Americans In London

| 28 November 2006
photo shows American women in Victorian London waving American flags

This picture of American suffragettes was taken just before or just after a London suffrage march in July 1910. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

London's streets are full of reminders of the city's connection with America. They range from the memorials to British figures who were among the first to create colonies, to the many American presidents who visited as heads of a powerful nation.

Find American history events in London

Find American museum collections in London

Roosevelt probably wins the prize for being the most flamboyantly relaxed looking statue in London as he chats to Winston Churchill on a park bench close to Bond Street.

We explore some of the museums and other places where you can find US histories across the capital.

photo shows two statues sitting on park bench in london

Roosevelt talking to Churchill on a park bench in London. Photo: K Smith

Leaving London, becoming American

A few sites in London mark the moment when English settlers began the process of becoming Americans. St Bride's church, off Fleet Street is primarily known as a church for journalists. However, it also holds a sculpture representing Virginia Dare - the first white child to be born on American soil. Her parents had married at St Bride's. The sculpture is recent - the previous one was stolen.

photo shows bust of young girl

The bust of Virginia Dare at St Bride's Church. Photo: K Smith

The Mayflower set sail from Rotherhithe; now the Mayflower pub stands near the site. Its Captain, Christopher Jones, died a few months after returning from the New World, and is now buried at St Mary's Church Southwark has many other connections with the Pilgrim Fathers

photo shows curator in white gloves holding pistols in front of old ship

These pistols are on display as part of the Journey to the New World exhibition at the Museum in Docklands. The ship in the background is a replica of the tiny vessel Discovery, which took the first Jamestown settlers from London. Courtesy of the Museum in Docklands.

An exhibition at the Museum in Docklands remembers an earlier expedition of settlement - the 1606/07 journey to found Jamestown. Recent excavations at the original Jamestown site revealed a time capsule of Stuart London in the US. Many of these objects are now on display at the museum until May 2007 along with a model of one of the tiny ships that carried the travellers.

photo shows 18th century room with modern scaffolding

Franklin's London home when it was being refurbished in 2005. Courtesy of Benjamin Franklin House.

Freedom.....

Benjamin Franklin lived in London for many years as the representative for Pennsylvania. As well as his official work, he wrote and carried out scientific experiments whilst living as a lodger at 36 Craven Street. The house has now been turned into an unusual kind of museum with actors and sound effects recreating a sense of Franklin's time in the capital. Forced to flee on the eve of the American revolution, the man who had worked for many years to keep dialogue alive between Britain and its colony became one of the architects of its freedom.

During December the National Army Museum is holding a re-enactment weekend marking the Christmas Revolution of 1776. Adult-and-child friendly, it will bring some immediacy to the events of 330 years ago when the future of North America hung in the balance.

sketch shows black boxer

Tom Molineux. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

....and escapes from Slavery

One effect of the War of Independence was to bring many Black ex-slaves to London. They had been promised freedom in return for fighting for the British, but many ended up as beggars on the streets of London - in 1786 there were over 1100 of them. 400 were sent to Sierra Leone to found a new colony (an experiment that killed the majority). Bill Richmond, a freed slave, did manage to stay in London and became a famous boxer. His image is held at the National Portrait Gallery. Later Tom Molineux, a freed slave from Virginia also achieved fame as a boxer in London. His picture is held by the Museum of London.

You can find out more about these boxers at the Jewish Museum from May 2007, in their exhibition Ghetto Warriors: Minority Boxers in Britain.

painting shows hundreds of people packed in a room in 19th century dress

The Anti-Slavery convention of 1840. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

A little later, London attracted dozens of American anti-slavery campaigners to the Anti-Slavery Society convention of 1840. They are amongst the crowds in this huge and complex portrait held by the National Portrait Gallery. You can find out more about the sitters here but you need to visit Room 20 of the Gallery to see the picture in all its intricacy.

photo shows decorated jacket

A jacket from an American Plains Indian. Courtesy of the Horniman Museum.

Native Americans In London

The early settlement also brought a handful Native Americans on visits to London. Many of these early visits are described online here. It traces how early visitors were presented to the nobility, but that later Indians were more likely to be exhibited as curiosities to a gawking public. Perhaps the most famous Indian visitor to England Pocahontas also spent some time in London.

There are two museums with significant Native American holdings in London. One is the British Museum, with most of its North American gallery showing displays of Native American culture.

The other is the Horniman Museum. You can read more about their collections here. The Museum still acquires artefacts today - in 1985 Nathan Jackson of the Tlingit people of Alaska presented the museum with a totem pole. It stands outside the museum, an unlikely object on the Forest Hill Road.

photo shows totem pole

A totem pole. Courtesy of the Horniman Museum.

Becoming Londoners

Many great names of London are also American, although most Londoners have long since forgotten that Selfridge's department store was founded by an American businessman, or that the Peabody Trust, which still provides housing for those going through difficult times, was founded by the American philanthropist George Peabody. Some of Peabody's original houses can still be seen today - for instance in Vauxhall. You can see a contemporary picture of his rather grand looking buildings in Westminster here

Nancy Astor, the first woman to become an MP was also an American; she won her Plymouth seat in a by-election when her husband Waldorf Astor went to the House of Lords. Women over 30 had only been granted the right to vote the previous year, and did not achieve equal suffrage until 1926. There's a blue plaque to her at 4 St James' Square, SW1.

photo shows women in victorian dress waving american flags

American suffragettes in London. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

A portrait of Americans in Britain

Nancy Astor was one of around 100 American heiresses who 'married in' to Britain in the 19th and early 20th century. Others included Churchill's mother Jennie Jerome. Their stories are told at the American Museum in Bath next year.

Within London, you can see many images of Americans who came to London in the 19th and 20th century at the National Portrait Gallery. Many are conveniently listed here - a mixture of statemen, ambassadors, and performers. There are also many writers - Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot and Henry James were all 'canonical' American writers who spent long periods in London.

Jimi Hendrix lived at 23 Brook Street in 1968/9 next door to the former home of George Fredrick Handel. Now both houses form the Handel House Museum. A blue plaque to Hendrix and a handful of photographs of him mark his presence in the house.

The Second World War

The permanent displays of the Imperial War Museum describe the First and Second world War on many fronts in detail. The D-Day Galleries describe the collective and individual experience of 34,000 American soldiers landing on Omah- a beach on June 6th 1944. 2,000 were killed.

The American war artist Manuel Bromberg was born in Iowa in 1917. He accompanied the D-Day landings to paint the action, and some of his work is on display. You can see more of his work here and his photographs (which he used as 'notes' for his drawings) hereThe museum also provides a factsheet on tracing American service personnel.

photo shows apollo capsule surrounded by watching visitors

The Apollo 10 capsule. Courtesy of the Science Museum.

Inventing the modern world

The Science Museum has three iconic American objects on display. After its visit to the moon, the Apollo 10 command module has been put out to grass in their Making of the Modern World galleries. They also hold the Apple I Computer - the 1976 model that marked the birth of home computing and Edison's filament lamp of 1879 which led to the first public lighting system in New York in 1882.

photo shows san francisco cityscape with dense housing

San Francisco through the eyes of 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge

In the mid 19th century a young British man, Eadweard Muybridge was making his name in San Francisco with another recent invention: the camera. Amongst his photographs is the San Francisco Panorama - a huge circular photograph which show us what San Francisco was like prior to the 1904 earthquake. Muybridge finally returned to his native Kingston-upon-Thames in the 1890s and donated his photographic equipment and many pictures to Kingston Museum. You can see the San Fran panoramas in detail - look out for the famous Spite Fence built during a fierce fight over Nob Hill Real estate.

photo shows white haired man sitting next to model of globe building

Sam Wanamaker. Courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Brian Rybolt

Americans recreating London history

Perhaps because so many Americans can trace their roots back to Europe, American support for the telling of history in London has been strong. Many London museums have American friends associations, whether or not their collections have a direct link to American life.

Two Americans have vividly imagined sections of London's past and recreated them in the city. Denis Severs' house at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields is reconstructed so it still appears to be the home of an 18th - 19th century family - with a fire in the grate, food on the table, and the homely disorder of an occupied house. It's open only a few times a month, so check the website before visiting.

American actor Sam Wanamaker stayed in Britain from the 1950s after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was the force behind the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe on the South Bank, which opened in 1993. The building itself is beautiful and accurate, a human sized enclave amongst the concrete of the South Bank. It houses a very successful working theatre company, with a museum space next door.

Wanamaker died in 1993 and is now buried in nearby Southwark Cathedral, next to a monument to Shakespeare.

Americans In London today

The American diaspora in the capital today is in a unique position as a 'cultural group'. American chain restaurants are everywhere, whilst most multiplexes are dominated by American films. But whereas Chinese restaurants are still overwhelmingly run by Chinese people, the same can't be said of American food or culture.

So it's perhaps harder to spot the footprint of the 45,000 or so Americans who live in the capital. Many will work in the City, coming on short term contracts to work for companies that have a strong presence both in London and in the States - like KPMG, UBS, Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan or American Express. Many live in the central and western regions of London. The borough of Kensington and Chelsea alone is home to 8,000 - then there are 6,000 in Westminster and 4,000 in Camden.

Thanksgiving sees many Christian Americans attending the American Church in London or a special church service at St Pauls Cathedral, or simply celebrating at the houses of friends. But whilst some will attend clubs and societies for Americans others are absorbed into the general population of London and make no attempt to hang onto American links. UntoldLondon's unscientific straw poll suggests a great love of the capital and its history amongst expatriate Americans, leading many to stay permanently if they can.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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