New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2020, ISBN: 9780300210972; 496pp.; Price: £15.00
King's College London
Date accessed: 21 February, 2024
According to a survey carried out by the National Federation of Fish Fryers in the 1960s, the first fish and chip shop was opened by Joseph Malins in 1860 on Old Ford Road in the East End of London (p. 234). The combination of the fried fish that had been sold and eaten in the Jewish East End since the early nineteenth century with chips created what became a quintessentially British meal. This is one of many examples included in Panikos Panayi’s Migrant City: A New History of London of how migrants have contributed to the culture and economy of London and in turn the United Kingdom.
Panayi makes clear the crucial role that migrants have played in the development of London as a global centre of trade, finance, culture, and politics. He ties this to London’s status as both the centre of a global empire and the largest city in the world for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More than half of migrants arriving in the United Kingdom from abroad moved to London, whose history of migration stretches back to its Roman founding. London, therefore, had long been cosmopolitan and by the late twentieth century had become ‘super-diverse’, with residents born in more than 179 countries, many beyond Europe or the former British Empire.
While the introduction and some sections of the book stretch back earlier, Panayi’s focus is largely on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The earlier examples provide useful context demonstrating that migration to London is not a modern phenomenon, but rather, as he shows using the examples of Jewish and Irish migration, has been ongoing for more than a thousand years. Drawing on a wide range of sources including street registers, trade presses, naturalisation certificates, social surveys from Henry Mayhew onwards, oral histories and memoirs, Migrant City tells the stories of the people who moved to London from around the world. Looking at both migrants and their children, Panayi makes a compelling case for the crucial importance of migrants to the development of London. He also argues that the experience of migrants, while at times distinct in terms of religious practice or the discrimination they often faced, more often paralleled the experience of white British Londoners, especially by the second generation.
In the fascinating chapter, ‘Ghetto and Suburb’, Panayi maps the city in terms of where various migrant groups settled and worked and how this evolved over time. This includes well-known stories such as the role of the East End as a ‘classic transitory zone’ near to the City of London and the docks, from the arrival of the Hugenots in the seventeenth century to migrants from South Asia in the twentieth century (p. 29). Familiar too is the story of Jewish migration within London from the East End to the Northern suburbs, but Panayi places this in the context of the growth of the city and the transportation lines that enabled its expansion. The suburb of Golder’s Green, for instance, developing as the Northern line expanded, was Jewish from its inception. Transportation was also crucial to the location of the Cypriot community, roughly along the 29 bus route from Soho to Camden Town, Haringey, and Stoke Newington.
Many of the other chapters are organised around work and a recurring theme in the book is that migrants of all socioeconomic levels came to London. As well as elites from Handel to Arsène Wenger and the often-exploited migrants on the other end of the economic spectrum, there were middling sorts such as German bakers, merchant bankers, and teachers. Panayi also traces social mobility, both within the lives of individuals and across generations. One of the strengths of the book is its attention to migrant groups that are often overlooked, notably Germans, a group that Panayi has written about extensively, as well as many other migrant groups from Europe.(1) Panayi himself was born and raised in London to parents from Cyprus. He includes his own experiences and those of his family both in the prologue and in some of his reflections on social mobility, community, and diversity. Describing how his father, a pastry chef, was able to move from an East End bedsit on his arrival in 1958 to ownership of a four-bedroom house in Crouch End by the mid-1960s, Panayi reflects that this kind of social mobility, certainly in terms of home ownership is out of the reach of most Londoners in the twenty-first century, whether migrants or not (p. 313). Panayi also recounts his experience of starting primary school unable to speak English and the bullying he faced, the diverse backgrounds of his school friends and teachers in Hornsey in the 1960s and 1970s and how becoming a fan of Chelsea football club established his identity as a Londoner.
As well as this personal account, Panayi devotes a chapter to the topic of migrants and sport. Focusing on boxing and football, this covers the history of Black and Jewish boxers and the importance of London with its 12 professional teams and large numbers of Black players on the multiculturalisation of football more broadly. There is also a chapter tracing the impact of migrants on music, from classical to music hall, jazz, bhangra, and grime. This includes analysis of the xenophobia of campaigns to control largely Italian street musicians in the nineteenth century and covers the careers of musicians and singers including Samuel Coleridge Taylor, the composer and conductor whose father was a Krio from Sierra Leone, Jenny Lind the Swedish opera star, Belle Davis, the African-American music hall star, Leslie Hutchinson, the Grenadian cabaret singer and musician and George Michael, a pop star whose father came from Cyprus. Another chapter focuses on religion, highlighting the diversity of religions in London and the role that religion played for many in forming communities and creating a link to their original homeland. A strength throughout the book and the topic of another chapter is the history of food cultures and restaurants, also an area of Panayi’s expertise.(2) This includes the impact of migrants on the kind of food eaten in London and in the United Kingdom more broadly, from fish and chips (born in the Jewish East End) to ice cream (popularised by Italian migrants in the late nineteenth century) and curry (with roots both in the high-end West End restaurants which served those who had spent time in colonial India and the East End cafes serving Indian sailors). It also includes a fascinating analysis of the experience of working in the food and hospitality industries in London, including the xenophobia towards German waiters expressed by the foundation of the Loyal British Waiters Society in 1910.
The book combines a sweeping command of the relevant secondary literature with original archival research. For example, Panayi uses samples of naturalisation certificates from 1870, 1875, 1905 and 1935 to give a sense of what he terms the ‘international bourgeoisie’ who could afford the fee required (pp. 115-8). By exploring the countries of origin of those who sought naturalisation and their employment and location in London across sixty-five years, Panayi is able to provide texture to his broader arguments about, for instance, the large number of German migrants in the late nineteenth century including Nathan Edward Wertheim, a 35-year-old Hanoverian tailor resident in Regent Street in 1870. By 1935, the number of Germans had declined, replaced by migrants from Russia, mostly Jews including Rueben Bozinsky, a master tailor from Greenwich and Nathan Hyman, a boot and shoe dealer from Cricklewood, as well as refugees from the Russian Revolution such as Marguerite Rastedt, a teacher from Clapham Common ‘of no nationality (but born in St. Petersburg)’ (p. 118).
As this indicates, Panayi includes both the granular detail of individual experience and the broad sweep of history. Like Clair Wills’ recent book Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Postwar Britain, this provides a vivid complement to scholarship focused on state policy and broadens work on specific migrant groups.(3) One of the strengths of Migrant City is its inclusion of the experience of such a wide range of migrants and their contributions to London. It is in many ways a celebration of the multi-cultural city. Panayi does address hardship and racism, including the racism that he faced himself as a child. He also brings to light less well-known instances of xenophobia, such as the anti-German riots during the First World War.
Panayi argues that racism and especially racially motivated violence had declined by the late twentieth-century. He writes, for instance, 'the final decades of the twentieth century witnessed the disappearance of the anti-immigrant riot in London' (p. 140) and ‘the type of violent racism which characterised the East End in the 1930s and 1970s appears consigned to the past’ (p. 317). He is clear that this did not mean the end of racially-motivated violence, but, especially given his previous work on this subject and the importance of the claim, I would have liked to hear more about this.(4) Was this change largely a question of scale, the anti-immigrant riot referring to the targeting of an entire community compared to violence committed against individuals or smaller groups? What was the significance of this shift? In regard to other forms of discrimination, Panayi cites the effectiveness of the Race Relations Acts from 1965 to 1976 in ending unofficial colour bars in places such as pubs (p. 161) but this overstates the strength of this legislation, which was widely criticised at the time and subsequently for its ineffectiveness.(5) On these lines, Panayi states that people born in Britain automatically have the right to vote, but does not make clear that this has not been the case since the 1981 British Nationality Act, which ended the long-running jus soli approach to citizenship in the United Kingdom although legally resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens retain full voting rights and those from the European Union can vote in local and previously European elections (p. 188).
While it may well be true that overt racism and xenophobia had declined in London by the end of the twentieth century, in part, as Panayi argues, because of white flight from an increasingly ethnically diverse city, I was left wondering about the less obvious and often insidious forms of discrimination that continued and continue, especially in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Related to this is the difficulty of discussing a relative improvement in discrimination in historic terms without undermining the continuing experience of racism and xenophobia. Overall, however, this is a minor criticism. Migrant City is a substantial achievement and is relevant to those interested not only in the history of migration, but also urban, economic, and social history. It makes clear in glorious and often surprising detail the myriad ways that migrants have contributed to the making of London.
- Panikos Panayi, Enemy in our Midst: German in Britain during the First World War (Oxford, 1991; Panikos Panayi, German Immigrants in Britain during the 19th Century, 1815-1914 (Oxford, 1995).Back to (1)
- Panikos Panayi, Fish and Chips (London, 2014); Panikos Panayi, Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food (London, 2008).Back to (2)
- Clair Wills, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (London, 2017).Back to (3)
- Panikos Panayi, Immigration, Ethnicity and Racism in Britain, 1815-1945 (Manchester, 1994); Panikos Panayi, An Immigration History of Britain: Multicultural Racism since 1800 (Harlow, 2010).Back to (4)
- Peplow, Simon, ‘The “Linchpin for Success”? The problematic establishment of the 1965 Race Relations Act and its Conciliation Board’, Contemporary British History, 31: 3 (1997), 430-451.Back to (5)