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Bobby Silk, (1899 -- 1991)

Bobby Silk, an East-Ender by origin, was a well known commercial figure in the Oxford Jewish community, with an interesting personal story. He was also one of the few Jewish townsmen in Oxford in the 1930s, which lends his story additional interest and his evolving businesses exemplify the changing patterns of Jewish occupations.

Bobby started life in the East End in 1899, as Solomon Berlinsky (or Perlinsky). He was to change his name to Bobby at an early stage and it appears that he eventually took the name Silk from his wife's side of the family, probably at his wife's insistence. His father made his living selling broken biscuits from a wagon at fairs and markets and a lightly fictionalized account of his father and his trade is given in 'Just like it Was -- Memoirs of the Mittel East' by Harry Blacker. Bobby followed his father in to the same trade, but concluded as a young man, that the London markets were saturated and decided to try his luck outside of London. Consequently, having married Polly, he moved with his young wife and by this time a young Donald Silk, to Banbury, in c. 1929. He ran a confectioners shop at 1 Broad Street which is now part of Barclay's Bank in Banbury. They were the only Jews in Banbury and when in c. 1930 a daughter was also born, she was apparently the first Jewish child to be born in Banbury since the 13th century.

A family anecdote recalls how his father also had a traveling shop in a van with which he would tour the county, going through the villages to make his living, also working many of the markets and fairs. The anecdote is thought by the family to date to the early 1930s, when he was still in Banbury, though Oxford resident, Henry Posener places the events as c. 1936 -7 when he was first in Oxford.

On one fateful day, he had a collision, in a village between Banbury and Oxford, which left the wreckage of his van, shop and business strewn across the road. In response to this apparent disaster, Bobby Silk, with a plaster across a broken nose, raised an impromptu storm sale on the crash site, attracting the local inhabitants who bought all the goods lock, stock and barrel at a profit to Bobby Silk. Finally, he was even able to sell the wreckage of the van, to be dragged off by another local with a horse -- again at a profit. Bobby Silk apparently arrived home, inspired by his business acumen and a local newspaper was reputed to have run a story about an 'enterprising Jew' with a photograph. According to Henry Posener, he kept a framed copy of article on his desk for many years.

Bobby moved to Oxford, so as to be closer to London, in 1935. His grocer's shop at 101, Cowley Road, was well known as it was set up so he could trade as if it were in a market. On Saturday nights he would draw large crowds as he made his pitch. After the war (posibably in 1951) he is believed to have made a trip to America to study self-service stores and he had turned his shop into the first self-service store in Oxford, by the early 50s -- a photograph of the store survives from 1954. Bobby had his own branded goods, such as tea, called 'Silkdale'. It is related that he was friendly with Jack Cohen who founded Tesco, from an East End stall in 1919. Cohen started the Tesco brand with packs of tea in 1924 and opened his first shop in 1929 and his first self-service store in 1956. The relationship is said to have led Jack Cohen to promise not to set up a competing Tesco store on the Cowley Road while Bobby was alive.

Later still Bobby Silk set up another shop next to the Old Swan on Cowley Road, where he sold some kosher goods -- Bobby Silk's shop was apparently the first shop to sell kosher groceries in Oxford in the 20th century. A family story relates that after one war-time Pesach there was a surplus of matzah without obvious customers. However, Bobby Silk broke it up into pieces and advertised it as a breakfast cereal 'No Points on Your Coupon -- just add milk and sugar!', which was quickly snapped up by his non-Jewish customers!

Later he established 'Silk Estates', in partnership with his sister, in c. 1953 - a very well known property and development business of its era and which became a listed public company in 1963. He started the company after selling a property for a relative and realizing it was better business than grocery. The company specialized in property in East Oxford -- he developed the Risingdale Estate, and Pembroke Court. Another development was Silkdale Close, of Junction Road, named after his brand of tea. His company was eventually victim to a hostile take-over bid.

(c) Marcus Roberts

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