Isaac Wolfson

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Sir Isaac Wolfson, 1st Baronet FRS[1] (17 September 1897 – 20 June 1991) was a Scottish businessman and philanthropist. He was managing director of Great Universal Stores (G.U.S.) 1932-1947 and chairman 1947-1987. He established the Wolfson Foundation to distribute most of his fortune to good causes. Great Universal Stores was a mail order business. He joined the company as a merchandising controller in 1932, becoming joint managing director in the same year. The company was in trouble when he joined but he turned it round and made it into a very strong business and the principal source of his wealth. He also had other successful business ventures. He was succeeded by his son Leonard Wolfson.[2]

Wolfson was a brilliant financier and this was central to his early success.[2] Later he backed James Goldsmith. He also underwrote the hire purchase agreements of washing machine entrepreneur John Bloom at Rolls Razor but withdrew financial support in 1964, leading to the company's voluntary liquidation.[3]

In 1954 Wolfson was part of Kemsley-Winnick Television, which successfully won the initial ITV weekend contracts for the Midlands and the North of England. However, shortly after the award of the contracts the consortium was shown not be have the financial backing required, causing it to collapse.

Early life

Isaac Wolfson was the son of a Jewish cabinet maker, Solomon Wolfson, an immigrant from Rajgród, Poland[4] who settled in the Gorbals in Glasgow, Scotland. His mother was Nechi Surah Wilamowski. He was educated at Queen's Park School, Glasgow. He was brother to Charles Wolfson, the founder of the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust.

He was brilliant at mathematics but could not afford to train as an accountant so he became a salesman for his father, who made cheap tables and chairs for local people. He is said to have been a brilliant salesman.[2]

In 1920 he left for London. There he started his own business, selling clocks, mirrors and upholstery. In 1926 he married Edith Specterman. His father-in-law owned a chain of suburban cinemas and helped him financially in his early days.[2]

Religion, Israel and philanthropy

Wolfson was a devout orthodox Jew. He followed the example of his father and the middle-European community from which he came. He is quoted as having said, 'No man should have more than £100,000. The rest should go to charity.' From 1948 he included Zionist charities in his philanthropic giving at the urging of his friend Israel Sieff. In 1949 he was the chair of the Joint Palestine Appeal the UK branch of the organisation devoted to raising funds for the creation of the state of Israel: Keren Hayesod. Today the Joint Palestine Appeal is known as the United Jewish Israel Appeal.

In 1962 he was appointed president of the United Synagogue, the first to be selected from descendents of the nineteenth century waves of immigrants.[2]

In 1955, Wolfson established the Wolfson Foundation, to aid in the advancement of education, health and youth activities. This supported the establishment of Wolfson College, Oxford (where he was a Founder Fellow), Wolfson College, Cambridge and the Wolfson Room at St David's College, among many other projects over the years; he thus became the only non-religious figure to have a college named after him at both Oxford and Cambridge. Professorships named after him exist at Bar-Ilan University, Haifa, Jerusalem, Oxford and Tel Aviv. He was also a benefactor of the John Rylands Library donating the cost of a small extension in 1961. The Edith and Isaac Wolfson Trust (now known as the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust) financed two housing projects in Israel, both called Kiryat Wolfson.[5]

Great Universal Stores

In 1930 he was exhibiting at a trade fair in Manchester City Hall. George Rose was then a director of Great Universal Stores, only just renamed from mere Universal Stores. Rose liked Wolfson's display and ordered 500 clocks, which for Wolfson at the time was a big order. Rose took Wolfson to lunch and showed him the G.U.S. Devonshire Street factory. Soon Wolfson was G.U.S.'s chief buyer but he retained his own business and from G.U.S. took profit share and share options in lieu of salary.[2]

Universal Stores was founded in 1900 by Abraham, George and Jack Rose. The company developed a mail-order trade, sending out small (by later standards) catalogues. In 1931, just after Wolfson joined, it went public but got into serious trouble and the shares plummeted. There were a number of reasons: financial inexperience, an ill-advised move from Manchester to London, a fire and the recession. These troubles hastened the death of Abraham who was already a sick man.[2]

Wolfson gradually acquired shares from the Rose brothers using cash lent by his father-in-law and by Archibald Mitchelson, who was a friend. In 1932 he became joint Managing Director with George and in 1934 sole Managing Director. In his first eighteen months Wolfson streamlined and rationalised the company. A loss of £55,000 in 1932 became a profit of £330,000 the next year. From 1934 onwards Wolfson acquired companies with large Hire Purchase debts and property assets, some for G.U.S. and some for his own business. These acquisitions provided cash for more acquisitions. Acquired companies included Midland and Hackney, Drages, Alexander Sloan, Jays and Campbells, British and Colonial and Smart Brothers.[2]

Wolfson was too old to go to war. As World War II approached and during the war he continued to buy. He reasoned that if Hitler won the war his businesses would be finished anyway but if not then the opportunities would be enormous. In 1932, G.U.S. was worth £700,000, in 1938 £1,980,000 but by 1948 it was £16 million. This remarkable growth rate and aggressive acquisition plan was then succeeded by a gentler growth rate and a more corporate style.[2]

By 1970 Wolfson had sold his private business and handed over control of G.U.S. to his son Leonard.[2]

Family life

Edith Wolfson was a Vice-President of the English Jewish Welfare Board. Until 1960 Wolfson lived in Worcester; he then moved to London.


He received a baronetcy in the Queen's 1962 New Year's Honours list,[6] becoming Baronet as Sir Isaac Wolfson of St. Marylebone on 19 February 1962.[7] He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society[1] in 1963 under Statute 12. In 1971, he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Glasgow. He died in Israel in 1991.


  1. 1.0 1.1 doi|10.1098/rsbm.1994.0048
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Aris, Stephen, The Jews in Business London: Penguin Books (Pelican), 1970, chapter = 6: Sir Isaac Wolfson
  3. Trouble in Never-Never Land.  Time Magazine.  Retrieved 2008-04-12.
  4. But Aris, p. 97, says Bialystock
  5. Israel Goldstein My World as a Jew: The Memoirs of Israel Goldstein volume 2, Associated University Presses, 1984, p 206-7
  6. London Gazette issue=42552, 1 January 1962 p. 1
  7. London Gazette, 42604, 20 February 1962 p. 1479