The Clerkenwell Italian Community: A History
“It all started with immigrants coming over on foot, for they couldn’t afford to use any other transport. They walked through Europe and then got a boat in Calais or near to reach the British shore,” says researcher Elaine Collins.
Thinking of parents with their families following along, their few belongings wrapped in makeshift bundles, walking towards the prospect of a better life across the Channel conjures up the image of a journey resembling that of the thousands of refugees who have been fleeing towards Europe in recent months.
But this is, in fact, a different story – one that traces back to the 19th century, and one whose protagonists were coming to the UK not from the Middle East or Africa, but from a much closer nation.
The Italian presence in the UK hardly goes unnoticed; from the disoriented newcomers to the fully-integrated elderly ones and those born here of Italian descent, the Italian community in the country is getting bigger year by year.
According to data from the Italian General Consulate of London (see left), there are currently 234,084 Italians registered as British residents and once you take into account the unregistered individuals, this figure is estimated to double.
An Old Phenomenon
Despite the recent increase, Italian immigration to the UK is not a new phenomenon.
It was in the early 1800s that the first wave of Italian settlers made their way to Britain, leaving behind a country still reeling in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.
Skilled craftsmen and artisans from Northern regions such as Emilia Romagna, Piemonte and Lombardia “first settled in the Clerkenwell area,” according to Elisabetta Zontini, professor at the University of Nottingham and Italian migration expert.
Then, from the middle of the century onwards, a new wave of Italians hailed to Clerkenwell, this time mostly poorer, younger people from the centre – particularly the overpopulated Apennine regions – and the South of the Italian peninsula.
“Those would work as street musicians or entertainers, or even pose as models in art studios,” historian Verusca Calabria explains.
Life in London’s “Little Italy”
By the second half of the 18th century, nearly 2,000 Italians were living in Clerkenwell, earning the area its nickname, “Little Italy”, as Louise Shapcott, a Clerkenwell-born Italian descendant, recalls:
“It was almost like an Italian village had been built in the middle of London.”
Yet life in 1700’s Clerkenwell was far less pleasant than today. “[Clerkenwell] was a slum area, the poorest of London at that time,” Ms. Calabria explains. “The housing was very bad quality, and the conditions of living terrible, but at least it was cheap.”
Louise Shapcott’s grandparents (pictured right) were among the many Italians who made Clerkenwell their home. Originally from Atina, South Lazio, they arrived in London in 1911.
After a while, they were finally able to settle in the heart of the Italian Quarter, at the bottom end of Little Saffron Hill.
However, “long gone were the days when golden saffron was harvested around there,” Louise explains. “Theirs was a dark, slum-like house. […] There were rats, infestations, cockroaches and other insects.” She continues:
“One time my mum went to the outside toilet and she was pulling the chain and that was a rat’s tail – she was petrified. And there it also used to leak [from the ceiling], so my grandfather would read the paper with an umbrella, sitting on the loo.”
The War Years
The First World War broke out soon after Louise’s grandparents had moved to London. But, as Louise notes: “At that time Italy was fighting on the side of the British, so at least being Italian wasn’t so much of a problem.”
World War Two was a different story, as Ms. Calabria explains: “When Mussolini declared war on Britain in June 1940, that was a turning point for the Italian community, as they and the British people became enemies overnight.”
Winston Churchill, concerned with being spied on from within, ordered a round-up of all of the ‘enemy’ male citizens of fighting age who were living on British soil and then shipped them to internment camps in countries such as Canada or Australia.
Across Britain, around 4,100 Italian men were arrested. Some were certainly fascists; many were nothing of the kind.
“This was a big psychological scar for the Italian community in Clerkenwell, because many of those men had been born in the UK, or had lived there for years,” Ms. Calabria concludes.
The Sinking of the Arandora Star: A Forgotten Tragedy of WW2
The first ship intended to transport “enemy aliens” away, the Arandora Star, left Liverpool at dawn on July 1st, 1940. It was carrying 1,564 passengers, 712 of whom were Italians. However, as journalist Gian Antonio Stella notes:
“By sailing without any Red Cross flag, nor an escort, the ship’s tragic fate was sealed from the beginning.”
A German U-boat intercepted the ship near the Irish coast and fired. Only 40 minutes into its voyage and the Arandora Star was gone, swallowed by the tides and the silence of history. With it died 802 passengers, including 446 Italians.
Despite the scale of the tragedy, in Britain, this went largely unmentioned at the time. “It’s only in recent years that awareness of this event has become known,” Ms. Collins says.
“Definitely the government downplayed it, but it was also the families of the victims and survivors who decided to erase the tragedy from their memories.”
This was the case for the family of Carlo Barsotti, who managed to survive the sinking but was then taken to an internment camp in Australia.
“My nonno stayed there the whole time of the war, but my mum never told me about it,” remembers Mr Barsotti’s granddaughter, Brenda Little. “When I finally found out myself, I asked her, and all she said was just ‘Oh yes, nonno was gone for 4 years’. I think the whole Italian community was so traumatised by it, they simply tried to put it out of their minds.”
Clerkenwell Today: An Enduring Italian legacy?
So now, two centuries and two World Wars after the arrival of the first Italian settlers, what has become of Clerkenwell’s Italian community? Throughout the last 30 years, following the gentrification of the area, a lot of the old families have moved elsewhere, notes Ms Collins.
“But quite often people would come back on a Sunday or on special events, gather at St Peter’s Church, catch up with their friends,” smiles Louise. “And all of a sudden you get that sense of the community again, and it is as if it has never gone.”