My immigrant family: from fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to making a life in London's East End
Simon Michael’s Charles Holborne thriller series of novels is set in 1960s London, and uses his own family history, his love affair with London where the family has lived for over 500 years, and the cases he worked on in his career as a barrister.
I come from a family of immigrants. The Michael family arrived in England at a date between 1489 and 1492, having left Cordoba in what is now southern Spain, as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. They were, presumably, devout Jews who decided not to face forced conversion or auto da fay – the public penance demanded of heretics which, in the case of the Jews, usually meant being burned at the stake.
The name “Michael” means, in Hebrew, “Who is like God?” The question mark is important: the name poses the rhetorical question to which the answer, in all three of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam is: “No one.” Whether, in the late 15th century, the family were called the Hebrew version “Mikha’el” or the Spanish version “Miguel” is unclear – the translation to “Michael” would have been phonetic, a transliteration, in any case.
How the family came to make the journey is also uncertain. There is historical evidence that Christopher Columbus’s expedition to discover the western passage to the Indies, which eventually resulted in Europeans “discovering” America, was funded by Sephardic Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula. They were seeking a safe haven from the Spanish Inquisition and hoped that Columbus would find them a possible new homeland where they wouldn’t be persecuted.
There is also a legend that they believed that the Lost Tribe of Judah had travelled across the Atlantic to the West, and that Columbus might find them. It is also possible that the Michaels travelled with Bartholomew Columbus who, a few years before the expulsion in 1492, came to petition the English crown (then Henry VII) to finance his brother’s exploration. That is perhaps less likely, because there is strong evidence that Bartholomew’s ship was attacked by pirates and he arrived in England destitute, which suggests that any immigrants on board his ship would not have survived. In a remarkable parallel of modern day events, disreputable ships’ captains were taking fees from desperate fleeing families, stuffing them onto unsuitable boats and, once a few miles out into the Atlantic, throwing them overboard to drown before returning for another batch.
New life in the East End
In any case, and however they managed to reach London, research into my family tree by my great-uncles between the wars established the presence of the family near the Commercial Road, East London, by 1492. Presumably, having had enough excitement and foreign travel, that is where they stayed for the next 450 years.
Accordingly I come from a family of Cockneys. Mine was the first generation to be born outside the sound of Bow Bells (UCL in Gower Street, in my case).
Brothers in arms
By the start of the 20th century the Michaels were completely assimilated. My grandfather’s generation fought in the First World War. There were seven brothers, six old enough to fight, all of whom survived. They are shown here, including my own grandfather, George. This is the only photograph of them together, and they were, in descending age: 2nd Lieutenant “Mick” Michael, King’s Royal Rifle Corps; Sgt John Michael, Royal Army Service Corps; Sgt Harry Michael, 40th Royal Fusiliers; Leading Aircraftman (formerly Air Mechanic 1st Class) Joe Michael; Pte Maurice Michael, Manchester Regiment; Rfm George Michael, Queen’s Westminster Rifles.
The one great-uncle too young to fight in the First World War, Richard, volunteered in the Second World War, and frequently told the story of meeting his nephew, my father, on the platform at Paddington Station and having to salute him as the senior officer.
Boxing – and the Krays
Several of my great-uncles were amateur boxers and trained at the same East End gym as the Kray twins. One, on my mother’s side of the family, turned professional after he emigrated to South Africa, where he boxed under the name “Kid Carter”. I make full use of these East End connections in my novels. Although Charles Holborne (born Charlie Horowitz) is based upon me and some of the cases on which I was instructed at the Old Bailey and the other criminal courts, I set Charles back in time so that he was born in 1925 and lived through the Blitz in London, thereby enabling me to use some of the East End stories and characters which were so familiar to my great-uncles, as well as some of my cases in the criminal courts more recently.
Tracing my family history
The closeness of the Jewish community and the fact that the family remained within a mile or two’s radius of the Port of London until the Second World War meant that research at the time into the family tree, even without the internet and computer databases, was relatively straightforward. Birth, marriage and death records were maintained by the local synagogues and gaps were easily filled by in-person research at Somerset House.
Unfortunately during the Blitz, the family home where the family tree and all the supporting documentation was kept, many of the East End synagogues and cemeteries and Somerset House itself were all bombed. The majority of the documents were destroyed. The last time I attempted to find an East End cemetery where some family members were said to be buried, I found that the site had been razed and developed for modern housing.
I even tried researching at the other end of the tree, from Cordoba in Spain, and travelled there to see if any synagogue records still existed. I’d hoped to find a Jewish cemetery with the name “Mikha’el”. Unfortunately, the long history of the Iberian Sephardic community was completely expunged by the Catholics after the Jews were expelled, and the cemetery was destroyed. No one was able to tell me where the cemetery had formerly existed.
• Simon Michael's Charles Holborne thriller series starts with The Brief. The latest in the series, Corrupted, published on 21 June 2018 by Urbane Publications, focuses on genuine historical facts immediately after the Profumo scandal and exposes another well-documented cover-up, Ronnie Kray’s sex parties to which were invited numerous peers, MPs and other Establishment figures. The book can be ordered in paperback or Kindle download from Amazon or from Urbane Publications.