Over the past few months we have highlighted migrants to the UK from varied parts of the world. However, no group has the long-standing and wildly differing relationships with the UK as do the Italians.
Over the millennia, Italians have taken on the role of explorer, trader, conqueror, refugee, worker and even potential spy. Italian migrants have left a permanent impression on the UK including many modern roadways, monuments and recreational areas such as Bath, architecture, the arts, and even street names such as London’s famous Lombard Street.
The first Italians to settle in the British Isles arrived around 55 BC during Julius Caesar’s exploratory expeditions. The next large wave of Italian immigrants arrived around 43 AD when Claudius invaded and conquered the islands.
After the British emerged from Roman rule, the next group of Italians to migrate to the area were merchants and sailors who settled in Southampton. Bankers and other powerful business types soon came to the area, eventually creating a very powerful Italian community.
The English Reformation in the 15th century spawned the next wave of Italian migrants as many Italian Protestants found England to be more to their liking. Historians said that Italians coming to Britain during the Renaissance were primarily “ecclesiastics, renaissance humanists, merchants, bankers, and artists.” This description of Italian immigrants has seemed to remain relevant throughout the ages, with few minor exceptions. Then as now, the largest concentration of Italian immigrants was found in London.
The Napoleonic wars were the next major catalyst for Italian migrant to the UK after troops had decimated crops and farmland. Most of those migrants came from the Como and Lucca valleys.
With such a long-standing presence in the British Isles it is not a surprise that a large number of British citizens are of Italian heritage. Despite the long history and contributions of Italians in Great Britain the outbreak of WWII and Italy’s alliance with the German ushered in a dark chapter in the history of Italians in the UK.
Fearing the spread of fascism, parliament ordered that all aliens be interned. This included many Italians who had actually fought as part of the British army in WWI, those married to British women, and many who had even become British citizens. Riots against the Italian community occurred nationwide on 11 June 1940. Churchill decreed that all Italian men between the ages of 17 and 60 were to be arrested and sent to detention camps. A ship transporting German POWs, Jewish refugees, and over 700 British Italians and recent Italian immigrants to Canada was sunk by the Germans off the British coast. More than 700 of the ships 1500 passengers died.
Despite their treatment during the war, Italian migration began to increase again in the 1950’s, but became negligible by the 1970s.
Over the last couple of years a new wave of Italians immigration has occurred. Most of the immigrants are young men between the ages of 18 and 34 who have come to the UK to escape the dire economic situation and chronically high unemployment in Italy. According to the Italian consulate more than 600,000 Italians are living in the UK with the largest concentration in London.
There are almost 100 Italian associations in the UK.
As we have seen with other countries with high migration to the UK, the number of British expats living in Italy is also quite large. A number of websites are dedicated to information directed toward British citizens wishing to settle in Italy, and many real estate agents advertise specifically to British citizens.
The list of Italians and those with Italian heritage who have made significant contributions to British Society would go on for pages. Some recent researchers even feel that Shakespeare was born in Sicily. John Profumo, Christopher Lee, Anita Roddick, John Amabile, John Florio, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Anna Del Conte, and Peter Capaldi are just a few of those Italians and British Italians who have made significant contributions to English culture in the areas of media, arts, entertainment, politics, business and sport.