Michael Marks (1859 to 31st December 1907)


Who hasn't heard of or been in a Marks & Spencer store? It was my mum's favourite shop and she'd have bought petrol and oxygen from them had they sold it. One wet Sunday afternoon rain was forecast but I didn't care and thought Michael Marks - one of founders of Marks & Spencer - was worth getting wet for. I almost didn't find the cemetery though. I knew Michael was buried in a Jewish Cemetery but didn't think it would be so difficult to find. My Sat-Nav announced, "You have arrived at your destination," but I could not see any traces of a cemetery. Normally when looking for a grave I see a church spire that guides me closer though Jews just seem to have cemeteries only.

Twice I drove up and down the road in Crumpsall, a run-down area of Manchester with the Sat-Nav lady telling me I had arrived. No signs said a cemetery lay nearby. I had a coffee from my flask and waited for someone to pass by. An old man said there weren't any cemeteries nearby and he'd lived there for twenty years. I tried chatting to a man at a bus stop whose quizzical expression told me there was no cemetery there before his tongue did.

For the third time I drove up and down the full length of the road in a built-up area. I spotted a pair of gates that I looked like they might lead up to scrap land or an industrial estate but then I saw the Star Of David symbols on the metal. There were no signs to tell the visitor the gates were the entrance to a cemetery. Later at home my dad said anti-Semitic vandals had smashed up Jewish graves so the probably didn't advertise their location as much now.

I walked up the track passing swamped foliage and a sign warning of guard dogs. I'd read forty horse-drawn carriages hogged behind Michael's coffin when they buried him early in 1908 (he died on New Year's Eve.). Had they come up this track? The top of the slant suddenly revealed the destination - an old Jewish cemetery that you would not guess was there.

Nobody about. Lots of graves. Darkness was not far off. Where to start? I didn't have a photo, only a grave number that didn't match up. After about an hour I was getting worried about being locked in. Thankfully the cemetery was hemmed in by a housing estate and knew I could scale a wall and drop into someone back garden if forced to.

There was a red brick tumbledown building which must give shelter to mourners but it was locked. There was a ramshackle stretcher on wheels in there - for people who fainted with grief? Or skint ones who couldn't afford a funeral and the corpse was stretchered from the boot of a car to a yawning grave?

I put Mozart's Requiem on my mp3 player to get funereal and after another twenty minutes had not found the grave. Most of these cadavers hadn't received many visitors. No pebbles/stones left on them, the Jewish custom to show a loved one had visited. I continued up and down the lines of graves. I thought Michael Mark's tomb may be a mammoth thing the size of a bulldozer and impeccably maintained by proud Jews.


I only found the headstone when my eyes locked onto uncharacteristically gold-painted letters.  It wasn't a spectacular monument compared with its neighbours. I must admit I didn't even know Michael was Jewish. A company like Marks & Spencer seems quintessentially English and I won't buy underpants from any other shop (other makes don't seem to have the same can-contain-two-curled-up-hedgehogs underpinning.)

This man had done well, a real rags-to-riches story. He was born in into a Jewish family in Slonim, then part of the Russian Empire but now a town in Poland. The family moved to Leeds which was the centre of the wool industry and many hard-working immigrant Jewish tailors. He worked in a sweatshop mill but was physically frail and not robust enough for the harsh, steamy conditions. He became a hawker that travelled from town to town selling stuff from a tray.

In his twenties he met a business man called Isaac Dewhirst who owned a Leeds warehouse. Michael agreed to buy goods from Dewhirst and sell them in nearby villages. This allowed him to make enough money to open a stall in the open market in Leeds. The market developed a section that was actually undercover and Michael rented one.  He was so embarrassed that he couldn't speak much English with the haggling customers that he bundled up his wares in packages and had a sign made that read, "Don't ask the price, it's a penny." This is pricing originated; nowadays everything has a price on it but customer had to ask what the prices were.

Over the next few years Michael opened similar stalls in markets across Yorkshire and Lancashire. To grow he needed an investor. He asked his own chum Isaac Dewhirst who suggested his cashier Thomas Spencer might be interested. Spencer decided that the £300 (about 331k now) was a good deal an invested. They were brill doubt act. Michael Marks ran the stalls and Spencer ran the office. Soon they started opening store in about ten cities. 

Sales soared astronomically: Spencer's original £300 investment was soon worth £15,000 (now about £1.5 million) and he soon retired. Michael Marks should have given up working too but he was still developing the business when he died when aged 43 - 48 (the grave says he was 44 but nobody knows and there seems to be only one photo of him.) He was living a happy life with his wife and son in Salford when he died suddenly of a heart attack one New Year's Eve (must have been some party.)

I sat by the grave and ate an apple. Who would have thought a Yiddish-speaking Jew from a small town in Russia would have set going a company which now has hundreds of stores across the world? Perhaps he felt he had to made his mark as his mother had died giving birth to him (he brought up by his two older sisters.) His dad must have been proud of him (and lived to 100, dying a year after his son in 1908.)

I had been in the cemetery for quite a while. The light was fading (I had to brighten up these photos) and I walked back down the track that many grieving people had used over the decades. Some dogs were woofing in a garden and I did some in return in a loud low-base tone, only stopping when I saw a woman stood waiting to lock the gates. She looked at me strangely but I didn't care - mission was accomplished - I'd found the grave I'd gone to find. I'm a contributor to a global grave-hunting website and this was one to add to the collection for other geeks to goggle at.



The cemetery was up this road. Not one sign. I drove passed it three times. By luck I spotted the Star Of David symbol on the gates.


Not sure where to start looking for Michael….I had a piece paper with a grave number on it….


After 20 minutes and I wasn’t making progress…



Grave - Michael Marks 4


Grave - Michael Marks 5


Grave - Michael Marks 6


Grave - Michael Marks 7



Grave - Michael Marks 9




Initially M&S would have had a stall outside Leeds Market…