Born 1915 died 1995
Joseph Kagan was a Lithuanian born British businessman, best known as
the inventor of that 1960s British cultural icon, the Gannex raincoat, and his association and close friendship with the Labour politician and Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
He was born Juozapas Kaganas at Kovno(1) in Lithuania on the 6th June 1915, being the second of the three children of Benjaminas Kaganas and his wife Mira. Both his parents were Orthodox Jews who ran a textile business which had made a fortune during World War I supplying grey cloth to the German army. The young Juozapas was educated at the local Kaunas high school and spent some time at a German boarding-school in East Prussia, before being sent to Britain to study textiles at Leeds University where he graduated as a bachelor of commerce.
Joseph then returned to Lithuania to take charge of the family business just before the country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940. Joseph soon reached an accommodation with the Soviet authorities and was allowed to remain in charge of the family firm. Unfortunately as a Jew he was unable to reach such a similar understanding with the Nazi forces when they invaded Lithuania in June 1941. He was stripped of his assets and moved to the Kovno Ghetto, there he worked in a local foundry. It was at the foundry that he constructed a secret hideout, which later enabled him and members of his family to escape capture when the SS arrived in July 1944 to clear out the Ghetto and transport its inhabitants to the nearest convenient concentration camp. Having avoided this fate Joseph spent nine months in hiding until the Soviet army arrived to occupy Lithuania once more. After wandering around Europe for a while he ended up at the British mission at Bucharest where he found work as a pest-control officer before finding his way back to Britain.
Although Kagan was later to claim that he was penniless when he arrived in Britain, his father had already acquired a textile mill at Elland(2) in Yorkshire and transferred part of his business to Britain in 1940. Indeed Joseph first worked as a salesman in his father's business, before he went into business on his own account manufacturing blankets. Selling blankets was however only moderately profitable and he didn't discover true success until the year 1951 when he acquired the firm of J.T. and T. Taylor of Batley and produced his first Gannex raincoat. The Gannex material which Joseph invented, and for which he obtained a patent in 1956, consisted of an outer layer of nylon and an inner layer of wool, and by trapping air between these two layers, he succeeded in creating a lightweight fabric that was both warm and waterproof. It was success of this new fabric that made Joseph into a multi-millionaire during the 1950s and 1960s thanks in part to a series of lucrative contracts he obtained to supply the armed services and various police forces in both Britain and Canada.
Joseph was particularly adept at obtaining free publicity for his products through celebrity endorsement, his first coup coming in 1956, when Harold Wilson wore a Gannex coat on his world tour. He later persuaded the Duke of Edinburgh's valet to order one through Harrods, and having thereby gained royal approval he subsequently kitted out the royal corgis in their own Gannex jackets. Subsequently various Arctic and Antarctic explorers, sundry mountaineering expeditions and a range of world leaders including such names as Lyndon Johnson, Mao Zedong, and Nikita Khrushchov were all persuaded to don Gannex products at one time or another.
Of course it was the association of the Labour politician Harold Wilson with Gannex that made the most long-lasting impression on the public consciousness, indeed as far as Wilson was concerned, the Gannex raincoat, together with his ubiquitous pipe, became part of his stock image. (Even today Wilson is commemorated within his old constituency of Huyton in Merseyside by the 'Pipe and Gannex' public house at Sugar Lane in Knowsley.) Both Harold and Joseph were in fact of a similar age and shared a similar regard for the West Riding of Yorkshire (Wilson had been born in Huddersfield), together with an interest in the development of British industry which eventually developed into a close friendship.
In September 1971 Private Eye joked that Wilson was employed by "his good friend" Joseph Kagan "as a commercial traveller and male model" for Gannex coats. As it happened they were not far wrong, as Kagan Textiles was paying Wilson £100 a month in 1963 "for consultations and technical advice ... in respect of Gannex sales to the USSR". As a member of Wilson's entourage Joseph was a regular visitor to Downing Street whenever Wilson was in residence, and also made regular, if somewhat erratic, contributions towards the running of Wilson's political office as well as providing financial assistance to enable Wilson's private secretary, Marcia Williams to buy her own flat close to Downing Street in 1967. In return for such favours Joseph received a knighthood on 7th August 1970 in Wilson's resignation honours' list and was further honoured by Wilson when he was created the Baron Kagan on the 30th June 1976 in the infamous Lavender List.
It was therefore somewhat embarassing for all concerned when in 1978 Joseph was charged with the theft of twenty-three drums of indigo dye from his former company Kagan Textiles Ltd which had recently been taken over. (Indigo dye being a valuable commodity at the time since it was used in the production of blue denim which was enjoying something of a boom.) Abandoning his wife and children he fled the country with his twenty-three year old secretary and mistess Angela Radford, and sought asylum in Israel, claiming that he had been the victim of anti-semitism. His application was denied and so he moved to Spain, which at the time had no extradition treaty with the United Kingdom. Unfortunately he then made the mistake of visiting Paris, where he was betrayed by a disgruntled ex-mistress, promptly arrested and returned to Britain for trial. Back home he appeared at Leeds Crown Court was convicted of theft and false accounting, fined £375,000 and spent ten months at Rudgate open prison in Yorkshire.
Joseph was subsequently stripped of his knighthood, but not of his peerage, which would have required an Act of Parliament. He was therefore able on his release from prison to return to the House of Lords in 1982 claiming that "I do not feel disgraced in any way", where he later spoke authoratively on a number of penal issues with the benefit of personal experience. In later life his health deteriorated and he suffered a heart attack whilst attending the House of Lords in December 1994 and subsequently died at his home, 14 Queen's Court, Queensway, London, on the 18th January 1995 from a combination of heart failure and the chronic lymphatic leukaemia which blighted his later years.
The Soviet agent
The ease with which Joseph had earlier reached an accommodation with the Soviet authorities back in Lithuania in 1940, suggested to some that he had been recruited as a Soviet agent. Whatever the truth behind this particular suggestion Joseph was later placed under surveillance by MI5 thanks to his friendship with a fellow Lithuanian, Richardas Vaygauskas, who was a KGB agent based at the Soviet embassy in London from 1969 until he was finally expelled from Britain for espionage in 1971. MI5 being naturally concerned that he might be passing on information obtained from his close association with Wilson.
Harold Wilson himself always denied that Kagan ever had access to any 'official secrets', whilst others explained away Joseph's friendship with Vaygauskas on their mutual love of chess and Joseph's concerns for his relatives who remained back in Soviet controlled Lithuania. These are of course precisely the sort of issues a KGB agent would have exploited to have obtained information from Kagan regarding tidbits Harold Wilson's personal views and attitudes, although whether or not the KGB ever obtained anything useful from him (or even tried to) is not known.
Joseph Kagan was married to Margarita or Margaret Stromas whom he had first met in the Kovno ghetto. They were first married at the register office in the ghetto on the 23rd October 1943 but were also later married in a Jewish ceremony held in Bradford in 1946 and later had two sons and a daughter together. Although Joseph was later to say of his wife that "no-one has ever taken her place in my life" and insist that "marriage is for keeps" this did not prevent him from keeping a series of mistresses throughout his married life (as many as forty according to one count) and fathering at least one illegitimate child by a certain Judy Moynihan.
Joseph Kagan might otherwise have been remembered as an enterprising industrialist who succeeded in reviving the moribund Yorkshire textile industry after World War II, were it not for the little matter of his criminal conviction, although Tam Dalyell was to argue that his "contribution to Britain far and away outweighed any of the naughty things he may have done". Sadly his textile empire did not prove an enduring creation, the appeal of Gannex eventually began to fade,
whilst Joseph's reputation never fully recovered from his jail sentence. After a brief period of self-imposed exile in America he did return in 1984 to launch a new line of luxury silk raincoats, but these did not prove to be a success and the firm closed. Gannex mill at Elland was dilapidated and scheduled for demolition in 2002, although it was still awaiting development in 2007 when it was proposed to build new offices on the site.
(1) Kovno was the Polish name for the town now known as Kaunas. The Kovno/Kaunas ghetto was located across the Nieman river in a suburb which was then called Slobodka and which is now called Vilijampole. Of the 37,000 Jews in Kovno\Kaunas before the war, some 30,000 ended up in the ghetto, but less than 3,000 survived.
(2) Elland is a small town in the West Riding of Yorkshire, roughly half way between Halifax and Huddersfield.
Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
John A. Hargreaves, ‘Kagan, Joseph , Baron Kagan (1915–1995)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/58085, accessed 10 March 2007
Bulldozers at ready for Gannex Mill, Evening Courier 19 March 2002
Brian Coates, Residents object to offices on their doorstep, Evening Courier 02 March 2007
Residents object to offices on their doorstep