A detail from Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress showing a small black servant; black slaves were often employed in the more affluent London households of the eighteenth century.
London has always been a city of immigrants. It was once known as “the city of nations,” and in the mid-eighteenth century Addison remarked that “when I consider this great city, in its several quarters, or divisions, I look upon it as an aggregate of various nations, distinguished from each other by their respective customs, manners, and interests.” The same observation could have been applied in any period over the last 250 years. It is remarked of eighteenth-century London in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged that “here was a centre of worldwide experiences” with outcasts, refugees, travellers and merchants finding a “place of refuge, of news and an arena for the struggle of life and death.” It was the city itself which seemed to summon them, as if only in the experience of the city could their lives have meaning. Its population has been likened to the eighteenth-century drink “All Nations,” made up of the remains at the bottoms of various bottles of spirit; but this is to do less than justice to the energy and enterprise of the various immigrant populations who arrived in the city. They were not dregs or leftovers; in fact the animation and enterprise of London often seemed to invade them and, with one or two exceptions, these various groups rose and prospered. It is the continuing and never-ending story. It has often been remarked that, in other cities, many years must pass before a foreigner is accepted; in London, it takes as many months. It is true, too, that you can only be happy in London if you begin to consider yourself as a Londoner. It is the secret of successful assimilation.
Fresh generations, with their songs and customs, arrived at least as early as the time of the Roman settlement, when London was opened up as a European marketplace. The working inhabitants of the city might have come from Gaul, from Greece, from Germany, from Italy, from North Africa, a polyglot community all speaking a variety of rough or demotic Latin. By the seventh century, when London rose again as an important port and market, the native and immigrant populations were thoroughly intermingled. There was also a more general change. It was no longer possible to distinguish Britons from Saxons and, after the northern invasions of the ninth century, the Danes entered the city’s racial mixture. By the tenth century the city was populated by Cymric Brythons and Belgae, by the remnants of the Gaulish legions, by East Saxons and Mercians, by Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, by Franks and Jutes and Angles, all mingled and mingling together to form a distinct tribe of “Londoners.” A text known as IV Aethelred mentions that those who “passed through” London, in the period before the Norman settlement, were “men from Flanders, Pontheiu, Normandy and the Ile de France” as well as “men of the emperor: Germans.”
In fact London has always been a hungry city; for many centuries it needed a permanent influx of foreign settlers in order to compensate for its high death-rate. They were also good for business, since immigration has characteristically been associated with the imperatives of London trade. Foreign merchants mingled here, and intermarried, because it was one of the principal markets of the world. On another level, immigrants came here to pursue their trades when denied commercial freedom in their native regions. And, again, other immigrants arrived in the city ready and able to take on any kind of employment and to perform those tasks which “native Londoners” (given the relative nature of that phrase) were unwilling to perform. In all instances immigration corresponded to employment and profit; that is why it would be sentimental and sanctimonious to describe London as an “open city” in some idealistic sense. It has acquiesced in waves of immigration because, essentially, they helped it to prosper.
There were, however, occasions of criticism. “I do not at all like that city,” Richard of Devizes complained in 1185. “All sorts of men crowd there from every country under the heavens. Each brings its own vices and its own customs to the city.” In 1255 the monkish chronicler Matthew Paris was bemoaning the fact that London was “overflowing” with “Poitevins, Provençals, Italians and Spaniards.” It is an anticipation of late twentieth-century complaints that London was being “swamped” by people from Africa, the Caribbean, or Asia. In the case of the thirteenth-century chronicler there is an atavistic and incorrect notion of some original native race which is being displaced by others. Yet other forces are at work in his attack upon the foreigners; he was not wholly sympathetic to the commercial instincts of the capital, and felt himself alienated or removed from its heterogeneous life. Thus to single out foreign merchants was a way of neutralising or challenging the city’s commercial nature. Those who attacked immigrants were in effect attacking the business ethic which required the constant influx of new trade and new labour. The attack did not succeed; it never has succeeded.
The immigrant rolls of 1440–1 provide an absorbing study in ethnicity and cultural contrast. An essay by Sylvia L. Thrupp in Studies in London History, “Aliens in and around London in the Fifteenth Century,” offers interesting parallels with other periods. Some 90 per cent were classified as Doche; this was a generic term including Flemish, Dane and German, but more than half in fact came from Holland. The evidence of their wills suggests that their common characteristics were “a striving towards piety and economic advancement through honest work and mutual help within the group,” an observation which could equally be applied to more recent immigrants from, for example, South Asia. These fifteenth-century immigrants tended to settle into defined trades such as goldsmithery, tailory, haberdashery, clock-making and brewing. They were also celebrated as printers. Others mingled within the broader urban community as beer-sellers, basket-makers, joiners, caterers and servants within London households or at London inns. Evidence from the guilds and from extant wills also “indicates that English became the means of communication within this group,” again a characteristic and often instinctive response of any immigrant community. In the city wards the Italians comprised “a commercial and financial aristocracy,” although there were differences within the group. There were Frenchmen, and a number of Jews; and “Greek, Italian, and Spanish physicians,” but the underclass of that period seems to have been Icelanders who were commonly employed as servants.
There was a period of sustained suspicion in the 1450s, when Italian merchants and bankers were condemned for usury. But the imbroglio passed, leaving only its rumours as confirmation of the fact that Londoners were particularly sensitive to commercial double-dealing. The “Evil May Day” riots of 1517, when the shops and houses of foreigners were attacked by a mob of apprentices, were dispelled with equal speed and without any permanent effect upon the alien population. This has been the custom of the city over many centuries; despite violent acts inspired by demagoguery and financial panic, the immigrant communities of the city have generally been permitted to settle down, engage with their neighbours in trade and parish work, adopt English as their native language, intermarry and bring up their children as Londoners.
A wave of immigration in the mid-1560s, however, when the Huguenots sought refuge from Catholic persecution, provoked a general alarm. On 17 February 1567, there was “a great watch in the City of London … for fear of an insurrection against the strangers which were in great number in and about the city.” The Huguenots were accused of trading secretly among themselves and of engaging in illicit commercial practices such as hoarding. They “take up the fairest houses in the city, divide and fit them for their several uses [and] take into them several lodgers and dwellers”; thus they were held directly responsible for London’s overcrowding. Even if the children of these immigrants “born within this realm are by law accounted English,” they remained foreigners by “inclination and kind affection.” Once more it is a familiar language, adopted by those who were uneasy at the presence of “aliens” in their midst. There were also charges that they pushed up the prices of London properties.
It was perhaps inevitable that, at times of financial recession or depression, the onus fell upon the supposedly unfair or restrictive commercial practices of the “aliens.” In similar manner, at times of growth and expansion, the presence of the same traders was greeted as an indication of the city’s munificence and varied wealth. Addison, on viewing the polyglot assembly at the Royal Exchange, remarked that it “gratifies my Vanity, as I am an Englishman, to see so much an Assembly of Country-men and Foreigners consulting together upon the private Business of Mankind, and making this Metropolis a kind of Emporium for the whole Earth.” There is no Jew-baiting or Francophobia in this account.
In 1850 William Wordsworth, writing of his earlier residence in London, reflected upon the fact that within the city crowd he had found
every character of form and face:
The Swede, the Russian; from the genial south,
The Frenchman and the Spaniard; from remote
America, the Hunter-Indian; Moors,
Malays, Lascars, the Tartar and Chinese
And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns.
He also mentions the “Italian … the Turk … the Jew” and can thus be said to provide a comprehensive survey of the immigrant population. It provides a now familiar insight into the character of a city which contains many nations within itself, but in the nineteenth century there came a fresh movement of political as opposed to religious refugees. Carlyle noticed their presence in London when he observed that “one might mark the years and epochs by the successive kinds of exiles that walk London streets and, in grim silent manner, demand pity from us and reflections from us.” The Russian revolutionary Kropotkin celebrated London as the haven for political refugees from all over the world, and indeed it has been claimed that by the close of the nineteenth century the city had become the most significant arena for the dissemination of political ideas, for the creation of political ideologies, and for the promulgation of political causes. So there were Spanish refugees in Somers Town—“you could see a group of fifty or a hundred stately tragic figures, in proud threadbare coats; perambulating, mostly with closed lips, the broad pavements of Euston Square and the regions about St. Pancras New Church.” They became conspicuous in 1825 and then, like many other such groups, vanished almost as suddenly as they had first arrived. In the spring of 1829, according to a diarist of the period, “there was an abrupt increase in the numbers of French in London”; as political agitation and civic uprisings fluctuated in intensity, so did the numbers of the French. London became the political barometer for the whole of Europe. Garibaldi and Mazzini came, as did Marx and Engels; in 1851 Herzen and Kossuth arrived, the one a Russian, the other a Hungarian; so did political refugees from Poland and Germany. England, and in particular London, was the place most welcoming to exiles.
The history of any one group is filled with profound interest. There were Jews, Africans, and representatives of most of the European races, at the time of the Roman settlement. It is not too much to claim that their lives have haunted London ever since. The mystery of difference and of oppression has been played out over the centuries, touching upon the need to define oneself or one’s race and implicated in the pride or susceptibility of a “native” population. This narrative has been largely conceived in terms of acceptance and assimilation, but no known human history is without its victims.
The Jews suffered early from prejudice and brutality. Refugees from the Rouen pogrom arrived in the city in 1096, but the first documentary evidence for a Jewish quarter emerges in 1128. They were not permitted to engage in ordinary commerce but were allowed to lend money, the “usury” from which Christian merchants were barred; then of course they were blamed or hated for the very trade imposed upon them by the civic authorities. There was a murderous assault upon their quarters in 1189 when “the houses were besieged by the roaring people … because the madmen had not tools, fire was thrown on the roof, and a terrible fire quickly broke out.” Many families were burned alive, while others fleeing into the narrow thoroughfares of Old Jewry and Gresham Street were clubbed or beaten to death. There was another pogrom in 1215, and on certain occasions the Jews took refuge in the Tower in order to escape the depredations of the mob. They suffered from the noble families who were indebted to them, also, and in strange anticipation of a later destiny they were obliged to wear a sign upon their clothes in recognition of their race. It was not the Star of David, but a tabula or depiction of the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were supposed to have been miraculously inscribed.
In 1272 hundreds of Jews were hanged on suspicion of adulterating the coinage, and then eighteen years later—their usefulness at an end after the arrival of Italian and French financiers—all were expelled, beaten, spat upon or killed in a mass exodus from the city. It would have seemed that the wandering race could find no permanent haven even in the cosmopolitan and commercial city of London. London, instead, had become the very pattern of urban exploitation and aggression. But some returned, quietly and almost invisibly, over the next two or three centuries under the guise of Christians; in the seventeenth century Charles I made use of their financial skills and resources but it was Cromwell who, with a more profound biblical knowledge, allowed the right of settlement after a “Humble Petition of the Hebrews at Present Residing in this city of London.” They requested that “wee may therewith meete at our said private devotions in our Particular houses without feere of Molestation either to our persons famillys or estates.” These were Sephardic Jews who, like Isak Lopes Chillon, one of the signatories to the petition, came out of Spain and Portugal; but in the latter part of the seventeenth century, from central and eastern Europe, arrived the Ashkenazi Jews who were less affluent, less well educated, and variously depicted as “down-trodden” and “poverty-stricken.” Charles Booth has described how “the old settlers held aloof from the newcomers, and regarded them as a lower caste, fit only to receive alms.”
And here emerges the other face of the immigrant population. The newcomers were not necessarily the accepted and acceptable, not merchants and doctors, but the wandering alien, the lowly refugee, the poor unskilled migrant fit only for the “sale of old clothes or in peddling goods such as fruit, jewellry and knives.” The Ashkenazim were representative of an entire impoverished and wandering population, alternately exploited and abused by the native residents.
More Ashkenazi Jews arrived at various notable occasions in the eighteenth century; there were persecutions, and partitions, and sieges, which sent them flocking to their co-religionists already in London where the first Ashkenazi synagogue had been established in Aldgate in 1722. But they were not welcomed, principally because they were poor. It was suggested that they would “deluge the kingdom with brokers, usurers and beggars”; once more emerges the irrational but instinctive fear of being “swamped.” They were also accused of taking jobs from native Londoners, although, since they could not be apprenticed to Christian masters, the fear of their usurping available employment was a false one. But, in London, such fears have always been widely advertised and believed; in a society where financial want and insecurity were endemic among the working population, any suggestion of unfair labouring practices could arouse great discontent. Thus in the 1750s and 1760s Jew-baiting became a “sport, like cock-throwing, or bull-baiting, or pelting some poor wretch in the pillory.”
There is another problem, evinced as early as the seventeenth century, whereby immigrants are lent distinct and opprobrious identities. “As the Frenchmen love to be bold, Flemings to be drunken,” Thomas Dekker wrote in 1607, so “Irish [love] to be costermongers” or street pedlars. It is a question, in the modern term, of “stereotyping” which afflicts all migrant populations. The irony, of course, is that certain groups seem unable to escape this matrix of false expectations and misperceptions. The London Irish, for example, had always been typecast as the poorest of the poor. By 1640 parish records note the presence of “a poor Irishman … a poore distressed man from Ireland … a shroude for an Irishman that dyed … a poore gentleman vndone by the burning of a cittie in Ireland … his goods cast away comeing from Ireland … four poore women and sixe children that came oute of Ireland … poor plundered Irish.” All these instances, and more, come from the registers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields and evoke the first steps in a sad history of migration. Yet it was not quite the beginning. Eleven years before, an edict had declared that “this realm hath of late been pestered with a great number of Irish beggars, who live here idly and dangerously, and are of ill-example to the natives.” This has always been one of the cries against the immigrants of London: that they are lazy, living off hand-outs like beggars, and thus demoralising the resident population. The assumption here must be that immigrants are a threat because they undermine the will to work, and provide examples of successful idleness; they are also receiving help or charity which, paradoxically, the native population claims by right to itself. The same complaints have been levelled in recent years against the Bangladeshi population of Whitechapel, and of Tower Hamlets in general.
There were riots against the Irish, too, once more on the prevailing assumption that they were allowing themselves to be used as cheap employment—“letting themselves out to all sorts of ordinary labour,” Robert Walpole wrote, “considerably cheaper than the English labourers have.” There were masters who took them in “for above one-third less per day.” Few observers stopped to consider the measure of poverty and desperation which would encourage them to accept almost starvation wages; instead there was open hostility and violence directed against them, committed by mobs which “arose in Southwark, Lambeth and Tyburn Road.” There were assaults upon the Irish in Tower Hamlets, Clare Market and Covent Garden. During the Gordon Riots, in 1780, under the lambent cry of “No Popery!,” Irish dwellings and public houses were indiscriminately attacked and pulled down. Another familiar component of these actions against the immigrants was the prevailing belief that many of them were criminals come to prey upon unsuspecting Londoners. One city magistrate, in 1753, argued that “most of the robberies, and the murders consequent upon them, have been committed by these outcasts from Ireland.” Just as the Jews were receivers, so the Irish were thieves. London was “the refuge” where dangerous or depraved immigrants “seek shelter and concealment.” The meaning of “refuge,” then, can subtly change from haven to lair.
Among these riots and alarms there was another group of immigrants who, if they stirred little outrage, excited even less sympathy. They were the Indians, the forgotten ancestors of the twentieth-century arrivals, who came to London as servants or slaves; some remained in employment, while others were summarily dismissed or ran away to a vagrant life. There were “hue and cry” advertisements in the public prints—a guinea for the recapture of “a black boy, an Indian, about thirteen years old run away the 8th ins. from Putney with a collar about his neck with this inscription, ‘The Lady Bromfield’s black, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.’” Other advertisements were placed to discover an “East India Tawney Black” or a “Run-away Bengal Boy.” Other Asian servants were “discharged” or “dumped,” having attended their employers on their passage from India, so that they were reduced to a life upon the streets. One Indian visitor wrote to The Times in order to complain about the presence of Indian beggars who were “a great annoyance to the Public, but more so to the Indian gentlemen who visit England.” The Public Advertiser in 1786 observed that “those poor wretches who are daily begging for a passage back, proves that the generality of those who bring them over leave them to shift for themselves the moment they have no further occasion for their services.” These were the unwilling immigrants.
Although the general number of European immigrants increased throughout the nineteenth century, the Jews and the Irish remained the targets of public opprobrium. They were the object of derision and disgust because they lived in self-contained communities, popularly regarded as squalid; it was generally assumed, too, that they had somehow imported their disorderly and insanitary conditions with them. Philanthropic visitors to the Irish rookeries discovered such scenes “of filth and wretchedness as cannot be conceived.” Somehow these conditions were considered to be the fault of the immigrants themselves, who were accustomed to no better in their native lands. The actual and squalid nature of London itself, and the social exclusion imposed upon the Irish or the Jews, were not matters for debate. The question—where else are they to go?—was not put. Similarly the fact that immigrants were willing to accept the harshest and most menial forms of employment was also used as another opportunity for clandestine attack, with the implied suggestion that they were good for nothing else. Yet the Jews became part of the “sweated” system, in order to make enough money to move out of the unhappy situation in which they were placed. They no more appreciated the noisome conditions of Whitechapel than did philanthropic visitors. Their poverty became the object of pity and disgust, while their attempts to transcend it were met with hostility or ridicule.
The popular prejudice against another Asian group is representative. By the late nineteenth century the Chinese, of Limehouse and its environs, were considered to be a particular threat to the native population. In the newspapers they were portrayed as both mysterious and menacing, while at a later date the dangerous fumes of opium rose in the pages of Sax Rohmer, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. A cluster of associations was then reinforced. These particular immigrants were believed to “contaminate” the surrounding urban population, as if the presence of aliens might be considered a token of disease. Throughout the history of London there has run an anxious fear of contagion, in the conditions of an overpopulated city, and that fear simply changed its form; the fear of pollution had become moral and social rather than physical or medical. In fact the Chinese were a small and generally law-abiding community, certainly no more lawless than the residents by whom they were surrounded. They were also disparaged because of their “passivity”; the spectre of the eastern habit of opium-smoking was resurrected, but in fact the Jews had also been characterised as the “passive” recipients of scorn and insult. It was as if the native London tendency towards violence were somehow provoked or inflamed by those who eschewed violence in their daily intercourse. The enclosed nature of the Chinese community in turn provoked a sense of mystery, and suspicions of evil; there was particular concern about the possibility of sexual licence in their “dens of iniquity.” Once more these are characteristic of more general fears about immigration and resident aliens. They emanate in hostile attacks upon Russian Jews at the start of the twentieth century, against Germans during the world wars, against “coloureds” in 1919. These anxieties were directed against Commonwealth immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, and were in turn followed by hostility against Asian and African migrants in the 1980s and 1990s. The pattern changes its direction, but it does not change its form.
Yet with fear, on certain occasions, comes respect. This is nowhere more evident than in the sometimes grudging attention paid to the fact that a variety of immigrants retained their fidelity to a particular religion or orthodoxy. Their imported faith was in such contrast to the generally disaffiliated or frankly pagan inclinations of London’s native population that it was often a matter of remark. The faith of the Jews, for example, was regarded as providing a strong moral presence and continuity in the East End; ironically it was seen as one method with which they withstood assault and opprobrium from other Londoners. The Protestant faith of the Huguenots, the Catholic faith of the Irish and of the Italians in Clerkenwell, the Lutheran faith of the Germans: such religious practices were also considered a redeeming feature. “Then he would catch sight of one of the old, Jewish black garbed men, venerable and bearded”—so runs one narrative of the East End, The Crossing Point by G. Charles—“now so few in the quarter but occasionally to be seen, and his heart would lift with a kind of passionate nostalgia as if through such men he could still touch the certainty, the vitality, the rough, innocent, ambitious, swarming life of those early immigrants with so much before them of promise.” This passage evokes those other aspects of immigrant life which, in the context of great and overwhelming London, are often disregarded; there is “nostalgia” for the certainties of an old faith, but also a fascinated attention to that “vitality” and “ambition” which have helped to create the contemporary multiracial city.
The Notting Hill Carnival, of Trinidadian origin, takes place in mid to late August, exactly as the old Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield did. It is an odd coincidence which emphasises the equally curious continuities of London life, but it throws into relief one of the strangest stories of urban immigration when black and white confronted the mystery of each other’s identity within the context of the city. In sixteenth-century drama “the Moor,” the black, tends to be lascivious, prone to irrational feeling, and dangerous. His appearance upon the stage is of course a consequence of his entry into London, where colour became the most visible and most significant token of difference. There were Africans during the long existence of Roman London, and no doubt their successors by intermarriage continued to live in the city during its Saxon and Danish occupations. But sixteenth-century trade with Africa, and the arrival of the first black slaves in London in 1555, mark their irruption into the city’s consciousness. If they were heathen, did they possess souls? Or were they somehow less than human, their skin the mark of a profound abyss which set them apart? That is why they became the object of fear and curiosity. Although relatively few in number, most of them watched and controlled as domestic slaves or indentured servants, they were already a source of anxiety. In 1596 Elizabeth I despatched a letter to the civic authorities complaining that “there are of late diverse blackamoores brought into these realms, of which kinde there are already here too manie,” and a few months later the queen reiterated her sentiment “that these kinde of people may be well spared in this realme, being so populous.” Five years later a royal proclamation was announced, in which “the great number of begars and Blackamoores which are crept into this realm” were ordered to leave.
Yet, like all such proclamations touching upon London and London’s population, it had little effect. The imperatives of trade, particularly with the islands of the Caribbean, were more powerful. Africans arrived as the slaves of plantation owners, or as sailors free and unfree, or as “presents” for affluent Londoners. In addition the increase of traffic with Africa itself afforded open access to the ports of London where many black crews found temporary homes in the eastern suburbs. Black servants also became popular, and fashionable, in the households of the nobility. So the population grew and, by the mid-seventeenth century, blacks had become unremarkable if still unfamiliar members of the urban community. Most of them were still indentured or enslaved and, according to James Walvin’s The Black Presence, “consigned to the status of sub-human property”; the evidence of their existence in London is thereby confined to “decaying headstones, crude statistics in crumbling parish registers, cryptic advertisements.” This of course is also the destiny of most Londoners, and it might be said that these black immigrants—seen, as it were, by a reverse image—represent in emblematic form the inflictions of London itself.
On 11 August 1659, an advertisement in Mercurius politicus concerned “A Negro boy, about nine years of age, in a gray Searge suit, his hair cut close to his head, was lost on Tuesday last, August 9, at night, in St. Nicholas Lane, London.” Those who were “lost,” or ran away, found themselves upon the mercy of the streets. One German observer noted, in 1710, that “there are in fact such a quantity of Moors of both sexes … that I have never seen so many before. Males and females frequently go out begging.” The most significant abuses occurred, however, among those who were in more orthodox employment; until a famous trial in 1772, the Somerset case, established that the English courts would not recognise slave status, they were still slaves labouring for their masters. The London Sessions reported a case, in 1717, of a black immigrant, John Caesar, who with his wife had worked as a slave “without wages for fourteen years” for a company of printers in Whitechapel. As late as 1777 an advertisement appeared concerning a “black servant man about twenty-four years of age named William of a brown or tawney complexion” wearing “a parson’s great coat, blue breeches, white Bath flannel waistcoat, yellow gilt shoe buckles, and a beaver hat with a white lining.” He had run away and, although his appearance seemed fashionable and exemplary, the advertisement noted that “He is also the property of his master, and has a burnt mark L.E. on one of his shoulders.” This was the brand not of infamy but of inhumanity; it was a way in which the blacks could be marked out as something less than human. In a commercial city, they became part of its movable property. Thus in the eighteenth century there were a large number of notices advertising their sale—“To be sold a negro boy aged eleven years Enquire at the Virginia Coffee House in Threadneedle Street … his price is £25, and would not be sold but the person he belongs to is leaving off business.”
And yet the condition of London bears another witness to their fate. These commercial transactions were undertaken by the wealthy or the well connected; there can be little doubt that the “gentlemen” who purchased and sold their little slaves would have been quite happy to see the “lower orders” of London generally consigned to such servitude. In that sense the fate of the black slave was representative of civic and administrative oppression on a larger scale. That is why the London crowd treated the black population with a certain amount of sympathy and fellow-feeling. It is a manifest expression of that native egalitarianism which has already been defined as one of the moving spirits of London life. That egalitarianism, to be seen at its most profound among the poor and wretched, is evinced in the life of a “black one-legged violinist” named Billy Walters who was nicknamed “the King of the Beggars.” It was said that “every child in London knew him.” It has often been observed how the prophets of racial conflict in London have been proved false; the voices crying doom, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, have since fallen quiet. We may find the causes of that relative harmony and tolerance, between black and white, in the general urban sympathy for the mistreated black immigrants of the eighteenth century.
Yet as their presence grew, even very slightly, so did the anxieties about the “blackness” in the midst of London. John Fielding, a London magistrate in the mid-eighteenth century, suggested that they became a subversive element almost as soon as they arrived in the city, particularly when they realised that white servants performed the same functions as themselves. To be black, in other words, was not a unique or an inalienable mark of servitude. So “they put themselves on a footing with other servants, became intoxicated with their liberty, grew refractory … so as to get themselves discharged.” And when they were “discharged” into London, what then? They “corrupt and dissatisfy the mind of every black servant that comes to England.” Others made their way to the retired streets and alleys where a black community had established itself. So for the civic authorities “the black presence,” as it has been called, posed a double threat. Those in habitual servitude were being aroused to anger or complaint, while small clusters of immigrants were to be found in the “low” districts of Wapping, St. Giles and elsewhere.
The number of “destitute negroes” had also increased by the end of the eighteenth century; in particular black recruits who had fought for the English during the American War of Independence fell into dereliction on their arrival. This was another aspect of immigration, where the influx was the direct result of the actions of the host country; in that sense these black ex-soldiers created a recognisable line of descent to those twentieth-century migrants who left the ruins of empire. A pamphlet issued in 1784 stated that thousands of blacks “traversed the town, naked, pennyless, and almost starving.” As a result they were believed to threaten social order. The African, Afro-American or West Indian—as long as his or her skin was of the appropriate hue—was always and instinctively considered a “threat.” With that fear came also the prospect of miscegenation, since mixed marriages were not unusual in the poorer areas of London. Here the sixteenth-century connection of the “Moor” with lasciviousness was once more revived, as if a black skin were a token of “black” desires lying just beneath the surface of the human order. “The lower classes of women in England are remarkably fond of the blacks,” it was reported, “for reasons too brutal to mention.” A Committee for Relieving the Black Poor was set up with the sole purpose of assisting in expatriation. It was not a success. Less than five hundred, out of a population estimated between 10,000 and 20,000, embarked upon the emigrant ships—an indication, perhaps, of the fact that London remained their chosen city. However dolorous or impoverished their lives, the majority of black immigrants wished to remain in a place which in its daily commerce remained one of opportunity and diversion.
That population became acclimatised and, although still subject to racial taunts, a familiar presence in the streets of nineteenth-century London. They had become part of the “underclass” and were scarcely to be differentiated from it; as crossing-sweepers, as vagrants, or as beggars, they had become almost invisible. In the vast city they did not exist in numbers large enough to command public attention or concern; they were not competing for employment and so did not threaten anyone’s livelihood. They rarely appear in novels or narratives, except as occasional grotesques, and their general fate seems to have been one of settlement among the urban poor.
Yet the beginning of immigration from the Caribbean islands in the late 1940s set off a litany of familiar fears, among them the prospect of white unemployment, of intermarriage, and of general over-population. In the summer of 1948 the SS Empire Windrushbrought 492 young migrants from Jamaica. It marked the beginning of a process which would alter the demography of London and affect all aspects of communal life. The West Indians were in turn followed by immigrants from India, Pakistan and East Africa so that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is estimated that London harbours almost two million non-white ethnic minorities. Despite occasional racially motivated attacks, and despite the anxiety felt by certain minorities at the behaviour of the police, there is striking evidence that the egalitarian and democratic instincts of London have already marginalised fear and prejudice. Immigration is so much part of London that even its latest and most controversial manifestations eventually become a settled part of its existence. This became clear even in the aftermath of the Notting Hill riots of 1958, and in particular after the murder of a young Antiguan carpenter named Kelso Cockrane. An essential element of London life returned. “Normally, in the early days, you know,” one young West Indian informed the authors of Windrush, a study of twentieth-century immigrants from the Caribbean, “whenever something appeared in the papers, you could always test the temperature by going on the bus. People would be very hostile. And in this instance, after that funeral, there was a turning point. You could sense a change. People were more friendly. People began to react and respond in a different way.” There have been riots, and murders, in the course of the last twenty years but no one can doubt that the central and essential movement within London has been one of absorption and assimilation. It is an intrinsic aspect of its history.
The city itself, in the process, has also changed. The authors of Windrush, Michael and Trevor Phillips, provide an interesting context for this alteration. They suggest that workers from Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere, were not simply “migrating to Britain.” They were in effect migrating to London because “it was the life of the city which called to them and which they had begun to crave.” In the twentieth century the city had effectively created the conditions of modern industrial and economic life; thus for the new settlers the journey to London was the only way “to engage with the broad currents of modernity.” It is a significant observation in itself, and one that throws a suggestive light upon all immigrant transactions over the last thousand years. They were drawn to the city itself. London called them. To settle there was, in some oblique and intuitive way, to be part of the present moment moving into futurity. The importance of time within the city has already been outlined but, for the first generations of the immigrant population, the city represented the movement of time itself.
Yet their vitality and optimism in turn brought energy back into the city. Throughout the 1960s, for example, it is claimed that the immigrants themselves assisted the “process of remodelling and modernising” the streets and houses in which they lived. Areas like Brixton and Notting Hill had been “declining and rundown since the nineteenth century,” but the new arrivals “revalued huge swathes of the inner city.” The use of the word “revalued” suggests the economic effectiveness of the settlers, but the transition from black immigrant to black Londoner also called upon different resources. Caribbeans “had to go through a fundamental series of changes in order to live and flourish in the city”; like the Jews or the Irish before them, they had to acquire an urban identity which maintained their inheritance while at the same time allowing its smooth passage into the huge, complex but generally welcoming organism of London. That urban environment might have seemed anonymous, or hostile, or frightening, but in fact it was the appropriate arena for the Caribbeans and other immigrants to forge a new identity.
So it is that the authors of Windrush suggest that “the instinct of the city was to … equalise choices” and “to level out differences between consumers and producers.” This is the new egalitarianism which in turn equalises the differences between the various races which comprise it, since “the essential job of the city was to put people together.” Yet in turn “the character of the city … came to define the identity of the nation,” and the existence of a various and heterogeneous London has helped to redefine the notion or nature of Englishness itself. Now there are Montserratians in Hackney and Anguillians in Slough, Dominicans in Paddington and Grenadians in Hammersmith. Where once there were Swiss in Soho, and Cypriots in Holborn, there are now Barbadians in Notting Hill and Jamaicans in Stockwell. There are Punjabis in Southall and Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, Turks in Stoke Newington and Pakistanis in Leyton. Each community has replicated its independence within the larger context of London, so that once more the city takes on the aspects of a world in itself. The city, that “globe of many nations,” acts as a paradigm and forerunner in the great race of life.