02 June 2023

‘No man should have more
than £100,000. The rest
should go to charity’

The Wolfson Building opened on the Open University campus in Milton Keynes in 1993 with the support of the Wolfson Foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I recently visited the Central Synagogue in the heart of the West End in London, and how it was rebuilt in 1958 after the original building was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1941.

Central Synagogue was rebuilt thanks to the generosity of the Great Universal Stores magnate Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897-1991) and his son, the philanthropist Leonard Wolfson (1927-2010), Lord Wolfson. They lived nearby in Portland Place, and offered £25,000 towards the new building.

The foundation stone of the new Central Synagogue was laid by Sir Isaac Wolfson and the synagogue was designed by the architect C Edmund Wilford, who was appointed at the suggestion of Leonard Wolfson and who may have worked for the Wolfsons’ company, Great Universal Stores.

Sir Isaac Wolfson was a devout Orthodox Jew, and in 1962 he was appointed president of the United Synagogue, the first to be selected from descendants of 19th century Jewish immigrants.

Wolfson followed the example of his father and the mid-European community from which he came, and gave immense amounts of money to charities. Inspired and motivated by his Jewish faith and beliefs, he once said, ‘No man should have more than £100,000. The rest should go to charity.’

Wolfson is the only non-religious figure to have a college named after him at both Oxford and Cambridge, and he is one of a handful of figures, including God or the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Peter, Saint Edmund of Canterbury and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, to have colleges named after them in both Cambridge and Oxford.

As I walked around the Open University campus in Milton Keynes last week, admiring the sculpture and architecture and visiting Saint Michael’s Church, I was reminded that Sir Isaac Wolfson also gave his name to the Wolfson Building.

The Wolfson Building opened in 1993 an the Earth Sciences extension to the Gass Building. The Wolfson Foundation helped to finance the building of the extension. The Wolfson Foundation was founded in 1955 by Isaac Wolfson and his family. The foundation is a charity and awards grants to support excellence in the fields of science and medicine, health, education, the arts and humanities.

Sir Isaac Wolfson set up the Wolfson Foundation to distribute most of his fortune to good causes. He was a Scottish businessman and philanthropist, the managing director of Great Universal Stores (GUS) or Gussies in 1932-1947 and the chairman in 1947-1987.

Great Universal Stores was a mail order business. He joined the company in 1932, becoming joint managing director later that year. He turned the company round, and made it not only a very strong business but also the principal source of his wealth. He was succeeded by his son Leonard Wolfson.

Isaac Wolfson was born in Glasgow, the son of a Jewish cabinet maker, Solomon Wolfson, an immigrant from Rajgród in Poland, who settled in the Gorbals. His mother was Nechi Surah Wilamowski.

At school in Glasgow, he was highly capable in mathematics. But he could not afford to train as an accountant and so became a salesman for his father, who made cheap tables and chairs for local people.

He left for London in 1920, and there he started his own business, selling clocks, mirrors and upholstery. In 1926 he married Edith Specterman, whose father owned a chain of suburban cinemas and helped him financially in his early days.

Wolfson established the Wolfson Foundation in 1955 to aid the advancement of education, health and youth activities. The charity awards grants to support excellence in the fields of science and medicine, health, education, the arts and humanities.

The foundation supported the establishment of Wolfson College, Oxford, where he was a Founder Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge, the Wolfson Building at Somerville College, Oxford, the Wolfson Building at Trinity College, Cambridge, the Wolfson Building at the Open University, and the Wolfson Room at Saint David’s College in Wales, among many other projects over the years.

Wolfson College Cambridge was founded as University College in 1965, but was refounded as Wolfson College in 1973 in recognition of the benefaction of the Wolfson Foundation. Wolfson College Oxford was founded in 1965, and its first president, the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, was instrumental its establishing its traditions of academic excellence and egalitarianism.

Isaac Wolfson was also a benefactor of the John Rylands Library. There are Wolfson buildings in many other universities, including a Wolfson Building at Strathclyde University and at Nottingham University, and the Wolfson Science Building and the Wolfson Hall of Residence at the University of Glasgow, and there are professorships named after him at Oxford, Bar-Ilan, Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Lord Bullock, one of the early Trustees, once said that Sir Isaac Wolfson ‘brought to the work of the Foundation the same acumen and experience in investing in projects, people and institutions, to which he owed his success in business.’

Shabbat Shalom

The Wolfson Building on the Open University campus in Milton Keynes … Sir Isaac Wolfson established the Wolfson Foundation to distribute most of his fortune to good causes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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