Italian Immigrants and Little Italy in Clerkenwell London
It was in the early 1800’s that the first wave of pioneering Italian immigrants arrived in the Clerkenwell district of London. They were mainly from Piemonte and Lombardia in northern Italy. Many were skilled craftsmen, such as jewellers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, glass blowers, tool makers, cabinet makers, piano makers, picture-framers and gilders, while others produced such specialist items as looking-glasses, barometers, hydrometers, thermometers and various other precision scientific instruments. These Italian artisans, together with the Jewish immigrants generally sought accommodation in the district of Hatton Garden and Charles Street. The area was well known for printing, engraving, bookmaking, and the manufacture of clocks and watches also.
However, there were poets, artists, radicals and revolutionaries also seeking refuge having fled the political instability of Italy at that time. The famous clown Joseph Grimaldi lived close to Little Italy in Exmouth Street in the 1830’s.
* Grimaldi the Clown
A Second Wave of Italian Immigrants
A second wave of Italian immigrants followed bringing other skills and crafts, such as plaster figurine makers from Lucca, craftsmen of mosaics from Friuli, Emilia and Tuscany, knife grinders, and artisans in terrazzo and parquet. Many sought the cheapest lodgings available around the area of Great Bath Street where they lived in very overcrowded conditions, mainly amongst other Italian immigrants.
Little Saffron Hill was also near to one of the “Ragged Schools” which Dickens was also known to have visited, and which he depicted in some of his novels. The Italian political exile Giuseppe Mazzini lived for a time in Clerkenwell. He dedicated himself to raising funds to assist his fellow expatriates. In 1841, he had founded a free school for poor Italian children at 5 Hatton Garden, which gave the children the opportunity of obtaining, at the very least, a basic education. Charles Dickens, who at that time was a great admirer of Mazzini and a passionate supporter of such schools for the poor, was taken to visit the new institution. The school was later transferred to Grenville Street.
Many Jews, escaping poverty and religious persecution, arrived in the Clerkenwell area. Many poor Irish families followed, having fled from the devastating consequences of the Potato Famine in Ireland. In London they could hire a pick and a shovel each day and obtain work as labourers.
Many young Italians fleeing social and economic problems in Italy and seeking a better life led to the next wave of Italian immigration in the middle of the 19th century, these immigrants mainly hailed from the north and the overpopulated Apennines. So desperate were they, that small bands of young men literally travelled on foot, working their way across the European continent in search of new opportunities.
It was popular to head for various staging posts along the way, such as Paris but the more adventurous would continue on to London, Liverpool and even to across the Atlantic to America.
The Italian Community of Little Italy
By 1850, nearly 2,000 Italian immigrants had settled in London, the main Italian community of Little Italy being situated around Back Hill, Eyre Street Hill, Saffron Hill, Little Saffron Hill, Warner Street, Baker’s Row, Crawford Passage, Summer Street and Ray Street.
Some young men were sent to work as labourers, barrow boys, or street peddlers selling plaster statuettes, while others worked as street entertainers and musicians.
Italian Organ Grinders of Clerkenwell
There were numerous Italian organ grinders that lived in Clerkenwell. If they were fortunate, they would have their own organ that was mounted on a hand cart. Other less fortunate wretches would have to hire a weighty contraption for the day, which they then had to transport by carrying it slung over their back.
Each man had his favourite haunt where he would set himself up, manually cranking the organ handle to produce the tunes, and hoping to earn some pennies. The “Hurdy Gurdy man”, often with a monkey who collected the few pennies earned, had become quite a common sight around London.
However, sometimes the loud unmelodic noise and repetitive tunes were considered to be a public nuisance. Charles Dickens wrote to a friend: “I could not write for more than half an hour without being disturbed by the most excruciating sounds imaginable, coming in from barrel organs on the street”. Some exasperated businesses and households would simply pay the organ grinder some money just to get him to move away from their doorsteps.
An excerpt from “Twice Round the Clock”, or “The Hours of the Day and Night in London” by George Augustus Sala: www.victorianlondon.org
“For so sure as the clock of St. Martin’s strikes eleven, so sure does my quiet street become a pandemonium of discordant sounds. My teeth are on edge to think of them. The “musicianers,” whose advent from Clerkenwell and the East-end of London I darkly hinted in a preceding chapter, begin to penetrate through the vaster thoroughfares, and make their hated appearance at the head of my street. – First Italian organ-grinder, hirsute, sunburnt, and saucy, who grinds airs from the “Trovatore” six times over, follows with a selection from the “Traviata,” repeated half a dozen times, finishes up with the “Old Hundredth” and the “Postman’s Knock,” and then begins again.”
* Street Life of London – Italian Harpist – by John Thompson 1876 Bishopsgate Institute
Photos have been accredited to the photographer / owner. Images marked * are in the Public Domain.