COMMUNITY INFO » A unique heritage
From Italy to Britain - a brief history of London and British Italians
In the beginning…
The settlement of Italians in any sizable numbers in London, Manchester (www.ancoatslittleitaly.com), Scotland and Wales started in the 1800s with the arrival of skilled craftsmen from the north of Italy.
In London, they settled in and around Clerkenwell, particularly in the Saffron Hill vicinity which had been notorious for the pickpockets and fences portrayed in Oliver Twist and the authorities were glad to see these supplanted by the more respectable Italians. Further communities settled in Manchester, Scotland and Wales.
The Italian ‘colony’ in Clerkenwell was mainly employed in trades such as organ grinding, knife grinding, mosaic and terrazzo craftsmenship. Giuseppe Mazzini, the writer, patriot and revolutionary, lived close by in Laystall Street and founded an Italian language school in nearby Hatton Garden in 1841.
Young gun: Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)
Giuseppe Mazzini was born in Genoa and died in Pisa but spent a large part of his life in exile in London: an early advocate of a “United States of Europe” who considered European unification as a logical continuation of Italian unification.
He organised a new political society called La Giovine Italia (Young Italy) whose motto was “God and the People”. His basic principle was uniting the various states and kingdoms of the peninsula into a single republic as the only true foundation of Italian liberty.
MG makes its mark: Mazzini Garibaldi Club, London (1864 onwards) and the MG Foundation (2008 onwards)
In 1864 Mazzini established a working men’s association: the Mazzini Garibaldi Club, more recently referred to as the “MG”. The Mazzini Garibaldi Club was originally in Laystall Street before moving to Red Lion Street when the members raised the necessary funds to purchase the freehold.
In 2008 the MG membership agreed to sell the freehold and donate the vast majority of the proceeds to a newly formed charity, The Mazzini Garibaldi Foundation (charity no. 1124106).
A central focus : St. Peter’s Italian Church, London www.italianchurch.org.uk
The Italian church in Clerkenwell Road was also established in 1883 and became a central focus for Italians in London, becoming a place for ‘labour exchange’ on Sundays, after mass. St. Peter’s school was opened in Back Hill, around the corner from the church, as a day time English school for Italian and Irish children and after school as an Italian language school for children of Italian migrants.
A helping hand for health: The Italian Hospital - Queen Square, London
The Italian hospital opened in 1884 in Queen Square (WC1) to cater for the growing number of Italians in London; this institution closed down in the 1980s with the building sale proceeds funding the Italian Medical Charity which at 5th April 2009 had funds of just over £2m.
Land of our fathers: Scalabrini Centre, Brixton, London
In 1887 the first congregation of the missionary fathers to the migrants was established, The Scalabrini Fathers, now based at the Scalabrini Centre, 20 Brixton Road, London, SW9 6BU.
Immoral, illiterate and vicious!
Italians were seen as immoral, illiterate, and vicious by a select committee on emigration in parliament in 1888. There was a problem with overcrowding in central London due to the lack of housing coupled with the growing number of newcomers to the city where manual labour could be found. Italians were recorded as living in overcrowded conditions, and the British authorities feared epidemics would spread. Slum clearance took place to a certain extent, but not enough houses were built to meet the growing demand.
The growing fear about migrants led parliament to approve the first immigration legislation to restrict entry to the UK, the Alien’s Act 1905. Predominantly designed to stop Eastern European Jews, it was directed to a lesser extent at Italians and Chinese. They had come to be seen as a national threat, even as an ‘alien invasion’. The Act required aliens to be vouched for by someone already residing in the UK who could provide them with lodgings and a job.So one effect of the Act was to reinforce the chain migration between the settled Italian community in the UK and their villages of origin.
During WW1 Italians fought alongside the British. With the advent of fascism from 1920s onwards, the Italian government was keen to gain support from Italians living abroad. Fascist party offices were set up wherever Italians could be found on the continent and Italians were ‘forced’ to sign up to the party’s membership lured by the prospects of free holidays to their ‘mother country’ and as the only way to receive citizenship services by the Italian state.
The outbreak of WW2 brought general immigration to a halt in Britain with dramatically increased government control over aliens. When Benito Mussolini declared war against Britain on 10th May 1940, angry mobs attacked Italian restaurants and ice-cream parlours in Britain.
From the 1950s to 1970s new waves of Italians came into Britain to fill the employment gaps in industry and agriculture and, to a lesser extent, in the catering industry.
By 1960s, many Italians were able to afford their own cafes and restaurants. They worked very long hours for decades in order to afford their own homes and their children’s education.
Gradually the first generation left the catering trade. The rising cost of leases, coupled with the increasing commercial values of cafes’ buildings in central London signalled the end of the affordable cafes and restaurant culture for workmen. Italians had become socially mobile and started to move out of ‘Little Italy’ in Clerkenwell towards more prosperous areas.
Second and subsequent generations are now fully integrated into British society with a presence in a wide range of businesses and professions.
Villa Scalabrini, Shenley, Herts (1986 onwards) www.villascalabrini.co.uk
Opened in July 1986 following a massive fundraising effort (with some support from the EU), Villa Scalabrini was established to provide care, mainly for elderly Italians. Accommodating 53 elderly residents in a large detached building standing in approximately 25 acres of ground, Villa Scalabrini is today equipped to accept people who are wheelchair bound, those in need of cancer care, stroke victims, the visually impaired, people who suffer from double incontinence and diabetics with special needs, as well as people slightly affected by dementia.
SAGRA and St. Peter’s Church, London
The Italian church of St. Peter’s in Clerkenwell still remains a focus in the community, particularly the procession of St. Mary of Carmel that has been taking place around the church on the third Sunday of July since 1883.
Some early twentieth century residents of the Back Hill area of London
(apologies for any errors or omissions)