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Italian Migration to Nineteenth Century Britain: Why and Where


"The movement of labouring people both within the Italian peninsula and abroad (be it seasonal, temporary or permanent) had been a traditional mode of life for many Italians from time immemorial." -- Lucio Sponza

The reasons for the change from this traditional mode of migration to what Sponza describes as a structural phenomenon starts in the mid-eighteenth century, when Italian rural society went through major changes. These were a growth in rural population outstripping resources, rising food prices and by the turn of the century the impact on the "stagnant rural life" of the occupation forces of Napoleon’s revolutionary armies. These included the confiscation of common and church lands which were distributed to supporters of Napoleon among the aristocracy: the reorganization of the rural economy along capitalist lines leading to the pauperization and dispossession of small farmers; 20 years of occupying armies living off the land; and with the end of the Napoleonic wars recession, then famine, in the rural areas in 1816-1817 as demand plummeted. The result was that many more people were forced to resort to the old tradition of ‘seasonal and vagrant migration’ with small numbers ending up in Britain who became the founders of the Italian Colony in London.

Most commentators at that time thought that the increase in migration would be a short term phenomena. The North of Italy had started the process of industrialization which was supposed to absorb people from the land when times got hard. Others sought different explanations as the conditions of the rural population steadily deteriorated throughout the nineteenth century. Sponza also examines the role of the Unification of Italy, Risorgimento. He places the Risorgimento within the framework of the wider European tensions between the nationalists and middle classes, created by industrialization and expanding trade, and the conservative reaction from the restored monarchies after the defeat of Napoleon.

In Italy a deal was struck between the landed aristocracy, who were monarchists, and the urban lower middle class, who were radical republicans. This deal, according to Sponza, allowed the Northern capitalists to expand their markets. But they were not strong enough to open up all of the rest of Italy to their reforms. Semi-feudal Southern Italy survived with its traditional rural society intact “Indeed, the agrarian capitalists and businessmen met half-way making concessions to each other.” The result was an agreement to support the status quo which strengthened the “surviving archaic society” in the South. At the same time industrialization in the North was failing to alleviate the worsening conditions. In Sponza’s opinion, these factors facilitated the collapse of the economy and the mass migration which occurred in the last part of the 19th Century.

Landowners responded in two ways to these developments. In rural areas working and tenure conditions became harsher as some landlords, increasing output, "squeezed" the peasants to take advantage of the expanded market in the North. Others made “unholy alliances with tiny small holders and labourers” in an attempt to delay the enforcement of legislation to increase production. Both actions increased migration. The first as the only way the peasants could improve their lives. The second was subtler in that the "defensive action" taken by these landowners carried on underpinning the traditional system of seasonal and permanent migration, which was part and parcel of the very insecure existence of the peasants from the mountainous regions of Italy. The second action was the main factor for the "emigration to Britain."


There had been Italian strolling artists in Britain since "at least the beginning of the 18th Century." The most famous legacy of this street theatre, according to Sponza, is Mr Punch. It wasn’t until 1820 that they became a feature of London street life with the noticeable increase in performers and street traders. They had now become more visible than the artisans whose numbers had also increased. In the early 19th century most of the migration would have been on foot from the North of Italy to Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany and a few ending up in Britain.

From the 1820s to 1851 Sponza accounts for 4000 Italian immigrants in England, with 50% of them living in London. The regional origins of most were the valleys around Como, and Lucca. The people from Como were skilled artisans, making barometers and other precision instruments. People from Lucca specialized in plaster figure making.

By the 1870s the main regional origins of Italian emigration to Britain were the valleys of Parma in the north, and the Liri valley, half way between Rome and Naples. A railway network had been started by this time and this helped the people from the Liri valley to migrate to the North of Italy, and then on to Britain. The people from Parma were predominately organ grinders, while the Neapolitans from the Liri valley (now under Lazio) made ice cream. According to Sponza’s research, the occupational structure of the immigrants, up to the 1870s, remained "substantially the same." After this date all itinerant employment crossed regional demarcations. (The example of some members of my own family who migrated from the Liri valley to Manchester and Liverpool in the 1880s, and then 1905, bears this out. They were sometimes described as organ grinders, ice cream makers, plaster figure makers, confectioners, and finally shop keepers.

The centre of the Italian community in Britain throughout the 19th Century, and indeed to the present day, is 'Little Italy’ situated in a part of London called Clerkenwell. Sponza’s description of its existence then, from an 1854 print, is of a "warren of streets around Hatton Garden." Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Gustave Dore's prints of London at that time fill in the images. As numbers increased and competition grew fiercer, so Italians spread to the north of England, Wales and Scotland. They were never in great numbers in the northern cities. For example, the Italian Consul General in Liverpool, in 1891, is quoted as saying that the majority of the 80-100 Italians in the city were organ grinders and street sellers of ice-cream and plaster statues. And that the 500-600 Italians in Manchester included mostly Terrazzo specialists, plasterers and modellers working on the prestigious, new town hall. While in Sheffield 100-150 Italians made cutlery.

According to Sponza, of the 1000 or so Italians in Wales at the end of the 19th century a third of them worked as seamen on British ships, a third worked in jobs that serviced shipping, such as ships chandlers, seamen's lodgings etc., and most of the rest worked in the coal mines.

In 1861, according to Sponza, there were 119 Italians in Scotland, the majority of them in Glasgow. By 1901 the Italian population was 4051. By this time the Italian communities were becoming more affluent. The Italian Scottish community was "…almost all engaged in small food shops – either ice cream shops or fish restaurants" and because of the cut throat saturated market in Glasgow, were prepared to move out into the smaller provinces and cities.

Source: Italian Immigrants in Nineteenth Century Britain: Reality and Images © Leicester University Press, 1988, Lucio Sponza.

Any mistakes in the above are due to my mis-reading of Lucio Sponza's book.

Rod Saunders