Joseph Kagan, Baron Kagan
Joseph Kagan, Baron Kagan (6 June 1915 – 17 January 1995) was a Lithuanian-British industrialist and the founder of Kagan Textiles, of Elland, which made raincoats from the waterproof Gannex fabric he had invented. Gannex raincoats were worn by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a friend of his. Kagan was sent to prison for ten months in 1980 for stealing from his own companies.
He was born Juozapas Kaganas into a Litvak family in Lithuania. He first came to Britain in 1934 to study at the University of Leeds but returned to Lithuania where he was trapped on the outbreak of the Second World War in Kaunas. He married Margarita Shtromaite (later Lady Kagan) in the Kaunas Ghetto. The newlyweds and Joseph's mother, Mira managed to survive over three years in this ghetto. First, they were ordinary inmates, but when Kagan realised there was no chance of their surviving unless they escaped, he organised a hiding place for himself, his new wife and his mother in a factory just outside the ghetto walls. The three lived in a small box in the factory attic for nine months, kept alive by the efforts of a Lithuanian non-Jew, Vytautas Rinkevicius, who risked his and his family's life to save them. When the Nazis were ousted from Lithuania, Joseph and Margaret Kagan made their way to Bucharest and from there, to Britain. From 1946 he settled in Huddersfield and began work as a blanket weaver. He founded his firm at a small factory opposite Elland Town Hall. His father Benjamin had emigrated before the war: he was the second oldest man in Britain when he died at the age of 109.
Rise to wealth and prominence
In 1951 Kagan invented Gannex and his firm began to grow in size, moving to a larger mill in Dewsbury Road. After the then opposition trade spokesman, Harold Wilson, wore a Gannex coat on a world tour in 1956, the raincoats became fashion icons, and were worn by world leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev, as well as by Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh and the royal corgis. In addition they were worn by Arctic and Antarctic explorers, Himalayan climbers, the armed services and police forces in Britain and Canada. The success of the new fabric made Kagan a multi-millionaire and a series of mergers, takeovers and outright purchases put Kagan Textiles in control of one of the most efficient combines in the textile and clothing industries. In 1967, he bought Barkisland Hall, Barkisland as accommodation for visitors to his company.
Huddersfield was the home town of Harold Wilson, later Leader of the Opposition in 1963, and Kagan became close to Wilson and provided funding for his private office. Upon Wilson's first resignation honours list in 1970, Kagan was given a knighthood.
Fall from grace
When Wilson resigned as Prime Minister in March 1976, Kagan was made a life peer as Baron Kagan, of Elland in the County of West Yorkshire, in the 1976 Prime Minister's Resignation Honours (known satirically as the 'Lavender List'), taking the Labour Party whip.
He was later charged with tax evasion, though the formal charges were styled as "theft" and "false accounting", to comply with extradition treaties which did not cover tax offenses. After a stay in Israel, he was arrested in Paris. On 12 December 1980, he was convicted of four counts of theft. He was fined £375,000 and served a ten-month sentence, first in Armley, then in Rudgate open prison, Yorkshire. He lost his knighthood, but his peerage could not be forfeited. Upon release from custody, he returned to the House of Lords and spoke on prison reform. In 1994 his health deteriorated, and he died peacefully in his London apartment the following year.