One of our researchers recently asked me a question – who is Wolfson? As visitors to level 4 may know, the archive searchroom at the Library of Birmingham is officially known as the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research following the generous support of the Wolfson Foundation. This, I realised, was the extent of my knowledge on who Wolfson was.
Created in 1955, the records of the Wolfson Foundation are managed by the Royal Society in London. In a historical perspective produced for their 50th anniversary, the first Chairman Lord Nathan described it as “….the public, legal expression of a family’s existing philanthropy”.
That philanthropic family was the Wolfson family, at its head was Sir Isaac Wolfson, the ‘son of a Jewish cabinet maker from Russia’. Born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, in 1897, Isaac showed a head for business, and following a chance encounter in an Exhibition Hall in Manchester, became Managing Director of Great Universal Stores in the early 1930s.
Wolfson turned the business around and created an extremely profitable company which allowed him, his wife Edith and son Leonard to become the Wolfson Foundation’s Founder Trustees. A letter in the Foundation Archives from Lord Nathan described this informal occasion:
It was a memorable occasion, that Friday afternoon on 1st July, just before you left for abroad, when the Trust Deed was executed and the Isaac Wolfson Foundation thereby brought into existence.
The Wolfson Foundation has given generous grants to education, research, particularly medical research, funding for heritage projects – helping museums and art galleries to obtain important artifacts and works, historical buildings, history fellowships and of course their support for libraries. The words of Lord Nathan shows their vision:
There now begin to open before you and your fellow-Trustees rare opportunities of pioneering with new ideas, filling in gaps as they become discernible, and making, at both short and long range, a worthwhile contribution of thought and work, as well as money, to the solution of some pretty intractable problems already poking their ugly heads.
To date, on their 60th anniversary, the Foundation has awarded over £800 million to more than 10,000 projects, showing its support for us as we protect the heritage of Birmingham.