Leghorn Bonnets and Politics – Great St Helens (Bishopsgate)


Bevis Marks Synagogue - London, England

Livorno Jews have played a prominent part in the emancipation of the Jewish religious and civil community living in London. David Nieto was born in January 1654 in Venice, but spent his early professional life in Livorno. In 1701 he was called to London as haham (chief rabbinical authority) of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish congregation which that year had moved to the newly built Bevis Marks Synagogue at no. 4 Heneage Lane.


An intellectual with a keen interest in astronomy and the scientific thinking of Newton, he spent most of his energy on helping crypto-Jews who, newly arrived from the Iberian Peninsula, were returning to open Judaism. One of his successors was Raphael Meldola who was actually born in Livorno in 1754.  His son David served as Chief Rabbi for over twenty-five years until his death. He was a co-founder of the London Jewish Chronicle.


The word milliner, meaning a maker of hats, was first recorded in reference to the products for which Milan and the northern Italian regions were well known (i.e. ribbons, gloves and straws). The haberdashers who imported these popular products were called ‘Millaners’. Another staple import from Italy was the straw bonnet, associated with the name of Leghorn (Livorno), which became popular in England owing to the patronage of the stunningly beautiful Irish-born sisters Maria and Elizabeth Gunning. Leghorn bonnets, made from straw turned into a sparkling bleached white, became the height of fashion. They played a notable part in England’s fashion history of the age.


During the eighteenth century Italian immigrants dominated the London hat trade, both as sellers and makers. A strong impulse had been given to Anglo-Italian trade through the establishment, in 1740, of a branch of the great Venetian and Levantine banking house of Treves in London, and consequently Italians, chiefly Jews, were flocking into the country throughout the 1740s. Moses Vita (Haim) Montefiore was a Sephardic Jew who had emigrated from Livorno to London in the 1740s, but retained close contact with the town. He was involved in the bonnet trade and laid the foundation for the wealth of this notable Italian family in London.


Benjamin Disraeli, grandfather of the politician, author and Conservative Prime Minister, was born in Cento, near Ferrara, in September 1730. He moved to London in 1748 where he was employed in the counting-house of Joseph and Pellegrin Treves in Fenchurch Street. Soon after, he established himself as a merchant. He had brought with him a sound knowledge of the traditional Italian straw bonnet trade and he specialised in the import of Leghorn hats, Carrara marbles, alum, currants, and other merchandise.


For a decade he devoted himself to his import business, which he carried on at no. 5 Great St Helens. In 1769 the business had become one of the leading London coral merchants (a trade dominated by Jews). He also acted as an unlicensed broker at the Stock Market. In 1779 he invited two partners and together they founded the firm of Disraeli, Stoke & Parkins which became successful dealers. When, in 1801, plans were laid out to build new premises at Capel Court for the Stock Exchange, Disraeli was appointed as a member of the Committee for General Purposes entrusted with the plan of conversion.


Michael (Meyer) Solomon was a Bishopsgate manufacturer, and one of the first Jews to be admitted to the freedom of the City of London. Solomon’s family had arrived in England from Europe, possibly Holland or Germany, sometime at the end of the eighteenth century. Aaron Solomon had started a hat business in London in 1779. Michael and his family lived among a well-established Jewish community at no. 3 Sandys Street, Bishopsgate, and his considerable wealth allowed him to be accepted by London society. His main business concern was as a manufacturer of Leghorn hats.


Three of his children, Abraham, Rebecca and Simeon, were notable painters. Simeon was identified with the Pre-Raphaelites through his friendship with D. G. Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Algernon Charles Swinburne.


He was one of several notable artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle commissioned by the brothers George and Edward Dalziel who ran a highly productive firm of engravers to produce drawings for their projected illustrated Bible. The project was never completed, although the illustrations appeared in Dalziel’s Bible Gallery (1880) with narrative captions. His life ended in tragedy. In 1873, Simeon was arrested in a public lavatory and charged with committing buggery. Although the incident was not reported in the newspapers his public career was effectively at an end. Most of his former friends disowned him and he began a precarious existence which led him to the workhouse and dependence upon institutional and family charity. In May 1905 he collapsed on the pavement in High Holborn and died shortly after.



Evidently, not all of the Livornesi were hat makers. Domenico Angelo Tremamondo was an immigrant from Livorno who, after arriving in London, established a School of Arms in Carlyle Street, Soho. He also ran a riding school in the rear garden of the house (where Johann Christian Bach was a tenant). As an instructor of swordsmanship to royals and aristocrats he turned fencing from an act of war into an elegant sport.


In 1763, he published the popular and often reprinted folio École des armes with forty-seven splendid plates after draughtsman John Gwynn, a founding member of the Royal Academy. Around 1785, his Eton-educated son Henry Angelo took over the running of the fencing academy (Sheridan, Fox and Lord Byron were among his many pupils). He moved the academy from his fathers’ residence in Carlisle House, first to the Royal Opera House in Haymarket and then, after a fire in 1789, to Bond Street, where he shared premises with the former champion boxer John ‘Gentleman’ Jackson (to whom boxing-mad Lord Byron referred to as his ‘corporeal pastor and master’). In 1828, looking back at his life, he wrote a series of entertaining Reminiscences that give a unique insight in the urban eccentricities of his time. Henry was a full-blooded Londoner. Social and intellectual integration demands little more than a generation. After all, it took two generations for an immigrant’s descendant to become Prime Minister of the nation.