There have been Italians within the confines of the United Kingdom since Roman times, however modern immigration began with churchman, academics, artists, merchants and aristocrats from around the 13th Century. This gave way to an influx in the 19th Century with the vast majority coming from villages in the North of Italy, usually as seasonal workers who had walked across France to the French ports.
During the period of 1820 – 1850 there were approximately 4,000 Italians living in England with around half of them living in London and hailing from the Como and Lucca region’s. By the 1870s this had grown to include the regions around Parma and Liri.
Many of these migrants who came for seasonal work remained beyond the season, often marrying local women or bringing their families with them.
The London epicentre of the Italian community was known then, as now as Little Italy and is located in Clerkenwell. Across many Victorian writings there are descriptions of the cramped and poor conditions which the Italians shared with the Irish population and the English poor. The hope always being that families saved enough money to improve their living conditions, often the reality was very different.
Some of the Italian population spread across the North of England into Scotland and to Wales, although not in huge numbers. The majority remaining in London. By 1891 the Census indicates that the majority of those in London worked as street sellers and organ grinders. The Italian population in Manchester indicates that many were involved with modeling, plastering and tile makers. In Yorkshire many were involved in the cutlery industry especially around the Sheffield area. In contrast, those in Wales were involved with shipping, either working in industries that serviced shipping or as seaman on board British ships. Others worked in the coal industry, for which Wales is famous.
From the 1861 Census in Scotland we can determine that there was only 118 Italians in the region, by 1901 this had grown to a substantial 4,050. These Italian communities were becoming economically stronger often running food or ice cream venues and in some cases moving from the Cities to smaller towns.
The First World War reduced the Italian migration substantially and it remained fairly low until after the Second World War when we see a rise in Italians coming to the United Kingdom.
Some Italians came to the United Kingdom as Prisoners of War and after the war ended remained here, taking an English wife and building a new life. This then lends the way to the post war boom of immigration which often joined the earlier established Italian communities.
Furthermore, from the 1950s there was an influx from the Southern towns of Italy and Sicily. Those regions were often poor with limited work, therefore they travelled to the United Kingdom and became part of a workforce to rebuild Britain after the war. The most noticed communities are in Woking, Bedford, Nottingham and in Cambridgeshire.
Regardless of when those Italian migrants arrived they came bringing with them moments from home, recipes, traditions, language and of course their religion. They say that the Church is often at the heart of the community, and that is especially the case with the Italian population. We shall see over the rest of this 4-part series about the Italian Churches that formed as part of the wider Catholic community.