the factory buildings on Works Road.

The label tells us that brothers Jules and Jacob Gourary from Ukraine were the owners of the factory.

On 24 February 2023 Hertfordshire people joined Ukrainian refugees at County Hall to hold a candle-lit vigil and minute’s silence in memory of those affected by the Russian invasion. It was a year to the day that the war had begun and since then some two thousand Ukrainian refugees have settled in Hertfordshire.

The label reminds us they are not the first Ukrainians to find refuge and work in Britain. The Gourary brothers made a similar journey a hundred years before. They were Jews, escaping persecution from Russian and Nazi aggression.

The war in Ukraine is not about Jews but it has brought the country’s past into focus. The tragic history of Nazi persecution following Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Russian shelling of Kiev’s Holocaust memorial site at Babi Yar in 2022, and the election of Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 are enough for the Gourary’s story to claim our attention today.

The brothers were born in the late nineteenth century in Kremenchuk on the River Dneiper. At the time of their birth Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and their home city was situated within the Pale of Settlement. This was land to the west of the Empire in which Jews were required to live by order of the Czars. They were subjected to periodic pogroms; these were murderous attacks on Jewish people and property.

Many Jews lived in poverty within the Pale; their movements and access to work severely restricted. By contrast, the Gourary family made a good living and were land owners. Jews were allowed to work in the timber trade as well as the manufacture of tobacco. We know that timber and tobacco played a part in the brothers’ commercial success in Austria. We can assume that the family wealth came from business linked to these commodities.

On 27 June 2022 Russian forces fired missiles into the Amstor shopping mall in Kremenchuk. The mall was packed with people and over 100 were killed or injured. Since then Russian missiles have continued to attack the city’s civilian infrastructure.

As Jews, the Gourary family were never secure in Ukraine. By the time the brothers reached their teens, continuing pogroms and the disintegration of the Russian Empire, hastened by the First World War (1914-18), led to large scale Jewish migration to Western Europe and the United States. We don’t know when the brothers left Russia for Austria but it’s safe to assume they started their journey during the period of civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, between 1917 and 1920.

The Gourary brothers were among one million people displaced by the civil war. Partly on foot, partly by train, they made it to Austria. One hundred years later eight million Ukrainians were seeking a place of safety, travelling west in cars, trains and planes, tracked by the world’s media.

The brothers quickly established their first match factory in Salzburg, drawing on funds from the sale of their Kremenchuck estates. The 1920s were successful years for the factory, its matches gained a reputation for quality and were exported to England. More family members joined them in the relative safety of Salzburg.

Everything changed in the 1930s. The Gourarys soon had good reason to feel more insecure than they had in Kremenchuk. The rise of Hitler’s Nazi party in Germany prompted the brothers to embark on a plan to move their family and co-workers to the safety of England. Their assets would be deposited in banks in London and New York. In Letchworth a new match factory would open in 1934. Paul Gerschonkron, a fellow refugee, was appointed Managing Director while the brothers remained in Salzburg.

One year later The Letchworth Citizen reported the sale of the first matches ever produced in the town. They went to a Mr St John Ryan, a shop owner in The Arcade. There were 25 employees at this stage, with an expected increase to about a 100. A photograph of the factory shows a single story building, painted white, looking fresh and orderly. As production got underway, it was convenient to have the boxes and splints made in Salzburg. The Letchworth workforce labelled the boxes, headed the splints and packed everything for distribution. Gradually the Salzburg operation was wound down and all production moved to Letchworth, shortly before or after The Anschluss of 1938.

By the 1930s Letchworth was well on the way to becoming a model manufacturing town when the brothers’ representative, Paul Gershonkron arrived. An industrial site of some 6 square miles, had been laid out by the town planners in 1903 and by 1926 there were 70 factories representing a variety of trades and employing 4,000 people. A number of factories had been built with the assistance of loans guaranteed by the Garden City Company. There was a choice of premises to rent and a favourable system of land tenure had been adopted.

With all this in place, the pairing of two Ukrainian refugees and Letchworth Garden City Company was not as unlikely as you might think.

A family like the Gourarys were up against terrible odds. On 19 August 1934 Hitler claimed absolute power in Germany. An Anschluss or annexation of Austria into the German Reich was one of his long term goals. When the Anschluss came on 13 March 1938 there followed an intensification of murderous hostility towards Salzburg’s Jewish population. Getting the paperwork to leave Austria was complex and stressful. As a condition of leaving, the brothers were forced to hand over 50% of their assets to the Reich. Those foreign bank accounts would save them from penury in their new life.

In 2022 Ukrainian refugees, for different reasons, struggled to assemble the correct documentation for entry into Britain. The process gradually became more streamlined and Hertfordshire is currently focussed on how to help our guests access all the benefits of a civil society and welfare state. When the brothers made their escape, the international response, or at least its rhetoric, was similar to today. Back then, The Red Cross played a major role in providing practical assistance. The mood of compassion, charitable giving, fair distribution of aid, were similar to today. The difference lies in scale, infrastructure and technology.

How did Letchworth come to play a part in this story of European conflict and ethnic cleansing? The answer lies in a combination of factors:

  • migration – the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a small but continual settlement of Jewish refugees in Britain. The country became an established destination for Jews fleeing persecution.
  • war – the rapid advance of the Kaiser’s army during the First World War resulted in Letchworth accepting nearly 3,000 Belgians in 1914. Their story is one of acceptance and co-existence. By the 1930s Letchworth had positive memories of taking in refugees. The Belgians made a welcome contribution to the town’s prosperity.
  • vision – Letchworth was the world’s first Garden City, founded on the ideas of Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928). His vision was to create a community where people could live, work and enjoy their leisure time in rural surroundings. Such a bold plan attracted a wide range of idealistic people. The special composition of Letchworth’s population meant that Jewish refugees would have been welcomed, especially if like the Gourary brothers, they had the means and expertise to contribute to the town’s industries in the inter-war period.

By February 1940, Britain was at war with Germany. The Letchworth Citizen reported on the success of a fundraising bid to establish a hostel in Letchworth to support refugees. £800 had been raised. The list of donated items is impressive: furniture, household necessaries, various foodstuffs, cinema and concert tickets. Refugees were invited into people’s homes and treated for a reduced fee by doctors and dentists. Tradesmen offered cut rates, goods were sold at a discount. English lessons and activities at The Settlement were free of charge.

In February 1942 about 60 people attended a meeting of the Supporters of the Letchworth Scheme for Central-European Refugees. The purpose of the meeting was to mark the closure of the hostel at Robingate, Barrington Road. It had opened in 1939 with eleven refugees, over its three year existence it had supported 46 people. Once refugees got their visas some found jobs in the factories on Works Road. The difficult predicament of refugees, their fragile mental state and struggles to find employment are discussed with sensitivity. The hostel housed some people for a few days while others remained for the full three years. The meeting reflected on how successful its scheme had been and noted that funds were available for future support. It is possible that the Gourarys and their co-workers were supported as these reports describe.

The scale and complexity of the Homes for Ukraine scheme (2022) far outweighs anything within Letchworth’s power in the 1940s, but there is little to separate them when it comes to their sense of purpose and compassion. One major difference is the financial incentives hosts are now offered to share their homes. Today we have the machinery and experience of local government, led and funded by Westminster to enable refugees to settle in Hertfordshire. Access to the government’s £150 million homelessness support, announced in December 2022 is now urgently needed as councils struggle to maintain their commitments.

The 1939 Census records that Paul Gershonkron is living at a house named Lydialand on the Hitchin Road, Letchworth. Jacob Gourary is living at Scudamore, 1 Baldock Road, Letchworth. He shares the house with his wife Berthe and two others: Lambert Cahen, the company sales manager and Dora Howe, his secretary. The brothers lived in the town for no more than a couple of years.

The United States was their preferred destination. Jules was granted a visa to enter the States on 26 April 1939. His documents state that he is 6 feet 2 inches tall with brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion. There is a scar on his right cheek. Accompanied by his wife, Regina he sailed to New York on 11 August 1939. Jacob gained a Male Enemy Alien Exemption from Internment certificate on 23 November 1939 and a visa to travel to the States on 5 June 1940. On 1 July 1940 Jacob and his wife Berthe arrived in New York. Jacob became a naturalised American citizen in 1941. He is described as having grey eyes, grey hair and is 6 feet tall. His record shows he is resident at 122 East, 82nd street, New York. His occupation is that of jewellery manufacturer. Jules applied for naturalisation later, on 27 December 1944 when he was 61 years old.

The brothers continued to manage the Anglia Match Company from their base in New York until it closed in 1954.

 Factory fires, competitors, problems with management, all contributed to the demise of the Company. Fires happened rather too often and were remembered as major spectator events amongst the townspeople, especially its children.

The company appears to have been in decline in the 3 years preceding 1954. The workforce had shrunk from about 100 to 12 employees. Things looked particularly bleak when in 1951 Mr Cohen, the Managing Director who had replaced Paul Gershonkron, collapsed and died on site. Rudolph Khan, who had travelled from Salzburg with the Gourarys and worked under Mr Cohen, took over running the company. He died soon after, leaving no clear leadership.

Jules Gourary prospered in New York; but he did not forget the country that gave him refuge and a good business opportunity. Incoming Passenger Lists show that Jules and Regina made 6 sailings between New York and Southampton beginning after the war in 1946. The trips ended in 1954, suggesting they were partly to oversee the fortunes of The Anglia Match Company.

Jules Gourary’s obituary was published in The New York Times 24 October 1964. It describes him as an investor and philanthropist. He died at his home at 888 Park Avenue. He was 81 years old.

The Gourary family are buried at Paramus Bergen County, New Jersey. The Jewish cemetery there is called Beth-El.

Ukrainian refugees, like the Gourary brothers have the means to empower themselves. A trawl through Hertfordshire newspapers on any week will offer headlines like these:

‘Ukrainian Girl staying in Bushey raising funds to Study at National Youth Music Theatre.’

‘Fleeing Ukrainians Embraced by Hertfordshire Business Community.’

Social media has been vital to what our Ukrainian guests did next. It is a source of information, ideas, connection and support.


Ukrainian flags fly from public buildings in Hertfordshire and social media is alive with grass roots activity from ‘Hitchin and Beyond Welcomes Refugees’. With many others they continue the county’s tradition of making sanctuary and opportunity possible for people escaping conflict.

Feel free to leave a comment, ask a question, start a discussion...