Italians In Clerkenwell From The 1800s To The 1960s

By Verusca Calabria | 14 November 2006
photo shows older couple in evening dress hugging closely.

An advertisment for Gennaro's Restaurant, Old Compton Street, Soho in 1930 - "the restaurant where you are greeted with a Smile and a Flower"

For the past year Verusca Calabria has been collecting an oral history of Italians in London. Here she tells us the story of the Italian community that settled in the Clerkenwell area of London from the 1800s onward.

19th century Beginnings

The 1880s was a time of mass migration from countries such as Italy, Spain and Austria-Hungary. Italians chose to migrate predominantly to the Americas, and to countries like France, Belgium, Germany and the UK. The reasons for migration centred around the agrarian crisis in the kingdom of Italy and the increased demographic growth coupled with the lowering of the death rate in the European continent as a whole.

The settlement of Italians in any sizable numbers in London, Manchester (Ancoats Little Italy), 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; they were quickly followed by a wave of poorer migrants from the Apennines. 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. As organ grinding declined, it was replaced by the selling of food, often in the streets, which gave rise to the import of chestnuts from the north of Italy and the migration of Italian boys who sold them during the winter months.

photo shows men in victorian dress with ice carts

Italian ice carters for the Gatti Ice Company, King's Cross, London 1890s. Gatti himself was an Italian-speaker from Switzerland.

Ice cream

Many changes were also taking place in the fabric of British society at this time which had a direct influence on the new comers. Paid holidays were introduced, creating leisure time that provided Italians with a market to sell their ice cream by seaside resorts. Ice cream was the trade that helped Italian migrants’ economic and demographic growth in the UK and was responsible for tripling their numbers in Britain between 1880s and 1901. Carlo Gatti’s ice company, which was situated where the Canal Boat museum is today, was also a large employer of Italians who would transport ice from Norway to London for refrigeration use up to 1950s.

A society of mutual assistance was also formed, the Mazzini Garibaldi’s club, it was first situated in Laystall Street and then moved to Red Lion Street. The club is still running today for entertainment purposes only.

photo shows memorial with lists of names

Exterior of St Peter's - the Italian church in Clerkenwell, showing the names of all those who drowned on the Arandora Star

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.

It became necessary to open the Italian hospital 1884 in Queen Square (WC1) to cater for the growing number of Italians in London; this institution closed down in 1980s. Furthermore, the Italian chamber of commerce opened in London in 1886 and in 1887 the first congregation of the missionary fathers to the migrants was established, The Scalabrini Fathers, that settled in London. They are still here today, in Kennington, London.

photo shows parents with girl

An Italian family in London in the 1890s

'Moral panic'

A growing moral panic ensued amongst the British middle classes; 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 UK and their villages of origin.

photo shows italian

Italian 'Scampagnata' day out organised bythe Mazzini Garibalidi club, England, 1930s


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 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. What ensued is captured by the expression: ‘Collar the Lot’. This phrase is often quoted by Italians that had been interned who are still alive to tell the tale (the expression has been credited to Winston Churchill). All men between the ages of 16 and 60 were interned in the Isle of Man, which had the effect of crippling the catering trades for lack of manpower.

photo shows brass plaque of drowning men at sea reaching up to a cross

Survivors of the Arandora Star were brought to an internment camp in Australia in 1941.

A decision was taken at the War Cabinet to export these internees to Canada and Australia. In July 1940, around 800 Italians were sent on the boat ‘Arandora Star’ that was to deport them to internment camps in Canada. However it was torpedoed by a German submarine and 471 Italian men lost their lives. The remaining survivors were sent to internment camps in Australia. It is to be noted that many of these men had been born in Britain or lived and contributed to British society for many years. They lost their lives tragically; a monument to them has been erected outside the Italian Roman Catholic church in Clerkenwell, London.

photo shows rows of italian chefs in big white hats

Italian chefs at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand, London, 1929

Workmen's cafes

From 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. Many people from Emilia Romagna came to London in the 1950s through ‘chain migration’ - that is they were connected through family ties to the 19th century Italian colony of Clerkenwell. This colony had established itself in the catering industry, running the classic fish and chips shops and workmen’s cafes. They provided a support network to people from Emilia Romagna by guaranteeing them a place to live and a job so that they could be issued with a 4 year work permit from the Home Office.

By 1960s, many Italians were able to afford their own cafes and restaurants that had the classic Formica counters, symbol of consumer culture in Britain. They worked very long hours for decades in order to afford their own homes and their children’s education. They were responsible for introducing Italian cuisine to Britain, from spaghetti Bolognese in the early 1960s to the introduction of ciabatta bread in the early 1980s.

photo shows mother and girl perched on bicycle ice cream van

Icecream barrow, London, 1920s

Gradually the first generation left the catering trade. The rising cost of leases coupled with the increasing commercial values of cafés’ 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 such as the boroughs of Finchley and Southgate, although 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 taken place around the church on the third Sunday of July since 1883.

Today Italians in London are actively involved in associations that relate to their regions of origins and the activities supported by the Italian church.

You can see an exhibition based on Verusca Calabria's oral history work amongst Italians who came from Emilia Romagna and Sicily in the mid 20th century. It's showing at Islington Local History Centre until Friday 17th November.

Then it travels to Herfordshire Archives until 20th December, and Epping Forest Museum from 27th January - 27th February 2007 (01992 716 882)

There's also an online version of the panels in the exhibition. You can read the story of people from Emiliano Romagna here and stories from Sicily here

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