Photo of a wood engraving of the plague in London in 1665 on Wikimedia Commons

Migration, Disease, and the Making of London Life

Panikos Panayi

On March 24, 2020, Luca Di Nicola, a nineteen-year-old Italian-born chef working in London, died at the North Middlesex Hospital, one of the many thousands of people falling victim to coronavirus in London, Britain, and the world beyond. Luca had moved to work in the city’s massive service economy, which had evolved over centuries, depending upon settlers from Europe in particular in recent decades, although the city had relied upon both external and domestic migration for centuries.

As the center of international finance and the heart of the largest empire in history, London became the most important city in the world by the nineteenth century, a status that evolved gradually from the seventeenth century and that remained intact for much of the twentieth. Apart from its political and financial status, it became the largest city in the world in terms of land area and population.

Until the second half of the twentieth century London’s demographic growth occurred largely as a result of migration from other parts of Britain, but significant growth did not take place until the end of eighteenth century. Up to that time, burials exceeded baptisms both because of the unsanitary and cramped conditions in which most Londoners lived but also because of periodic visits by the plague, as described by, for instance, Daniel Defoe and the diarist Samuel Pepys.

Living conditions would improve gradually during the course of the nineteenth century even though the new disease of cholera would visit Victorian London. But by this time the imperial capital experienced the physical and demographic growth that created the city familiar today. The development of the largest city in the world meant both the largest working-class population but also the most populous middle class, with much disposable income requiring the servicing of its needs. This becomes obvious in the movement of domestic servants to the capital, mostly from other parts of Britain but including Ireland, but also by the development of the restaurant, dependent, to a large extent, on the migration of entrepreneurs, chefs, and waiters from the European continent, especially France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. These restauranteurs and their staff, who became fundamental to the catering industry in the imperial capital by 1914, provide one indication of the appetite of the London middle class for skilled continental employees. While Vienna may have become the place where musicians flocked in order to make their name by 1800, London became the capital of European music consumption because the size of its growing middle class meant that it had a greater audience than the Habsburg capital, attracting Italian and German musicians from the end of the seventeenth century, perhaps most famously, Georg Friedrich Handel.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the arrival of migrants from beyond British shores became a feature of London life. Millions of Irishmen literally built the metropolis both during the Victorian period and also in the decades after the end of the Second World War. Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe from the 1880s developed their own areas of settlement. While the typical Jewish occupation in the East End of London consisted of laboring in a workshop producing clothing, footwear, or head gear, kosher food shops and restaurants emerged to serve the dietary needs of this community. At the same time, Londoners would buy their bread and meat and have their hair cut by German establishments which emerged throughout the capital.

After 1945 London acted as a magnet for migrants arriving from the dying British Empire. At the same time as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Africans, West Indians, Chinese, Cypriots, and Maltese made their way to the fading imperial capital in large numbers, their presence became accentuated by the fact that the white British increasingly moved out of areas that their ancestors had inhabited. This meant that, as the twentieth century progressed, the typical Londoner could have a wide variety of ethnic origins. As a result of the liberalization of financial markets in the 1980s, the city regained its international prominence, drawing arrivals of all classes from the European Union and thus further heightening the ethnic diversity. The city attracted not only global banking elites, but also numerous people to serve them not just from Europe but also from further afield, whether as clerical staff, waiters, or cleaners. Today, about one in three Londoners has a birthplace outside Britain, while first- and second-generation immigrants total significantly over 50% of the population—no ethnic majority exists.

Luca Di Nicola therefore acts as a symbol of early twenty-first-century Londoners, moving to the metropolis like millions of other Europeans, Asians, Africans, and South Americans to find employment in the service sector. While media attention currently focuses primarily upon the number of deaths resultant upon coronavirus, the aftermath will have a significant economic impact. London has evolved as a major global entertainment capital. Migrants there have played a central role in the evolution of music and eating out, and it seems difficult to imagine that numerous restaurants will not perish as a result of the impact of the current crisis, despite the efforts of the British government to avoid economic disaster. While those shopkeepers of migrant origin who sell food may not take quite the same economic hit, the victims of the coronavirus crisis in London will consist of a globally diverse population like no other. While some migrants may return to their homes, depending on the severity of the economic slump in the capital, it seems likely that London will get back on its feet again through the efforts of its ethnically diverse residents.

Panikos Panayi was born in London to Greek Cypriot immigrants and grew up in the multicultural city developing during the 1960s and 1970s. A leading authority on the history of migration, he is Professor of European History at De Montfort University.

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