Whenever I have the pleasure of meeting passengers from Italy in my taxi, I often joke with them that London is practically an Italian city.
The main reason for this theory of course, is that London was born way back in AD43 as ‘Londinium’; an important settlement founded by an ambitious group of Italians who, in those days, were known as The Romans.
Many of London’s grandest buildings are inspired by Italian architecture. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is the second largest in the world… St Peter’s Basilica in the Italian capital, Rome, is the biggest.
On Clerkenwell Road, not too far from Farringdon Station, you’ll find London’s own, St Peter’s Italian Church where, every July, the street ‘Procession of the Madonna Del Carmine’ takes place.
St Peter’s Clerkenwell can even be seen in the opening scene of the very first episode of the popular comedy-drama series, Minder which began in 1979:
London’s museums contain a wide array of Roman artefacts and Italian artworks, and the capital also harbors a substantial number of Italian restaurants and delicatessens.
‘The Shard’, near London Bridge and soon to be the tallest building in Europe, was designed by Renzo Piano… an Italian architect.
Until the 1980s, Queen Square, in Bloomsbury, was home to the Italian Hospital.
London’s modern Italian community began to flourish sometime around the 1880s.
This was a time of mass migration; with political refugees and those fleeing harsh economic conditions being the main rovers. Many Italians sailed to New York during this period, but those who wished to stay a little closer to home chose London, quickly establishing a ‘Little Italy’ around the area of Clerkenwell.
With their main trades being organ-grinding, mosaic and terrazzo craftsmanship, and food-peddling, the new Italian Londoners brought a real dash of colour to the Capital. They even introduced the treat of ice cream to the masses!
Although Italy fought alongside Britain during WWI, the nation was sadly consumed from the 1920s onwards by Benito Mussolini’s own brand of fascism. On 10th May 1940 (several months after the outbreak of WWII), the dictator declared war on Britain.
Following this grim statement, Italian businesses in London were attacked by mobs.
All Italian men living in the UK, between the ages of 16 and 60 were labelled “enemy aliens” and were consequently rounded up and interned on the Isle of Man. Many of those interned had actually been born in the UK. Others had been opponents of Mussolini, and had come to Britain seeking refuge.
A few months later, it was decided that the large number of detained Italians should be sent to camps in Canada and Australia.
In July 1940, as part of this process, a group of 800 Italian men were put on-board a ship called The Andorra Star, which was to transport them to Canada. The ship was also carrying German internees, prisoners of war and a number of Jewish refugees.
Shortly after leaving Liverpool, The Andorra Star was torpedoed off of the Irish coast by a German submarine.
802 people lost their lives in the disaster; 471 one of whom were Italian.
Today, a memorial listing the names of all who died in this tragedy can be found outside St Peter’s Church on Clerkenwell Road.
After the destruction of WWII, the Italian detainees returned to London… only to find that many of their old businesses had been lost or taken over.
Despite this, the Italians began to re-establish themselves around Soho, setting up restaurants and cafes- the most famous of which was… and still is, Bar Italia.
Bar Italia was opened on Soho’s Frith Street in 1949 by Lou and Caterina Polledri, and it has been a family business ever since; a West End landmark which is open 24 hours a day, and still employs an authentic, 1950s Gaggia coffee machine.
When it first opened, the café was a vital cog in the Italian community.
As well as providing the all-important coffee, Bar Italia acted as an important meeting point, where people who had lost family members during the war could find out what had happened to their loved ones. The café was also a popular labour exchange; especially for out-of work waiters.
Another interesting point about the café is that, some twenty years before the Polledri family moved in, the apartment above the premises had been rented out by a Scottish inventor known as John Logie Baird.
Logie Baird used the flat above what is now Bar Italia as a laboratory… in which he invented and first demonstrated a new device known as television! That’s another story altogether of course, and one which I plan to cover in a future post…
Over the years, Bar Italia has achieved cult status.
In 1986, the popular café featured in Absolute Beginners; a film starring David Bowie (who, as a young man, was a regular at the café), about teenage life in 1950s London.
It can also be spotted in the 1992 Sade music video, Smooth Operator and there are rumours that Dave Stewart (who, in the 1980s, formed The Eurythmics with Annie Lennox), plans to write a musical about the café.
In October 1995, pop group Pulp, fronted by Jarvis Cocker, released their seminal album, Different Class, which featured hits such as Disco 2000 and the anthem, Common People.
The albumclosed with a song called, Bar Italia, all about the Soho institution.
The slow, melancholy, play-out tune was inspired by the fact that Bar Italia never closes, andis therefore a popular destination for clubbers and revellers; that hardy bunch who party through the night and suffer for it by dawn… when that point comes, good, strong coffee is needed and, as Jarvis Cocker sings; “there’s only one place we can go; it’s around the corner in Soho…”
Fantastic post! being half Italian (my paternal grandfather emigrated to boston from Genoa) I love visiting “Little Italy” neighorhoods when i travel. Thanks to you, I now know about London’s. Thanks!
Fascinating stuff. I used to walk past Bar Italia everyday but had no idea of its illustrious history…thanks for the education!
That’s fascinating. When I first worked in Clerkenwell in the early 60’s the Italian church was a few yards away. In Leather Lane were Italian shops selling all kinds of Italian meats and cheeses and new door to our premises was an Italian family who ran an Latin Greasy Spoon, I would have to buy the men’s lunch there and its owner was always trying to get me to date her niece. I loved Little Italy.
Thanks for sharing, David; really interesting insight and great memories. It’s amazing how quickly such places can fade away.
[…] discussed in my previous post about London’s ‘Little Italy’, anyone in the UK of Italian origin was detained during WWII. As a 16 year old teenager, […]
[…] mentioned in my earlier post on Little Italy, these premises are now home to the famous 24 hour café, Bar Italia. 22 Frith Street where John […]
I loved this post! Being Italian myself it was really interesting to get to know a little more about the history of the Italians who -like me, but more than 100 years before me- moved in this amazing town. I will have to visit Clerkenwell some time…
You are most welcome, Lucia. I love Italy; your wonderful country and my London share much in common. Grazie 🙂
My family came from Emillia Romagna the Parma Bardi area in the late 1890s and settled in Clerkenwell, many of them walked from the poor mountain farms and villages to ports in France and Belguim, they lived in awful conditions to start, with always just enough room for cousin’s and relatives to share a bed and meals. They worked hard and got on, I’m immensely proud of them.
Thanks for the read mate.
Thanks Lee; I was really moved by your comments. Your ancestors were tough people for sure. I was in Italy recently; love the people there; so friendly 🙂