Obituary: Morris Leigh

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The Independent Online
When Meyer Weisgal, the legendary fundraiser for the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, was asked how he managed to extract millions from hard-headed American millionaires, he replied: "I offer them immortality". Morris Leigh did not seek plaques and halls bearing his name to persuade him to help worthy causes. He was one of the Anglo-Jewish community's most liberal and enthusiastic as well as discriminating financial donors.

The welfare and educational services offered by the Jewish community, though far from perfect, are the envy of many other communities. It is men like Morris Leigh, closely following the fine Jewish tradition of compassion and charity, who made this a reality.

His support extended to artistic and educational causes not only in this country but in Israel, all performed with signal modesty and a quiet determination. It was these qualities which won him the admiration of such diverse personalities as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Sir Sigmund Sternberg.

Morris Leigh's background gives a strong clue to his character. He was born in east London, the son of a woodcarver of modest means. He became a pupil at the famous Jews' Free School at Spitalfields, where he was considered outstanding, but left at the age of 15.

Joining his father's business, he showed unusual abilities and helped to transform it. When only 23 he built a factory in Tottenham which employed 300 people. It succeeded because he insisted on using the best machinery then available, as well as being a shrewd, determined and hard-working businessman in a highly competitive industry. Sterling Furniture deserved its high national reputation.

With the advent of the Second World War the factory was requisitioned for important war tasks. At the end of the war in 1945, Leigh joined the Allied Control Commission in Germany to advise the British Government on revitalising what remained of the German furniture and timber industries.

On returning to civilian life, Leigh rebuilt his factory and again produced successful and generally admired furniture. However, in 1957 he entered a new field.

Seeking to obtain a role in the housing programme he established Sterling Homes, constructing and selling hundreds of houses in the south of England. Sterling Homes later expanded into Allied London Properties, which Leigh headed as chairman and, after retirement, as Life President, until well into his eighties.

The furniture trade, and the friends he made in it, never ceased to have a special place in Leigh's affections. He was immensely delighted and proud when elected Master of the Livery of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers in 1988. Seen as a man of sound judgement, he was also elected president of the Furniture Trade Benevolent Association.

In his philanthropic work his benefactions included music and the arts in Britain and Israel. He endowed scholarships within the Furniture Guild and the Jews' Free School. For decades he was a important backer of the Tel Aviv University who awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1982, a gesture which he much appreciated. He had hoped to participate next month in the dedication of the Manja and Morris Leigh Avenue at the university.

The Royal College of Music, the Institute of Jewish Affairs, the Tel Aviv Foundation, the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra all had reason to be grateful to him. He was unstinting in his support for the Home of Aged Jews. His natural sense of humour was evident both in his business and philanthropic work.

Joseph Finklestone

Morris Leigh enjoyed a long, varied and successful life, writes Sir Frank Layfield. The remarkable range of qualities and skills he displayed throughout his life became apparent and admired from an early age. The energy, determination and acumen seen then he was to carry into other fields for the remainder of his life.

His enthusiasm and dedication in business was only one section of the extensive and remarkable range of Morris Leigh's varied interests. His energies were almost equally deployed in his philanthropic excursions, to which he devoted outstanding personal commitment.

His life-long philanthropic work showed his concern for a wide range of those in need of help and encouragement, in both the public and private aspects of life in Britain and in Israel. In the first of his interests, the furniture trade, he showed his desire to ensure that education in that field was encouraged and supported by the endowment of scholarships. His love of music led him to contribute handsomely to the Royal School of Music and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Morris Leigh was an admirable, kind and generous man, but above all a man of the most humorous disposition and of an endearing kind. Those who worked with or for him recognised his integrity and fairness of mind. Those of us who were fortunate to be among his friends were perhaps best placed to appreciate that to his great public qualities must be added those of an engaging modesty, shyness, sympathy and understanding of all those he met. His desire to help and encourage others wherever he could was exceptional.

The witnesses to all these attributes are the astonishing number, variety and levels of his friends in all parts of the world, by whom he will be greatly missed. He is survived by his second wife, Manja, and a son and daughter by his first marriage.

Morris Leigh, businessman and philanthropist: born London 20 February 1907; married 1929 Rose Silverstein (first wife deceased; one son, one daughter and one son deceased), 1977 Manja Geraldo; died Reading 11 April 1996.

A memorial service for Morris Leigh will be held on 8 July at the Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, London W1.

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