Samuel Montagu (1832–1911), Member of Parliament for the London East End district of Whitechapel and Tower Hamlets, was born in Liverpool and educated at the forerunner of today’s Liverpool Institute. His family name was actually Samuel and he reversed his given name of Montagu Samuel by Royal decree to create the name we know him by today. The Samuels made their fortune in the jewelry and silver trade, and to this day the firm of H. Samuel & Son is an established Liverpool jewellers.
In 1853, Montagu established and became the head of the banking firm of Samuel Montagu and Company of London and he made a fortune in the silver trade. Now well off financially, he decided to go into politics. He served as Liberal Member of Parliament for Whitechapel Division, Tower Hamlets from 1884 to 1900.
Samuel Montagu, an Orthodox Jew, during his lifetime endowed synagogues up and down the realm. He even decreed in his will that his children must remain in the Jewish faith in order to inherit from him. Montagu, in short, was both a proud Englishman and an enthusiastically active member of the Jewish faith.
Montagu tried to help with the problem of the newly arrived Jews crowding into Britain following the progroms in Russia in the 1880's. His efforts were facilitated by the fact that, unlike other establishment Anglo-Jews, he spoke Yiddish and could communicate with the newcomers, who felt that he was sympathetic to their needs. Montagu and his supporters represented a middle class bridge between the upper class Jewish elite and the poor Yiddish-speaking newcomers. The sudden influx of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews created a Jewish ‘ghetto’ in London’s East End. Montagu and other concerned Anglo-Jews did their best to accommodate the religious, social, and cultural needs of the new arrivals, and if possible to assimilate them into British society.
The personal fortune that Montagu had made as a financier in his earlier years meant that he could use his financial muscle to try to aid the newcomers. Montagu, however, was accused by Lord Rothschild and his allies of exploiting intra-communal antagonism to try to garner undeserved popularity. The election of Montagu as Member of Parliament would further politicize the issue in regard to how the Jewish elite ran institutions for the relief of the poor.
In the biography that Montagu's daughter, Lily, wrote of her father, which mostly paints a rosy picture of his career and philanthropy, she does though reveal an interesting though period character flaw that she detected in Samuel Montagu:
". . . . perhaps because he never, after he reached maturity, came into close contact with the most abject forms of misery, he persuaded himself that this misery was, in nine cases out of ten, the fault of the sufferer. As he himself had carved his way through very hard circumstances, he had little sympathy with the man who failed to get on. He thought that unemployment was mainly due to idleness or to the unemployable character of those who sought work. Also he allowed himself to get comfort from the much quoted statement that nobody can starve in London, seeing that the casual ward of a workhouse offers food to every man or woman who seeks it. This somewhat hard or unimaginative point of view was based on strong conviction and sound logic, but, nevertheless, if the special needs of A. or B. were brought to his attention he never refused help." (Lily H. Montagu, First Baron Swaythling. Born December 21st, 1832, Died January 12th, 1911. A Character Sketch. London: Trustlove and Hanson Ltd., n.d. (1913), pp. 54–5.)
It is interesting to note that Samuel Montagu had, at least philosophically, this hard side to his character, much like London’s Jewish Board of Guardians could be said to have a harsh or cold-hearted attitude in terms of turning away, repatriating, or moving on Eastern European Jews to America and elsewhere.