Hungarians In London

By Mátyás Sárközi | 03 October 2006
drawing shows flyleaf of book with two military men holding flags saying kossuth in england

Flyleaf of the book Kossuth in England, published 1851. Courtesy of the Guildhall Library.

October 2006 marks 50 years since the failure of the Hungarian uprising brought more than 12,000 refugees from Communism to London. One of those people was writer and journalist Mátyás Sárközi.

We asked him to tell us more about Hungarian Londoners from history. Here he recalls how Hungarians saved the Houses of Parliament, the British Film Industry and possibly Allied science with their ingenuity, as well as inventing a quintessentially English hero.

Find Hungarian history events and collections in London

Since Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, London's dwindling Hungarian population began to grow again. Hungarians arrive in Britain to work not only in the service industries and as au pairs, but also as doctors or employees of large financial institutions. The city's attraction lies most of all in the fact that English, now lingua franca of the world, can be learned or perfected here. But Hungarians enjoy London's thriving cultural life, too.

Early history

This attraction started a very long time ago. The first Hungarian student known by name to have matriculated at Oxford was one Nicolaus de Ungeria, and it is likely that he spent some time in London. Scores of students came to study at English and Scottish universities, but the first one to settle in London for good was János Bánffyhunyadi (1576-1646) in 1608. He dabbled in alchemy and became a lecturer of chemistry at Gresham College, which still exists. Marrying an Englishwoman, he had a house in London which was often visited by his fellow countrymen passing through.

In 1659, after a short spell in Oxford, Pál Jászberényi settled in London, where he opened a public school for the children of noblemen. He taught them Latin, using innovative techniques. Hungarian Latin teachers must have been in great demand.

One of the most resourceful scholars who made their home in the London of Pepys and Wren was János Mezolaki. He was teaching Latin and philosophy. He died as a patient of Bedlam, in 1693.

Jacob Bogdani (c. 1660-1724) arrived in London from Amsterdam at the age of twenty-eight, in the spring of 1688. Within six years he was one of the artists decorating the Queen's private apartment at Hampton Court, and soon counted many of the great of the land among his clientele. Judging by his prosperity and the number of works still extant, Bogdani's life in London must have been a busy one. He had property in Finchley and a house in Great Queen Street. 'Age sickness brought him to his end' in 1724. He was a masterful painter of flowers and birds.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Hungarian gentry saw in England the realisation of their supreme ideas - constitutionalism and liberty. The champion of the Hungarian Reform Age, Count István Széchenyi made four long stays in England, and wrote in his diary:

'In my opinion three things must be chiefly learnt from England - the constitution, the machines, and horse-breeding'.

He picked up something else, as well. During his visits Count Széchenyi had a good look at Hammersmith Bridge, and in 1835 he promptly invited its designer, William Tierney Clark, to draw plans for a similar suspension bridge to connect Buda and Pest, over the Danube. By 1849 Budapest's so-called Chain Bridge was ready. It does not really resemble Hammersmith Bridge, but it is a much larger variation of Clark's graceful bridge further up the Thames at Marlow.

drawing shows head of handsome man with moustaches in victorian dress.

Kossuth in London. Courtesy of the Guildhall Library.

By the time the Chain Bridge was inaugurated, revolution had broken out in Hungary against Austrian rule, lead by Lajos Kossuth. A War of Independence followed it. During the war Kossuth sent an important message to London, and chose a young doctor, Mátyás Róth to be his envoy. With some difficulties Róth reached Britain, but while he was travelling, the war was lost. So he stayed in London for the rest of his life. He set up a homeopathic clinic, combined with a 'fitness centre', which flourished. He treated spinal illnesses with special exercises and water massage.

Kossuth's independent Hungary didn't last. With its fall scores of Hungarian patriots emigrated, many coming to London. Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894) himself left Hungary. A solitary fugitive, he first spent some time in Turkey, where they did not really wanted him. In October 1851 he landed at Southampton in an American man-of-war. He was officially entertained by the Mayor of London.

drawing shows large gathering of people in victorian dress

A meeting to hear Kossuth speak at Copenhagen Fields, near Islington. The crowd consisted of over 12,000 working men. Kossuth had a reputation for being a powerful orator. Courtesy of the Guildhall Library.

The Corporation of London accompanied him in procession through the City, and the way to Guildhall was lined by thousands of cheering people. (Unfortunately, the hall in which Kossuth made his speech in English was ruined during the Blitz.) Kossuth also addressed the Trade Unions at Copenhagen Fields in Islington. For seven years London served as his base, and after that he settled in Italy. A blue plaque now marks the house, 36 Chepstow Villas, Notting Hill Gate, W11, where he stayed with his family, and a short street is named after Lajos Kossuth in Greenwich SE10.

Some officers of Kossuth's Hungarian army also emigrated to London and settled in Notting Hill Gate to be near each other. A few were later buried in Kensal Rise Cemetery. The grave of General György Kmety (1813-1865) is marked by a ten foot high obelisk, where a little ceremony is performed every year on March 15, Hungary's National Day.

photo shows big ben, taken from the base looking upwards

Big Ben from below. Photo: K Smith

The Houses Of Parliament

Colonel Miklós Szerelmey (1803-1875), an army engineer, invented a coating material called zopissa board soon after settling in London. This fluid penetrates stone but allows it to 'breathe'. With the use of zopissa, Szerelmey's company saved the deteriorating stonework of the Houses of Parliament. Not so long ago Szerelmey's name could be seen on huge hoardings all over London, as his brick and stone cleaning company outlived him, but it was eventually merged with another.

The Orczys and the Scarlet Pimpernel

In 1870 Baron Félix Orczy (1831-1893) arrived in London to settle here with his wife and their daughter Emma. He left Budapest in anger. A trained musician and a friend of Liszt, he had been in charge of the Budapest National Theatre's opera company, but his colleagues disliked him, and after a short time he got the sack. He came to London to start a new career.

The Baron's opera Il Rinnegetto was premiered at Her Majesty's, London's second opera house, conducted by himself. The reception of this Hungarian story was rather cool, but Félix Orczy could earn enough with his musical skills to send her daughter to art school. There she met her future husband, Montague Barlow. Together they wrote illustrated books.

In 1902 Baroness Orczy sent the manuscript of her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel to twelve publishers, who all rejected it. But when she turned it into a play, it was phenomenally popular. The Pimpernel is always mentioned when the cultural role of London Hungarians is discussed. Consider that the quintessentially British saviour of French aristocrats sprang from the imagination of a Hungarian Baroness, Emma Orczy (1865-1947). Furthermore, the first director to film the book was the Hungarian Sir Alexander Korda (1893-1956). Moreover, he used an adaptation by the London based Hungarian writer Lajos Biró (1880-1947), and the Scarlet Pimpernel was played by Leslie Howard, the son of Hungarian immigrant parents, whose original name was Steiner.

Blue Plaques to Hungarians, official and otherwise

It is not easy to establish how many dwellings of eminent Hungaro-Brits have been marked by blue plaques in London. Four plaques are listed officially (those of Lajos Kossuth, Sir Alexander Korda, the composer Béla Bartók and the Nobel-Prize winner Dennis Gabor).

Apart from these, one was put up as a joke. The writer George Mikes (1912-1987) spared no expense when he ordered a blue ceramic plaque to be fixed onto the outside wall of his Fulham house, with the legend: 'George Mikes lives here'. Unfortunately this was removed after Mikes' death.

There is also an official blue memorial tablet at Welbeck Mansions, 35 Welbeck Street W1, which only half counts. Vicky (Viktor Weisz), the popular political cartoonist of various London newspapers, always maintained the he was a Hungarian, but he was born after his parents emigrated to Berlin. You can see one or two of his cartoons on display at the Cartoon Museum during October.

The blue plaque at Fitzjohn's Avenue, NW3, placed on the wall of the former home and studio of Philip de László (1869-1937) looks genuine, but it is not listed officially. Perhaps it has been put up privately. Philip Alexius László de Lombos was a virtuoso portrait painter. He met an English girl in Munich where the both studied art, and fell in love with her. The girl was a member of the Guinness family, and her parents opposed the liaison, suspecting that the painter only wanted to marry into money. But de László was determined to show his worth and, being a brilliant artist, acquired commissions from the highest places. He painted the portrait of Franz Josef and Pope Leo XIII. among other world leaders, and consequently became wealthy and respected. The marriage was sanctioned. In 1907 the Hungarian artist settled in London, and the same year he painted the portrait of King Edward VII.

photo shows sculpted iron head

Statue of Béla Bartók near South Kensington tube station. The base is wreathed in metal flowers, and Bartók looks considerably lighter on his feet than many of the statues of London. Photo: K Smith

Hungarian Musicians....

London has always been an important centre for the arts. The violinist Jelly d'Arányi (1893-1966) began to give concert in England at the age of 14, and made London her home in 1923. Ralph Vaughan-Williams dedicated his Concerto Academico to her, and Béla Bartók composed two sonatas to d'Arányi and her violinist sister Adila Fachiri (1886-1962). The sisters gave many charity concerts in London during the Second World War, partnered by Dame Myra Hess, and for this, in 1946, they were both awarded the CBE.

It was Jelly who invited Bartók to London, where his modern music was much appreciated. There has been a blue plaque to Bartók on the wall of 7 Sydney Place since 1997. It says: 'Béla Bartók (1881-1945) Hungarian composer, stayed here when performing in London'. Two hundred meters from this elegant house, in front of South Kensington underground station, stands Bartók's handsome statue, sculpted by Imre Varga, and unveiled in October 2004.

photo shows feet wreathed in metal flowers

Bela Bartok's feet. Photo: K Smith

....and Scientists

A blue plaque marks the former home, 7a Queen's Gate, of Hungarian-born Dennis Gábor CBE, FRS (1900-1979), who began his career as a physicist in Hungary, but as a Jew he felt threatened by Hitler's expansionist policies, and in 1934 he came to England. After 1958 he was a Professor of Electron Physics at Imperial College, and invented, among other things, holography. For this he was awarded the Nobel-Prize in 1971.

Professor Gábor was a friend of another world-famous Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd (1898-1964), who also fled Europe because of Hitler, and for a while stayed in London, before settling in the United States.

In September 1933 he was standing waiting for the traffic light to change at the point where Southampton Row becomes Russell Square. That morning the papers had reported a speech by Ernest Rutherford, concerning the splitting of atomic nuclei. 33-year-old Szilárd had been thinking of the subject. When the green signal came, it put an idea into his head. Neutrons should be smashed into the nuclei of atoms. This should set up a chain reaction, just like traffic lights change their colours, and liberate energy on a very large scale. Eventually Szilárd's idea lead to the construction of the first atomic bomb.

stained glass shows female angel looking down kindly on three young washerwomen holding fabric

Ervin Bossányi 's The Angel Blesses The Washerwomen. Courtesy of Tate Britain. This stained glass is one of only two pieces in the Tate's collection. Bossányi got inspiration for the piece by watching women washing their clothes outdoors in rural France.

... and Artists

Other Hungarians left lasting marks on London. Like Leó Szilárd, the artist László Moholy Nagy (1895-1946) also spent some time in Britain before leaving for America, and when the Simpson menswear shop was built on Piccadilly in 1935-36 (now a Waterstone book-palace), Moholy Nagy was commissioned to carry out typographic design for all the shop signs. His Bauhaus style lettering was so original that it is now protected, and Waterstones have left it untouched. The artist also worked as a designer for London Transport.

Visiting Tate Britain you may decide to go to the basement cafe. By the stairs leading downwards is a large stained glass window, which bears the title The Angel Blesses the Washer Woman. It is the work of Hungarian Ervin Bossányi (1891-1975), who settled in London in 1934, and also designed windows for Uxbridge underground station.

photo shows large red sofa in room with decorated covering

Inside Willow Road, former home of Erno Goldfinger. Courtesy of the National Trust.

Hungarians In Hampstead

In North London Hampstead is populated by many expatriate Hungarians, and on Heath Street NW3 you can find the city's only Hungarian patisserie.

At the edge of Hampstead Heath stands a modern building 1-3 Willow Road now managed by the National Trust as a museum housing a private art collection. It used be the home of architect Erno Goldfinger (1902-1987), who came to London in 1934. His neighbour, the thriller-writer Ian Fleming, disliked Goldfinger's design for the house with its angular simplicity, and tried to stop it being built. He failed, and in revenge, named one of his villains after the architect. Erno Goldfinger also designed Fleming House at Elephant and Castle for the Ministry of Health, and in 1972, Trellick Tower. The tower was deeply controversial but is now a Grade II listed building.

photo shows 40s house exterior

2 Willow Road. Courtesy of the National Trust

Thomas Balogh's (1905-1985) career was, perhaps, the most brilliant of all Hungaro-Brits. He served in Her Majesty's Government as Minister of State at the Department of Energy. Coming to Britain in 1931, he became a Lecturer at University College. Later on he taught at Balliol College, Oxford, but with the government appointment returned to London and lived at various addresses in Hampstead. In 1968 he was made a Life Peer and chose the title Lord Balogh of Hampstead.

Hungarians came to Britain in waves, parallel with historical tragedies befalling their country. The anti-Jewish laws lead to the emigration to Britain of eminent economists (three of them became Life Peers: Lord Balogh, Lord Káldor and Lord Bauer), musicians like Mátyás Seiber or Louis Kentner, artists such as Moholy Nagy or Peter Péri (1899-1967), whose joyful sculptural pieces decorate many London school buildings. Art historian János Wilde (1891-1970) settled in Dulwich and became the founder of the Courtauld Institute.


Film-makers also settled in London, including the Korda brothers and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988). You can read an account of their huge impact on British cinema of the 30s, 40s and 50s here.

The BFI site also carries a whole film, Refuge England about the experience of a Hungarian refugee who arrives in London shortly after the failure of the 1956 uprising. You can watch it for free from schools or any public library.

photo shows brass plaque of a crowd of people being driven back by tanks

A plaque commemorating those who died in the Hungarian uprising on Exhibition Road, London - a few hundred yards from the statue of Bela Bartok. Photo: K Smith


In 1945 Hungary became a satellite of the Soviet Union. The communist government nationalized every single private enterprise, including restaurants. The owner of Budapest's smartest café, Egon Rónay (1915-) came to London in 1946, and became famous through his food guides.

In 1956 the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution brought 12,000 Hungarians to Britain. Most of them settled in and around London and became an integral part of British society.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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