Monday, 13 June 2011

A portrait of Naomi Jacob: A true Yorkshire character

This is the story of Naomi Jacob, possibly one of the biggest Yorkshire characters of the twentieth century and I want to revive her name. I do have a vested interest as she was my great great Aunt.

With a gruff Yorkshire accent and well known for wearing men’s clothes, she was often mistaken for JB Priestley. But she was best known a prolific author, playwright, journalist, broadcaster, actress and a political activist.

Known as Micky, she is best known as a writer. Walk down the large print section of any library, if they haven’t been shut down, and you’ll find many of the 80 plus books she wrote in a 30 year career.

Unfairly compared to pulp fiction authors like Barbara Taylor Bradford or Barbara Cartland, she tackled issues such as anti Semitism in the 1930s when many authors were barred from producing works on this subject. This is possibly due to the fact that it was seen as women’s fiction rather than serious, weighty literature.

In 1935 she won the Eichelberger Prize for "services to humanity" but was forced to reject the accolade because she shared it with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Naomi grew up in Ripon; the granddaughter of two time mayor Robert Ellington Collinson and owner of the Unicorn hotel. Her father Samuel Jacob was the son of a Jewish Taylor who had escaped the pogroms of Western Prussia and settled in Towcester. He had converted to Catholicism, had become a teacher and moved to Ripon to become the headmaster at the Ripon Grammar school.

But Naomi became the daughter of divorced parents when her mother left her father due to his unreasonable behaviour.

Her mother and sister left for the south and, later, on to New York. Naomi wanted to stay in school and moved around a fair bit. She finally went to a school in Middlesborough where she became a student teacher on leaving.

It was during her time at school when she fell in love with the theatre. Repremanded for wearing trousers and for her care of her pupils beyond the classroom, she soon lost her job and became a PA for a music hall star.

She was the married Marguerite Broadfoote and Naomi also became her lover. She slowly climbed the ranks to become a successful character actress, mainly in rep. But Micky loved the music hall –knowing all the great names like Little Titch, Fred Karno, Vesta Tilley and Dan Leno. Other people she associated with were the Gielguds, Du Mauries, Henry Irving and Sarah Bernhardt.

Marie Lloyd was another of her friends and shortly after her death, she wrote the first official biography. One close friend said of the book “[Naomi Jacob] doesn’t let facts get in the way of the truth.” Although some have questioned the accuracy of the book, it remains true to Marie Lloyds spirit and a truer image can be brought to life by reading it.

Naomi also had a political side to her, standing as a Labour PPC despite coming from a staunch Tory background. She was also a suffragette, Once sealing a clock in a biscuit tin and leaving it on the holiday home of then Prime Minister Lloyd George’s seaside retreat. The bomb was made safe when a panicked aide found the ticking device and hurled it into the sea.

When World War one, “Micky” claims she fooled the navy and joined as a male rating. She also spent time in the women’s corp managing a munitions factory.

TB took hold, an illness which would take her to Lake Garda in Italy, an enforced exile where she started writing with the stage no longer a long term option. Here she lived in the British ex-pat community with her Pekinese Sammy, associating along with people like Radclyffe Hall, the celebrated actor, who lived there with her partner Una Troughbridge, a woman Micky had a serious crush on.

During the Second World War, she came back to England working for the Minister of Information and then for ENSA near the front line, where she contracted Malaria.

She returned to Italy and at one stage was asked to bring her papers to the town hall under German occupation. The daughter of a Jew, she marched in and demanded they mark her papers as such, embarrassing the town’s officials and ordered to leave without the J being stamped on her documents.

Micky had also helped the many Jewish refugees in her home in Sirmione during the ends of the conflict, a fact I only recently learnt from an article on CNN’s ireport.

This stubborn Yorkshire women lived out the rest of her life in Italy, writing cook books on Italian food (“boil past for 30mins”), churning out novels and returning for many appearances on Woman’s Hour.

How many other strong regional accents featured on key BBC programming around this time?

It’s time we took another look at a truly remarkable Yorkshire woman.

But the story is not over with one of her books turned into a movie script. What an end to the story if the project were to get financial backing for a major film?

(Adadpted from a presentation for Bettakultcha: Bradford)


  1. Great story about Naomi Jacob - love to see it in film or even as a play.

    You ask how many other strong regional accents featured on key BBC programming around this time?

    Try this. This Bingley man was responsible for coining the term "Big Bang" on BBC radio's Third Programme broadcast at 1830 GMT on 28 March 1949.

    Here he is in a later TV clip:

    Check out "the iron in our cars was made inside stars".

  2. Thanks for the link Simon. Interesting stuff.

  3. Please do read Rose Collis's excellent biography of Nancy Spain: A Trouser-Wearing Character, for much more, wonderfully written, concerning your Great-Aunt.
    Nancy and Joan's death in a light plane crash, en route to Nancy reporting the Grand National, was 50 years ago come March.
    Ms Collis is due to re-issue it this year, with some important updating.

  4. My apologies, Thomas - 'great-great Aunt' :-)

  5. Hi Thomas
    This is interesting. Naomi was my grandmother's cousin. I remember seeing Naomi on the television when I was young.
    Have you looked into the Jacob family tree? I'm researching Naomi's grandfather who escaped the pogroms in Poland and came to England in the 1830s. I have a ring that belonged to his wife, along with a locket with their photos in it.
    I'd be interested in any information you have about Naomi's family.

  6. Hello Thomas, I have just read one of Naomi's autobiographies as it mentions her 'dear nurse Anne'. Anne was my great grandmother who, in her later years, was bedridden. Apparently Naomi visited her once a year, or when possible. Always a great event apparently

  7. I have a copy of Naomi Jacob's autobiography of Marie Lloyd that is inscribed to my great-grandmother: "To that fine actress - Cissie Lawson - with my love Naomi Jacob (Micky)". Within the book there is a signed photograph of Naomi inscribed "Love from Mickie". The different spelling of Micky/Mickie is as Naomi wrote it. My great-grandfather was John Lawson, an actor manager in the music hall who was famous in his day for a play called "Humanity: only a Jew". Naomi lists my great-grandmother under her married name, Mrs John Lawson, in the list of people she thanks at the beginning of her autobiography of Marie Lloyd. The sound archive section of the Imperial War Museum holds a recording of "Humanity" and they kindly made a copy for me. I lived with my grandmother and great-grandmother until I was four when we moved to a house about a mile away. My great-grandmother lived until I was 12. I was very close to her and my grandmother. We called Cissie "Mumsmum".