Montague Burton, a “model” immigrant

When I was writing my master’s thesis at Oxford, I explored the history of the discipline of International Relations. I was particularly interested in the career of Alfred E. Zimmern, who held in 1919 the first chair in IR in the world, as Wilson Professor of International Politics in Wales. A key moment in the history of the discipline has been the foundation of the Chair of International Relations at the University of Oxford (1930), named after its donor, Montague Burton. The Montague Burton professorship (held today by Andrew Hurrell) became a keystone in the study of International Relations in Britain, and in the wider world. Yet who was Montague Burton?

Burton came back to my mind recently, after reading about the plea of unaccompanied Syrian child refugees to settle in Britain. When Burton, then Meshe David Osinsky, arrived in London, he was just 15 years old. He was all alone in the world, after leaving his native Lithuania in search for a better life in the New World. From Britain he planned to board a steamer to America, but he discovered a dislike for sailing and decided to remain in London. An unskilled, uneducated Jewish young man, a child really, he settled in Manchester and found work in the tailoring industry (not as a tailor, but as a simple worker). After he married Sophie Marks, and had four children, he changed his name to endow his new life with more distinguished, British flair.

montague burton
Sir Montague Burton (1885-1952)

Burton made his fortune from ready-made men’s suits. The Great War marked the beginning of an era of social change in Britain, as surely those who followed Downton Abbey would know. More men needed elegant yet simple suits, and could not afford to use the services of expert tailors. Burton opened a chain of ready-made men’s tailor shops, and eventually also started manufacturing the suits in his own factories. With over 30,000 workers, he was the biggest employer in Leeds. It was an empire of low to middle class fashion, and it made Burton rich and respectable. Later, in the Second World War, he became one of the biggest manufacturers of military uniform for the British Army.

The disciplinary history of IR reveals not only the intellectual discussions of Oxford dons, but also the rise of the penniless, unskilled Jewish child immigrant (not even officially a refugee) to a fashion mogul and a generous benefactor. The story of Burton tells us about the changing nature of international relations as much as any of Alfred Zimmern’s books. In a sense, it is a story about a world of relatively open borders, free trade and capitalistic entrepreneurship. But it is also a world of second chances, of opportunities detached from the historical accident of citizenship. The current debate about the need to accommodate in Britain Syrian child refugees (or to keep the British doors open to European immigrants) should be read also in light of stories like Meshe David Osinsky’s, AKA Sir Montague Burton.