Ernest Schiff: A Mysterious Case

WWI war memorial at Brighton College – Source Dr Diana Wilkins

After much research, Ernest Schiff remains mysterious to us. In this family, there are multiple people holding the same name. This makes the actions of each hard to distinguish.

Ernest Alfred/Albert P Schiff and Ernest Henry Schiff both died soon after birth.

Three other family members held the name. Ernest Frederick Wilton Schiff lived in Brighton, leading a somewhat scandalous lifestyle. Ernest Schiff, later Sir Ernest Schiff, was a philanthropist. Ernest Seymour Schiff worked with refugees.

The Schiff family made large contributions to Sussex and the Jewish communities in the area, so we are outlining these contributions to acknowledge the impact this family made. Often it is unclear which particular Ernest Schiff was involved, so we cannot guarantee which individual made the specific contribution.

The philanthropic work of Ernest Schiff is noted in Surrey in the Great War: A County Remembers. This blog outlines occasions in which Ernest stepped in to fund projects and institutions.

In November 1910, Knowle Hill House became Britain’s first permanent home of recovery. This was a location where patients could recover, enjoying the benefits of fresh air. This was a huge contrast to busy cities many were familiar with. Nutrition was recognised as crucial, and the farm and garden provided fresh food supplies to the kitchens.

The Surrey in the Great War blog states ‘without regular injections of cash from its deep-pocketed benefactor, Sir Ernest Schiff, it is doubtful the institution could have survived for long.’

In a further blog posts, a text by T E Conway Walker recounts when the hospital opened, there was a call for ‘three cheers for Mr. Schiff.’

In a Jewish Historical Society of England talk, it is outlined that Ernest was recognised by the Jewish community as one of the ‘foremost workers’ for the relief of refugees. As early as August 1914, the Brighton Hebrew Congregation was ‘participating in the National Relief Fund, and by November the Congregation had agree to give £100 to the Chief Rabbi’s Fund for relief of Russian victims of the war’.

These efforts were stepped up after Ernest Schiff addressed the Congregation’s committee. He spoke eloquently about the thousands of homeless refugees on the streets of London and urged the Congregation to set up a committee to assist Belgian Jewish Refugees. Shortly after, the fund stood at £180, and the appeal eventually raised £260 (worth over £170,000 in today’s money). When Rev Liebermann succeeded Rev Jacobs he continued his predecessor’s work in fundraising for refugees.

The Brighton Hebrew Congregation write in their meeting minutes of Ernest Schiff’s statement to the committee: ‘Mr Ernest Schiff (well known as one of the foremost workers in connection with the Refugee Relief Committee) spoke most eloquently in support of the good work which was being done for thousands of homeless refugees in London and called upon the Jewish community in Brighton and Hove to assist in this sacred cause.’ It is unclear which Schiff this is referring to, and could potentially be any of the three.

Brighton Hebrew Congregation minutes
Image courtesy of Brighton Hebrew Congregation, located at The Keep archive.

Ernest Schiff may have also been involved with the Jews’ Temporary Shelter. Jews’ Temporary Shelter was a charitable institution in London. This organisation had a tumultuous beginning, being closed for unsanitary conditions. Following protests, the organisation reopened. The shelter arranged for immigrants to be met at the docks and provided accommodation for a maximum period of 14 days.

During the Twentieth Century, this organisation was associated with brothers Otto M. and Ernst Schiff. It is reported these individuals were ‘active communal leaders, especially in religious, charitable, and educational work.’ Ernst Schiff became president of the London Jewish Religious Education Board and warden of the Great Synagogue. The Schiff brothers were active in assisting refugees, both Belgian and Jewish. It is reported Ernst Schiff was appointed M.B.E. for this work.

Though the Ernst Schiff involved with the Jews’ Temporary Shelter bears similarities with the Ernest Schiff we are investigating, this Ernst may be unrelated to our case.

Records show Ernest William Schiff served as a Captain for the Royal Sussex Regiment. The medal card evidencing this is displayed below.

Sourced from ancestry.co.uk

Further evidence of Ernest Schiff’s military involvement comes from an article titled ‘Evidence at the Inquest.’ This article is reporting on the trial after Ernest Schiff’s death. This article refers to Ernest as a retired army captain who joined the army during the war. Outside of the war, Ernest worked at the stock exchange. This individual died in March 1919.

Image source: https://trove.nla.gov.au/

The Times on 7 November, 1918 publish an obituary for Sir Ernest F. Schiff. This obituary outlines Ernest Schiff was born in Austria on Christmas Day in 1840. Schiff was a businessman who built up a ‘very good Continental connexion.’ Ernest also worked on the Stock Exchange for some time, though rarely visited after war broke out.

The obituary continues to state ‘Sir Ernest was a Knight of Grace of St. John of Jerusalem, a Knight of the Imperial Austrian Order of the Iron Cross, a Commander of the Order of Francis Joseph, with Star, and the founder of a Home for surgical convalescents at Swanley, Kent.’

Sourced from The Times Archive

Ernest’s will left money to his sisters but they were deemed ineligible because they were living in Germany, which was an enemy state at the same, so the money was distributed among his nephews and nieces. More images of documents relating to Ernest’s will can be found here.

Frank Gent, a Schiff descendant, has devoted a blog to post his research into his family. Here, more information about Ernest Schiff can be found, along with information about other Schiff family members with impressive depth.