The ancestors and childhood of Leonard Roth

Kate Varney, a daughter of Leonard Roth's sister Queenie, has undertaken detailed research on the Roth family and she has kindly allowed us to present a version of that part of her work which is relevant to Leonard Roth.

Leonard Roth's parents were Morris Roth and Jane (Jenny) Davis. We give first some details of their lives. Morris Roth, born 23 May 1875, emigrated to England from Kalisz in what was then Russia but later Poland. In his Naturalisation papers he made it clear that he regarded himself as Polish. His wife Jane, or Jenny, was born in London of Polish/German immigrant parentage. Her family name was Krotoszynski but was changed to Davis probably early in the 20th century. The Roth and Krotoszynski families both settled in the East End of London, in the Mile End/Whitechapel area of Stepney, where Morris and Jenny would have met, probably through their synagogue. We give some further information about Morris.

Morris Roth's parents were Aaron Joseph Roth and Pessa (Bessie) Zelkovicz. The 1901 census shows Morris, at the age 25, before his marriage living with his brother Abraham (18) in a house in multi-occupation in Batty Street, Stepney; both are hairdressers. Living a few doors away is their older brother Tobias, a tailor, who was married with two children. The chief source of information about Morris is in his Naturalisation application of December 1924, which was granted in 1925. The following is a summary of the relevant information it contains. He was originally a Russian subject, but regarded himself as a Pole. He was educated at Kalisz elementary school, left Poland in 1892, and had lived in Britain since then without leaving the country. His wife was British born, his mother, born in Poland, was living in Mile End, London. He became a hairdresser's assistant on arrival in England but after ten years started his own business as a draper, opening his shop in Silver Street, Edmonton, 22 years before his application - i.e. around 1902 - and was assisted by his wife. The premises were described as in a working class area and apparently doing a good trade. His English was tested by reading a passage from a newspaper and writing from dictation; the interviewer, from the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, concluded that he spoke, read and wrote English well. His referees were a commercial traveller (who had visited the shop on business fortnightly for 22 years and was on social terms), the family GP for the past 20 years, the headmaster of the Latymer Elementary School, Edmonton, who knew him "intimately" having met him ten years before when Leonard started attending the school, and the rabbi of the New Synagogue, Stamford Hill, which Morris had attended for the past nine years. Morris's emigration from Kalisz was, his daughter Queenie claimed, to escape conscription into the Tsar's army. In view of the upheaval of the whole family one has to assume that they had seen the writing on the wall, feared pogroms, and felt restricted and threatened. Avoiding military service for the sons would have been one of many reasons for emigration.

Jane (Jenny) Roth (Krotoszynski/Davis) was the daughter of Davis Krotoszynski and Mina (or Minna) Moritz. Davis was born in Poland in 1846. Neither the date he came to England nor the date and place of his marriage to Mina are known, but both pre-date the birth of their daughter Leah (presumed to be their oldest child) in London in 1868. By the time of the 1901 census the family had taken the surname "Davis", and Davis had taken as a first name, but did not use in everyday life, the English name "John". He was a hairdresser and barber at Old Gravel Lane, Tower Hamlets. He died of Bright's Disease on 18 November 1906 aged 60 at 47 Eric Street, Mile End. Mina was born in Germany in 1841. Mina's father was Eliezer, who died in 1871. Her mother, Rosa, was born in 1816. In the 1911 census Mina was living at 187 High Road, Edmonton; she died of breast cancer in 1920 in the Middlesex Hospital. In the 1901 census Jenny's family (now "Davis", but recorded incorrectly as "Daves") were living at 15 Swan Street, Mile End. Jenny was a cap maker (her sister Pauline a mantle maker).

Jenny and Morris married in The Great Synagogue, on 5 July 1903. The marriage certificate records Morris as 27, a bachelor and draper, his father, Aaron Roth, a dealer. Jenny was 26, a spinster, her father, now under the name David (sic) Krotoszynski, a hairdresser. Both give their address as 15 Swan Street. It was quite common to use the same address as it saved paying two lots of parish fees if they lived in different parishes (a requirement irrespective of religious affiliation). Jenny and Morris Roth had three children, Leonard (1904-1968) Queenie Dorothy (1906-1981), and Ruby Caroline (1912-1940).

Silver Street, Edmonton (in the former county of Middlesex, now in the London Borough of Enfield), where the Roth family lived was then on the edge of the country with a farm at the end of the road. The Roth children would go out for long country walks, with 6d to buy tea with a boiled egg from a farmer's wife. Morris's shop was at 79 Silver Street and the family also lived there for many years. Initially it was rented. The 1911 Valuation List gives the owner as "Jeffreys" and Morris as occupier. At some point he bought it as in the 1936 Rate Book he is both owner and occupier. Leslie Horwood (Leonard Roth's cousin) described:

... the tiny draper's shop in Silver Street, Edmonton, where the Roth family grew up. Downstairs, behind the shop, a minute kitchen (-diner?) which led into an even smaller scullery with nothing in it but a sink, gas stove, and a copper for boiling the bath-water and washing the clothes. Upstairs, a modest sitting-room, but large enough to house an upright piano (on which Leonard's mother could - and with a bit of persuasion did - play the Blue Danube Waltz) a pretty large table and about six plush-seated dining-chairs and a couple of armchairs. The staircase leading to this room (which was only used when visitors came) twisted itself round a right-angle in the wall and was always piled high with cardboard boxes. One had to flatten oneself against the banister-rail in order not to send them tumbling which (as a clumsy small boy) I often did. This generally on the way to or from the bedrooms. Queenie, at that time about eight years old - I was five - would hear the clatter and come to rescue. Ruby, a year younger than I, would come and help restack the boxes. If this happened more than once in a day I could expect a short address on walking carefully up the stairs. Ruby would giggle. I fancy she had trouble with the boxes too. Queenie was dainty and could slip through a keyhole. I was used to running and jumping on staircases, and this staircase was very narrow and dark. At the top, apart from the sitting room, were three bedrooms: one for Leonard's parents, one for the two girls, and I slept with Leonard. These visits I paid to Edmonton must have occurred during the period 1914-16 or -17 while my mother was trying to cope with our draper's shop in Hackney and at the same time look after my baby sisters. Mine was a happy childhood. Edmonton, the edge of the country it was then. We would go walking, Leonard, Queenie, Ruby and I, to Enfield, sometimes in Broomfield Park, Southgate and occasionally a short ride to Chingford and Epping Forest. There were still horse-drawn tram-cars in parts of London then though electric open-topped trams were rapidly taking over. ...

Some time in the early or mid-twenties the Roth family bought [sic] a house, a very respectable house, opposite Pym's [sic] Park (still in Silver Street, Edmonton) so that Leonard and Queenie should have a bit more living-space, a room each where they could keep books and work and a drawing room where they could entertain friends.

Pat Cryer has researched Edmonton in the early 1900s, drawing on the reminiscences of her mother and other local residents for an account of a brief glimpse of Morris's shop:

Mr Roth was always in the shop but when there was a lot of customers he would call to his wife, who was upstairs, 'Are you busy my dear?'; she would reply 'I'm always busy' but she would always come down to help.

A local resident remembered in the 1930s that it was amazing that Mr Roth could find anything in his shop as it was so untidy. It was tiny with so much merchandise that there was hardly room to get in, yet he always seemed to have whatever was wanted and could lay his hands on it immediately. Nothing was pre-packed in those days, so a yard of tape or elastic would be measured out and cut. As already mentioned, one of his referees in his naturalisation application was a commercial traveller who visited regularly for 22 years on business first and later also socially.

By all accounts Jenny Roth was a very dominant character in the family, as indicated in Leslie Horwood's letter. "Use your head to save your hands" and "More money than sense" were two of her sayings. Jenny believed that promises to children should always be kept and sat up all one night to make a doll promised for Queenie's birthday. She could copy clothes seen in West End shop windows. Leslie Horwood relates in a letter quoted below how she used to visit the school to complain about the anti-Semitism of one of the staff. Undoubtedly she had the determination to support and promote the education of her three children in every way she could even though lacking financial means. Leslie Horwood writes:

There were very few if any Jewish children at the Latymer School and relations between the Roth family and the school were often strained. Leonard, I think, slipped through school peacefully enough, but Queenie in her teens was clearly more intelligent than most of her teachers whom she tended to treat with hauteur bordering on contempt. My aunt put her unpopularity with her teachers down to anti-Semitism and on more than one occasion went to the school to complain about it. ... Unsuccessfully, I fear. In those early post-war days our families visited each other pretty often, almost weekly, I should say. Nothing of the character and reputation Queenie had acquired at school was observable at home where she was cheerful and helpful and I should guess quite happy. She certainly adored her brother whom she accompanied everywhere: to concerts at South Place, to the theatre when they could scrape up the money. Sometimes I went along too. Leonard and Queenie would often go book-hunting together, going through mountains of second-hand rubbish to come away with some tiny treasure, the reward of hours of search. They were inseparable companions during their schooldays and hardly seemed to need any other friends. Their relationship with their parents seemed in those days to be ideal: they were devoted to each other and dutiful and affectionate to all the family. It seemed incredible that one of Queenie's French teachers (a Miss Cant, I believe - unless that was Queenie's soubriquet for her!) should describe her as arrogant, though I have little doubt that even at school she stood her ground in a dispute. As of course did her mother also.

The men of the family were far more docile. Uncle Morris, Leonard's father, had the patience of a saint - unless the truth is that he found it easier to slip away with a book than be drawn into debate. Leonard could be argumentative, but always good-humoredly and was generally the first to yield. He suffered the (not uncommon?) fate of passing from the protection of a powerful mother into the hands of a wife who likewise was too strong for him [others disagree with Leslie Horwood about Leonard's wife]. Like his father Leonard was by nature a quiet scholarly man, indeed a fine scholar like his sister Queenie - they both now and then poked fun at my indolence, with sometimes a cutting edge. However, to me in my schooldays Queenie and her brother Leonard were demi-gods: their knowledge boundless and their wisdom infinite. ...

The Latymer Upper School register of admissions records that Leonard previously attended Latymer Lower school. Morris gave as a referee for his Naturalisation application the head teacher of Latymer elementary school whom he had known for 10 years when Leonard started attending i.e. from about 1914 when Leonard was 10. Whether he attended another elementary school from the age of 5 in 1909 is not clear but it is possible he started at Silver Street school which Queenie and Ruby attended. He was admitted to Latymer Upper in 1917 when he was 13. At some point during the First World War Leonard and Queenie (probably Ruby too) were evacuated away from the bombing to Windsor for a while with a group of cousins. Queenie was admitted to Latymer Upper in 1918 at the age of 11. Ruby also attended Silver Street school before joining Latymer Upper in 1923 at age 11. It has not been possible to trace the school log books and records for either of the elementary schools. Latymer School had been founded three hundred years earlier as a boys' grammar school. It moved to its present site in Haselbury Road, Edmonton in 1910, becoming co-educational. In the Roth children's days the school intake was 600 pupils - now it is 1,400. (The lower school transferred at about that time from the foundation of the upper school to Church of England controls.) The original school of 1910 is still in use although much of the rest of the school building post-dates the Roth children. The School gave them good support (despite the apparent anti-Semitism of one or two staff). The School knew that Leonard needed tuition they could not give in order to gain a Mathematics scholarship to Cambridge and it was with the headmaster's agreement that he went for a term in autumn 1922, before the Cambridge scholarship examinations, to attend Dulwich College. He was a day boy, living nearby with his cousins the Horwoods in Upper Norwood. The headmaster praised Leonard's editorship of the Latymer School magazine and reported his success in winning a senior mathematics scholarship to Clare College after his attendance at Dulwich College. In September 1922, when he must have been already at Dulwich College, the award to him was reported of a £60 a year Foundation University Scholarship. Queenie once remarked that she also could have gone in for mathematics - but would have been a third rate mathematician.

The family moved to a larger house around 1928. The new home was in fact a rented house at No 74 Silver Street, part of Pymmes Terrace, opposite Pymmes Park. In his Naturalisation papers of 1924 Morris gave his address as still being at No. 79 Silver Street. Latymer School records Ruby at their new home at No 74 Silver Street by the time she left school in 1930. Leonard, who was on the staff of Imperial College from 1926, appears as the only voter at No 74 from 1928-1932, and he was also at that time the named tenant. From 1934 [the 1933 list appears not to be accessible] the voters were Morris, Jenny and Ruby - their first appearance on the electoral roll of the borough. (The electoral legislation of the time may have disqualified the Roth parents from voting earlier and Ruby, born in 1912, was too young). The circumstances of Leonard's tenure of the house are puzzling. In 1926 he took up a post at Imperial College on graduating from Cambridge, so would have been resident in London; there may be a technical reason why he was the nominal tenant acting for his parents. The accommodation over the shop would have been extremely cramped for the family when all at home. Both Leonard and Queenie spent their school years and university vacations there. Although the 1936 Valuation list gives Leonard as the occupier of the house and garden at 74 Silver Street, which was owned by "Mrs Oldham", this is probably an error as he had not been on the electoral roll at that address since 1932. He was away in Rome on a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship in 1930-31 and his active involvement in the house probably ceased by 1932, by which time it is assumed he had married. In about 1935 he moved into a newly built house not far away in Southgate at 21 Brycedale Crescent, N14, which he owned until his death in 1968. It is highly probable that the family in fact moved into their new home at No. 74 Silver Street in 1928, or even during 1927.

Queenie married a non-Jew in 1929 and Leonard Roth, siding with his mother, broke off relations with his sister. A couple of years later, Leonard Roth married a Roman Catholic, the Italian Marcella Baldesi. At this point relations between him and his parents were broken off and no reconciliation occurred.

Leonard Roth's mother Jenny and his sister Ruby were killed on 27 December 1940 when a land or parachute mine was dropped on the house in Silver Street, Edmonton. These bombs detonated at roof level, rather than on impact, and the shock waves from the explosion could reach as much as a mile away and destroy a whole street of houses. Jenny and Ruby are buried in Willesden Cemetery. They are recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site as civilian casualties. The rescue work continued for some days and Morris Roth, dug out alive after two days, was taken to hospital seriously injured. He was said, understandably, to be a changed man after this and sold the shop.

Last Updated January 2012