Tomi de Gara (1914-1976)

Tomi de Gara

Written by Thomas Tuohy

Occupation: Textile Manufacturer

Tomi de Gara was a Hungarian émigré, who with Miki Sekers (1910-1972; qv), was co-founder in 1938 of West Cumberland Silk Mills, Hensingham, Whitehaven. A founder trustee of Rosehill Theatre at Moresby in 1959, he was responsible for the preservation of the archival material relating to the theatre, which had been heavily subsidized by the silk mills; and for the transformation of Croft Lodge, the large house in the centre of Beckermet in 1964-5.

Family Background

Tomi de Gara, born Nyíregyházi Gara Tamas Leo, was the grandson of Dr Leo Gara (1839-1914), a physician in Nyíregyháza, in the north east of Hungary. His patients included the prominent Kállay family who recommended his ennoblement by Emperor Franz Josef of Austria in 1912. His style on becoming part of the petite noblesse terrienne, or as it came to be termed in Hungarian from the 1880s, zsentri (borrowed from English ‘gentry’) was expressed in German as Dr Gara Leo von Nyíregyháza. A newly created coat of arms comprised a hand holding 3 ears of corn, for Nyíregyháza, 5 stars for his five sons, a lily for his daughter and a serpent, a medical reference to the staff of Aesculapius. Shortly after the family became armigerous, and following defeat in the Great War, the Austro- Hungarian Empire was partitioned.

In 1866 Leo Gara married Carolina Schack (1848-1927) in Nyíregyháza. Their eldest son Geza (1868-1932) was also a physician, practicing in Meran, Süd Tirol. He married an Austrian, Rosa Maria Pollák and their son Paul Frederick (1902-1991) was educated in Munich, studied medicine in Heidelberg and graduated in 1926. He was Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Greifswald from 1929-33, but when Hitler came to power he was no longer allowed to work in Germany. He had also qualified as a doctor in Padua, and was Assistant Professor at the University of Milan from 1934-38, before being forced to resign amidst the rising tide of antisemitism in Italy. It appears, from the account of Peter de Gara (Tomi’s brother) that he practiced medicine in Venice briefly before emigrating to the US in 1939, taking up a job in Harlem Hospital in New York. Later he taught at Cornell Medical College from 1940 and as President of the American College of Allergists, he was President JF Kennedy’s allergist. Paul Frederick married Ruth Horstmann, from Switzerland, in 1929 and was known by the name von Gara until 1933, adapting his name to de Gara in Italy. This is the name by which the family has since been known

Tomi de Gara was the son of Leo’s youngest son Zoltán (1877-1944), a lawyer who specialized in property and wrote reference books about mortgages. In the 1920s, when inflation was high in Germany, he bought a block of flats in Berlin which he then sold at a profit and invested in a block of flats in Budapest. He married Irén Grünfeld, from a leading family in Miskolc, between Budapest and Nyíregyháza. Miskolc was well situated between the wine growing districts of Eger and Tokaij and a museum now exists in a pharmacy that belonged to a Samuel Grünfeld (1861-1944), who traded in wine, pig fattening, milling and banking.  It is not known what Irén’s connection was with Samuel Grünfeld, but her father had business interests in Kolozsvár, Transylvania (Klausenburg, in German, now Cluj Napoca in Rumania), and her brother studied law there and later became a rich textile manufacturer in Budapest.

Early Life

Tomi and his younger brother Peter (1917-2006) grew up in a villa at 33 Délibáb Utca (Mirage St), which was set in its own grounds in the Theresia district in the centre of Budapest VI.  The house was close to the major thoroughfare Andrassy Utca, under which ran the first underground railway in mainland Europe. Between the Great Compromise with Austria in 1876 and the Great War, Budapest was the fastest growing city in Europe, with a cosmopolitan bourgeois society and an excellent educational system. The villa was close to the City Park where there was a lake for swimming, and skating in the winter.  Skiing was also possible in Buda, and in the summer, families would visit the nearby lakes or mountains. There was a direct train route from Budapest to Venice and Tomi’s familiarity with Venice would not have been unusual.

Tomi rarely spoke about his life in Hungary, but Peter’s memoirs provide a detailed description of the apartment, which occupied the two upper floors of the villa, approached from an external staircase. The top floor was for the kitchen and the accommodation for the cook and two house maids, and food was sent down to the piano nobile using a dumb waiter. Elements of Tomi’s upbringing were later to be replicated at his house in Beckermet. Of particular interest in the family art collection, given Tomi’s future love of Venice, was a full scale copy of The Rape of Europa by Paolo Veronese. This was by the pioneer of Hungarian national art Miklós Barabás (1810-1898) who is best known for his portraits and rustic genre scenes. 

Tomi and Peter had an Austrian governess from Klagenfurt, Carinthia, so the boys both spoke German before going to their Gymnazium. The school had a strong emphasis on Greek, Latin and Mathematics but outside school they were encouraged to learn languages. In 1929 Tomi and Peter were sent for a month to a boys’ institution, at Arveye, Chesieres, in Switzerland, near Lake Geneva, and later had a French tutor in Budapest. They visited the family of their uncle Geza in Alto Adige and stayed at Lavinia Bianca (Weisslahnbad) in the Dolomites. Holidays were taken on Lake Balaton, the Italian lakes, and on two successive years, in the Baltic. They learned to ski, something that Tomi continued throughout his life after the war. They also visited their extended family in various places in Hungary. The Grünfeld grandparents had the lease of a farm of about 1000 acres, near Miskolc with a one storied house with large paned windows facing the street, referred to as Kastelli, meaning mansion.

Study of Textiles

Tomi studied at the Budapesti Kereskedelmi Akadémia (Budapest Academy of Commerce), together with Andor (Bándi) Vigodny (1913-2008; DCB), who recalled that Tomi was very good at maths and that he would do other pupils’ homework, and charge for it. They both passed the matriculation examination, matura, in 1931. Bandi’s father established tanneries in Budapest, trading as Vigodni Adolf. Miki Szekeres (later Sekers) (1910-1972; qv), although two years older than Tomi, also studied at the Budapest Academy of Commerce.  They had a distant family connection, through the marriage of cousins, and with mutual friends they went on skiing holidays together at Zürs am Arlberg in Austria. Miki said of Tomi ‘since our early 20s we have been the closest friends ... he was a superb driver…and his parents were famous as wonderful hosts, their house a meeting place for politicians and artists’ (D. Sekers).

Peter de Gara studied textile technology in Vienna, but there is no clear information about Tomi’s continued education or career between 1931 and 1936. Tomi may have trained in Italy, where silk was produced in Lombardy from the fifteenth century, in Como, Bergamo and Milan. (He spent some time in Venice and told the author that he lived in Ferrara for a while). Peter describes how he and Tomi were directed to work in textiles by their rich unmarried uncle who owned two textile factories. The name of this uncle is not specified, but he is likely to have been the brother of their mother (nee Grünfeld). With increasing antisemitism in Hungary in the 1930s, many Jews adopted Hungarian surnames, and it is possible that this uncle is the same person as Gabor Gyarfas, who owned the Adria silk mills in Budapest. Miki Sekers described how the Managing Director, known as Gabi, was jealous of Tomi’s talent, and threatened to resign if Tomi joined the company.  Nonetheless, in 1936, Tomi did join the Adria mills where Miki Sekers was already working. 

Move to Cumberland

Miki Sekers wanted to establish a manufacturing business of his own, but was unable to do so in Hungary because of the numerus clausus operating against Jewish manufacturers. He and Tomi were encouraged to move to West Cumberland by their school friend Bandi Vigodny (DCB) who had already set up a tannery in Millom. Vigodny’s agent in England, Bruno Herdan, introduced Tomi de Gara to Jack Adams (qv) of the West Cumberland Industrial Development Company and the Nuffield Trust. Objections by British silk weaving interests, to the effect that there was sufficient capacity already, were overcome by reference to the special quality of the proposed products, which were to be made on Swiss Jacquard looms.

In May 1938, Tomi and Miki Sekers visited Whitehaven and set up West Cumberland Silk Mills (WCSM) in temporary rented premises on 13 July.  They rented a government-financed factory built at Hensingham, Whitehaven, completed in November 1938, and the official opening took place on 29 December 1938. Tomi was responsible for finance, yarn buying, costing and internal administration. Miki later recalled: ‘during our 30 year friendship we have gone through many difficulties, but the closeness, the warmth and the respect we have for each other has never been shaken … it was a unique and ideal partnership - all that has been achieved has been done jointly.’ They produced high-quality silk fashion fabric, but when War broke out, some eight months later, the firm switched to the production of parachute silk and this line seems to have been carried on right through the War. They joined Vigodny in lodging at the Lutwidge Arms in Holmrook, and many of the key workers were Hungarian women with weaving experience, who trained local women. Initial capital was provided by loans from two sources, the heirs of a textile manufacturer, Imre Madarasz and his brother in law Mihaly Friedlander (qv; DCB); and the Sulzer Rüti loom manufacturer at Rüti, near Zürich, in Switzerland. Tomi’s parents left Hungary in 1939, and may have come briefly to Whitehaven, but his father was depressed and the couple moved to Switzerland. Unfortunately, they made the fatal decision to return to Budapest to safeguard their possessions and when the Nazis invaded Budapest in 1944 they were deported and eventually murdered at Auschwitz. 

After the war, production at WCSM returned to fashion fabrics. In 1946 Bill Hamilton (1916-2013; DCB), who had trained as a textile technician in Glasgow, was engaged.  With George Spira (1917- 2011; DCB), they were largely responsible for the practical aspects of design and production. The fabrics, using innovative combinations of man-made materials to produce a luxury look, together with Miki’s flair as a salesman, resulted in orders from couturiers: Edward Molyneux (1891-1974) and Bianca Mosca (d.1950) in London, and Christian Dior (1905-1957) in Paris, by 1947.  A wool/silk fabric with a degree of stiffness that was suitable for neckties was found to be equally effective for the full skirts of Dior’s New Look. Other couturiers in Paris and Italy followed. In 1960, the mill started production of furnishing fabrics.  Katherine Whitehorn, interviewing Miki in 1967, described him as being ‘in charge of Publicity and Design - in that order.’ 

Family Life

Tomi had been living in Coronation Drive, Whitehaven, with Clara Poropszky, one of the women brought from Hungary to train the local workers.  According to Bill Hamilton, Miki did not consider her suitable as a wife for his business partner, and she was sent back to Hungary. Tomi met his future wife Gladys May Sutton, (1917-2007) on New Year’s Eve 1946, at a ball at the Hydro Hotel in Buxton, Derbyshire.  Known as Bobbie, she was staying at the same hotel with her parents William Simpson Sutton (1882-1965), an oil merchant and his wife May, who were visiting from Stockport in Cheshire. They were snowed in for a few days, which gave the couple a better chance to become acquainted.  Following a brief courtship, they were married in March 1947 and for their honeymoon went to St Moritz, staying at the Hotel Kulm. Bobbie had never skied before and did not take to it, but she adapted very well to luxurious hotels and restaurants around Europe, and these experiences were reflected in the way she developed into a generous and elegant hostess, with very high standards of hospitality, in Beckermet, Cumberland.

They had two children, Michael (1947-2006) and Carole (b.1950), who were regularly taken skiing in Switzerland or Austria. Carole remembered several winter resorts, including Wengen, Kleine Scheideg, Arosa, and Zermatt, but they had summer holidays on the continent too. Tomi passed on his love of Venice, Florence and Rome, and encouraged his children to learn languages.  Michael spent time with families in Aix-les-Bains and Brakel, in North Germany while Carole went to a finishing school, Le Fleuron, in Florence. The fate of their grandparents, understandably, was not spoken of, and as Tomi had married an English wife, their children were not technically Jewish. His brother Peter married a fellow Jewish Hungarian, Nora Tarcsay Schultz, born in Budapest in 1929, niece of Alexander Herz (Sanyi Hurst 1911-1956). He and his brother George, were directors of the West Cumberland Paper Company in Cleator Moor in 1939. Their children, Christopher and Sally, were brought up at Jewish schools in London and sent to kibbutz in Israel; Sally was only told she was actually Jewish when she was 21. As he grew up Michael de Gara was also not aware of his Jewish background, but later he did go to visit Auschwitz.

After the War

Tomi bought Croft Lodge in Beckermet in 1947 and in 1952 a flat for servants was created above the garages at the back of the house.  Successive couples from Italy, Spain and Hungary were employed there. Miki Sekers entertained at Rosehill and Tomi and Bobbie entertained at Croft Lodge, which also served as a family house, although this belonged to him, not the company.  In 1964-5 a radical modification was made by extending the front of the house by 4.5 feet. The designer behind this was John Claridge, who had worked with Oliver Messel (1904-1978) in London, and at Rosehill Theatre, and the exterior of Croft Lodge in some respects reflects the style of Messel’s houses in the Caribbean. However, as Claridge acknowledged, many elements of the design were determined by Tomi himself. Much of this corresponds with Peter de Gara’s description of the villa in Budapest where Tomi grew up which had parquet floors with rugs, double doors with glass panels between the large reception rooms, separate accommodation for servants; and even the formality of dining with silver and Herrend porcelain, retrieved from Budapest after the War. The food was largely Hungarian too. The re modelled house provided larger spaces for entertaining, had en suite accommodation for guests and, like Rosehill, served as a showcase for Sekers’ fabrics.

Some of the works of art reflected Tomi’s love of Venice, with a good Francesco Guardi and two drawings by Giandomenico Tiepolo, but there were some contemporary paintings chosen by Miki, notably a large John Piper and Italian paintings by Gaetano Pompa (1933-1998) and Gustavo Foppiani (1925-1986).  Miki knew Piper through his visits to Glyndebourne. Associates of the silk mill, such as Geoffrey Seddon Brown and Lord (David) Eccles, were regular visitors.  Some artistes performing at Rosehill stayed here, even before the alterations; the Amadeus String Quartet were guests for lunch in June 1962, and members of the Habsburg family were also received at Croft Lodge.  The house was a great social hub, managed with some regularity and precision. Tomi would come home for lunch every day and every Friday his friend and colleague Michael Friedlander and his wife Blanka were invited to lunch, sometimes joined by George Madarasz, if he was visiting from Manchester.  In this they retained links with the family that had provided the initial capital for WCSM. Tomi had his gardener plant the daffodils along the Kerbeck and paid for the wooden bus shelter in Beckermet, and the surrounding landscaping with shrubs from Muncaster garden centre (much later this was replaced with concrete tiles).

Success and Decline

The Silk Mills’ offices, initially in Bruton St, moved to Sloane Street, and a house with an adjoining flat was maintained in Harriet Walk, just off Cadogan Place. Harrods was the nearest place for shopping, and when the change in the Mills’ fortunes meant that Harriet Walk had to be given up, Tomi bought a flat nearby in Lennox Gardens, near the bottom of Beauchamp Place. He enjoyed being in London, for the opera, concerts and restaurants, regularly dining at The Gay Hussar, in Soho and San Lorenzo in Beauchamp Place. He had his suits made by Kilgour, French and Stanbury in Savile Row. He continued going skiing, without Bobbie in later years, when he annually went to Schruns in the Vorarlberg, Austria. He also bought a flat in Marbella

In 1940 the mill employed 50 people. In July 1955 WCSM became a limited company and according to George Spira, Miki Sekers and Tomi sold a third of the shares for over £1 million, retaining two thirds in their possession (50/50 each). In 1960 the mill started producing furnishing fabrics, in addition to fashion fabrics, and by 1966 was employing 400 people with 150 looms. Lobel describes how the mill was extended by 35,000 square feet, while the firm still rented it, and after the company bought the building, further extensions increased the space to 105,000 square feet.  However, textile production in Britain was in decline by the late 1960s and by 1971 the annual average profit of the company had fallen from £200,000 to £40,000, with the share price down from 10/- to 2/- (Blackadder). According to Bill Hamilton, the division of company shares amongst the children of the founders meant that Miki and Tomi no longer had absolute control. They were prepared to sell the company to John Blackburn of Vantona, but Miki’s son in law Jean Beaudrand wanted to take over and persuaded Tomi not to sell his shares. Miki Sekers had major heart surgery and resigned in 1970, dying, aged 61, on holiday near Dubrovnik in June 1972.  He had been sufficiently concerned about the company he had founded to write to Lord Rochdale (1906-1993; qv) four months earlier in February 1972.  Consequently, the Silk Mill broke off the Vantona negotiations when all the papers were ready for signature. By 1974 only 280 people were employed but the WCSM carried on until 2006.

Rosehill Theatre

Tomi also had a major role to play in Rosehill Theatre, of which he was a founder Trustee in 1959. The inspiration of course was Miki’s, and he told journalists in the 1960s that he wanted to make money in industry so that he could become a patron of the arts. But when in 1958 the barn on his Rosehill property that was being converted into the theatre collapsed, Miki talked of giving up the project. Tomi was adamant that the project should go ahead, and it became established as the flagship project that helped to publicise Sekers Silk. Tomi was closely involved with the finances of the theatre as well as the mill, helping with the fund raising, and trying to control the building costs. Subsidized seats were available to staff of the mill, and the box office was run by WCSM until 1969.  In a response to an appeal for funding for the theatre after Miki’s death in 1972, Tomi wrote to Lord Rochdale that the mill had subsidized the theatre by the large sum of £55,000 since 1959 and that the company had done more than their share.  Tomi was also conscious of the benefits Rosehill theatre had brought to the local community and the importance of keeping Rosehill house as a place where artists could be properly looked after. The house was offered to Rosehill Arts Trust at the very favourable price of £14,000, and funds were raised for the purchase, but shortly afterwards the house, which was leased to John Blackburn of Vantona, was sold to him, and he lived there until 1983. Tomi was responsible for the preservation of the archival material relating to the theatre, by having everything boxed up and deposited under the stage of the theatre in 1976.

His Brief Retirement

Apart from his skiing activities, Tomi de Gara enjoyed swimming in the Cumbrian lakes, and had a great interest in shooting, keeping labradors as gun dogs for a period. He shot at the Isel Hall estate of Margaret Austin-Leigh (qv), with Ian Sutcliffe, with Patrick Gordon Duff Pennington, from Muncaster, and with the Stanleys of Ponsonby Hall. He considered hunting wild boar in Hungary, but abandoned the enterprise as the charge for each kill was exorbitant. Tomi resigned from the board of WCSM in 1975 and was on a pheasant shoot at Isel when he died in 1976, his body being found by Philip Stanley.  He was only 62, but had a heart condition. The period of splendour for the mill and Rosehill Theatre was short, but a great deal was accomplished.

Even after Tomi died, and without servants, Bobbie maintained high standards of hospitality, sometimes engaging Erszy Garbien, who had been the cook at Rosehill, for larger lunch parties. Fund raising events for the NSPCC were held at Croft Lodge and the house remained intact until 1996 when Bobbie de Gara moved to Cockermouth, where she died in 2007.


  • Family information, from personal contact; Peter de Gara’s memoirs and photographs courtesy of Christopher and Sally de Gara; photographs courtesy of Carole de Gara, including the family tree created by Renata Cafiero, daughter of Dr Paul de Gara in New York, and Peter Cafiero, her son. Unfortunately a brief family history, together with the family archival material upon which it was based, are now lost
  • Information from John Hurst, Chicago, 2021
  • Information from David Sekers 2021
  • Information and assistance from David Spira, Helen Madarasz and Richard Solyom, 2022
  • Information from Andrea (Vigodny) Stevens, 2014
  • Joe Blackadder, Rosehill, The Story of a Theatre, 1959-2009,  Carlisle, 2009
  • JF Kennedy see
  • Herbert Lobel  Government-financed factories and the establishment of industries by refugees in the special areas of the North of England 1937-1961, Durham theses, Durham University. 1978, Available at Durham E-Theses Online:
  • Júlia Szabó, Painting in Nineteenth Century Hungary, Corvina Publishing, 1985
  • Thomas Tuohy ‘Hungarians in Cumberland, Miki Sekers and Tomi de Gara; Oliver Messel and John Claridge’, British Art Journal xvii, 1, Spring 2016, pp 108-122