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History and Life of Levy Trachtenberg
Jack and His Business Life
Levy Trachtenberg was born in Jzitomir, Russia, in 1877. 1 He was the younger of twin boys, and one of about nine or ten children of Simcha Trachtenberg, 2 who had married twice (Levy being of the second wife). They were reasonably comfortably off. Russia at that time was under a type of feudal system. The land belonged to the local lord or baron who leased out parts to tenants, who then paid rent and a part of the produce grown. The tenants in turn employed men and women to work the land. Simcha was one of these tenants, and from all accounts, he was a hard, selfish, and sadistic man with a violent temper. When Levy was born, it was a few days before anyone had the courage to tell Simcha that there were twins, and when they finally did tell him, he refused to accept the fact. Levy was sent to a foster-mother who looked after him. This state of affairs continued until he was about twelve years old, and then his father apparently relented and Levy returned home, but always he was treated as an outsider and had a very unhappy childhood.
Just after this time, Simcha had a stroke of paralysis which affected the whole of one side, and after unsuccessful treatment for a number of years, he was advised that his only hope was to come to England where the best medical treatment was available. Prior to this, two of Levy’s half-sisters, Bessie and Chaika (from Simcha’s first wife), had married and emigrated to England. It was decided to bring Simcha to England to stay with one of his daughters. Someone had to accompany him and the ironic fact emerged that the only one available was the unwanted son, Levy.
So at the turn of the century Simcha was brought to England by Levy, who at that time had every intention of returning to Russia, but while he was there he worked for one of his sisters, Bessie Gershuny, who had a bakery and shop in the East End of London. The Gershunys knew another family who had emigrated from Russia some five or six years before. They were Philip and Leah Hartstein, who had five children, the eldest of whom was a daughter, Yetta, then about twenty years old. The two families got together and the result was the marriage of Levy and Yetta, in London on February 10, 1903. Philip Hartstein, when he first came from Russia, was a cigarette maker, but by this time he had started making paper bags and had a small workshop in the East End. 3 Levy was taken into the workshop, but apparently he did not get on with them.
The events of the next few years are rather vague, but he moved around quite a lot and apparently was unable to get established in anything. He spent some time in Merthyr Tydfil (Wales), where he had a milk round. He had a grocery shop in the East End of London, and there is evidence of a period as a sausage manufacturer.
But in 1912 Philip (his father-in-law) paid one hundred pounds to a Mr. Lewis Gross who a short time before had started up making cardboard boxes and was short of capital. The original business is still in existence which shows that Yetta (Levy’s wife) was the partner and Levy was to be taught the business. Over the years this must have been changed because there is no further mention of Yetta at any time, so we can assume that at some time or other Levy took over the partnership. They traded as Gross and Levy and occupied premises at 134 Middlesex Street in the East End of London. They worked hard and made a living and then in 1914 came the First World War and things started to improve. They occupied the ground floor and basement of the building and the other floors were leased out to other tenants. One of the other tenants, who was a hat manufacturer, did a “moonlight flit” owing them rent. (By this we can assume that by now they owned the building.) They were at that time making boxes for a number of hat manufacturers and the trade was booming, so they decided to take over the machines, etc., and run the hat business as a side line. This was all during the First World War.
The hat business grew; the profits grew. The hat profits were much larger than the profits of the boxes, and they found that the box business was becoming neglected. They both agreed that this was not a very good state of affairs, so they decided that the best thing to do would be to split up — one to have the hats and one to have the boxes. But who should have which? Both wanted the hats as this was the gold mine. They decided by the spin of a coin — Levy won the hats.
The floor in Middlesex Street became too small, so in the summer of 1918 he took a factory at 101 Aldersgate Street in the City. In November came the Armistice and then the boom years of 1920–21 when he made a lot of money. Then in 1922 came the slump when everything collapsed and raw materials fell to a fraction of their cost, and in common with hundreds of others, he went into liquidation.
He then started up in Goswell Road as a china and glass wholesaler but was not successful. He was then advised that the taxi cab business appeared to be quite good, no knowledge being required. His brother-in-law, Alexander, had quite a number of taxis and was successful, so Levy acquired three taxis and then a further six, but somehow things did not go right. Although no knowledge was required, he was always in the hands of the drivers of the cabs and so this business folded up. This was in 1925, and he then decided to revert to something which at least he knew — the box business. Together with a Mr. I. Kopkin (the husband of Philip Hartstein’s sister), who was a hat manufacturer and had fallen on hard times, he rented a small first floor in Cottons Gardens, Shoreditch, and started making boxes exactly as he had done many years before. Kopkin was the traveller and Levy the worker. However, Kopkin became ill, and after about a year he could not carry on and left. Levy struggled on by himself trading as L. Trachtenberg.
About a year later, early in 1927, he was approached by a Mr. Morris Cowen who had a cardboard box business, trading as Universal Cardboard Box Manufacturing Company, and whose factory was at 51 Derbyshire Street, Bethnal Green. Cowen owned the property, which was mortgaged to the hilt, and he was in financial difficulties and not particularly keen on running the business. He suggested that Levy move to Derbyshire Street and pay Cowen rent and carry on with his own business, together with any orders that came into Universal, for which he would pay Cowen a commission of twelve and a half per cent. This was, of course, a wonderful opportunity for Levy because at least there were power-driven machines which would make things easier for him, as at the moment he was using hand operated machines. He had to carry half hundred weight bundles of cardboard up from the ground floor and do all the bending, cutting, and slotting himself. By now he was fifty years old and it was extremely hard for him, so it appeared to be a heaven-sent opportunity to at least make things easier for him, and he accepted the proposition. He moved in and so carried on, still struggling hard, but at least it was slightly easier physically.
During all this time he had raised five children, four girls and a boy. Minnie 1904, Rose 1906, Jack (myself) 1909, Freda 1914, and Phyllis 1921. He had high hopes for my education and in 1920 sent me to Owen’s School, Islington, with always the intention of possibly my going to university. However, when the crash came in 1922 he struggled on to pay the fees but in 1925, after the collapse of the taxi business, he could not continue, and I left school.
I was offered a job by my uncle, Barnett Hartstein, in his paper bag business which by now had grown into quite a substantial concern. Philip (Levy’s father-in-law) had died in 1920 and the business was now being run by his two sons, Barnett and Abraham. I wanted to start with my father, but it was just at that time when he had started in Shoreditch, and at that time it was not certain that he was able to pull through, so my parents persuaded me to go to Hartstein’s, which meant that I would have a secure job and the carrot was dangled that as Barnett had no sons there was probably a secure future for me there.
So in the summer of 1925 I started but was never very happy and continually worried my father to allow me to leave Hartstein’s and join him. At last, after just over three years, Father approached Barnett who understood and appreciated the position, and so on January 14th, 1929, I joined my father. I was then nineteen and a half years old and had been getting a very good salary at Hartstein’s, but when I joined my father, I took quite a cut as it was obvious that he could not afford to pay me anything like the salary I had at Hartstein’s. My immediate job was to go out and find new business, which I did, but it was hard going.
Then in April, 1929, I met Marie Woolfson and became very fond of her. I realized I was not in any position to think of marriage but we continued together and she was a great inspiration and help to me, and eventually in 1934 we became engaged. All this time the business was slowly improving. At the time I joined the business the entire trade was done with hat and dress manufacturers in the East End and the City, who used to order boxes by the dozen. I soon realized there must be other users of boxes, and went further afield and found industries which placed orders by the gross, and so the business gradually grew.
Marie and I were married on October 18, 1936, and on October 13, 1938, our daughter Leila was born. Father was taken ill early in 1939 which meant I had to carry on by myself.
Early in 1939 I bought a 30-cwt lorry to deliver the boxes which until then we had delivered by barrow.
Then came Septernber 3, 1939, and the Second World War. By this time we were making boxes not for hats and dresses but for food industries, and also one of our customers was packing shell caps in our boxes, and so I became reserved.
On February 17, 1940, Father passed away. He had had a very hard and difficult life and had been dogged by misfortune throughout his life from the very moment he was born. He was a hard worker and trier but everything he attempted was unsuccessful. But now he was at rest.
He was the sole owner of the business but had left a will leaving the business to me, with the onus on me of supporting my mother. I was persuaded to make her a partner and so we carried on until the war ended. On March 15, 1945, our son Laurence was born and two months later, May 8, the war ended, and I realized I must expand. The machines were by now becoming very old, and I decided to try and make skillers in conjunction with the rigid boxes which we were then doing. This meant a four way rotary bending machine, which cost nine hundred pounds. This was a sum which was a tremendous amount, but after many days of thought and apprehension, I bought the machine on hire purchase and that opened up another field I had not been able to tackle before. With the tremendous increase in the speed of bending, it brought about a bottleneck of slotting, so I was forced to buy a multiple slotter, and so the business slowly grew. After the war ended, Phyllis, my youngest sister, who had been in the Army, joined me. I was in the factory and she was in the office, but many times when required she came out into the factory and helped with the slotting.
During the war years I had changed my name from Trachtenberg to Trenton, but the business still continued under the name of L. Trachtenberg, but now I found that with the type of customers with which we were dealing, this name had a handicap so I decided it must be changed. I was also advised to become a limited liability company. At this stage a problem arose with my mother. She was a fifty per cent partner and I realized that at her death, I would be saddled with a death duty problem. I suggested to her that she should give up all financial interest in the company, and in return I would guarantee her an income for life. It was explained to her that the fifty per cent interest meant nothing to her during her lifetime but at her death it would mean a great liability to me. She agreed, and so in 1951 L. Trachtenberg became the Trenton Box Company Limited.
Also around this time, Mr. Morris Cowen, who owned the building in which T.B.Co. was working, ran into rather more financial difficulties than usual and the mortgagees decided to foreclose. I was offered the building at the figure which was owing to them (3,500 pounds); I accepted and bought the property.
At this time, the Trenton Box Company only occupied part of the ground floor, the rest being sub-let to other tenants. Gradually we took over the whole of the building, knocking down walls etc. And so the years went by. In 1952 I decided that the day of the wire stitched boxes was coming to an end, and I should widen my scope. There were, to my mind, two alternatives: covered boxes or cartons. I could not do both, so after much thought I decided on the cartons and I purchased a hand platen cutting and creasing machine, and went out for orders. The first year things were hard and that department was losing money and was only kept alive by the stitched boxes. More than once, in a despondent mood, I wanted to give it up but Marie and Phyllis were towers of strength and support, and I continued and slowly things got better.
Then disaster struck. On Thursday night, July 8, 1954, fire broke out. The whole of the first floor of Derbyshire Street was destroyed, and considerable damage was done to the ground floor. It seemed that all those years of work, toil, and struggle would come to nothing but, as often happens, things were not as bad as at first they seemed. On the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday everybody worked like Trojans, and on Monday morning we were able to start work in a small corner of the factory and slowly got into a semblance of order. It took twelve months to fully rebuild and recover from the fire but we finally got back to normal production.
After this time we continued to expand, and we purchased another cutting and creasing platen and soon the premises became rather cramped. One of the reasons was that for carton work one needs so much more storage space than for rigid boxes.
Then a stroke of luck occurred. Opposite us, Number 2 Hague Street, a building of about the same area that we now occupied, came up for sale. I immediately became interested and contacted the owner and bought it almost immediately. I paid rather more than the then value but it afforded an opportunity to expand without the expense and trouble of moving.
The question now arose of what to do there. There were two courses available:
I realized that printing our own work would not increase our capacity so I decided to extend the cutting and creasing department and bought another platen.
In February, 1960, Mother passed away. She had survived Father by twenty years. Then in August, 1962, my son Laurence joined the business. For a while he worked on the factory floor, gaining personal and practical experience, but soon began to become interested in the running of the business. Things were booming so much that to get the orders out on time we had to work tremendous hours of overtime, so early in 1965 we installed an automatic cutting and creasing machine which, with its mass of buttons and lights, looked more like a computer than a machine, and does the work in one day what a hand platen can do in three days. This immediately relieved the cutting and creasing bottleneck but created other problems such as more tonnage to handle, waste clearance, and delivery of finished goods. These in turn we overcame by purchasing an automatic baling press for the waste which had previously been bundled in sacks, a fork lift truck which handles 15 cwt. pallets, dispensing with three men who had to man-handle every bundle of cardboard, and two 5 ton lorries in place of the three-tonners which had by now replaced the original 30 cwt. lorry we bought in 1939.
Then tragedy again. On November 5, 1965, a firework landed in the back of the Derbyshire Street factory and in no time the whole of the stores were ablaze. Fortunately, the factory was saved and within three days we were back at work, but we had to entirely rebuild the stores, and took advantage of the opportunity it offered to modernize and make into one big floor what had previously been separate portions and only openable by knocking down walls. We had gradually taken over the whole building.
Then we found that we were getting a bottleneck on gluing. Over the years, we had started with an old second-hand gluer, then progressed to a new small one, and then to a rather more advanced machine, but we were now getting more complicated gluing jobs and the work was overtaking us, and we were always behind on deliveries.
In 1967 there was an exhibition in Dusseldorf of carton and printing machines, and Laurence and I decided to go there and see if there was anything interesting, and there we saw the 40 ft. long gluer which we thought would solve our problems, and we bought it and once again our bottleneck was released but six months later, with the advent of still more complicated cartons, we found it necessary to purchase an attachment to this machine which increased the length to 60 ft.
Then due to an even larger volume of work we bought another gluer to replace the one time more advanced machine, which was by now much too slow, and now we can glue almost any style of carton that exists. We have also during this time purchased our acetate window patching machine to cater for the demand of the visual pack.
All the machines we have bought within the last three years, starting from the auto-platen, have run up to 65,000 monetary pounds, which is a far cry from the 900 pounds which gave me so much heart searching in 1945. All this, of course, meant that room was running out again. We had now been looking for new premises in London for about two years, realizing that sooner or later we must move, but property in London being so expensive and not being able to find anything that suited us, led us to a dead-end every time. Then an advertisement by the Greater London Council was noticed by Suzy, Laurence’s wife, in a newspaper, stating that any firms interested in moving should contact them. This we did, and within a few days a representative came from the G.L.C., advising us that a number of new towns were being built around London and that we could build a factory in one of them at a cost much less than the London prices, and also with room for future expansion, which is something impossible in London. We finally, after much searching, decided on St. Neots in Huntingdonshire and we have now applied for an Industrial Development Certificate from the Board of Trade to allow us to build, and we have also sent out tenders to builders for plans and estimates of prices and, God willing, we should be in the new factory about December, 1969.
From the moment Laurence began with me in 1962 he took to the business like a duck takes to water. The position as it now stands is that he is in full control of the factory and Phyllis is in full control of the office, and now after forty years I am slowly, slowly preparing to take a back seat.
Here is where I leave this story, with the hope that at some future date my son Laurence will take it from here.