The first Italians to settle in Britain were the Romans, accompanied by an array of people from the far reaching ramparts of their enormous empire. In 55 BC, Julius Caesar travelled to the south-east of England, landing on the Kent coastline before travelling inland.
A century later, Emperor Claudius would proceed to conquer the Isles. Historians have estimated that over 50,000 Roman soldiers moved to live in Roman Britain, though many were from the Balkans, during their 500 year occupation of these lands.
In the Middle Ages, contact with Rome was restricted to the Celtic Christian regions of Britain, as Anglo-Saxon invaders began their land grab of eastern England. Celtic Christianity, favoured in the historic counties of Wessex and Northumbria, would take greater influence from the Pope in Rome. This was due in part to the influence of Alfred the Great who had been anointed by the Roman Catholic church. After the Norman conquest of 1066, the first recorded Italian communities were documented in England, beginning with sailors and merchants living in Southampton.
England’s capital city had become home to Italian bankers and merchants after the year 1000 AD; Lombard Street in the City of London takes its name from a ‘small but powerful community from northern Italy’. The community of Italians that formed in London was equally powerful, and developed over centuries to include artists, humanists and ecclesiastics. It is speculated that this community of Italian Londoners had provided financial support to the navigator Giovanni Caboto, prior to his voyage and discovery of North America in 1497. An Augustinian friar, heralding from Tuscany, Giovanni Antonio de Carbonaris was a patron who accompanied Caboto’s discovery expedition and introduced the explorer to Henry VII. A large proportion of the funds received to execute the proposed trip were granted from an Italian banking house in the city, who encouraged the duo ‘to go and discover new lands’.
In the early 19th century, over 4000 Italian immigrants journeyed to Britain, with half of them moving to London. The Napoleonic Wars had decimated the agricultural industry of northern Italy, thus forcing farmers to leave their native lands. Of those living in England, the majority originated from the northern valleys of Como, Lucca and Parma. The skilled artisans of Como lived alongside the plaster figure makers from Lucca. Those from Parma were predominantly organ grinders, whereas the Neapolitans were famed for their Ice Cream. Despite their migration, occupational structure remained unchanged during this period, whilst simultaneously a clear boundary within the city was formed for the burgeoning Italian populace.
The boundaries of London’s Little Italy were recognised as Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon Road and Roseberry Avenue. This dedicated quarter, intersecting Clerkenwell, Holborn and Farringdon was once a thriving ‘warren of streets around Hatton Garden’. The Italian Quarter, or Italian Hill, was an area made famous by the storytelling of Charles Dickens. Authorities welcomed the arrival of a new working class of Italian migrants, who would supplant those who had inspired the tale of Oliver Twist in 1837.
As a greater number of Italians moved to London, there was a transition beyond the boundaries of Little Italy. At the start of the 20th century, around 12,000 Italians lived in London. Those from the north began to establish roots in Soho, whilst southern Italians expanded their presence in the existing Italian community. Those living and working in Soho possessed skills deemed useful to the wider population; Italian tailors, watchmakers, artists and domestic servants contributed significantly to the hospitality industry of Victorian London.
The presence of the Italian community was recognised in 1863, with the consecration of St. Peter’s Italian Church in Clerkenwell. An Italian-style basilica, the church has been a focal symbol of Italian culture for Italian Briton’s for over 150 years. Despite its clear Italian influence, the structure was designed by Sir John Miller-Bryson, who drew inspiration from the Basilica San Crisogono in Rome. Its interior withholds its grand beauty from the busy streets outside; the ornate details of the church’s interior are protected with vigour by the community today. The construction was encouraged by Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian politician, journalist and activist, who was deemed a hero for his work in helping consolidate the different states of Italy into a modern nation, the Kingdom of Italy.
The church has remained an important community space for Italian’s in Britain, and though the boundary of Little Italy is blurred in modern London, it serves as a reunion venue for events such as ‘processione’ of St. Mary of Carmel, held in the summer months, where Italians of all ages gather together. The events have only been interrupted by the world wars and the coronavirus pandemic.
The Italian community within London was deemed ‘immoral’ by the British middle classes towards the end of the 19th century. Parliament described the Italian people as ‘illiterate and vicious’, associating them with the ills of the overcrowded city. In reality, a lack of adequate housing forced Italian migrants into the densely populated streets of Clerkenwell and Farringdon. In fear of the spread of disease, slum clearance took place, but an insufficient number of homes were built to meet growing demand.
The fear of immigration, a theme of governance today, thrived in the early-20th century. Anti-Italian and anti-Jewish rhetoric was promoted by the Conservative Party of 1905, led by Arthur Balfour, with the ‘Alien’s Act’. The language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was used to restrict entry to the UK by Eastern European Jews, as well as Italians and Chinese communities. Travel into Britain could only be approved if the traveller was vouched for by a person residing in the UK. The hostility directed towards the Italian community was vitriolic and would only worsen in the first half of the 20th century.
The rise of fascism in Italy with the Duce of the Italian Social Republic, Benito Mussolini, established the narrative of the ‘mother country’. During the 1930s, the Italian coffee shops of Soho and Clerkenwell were utilised by active fascists to recruit young members of the community to ‘serve Italy by espionage and sabotage’. Backed by the Italian ambassador, community members sent their children to military-style training camps in Italy, but also to Felixstowe and Maidstone. ‘Campo Mussolini’ taught children between the ages of 11-15 what it meant to live under a fascist regime; boys wore armlets adorned with fascist badges and girls were dressed in black and white cloaks and berets. The Home Office witnessed the teaching of fascist songs and military drills with mock rifles. Their cause was sympathised with by Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, as well as university lecturers from Oxford, London and Leeds.
Many Italians were forced into becoming members of the National Fascist Party once threatened with the rescinding of citizenship services and exclusion from their home country. The start of the Second World War encouraged hostile public opinion toward the presence of ‘aliens’ on British soil. When Winston Churchill uttered the phrase, ‘collar the lot’, Italian men were rounded up and sent to internment camps across the country. This decision had disastrous repercussions on the catering and hospitality industries that Italian workers contributed to significantly.
The War Cabinet decided that holding the Italian men within internment camps in Britain did not adequately deal with their supposed threat. It was proposed that they should be exported to Britain’s allies Australia and Canada, where they could do little to harm the war effort. In July 1940, 800 Italians, including many naturalised British Italians of whom had been born in London or other British cities, were placed upon the SS Arandora Star bound for Canada. Departing from Liverpool and without military escort, the requisitioned troop ship was sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Ireland. Communications were immediately severed by the first torpedo strike, causing the subsequent death of 471 Italian men. Their death is remembered by the Italian community of today, with a monument outside of St. Peter’s Italian Church. Those that survived were sent on to Australian internment camps.
An indelible character has been left on the area by the community of London’s Little Italy; though it has shrunk markedly in the decades since the culmination of the Second World War. Little Italy’s Italian population is no longer confined to the enclaves of Farringdon and Clerkenwell or Soho. A new wave of Italians who moved to Britain between the 1950s and 1970s filled vast employment gaps left by those who died in the war. The association with Clerkenwell and Soho, with a visible chain of migration, continued. Their operation in the catering industry continued to expand, as Italian settlers formed their own shops and restaurants. They became responsible for the introduction of Italian food into British cuisine, which was later seized upon by supermarket retailers.
Though the London community of British Italians now reside in the boroughs of Finchley and Southgate, they have a spiritual home in Central London. Photographer Giulia Savorelli documented the religious procession in honour of Our Lady of Mount Carmel over the course of two summers. The project was started as a response to Italy's increasingly hostile position on immigration, from policy makers to public opinion. Tracing the history of Italian's in London today, 'Il Quartiere' captures the longevity of tradition that the Italian community has built and protected over centuries in Britain.