The Italians were generally hard working, and they quickly adapted to their new lives in London. Yet, family bonds remained strong. After a couple of years with money jingling in their pockets, they found themselves free to set off on the long gruelling journey back to their native towns or villages, bringing much needed funds for their empoverished families. Some Italians had the desire to return home with some savings to buy a house and a little piece of land of their own.
Others had the ambition of becoming padrones in their own right and they would lure their fellow villagers with tales of opportunity and success, thereby persuading a new batch of young lads to return to London with them.
Many men, at long last, were able to marry their fiancées, before sweeping them off to set up home and start a family in London. Others would send funds to pay for other members of their families to be able to make the trip to London. Thus, a network of migration developed and the flow of immigrants was at its peak between 1884 and 1920. Consequently, Clerkenwell’s“Quartiere Italiano” grew and expanded, stretching out to Warner Street and Mount Pleasant.
Immigrants also began to arrive from the poorer South of Italy, from such regions as the Liri Valley and Val di Comino. Many immigrants were uneducated and unskilled; their lives had been spent toiling the land.
Street music, eventually, was outlawed. Organ grinders, musicians, dancers were, therefore, prohibited from performing in the streets. However, the Italians were quick to learn and to use their initiative. Some were able to find employment as artists’ models and studio assistants, posing for such prestigious artists as John William Waterhouse, Lord Frederick Leighton, John Everett Millais and John Singer Sergeant. The most well known family of artists’ models were the Collarossi’s who came from the tiny village of Picinisco in the Val di Comino. See chapter on Artists Models.
Many turned their hand to the manufacture and vending of ice cream and other edible refreshments. See next chapter on Ice Cream.
Many Italians had started off poor, but many were resourceful and after many years of hard work and saving their pennies, they began to reap the benefits. Some had managed to scratch together enough to start their own little family business; in fact, this thriving and bustling Italian community soon had become self-sufficient.
There were shops specialising in Italian provisions, green grocers, butchers, bakers, confectioners, newsagents, tobacconists, barbers, hairdressers, tailors, dressmakers, cafes, public houses, clubs, restaurants, suppliers of ice, blacksmiths, carpenters, furniture makers, porters, and barrow boys, and many many others.
Some immigrants continued in their trade specialities, such as statuette makers, mosaicists, terrazzo parquet floor layers. Other immigrants went on to find employment in the hotel and catering trades, cafes, restaurants and clubs.
Some British folk regarded the Italian immigrants suspiciously and they judged the immigrants as being unruly, rowdy, ignorant, illiterate, and even immoral. These foreigners conversed in a strange incomprehensible tongue, ate unfamiliar foods, their bunches of wild offspring ran amuk in the streets and groups of men seemed to menacingly loiter on street corners.
In the 1880’s there was also a large influx of Jewish immigrants who were fleeing persecution in Russia, Austria and Poland. Most of those arriving were destitute and headed for the East End of London where, at first, they were accepted with sympathy. However, as time went on and more and more arrived, there was a public outcry - there had become an acute shortage of employment. A House of Commons Select Committee was formed to investigate the problem.
By 1901, the Italian population of Clerkenwell had grown to 11,000. To curb further immigration of foreigners in 1905, the British Government introduced the “Aliens Act”. The Act declared that any immigrant wishing to settle in this country had to have a job to go to and have accommodation arranged with someone already settled here.
Below - Photos taken in Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell c. 1901.
Dancing in the street to the music of a barrel organ
Not all Italians settled in London; some moved on to other British cities to find work or establish little businesses. For many, Clerkenwell was just a stepping stone leading on to other opportunities.