A Short History Of London Refugees: A Museum Trail

| 13 June 2007

Russian Jews flee in the 19th century. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

Search London history events relating to refugees

Refugee Week celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK, counterbalancing the often very hostile images in the press of refugees as an unequivocally bad thing.

We look at some of the groups who have fled to London in the past 500 years, and where you can still find their stories in the city.

photo of the interior of the museum, with open suitaces on the floor

Courtesy of 19 Princelet Street.

The obvious place to being is in the Spitalfields area of London, which has been home to successive waves of migrants. Now famous for its Bengali restaurants, the area was once largely Jewish and nicknamed "Little Jerusalem" - going back even further to 1685 it was home to Huguenot Silk weavers who fled from France because their Protestant faith meant that they were under attack in a predominantly Catholic country.

The fragile building at 19 Princelet Street was originally a Huguenot Silk weavers house, then a Jewish synagogue. A room above the synagogue became the home of its last eccentric caretaker until he disappeared in 1969: the resdiscovery of the room in the 1980s is the subject of the book Rodinsky's room.

Now a museum of immigration and diversity, the house is only open for a handful of days each year: but it will be open every day during Refugee Week. Grab your chance to see this extraordinary house.

Around the corner from the Museum and along Brick Lane, you can see an original Huguenot Protestant church - now a mosque.

Huguenots are no longer a distinguishable group, although the Huguenot Society of Great Britain still exists for those interested in, or descended from Huguenots.

photo shows bust of fashionable french woman

A bust of Madame DeSerrily who escaped the guillotine, but died from an illness aged 36. Courtesy of the trustees of the Wallace Collection.

1780 - 1900

A hundred years later it was French Roman Catholics and aristocrats who fled to Britain, escaping from the French Revolution. The Wallace Collection mostly consists of French objects, and has a number of things associated with this group of refugees. They include a picture of Madamme Perregaux by Vigee le Burn - both artist and sitter had fled to London from the Revolution. There's also a bust of Madame de Serilly (an aristocrat who was a friend of Louis XVI’s sister). She narrowly escaped the guillotine by pretending to be pregnant.

painting shows marx, lenin and william morris

A close up of the mural at the Marx Memorial Library. Photo: K Smith.

1848 - 1880

From 1848 revolutions spread across Europe, and radicals fled to Britain. The Marx Memorial Library contains a comprehensive record of the political ideals and beliefs of many of those who arrived in this country. Named after Karl Marx, it also contains a room which Lenin used to write political tracts whilst in exile in London. The small room still contains original furniture as well as busts of Lenin.

The upper room of the library itself is dominated by a 1930s allegorical mural of the rise of socialism. It shows the oppressed worker throwing off his chains, backed by sunrise, whilst leaders of the left including Lenin, Marx and William Morris look on. Highly idealised, it's a beautiful piece of mural making, only restored fairly recently: a previous generation of library workers had mounted bookshelves over the top of it.

You can join the library or visit on a day pass if you'd like to browse the books. However, if you'd just like to visit the building, then it is open to the general public at lunchtimes.

etching shows family sitting in cart drawn by horse

A 19th century etching of Russian Jews fleeing the pogrom. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

1880 - 1914

From 1880 pogroms of Jews in Russia led many to flee across Europe, some coming to Britain. The Jewish Museum holds contemporary drawings depicting events in Russia - the two shown on this page first illustrate the murderous attacks on Jews in a village, and then the flight of a family. The Jewish Museum is based at both Camden and Finchley - the Finchley site particularly focuses on the story of Jewish immigration to London.

Some Russian Jews fled to Hackney - and there is a display about them in Hackney Museum It particuarly feature Barnett Weinberg who set up a printing press to meet the needs of Jewish people in Hackney. He co-founded Yiddish paper Der Tzeit in 1912, and the business operated continuously until 1987. The printing press is now on display in the museum with examples of printed works in Yiddish.

1914 - 1918

As the First World War overtook Europe a quarter of a million Belgians fled to Britain. A few objects relating to the Belgian experience in London are held at the Greenwich Heritage Centre and are occasionally on display.

painting shows pilot in military gear

A painting of a Free Polish pilot from the Sikorski Museum. Photo: S Ganapathy.

1939 - 45

The Second World War again sent a large number of people into exile across Europe.

Poles fled to Britain from the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland onwards. Many of these refugee men joined the army and air force on arriving in Britain. At the end of the Second World War, with Poland now controlled by the Russian communist party, many chose not to return. The Sikorski Museum commemorates the Second World war record of Poles, especially their work in cracking the German 'Enigma' code and the very high death toll amongst the Free Polish pilots. For many years the museum was labelled only in Polish and the venue, along with the Polish Library was a connection to their homeland for exiled Poles.

Jewish refugees also tried to flee the Nazi advance and the death camps. The Imperial War Museum's Holocaust displays include a section about the response in Britain. You can read original papers and hear contemporary speeches as religious and media figures argue it out about what should happen to those who wanted to escape, and which country should help them.

photo shows crowds waving flags in Hungary

Hungarians attempt revolution in 1956. Courtesy of the Hungarian Cultural Centre.


In 1956 there was an uprising in Hungary against Communism, and Hungarians attempted to set up their own government and disassociate themselves from the USSR. Russia sent in the tanks, and the revolution failed. Many Hungarians who had been involved in the rising then fled to London.

The British Library has catalogued an extensive record of the Hungarian revolution of 1956


There's also a British film from 1959 - Refuge England - which describes the first day of a Hungarian refugee in London. If you are in a school, college or library in the UK, you can watch the whole film online for free.

An earlier refugee from Hungary was the filmmaker Alexander Korda, who fled after brief imprisonment in 1919 by the then right wing goverment. The BFI's essay Magyars In Mayfair recalls the huge impact that Hungarians had on successful British films from the 1930s to the 60s.
photo shows family on beach

Khrishnana Dyal and family on the shores of Lake Victoria, Entebbe, 1965

1972 - Ugandan Asians

In 1972 Idi Amin expelled all Asians from Uganda. Many had British passports and came to Britain. In the past couple of years there have been a scattering of events and exhibitions across London describing the experience of East African Asians, notably at Redbridge Museum.

The group Asians in Harrow have been gathering a history of Asians in the borough. The research is a credit to a handful of people who went to local libraries, and scoured the newspaper archives for stories relevant to Asian history in the UK. The result is an invaluable snapshot of how Ugandan Asians were seen in the borough as the community was established. You can read some of the original material here

a black and whiote image of man surrounded by a white border with written notes on it

Rebwar Saeed. Photography by Rhonda Klevansky

In the 1970s and 80s there were other significant refugee groups in London, including Latin Americans - especially from Chile, and Vietnamese refugees.Today, globalisation means that refugees are spread widely across the world, with 2% living in the UK. London is home to people from around 40 countries seeking refuge from war and oppressive political regimes.

Organisations like the Evelyn Oldfield Unit have been gathering their stories for the historians of the future - one of their recent projects was with Afghans in London.

Last year the Museum of London ran Belonging - an exhibition emphasising the positive things brought to London by refugees. Formed largely of oral histories with refugees from the last 50 years, you can still read and hear many of their stories here

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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