Henry Grunwald OBE KC (Class of 1967)

Henry Grunwald OBE KC (Class of 1967) has been a barrister, specialising in criminal law, for over 50 years. After reading Law at University College, London, Henry was called to the bar in 1972 and appointed a Queen’s Counsel (now King’s Counsel) in 1999. Henry was President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews from 2003-2009 and founder and first chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council. Among his many charitable interests, Henry has served as President of World Jewish Relief, has been a Trustee and Vice-Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and, since 2012, has been Chair of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum.

When did you first think of going into law?

The only professional person my parents knew was a solicitor – the son of a friend of my grandmother’s – and once it appeared that I might be reasonably intelligent there was an assumption made that I would become a solicitor. That was what the family thought I should do.

What did your parents do?

My father was a chef, my mother was a housewife. My father came from Slovakia where his family had owned a small inn and he had trained as a pastry chef. They were Jewish and he was fortunate enough to get into the UK on 4 August 1939 because a friend of his had come over two years previously and got a job at a kosher restaurant in Whitechapel - that friend had persuaded the owners to give my father a work permit, which saved his life.

My sister and I have wonderful memories of our parents but I remember as a teenager feeling a bit resentful of my father because it seemed he had never really made anything of his life. He wasn’t an ambitious person. He never had his own restaurant. It wasn’t until I was older that I fully appreciated what he had been through – his family with one exception had all been murdered in the Holocaust. He found that one sister had survived, two years after the war. He had turned whatever ambitions he had had for the outer world, inward - he lived and worked for the family.

What was life like in the East End in the 1950s?

We lived in a rented house, there was no inside toilet, the bath was under the kitchen table… but I never knew times were tough. My father was always in work; we always had food; we had coal delivered into the cellar of the house. I wasn’t conscious of what I can now see was real poverty. To begin with, we didn’t have a fridge; it was a big thing when we finally got one. We didn’t get a television until very late on. But when everyone around you is in the same position, that’s the norm. We didn’t have central heating. Perhaps the odd paraffin heater if it was cold in the bedroom.

By the 50s the large Jewish community was starting to move away, but when I was growing up, there were 15 or 16 little synagogues, within walking distance. We used the bomb sites as playgrounds – we played football and cricket in the street. When we went to Cubs, in the summer, we would play on the bomb sites until it got dark. It was considered safe.

There were still so many large areas of rubble in our area – the sites may have been cleared of any body parts or dangerous things but they were still completely unmade up and they were a wonderful playground.

Do you think that background helped you in your career?

It made it easier to get on with the people I was representing than it would have been for someone from a privileged background who had only mixed with other people from privileged backgrounds and who might perhaps look a little down their noses at people they were representing.

How did you come to be a pupil at CLS?

My headmistress at Rutland Street Primary School, Mrs Giles was a remarkable woman. She saw a spark in me. The London County Council gave scholarships to children whom they thought would benefit from a school such as CLS. She entered me for a scholarship and I won it. We lived close to Whitechapel Tube station, and school was close to Blackfriars, so it was terribly convenient.

Was it a culture shock coming to City?

It was difficult in a number of ways. Because most of the children in my primary school were Jewish, school lunches were kosher – although I would go home for lunch. In 1960 and for some time afterwards, there was a quota of 12.5 per cent of Jewish boys at CLS! And it was a completely different atmosphere to my primary school. It was a culture shock.

I was meeting people from all over the city, from very different backgrounds and it took me a while to get used to it. I made some good friends, though. One boy from St Johns Wood, called Malcolm Stitcher, who also went on to the Bar, lived in a large flat in St John’s Wood. His father was a very successful businessman in the City and drove a Rolls Royce. Malcolm had a sink in his bedroom! These were not things I had come across before.

Which personal qualities have served you well in your career?

I have never seen the point in raising your voice when a whisper will do. Why make a big noise about something when you can achieve more by doing things in a more peaceful way?   There are, of course, times when your voice does need to be raised.

I don’t like confrontation. I mean, being in court is different. I have always been a good listener and I just think… we are put here not just for ourselves but to make a difference to other people. I just think if you can make a difference in someone’s life, you are doing something that is right for you – as well as helping them.

Do you look back on when you first started and see an evolution in your skills and your style?

I was probably too pushy at the very beginning. I suppose I was a bit of a know-all. You need to have that knocked off you. I had decided to go to the Bar after doing holiday work for my sister’s husband – she had married the boy next door, in Myrdle Street, who had become a solicitor. Working for him in the holidays, I went to court and sat behind barristers, and seeing them at work made me decide that was what I wanted to do.

I am not in love with the law. I didn’t find my law degree an easy thing to do – it was a necessary thing to do to become a barrister. Advocacy is what always attracted me. To persuade someone to see a different point of view. I was incredibly lucky in my early years at the Bar to be able to learn from the then-QCs. You look at other people’s styles and you see what is effective and what isn’t.

Did you find it hard to separate yourself emotionally from cases?

In my early days, a young lad from the area was arrested, and charged with murder. His family were very keen to get him out on bail; he had no previous convictions. The prosecution were afraid his life would be in jeopardy – but we overcame that and the magistrate gave him bail. And a week later, he was killed. That’s something that sticks in your mind.

But I never took my work home, emotionally. I never got my family involved in my professional life. I mean, I would talk a little bit about my cases but not much, although I did sometimes walk in the door and give my kids hell… it never lasted very long and they have forgiven me now! So, in that way I did burn up some of the emotions, some of the horrors of the cases I was doing.

You have said that the legal system is broken. Why is that and how can it be remedied?

It’s not just Tory governments – the cuts started under Labour but to nothing like the same extent. There was a barristers' strike not too long ago. There has been no increase in the rates of legal aid since 1997. People have been leaving the criminal bar in droves. Courts are physically in an appalling state; the CPS is underfunded. The police are underfunded. Staff morale in the courts is awful.

The prisons are fuller. Overfull. If prison worked, we wouldn’t need to keep building more of them. There was a point when Michael Gove was Lord Chancellor and he had studied how Texas was looking to reduce its huge prison population by working to rebuild offenders’ and their families’ lives. Then Gove was moved on and the whole reform never got off the ground. So, we still send more and more people to inadequate prisons and they certainly don’t come out rehabilitated in any way.

The clear-up rate for crime in London is just 7 per cent. Does that surprise you?

It appalls me, but it doesn’t surprise me. I think the clear-up rate across the country is incredibly low. It’s not surprising when more crimes are being committed because some people have no money and no way of earning it legally. I’m not justifying it but it’s a fact that in times of economic hardship crime goes up.

How would your life have been different had you not gone to CLS?

I would have gone to the local grammar school, which is a very good school and has turned out some very successful people. But there are things that happened for me at CLS that just wouldn’t have happened at Cowper Street. Little things. There was CCF here – now, the idea that I would ever find myself in an army uniform learning drill and shooting a Lee Enfield rifle just wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t come here. Not just that: we went on camping trips, wonderful trips to the Pyrenees and it opened my eyes to things I would never have come into contact with otherwise.

Which of your teachers had the biggest influence on you?

Mrs Giles from primary school is the one who had the most impact on my life… HL Robertson at CLS was a really good teacher in terms of languages and history but we had some horrors. Teachers would use the slipper. And the cane. But Nobby Clark gave out the worst punishment: as a pipe smoker, he kept the pipe and tobacco in a drawer in his desk. And if you really annoyed him, he made you go and put your head in his desk. It was horrible. Primitive. I don’t remember getting the slipper but I do remember putting my head in the drawer.

Our French teacher was a captain in the CCF as well. He was a tough guy. Very hard on you in class. But his expectations were probably what made people do well in French.

We had one lovely teacher, the maths teacher Horace Brearley, whose son was the cricketer Mike Brearley – he was very, very nice. I don’t remember any particularly obnoxious teachers. But there were a lot of… characters!

Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?

I got involved in various debating societies and public speaking competitions. I wasn’t sporty but I played Fives.

My biggest experience out of school, though, came in my last summer holiday, before the extra year when I would be retaking my A Levels. I was nominated for a scholarship that involved going on a six-week educational trip to Canada! There were 24 boys from all over the UK on this trip. We went on a Cunard liner. We went to Montreal, Toronto, Quebec… and we took an overnight train to the nickel-mining centre of the world, had a look and then took a train straight back again! We spent two or three days camping on the beach by one of the Great Lakes. It was astonishing.

What was your first experience of work?

Next to Whitechapel tube, there was an electrical shop called Wally’s for Wireless which had a record section. I had a Saturday and holiday job there. In those days, you could turn up at parties even if you weren’t invited with a bottle and some records and ask to be let in! So being able to get cheap records was a big thing.

I made some very good friends there. A couple of us went to see the first Beatles Christmas show at the Finsbury Park Astoria in 1963. The bill also had Cilla Black, Billy J Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers… Incredible. There was a lot of screaming. You couldn’t hear much but it was fantastic.

What are some personal qualities that might help a teenager looking to follow in your footsteps?

Humility. I can’t stand arrogant people, maybe because I was once like that but not for very long! The ability to listen with a view to learn. I do think appearances are important. It doesn’t need to be a suit and a tie. But just try and be neat and clean in your appearance. And not being pushy – I remember giving an opportunity to someone in Chambers and he was just unable to sit in the background and listen. This guy couldn’t not offer his opinion. It is important to have self-awareness, to know what your role is at any given time and ensure that you stick to it.

You are involved in many charities – can you offer any tips on time management?

I’m not working full time now. I can choose the number of cases I do so I can give more time to other things I find especially interesting. One of the charities I’m involved with is World Jewish Relief – it started in the 1930s to try and get Jewish people out of Germany and has helped vulnerable Jewish communities all over the world ever since. In more recent years though, it is not just helping Jewish people.

So, yesterday I took some potential donors to Bradford, where we now have a programme specifically to empower women refugees and for me it’s phenomenal to go and see how it helps these women from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, get to grips with the language and so on.

We have attained government funding at a level we had never dreamed of to deliver this programme around the country. We have had 60 per cent of the people on the programme either getting a job or starting their own business and the difference it makes in their life and the lives of their families is phenomenal.

You are also chair of the National Holocaust Museum – can you tell us about their work?

I’ve been involved for 12 or 13 years. It’s the only educational Holocaust museum in the world founded by a Christian family: the Smith family, who had been on trips to the Holy Land and were moved to create this museum in rural  Nottinghamshire. We have thousands of school kids through the doors and we do outreach work all over the country. We used to have survivors coming to speak every day.

We decided a few years ago that soon, inevitably, there would be no more survivors. So, we invested a lot of money in our Forever Project in which we record survivors telling their story and then answering 13-1400 questions: we had to predict what people of different ages would ask a Holocaust survivor. The survivors each had to come down for three or four days to answer all the questions. Audiences ask questions of the image on the screen, and they are answered! The whole project is phenomenal.


Going back, you had a more hands-on role as President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews when you were also working – how did you juggle those responsibilities?

My wife has been the rock of our family; we have four children. I was very lucky.  I could combine family, professional and communal life. I owe her a lot.

Being President of the Board of Deputies could have been a full-time job, even though it was unpaid. From about 2001 to 2009 it affected my earning capacity. I had to go up to the board’s office before and after court. It was quite gruelling. But if you want something done, ask a busy person!