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History of sanctuary

How Islington has become what it is today and some key points in its history.

Islington has a long history of migration, and the borough we know today has been shaped and formed by people from various communities coming together over hundreds of years.

The borough we know today

Islington is a culturally diverse borough where different communities live side by side. Data from the 2021 census helps us to understand some of Islington’s demographics today.

  • Around 248,000 people are living in Islington. 
  • 40% of Islington residents in 2021 were born outside of the UK. 
  • Among residents born outside of the UK, over half (53%) have been resident in the UK for more than 10 years. 
  • The most common country of birth among Islington residents, after the UK, is Italy (over 5,000 residents), followed by France, Turkey, United States, and Ireland (all over 4,000 residents).
  • 81% of Islington residents aged three and above speak English as their main language. Spanish was the next most spoken language in Islington in 2021, followed by French, Italian, Turkish, and Somali.

Of course, census data only explains so much and it’s important to remember that not everyone completes the census questionnaire. But we hope that by setting some of the context for the borough we know today, residents will gain a greater understanding of the rich diversity of Islington.

Looking back over history and considering how many communities have shaped Islington’s identity is vital. Below we look at examples of how residents have contributed their skills, expertise and culture to our borough.

1800s: Irish migration

Irish migrants had been living and working in Islington since the 1700s, drawn by London’s rapid economic growth. Many more arrived from Ireland after fleeing the effects of the Irish potato famine during the 1840s.

By 1851, over 6,000 Irish people lived in Islington and Finsbury. Many settled near Angel and City Road, Archway and Upper Holloway, working in domestic service, in the construction business and as navigators or ‘navvies’ building canals, railways and roads that are still in use today. Although most Irish people shared the poverty and deprivation of the English working classes, they were subject to considerable animosity on the basis that they were supposedly undercutting wages, taking jobs and houses from existing residents.

1860s: Italian migration

Due to economic hardships at home, many skilled Italian craftsmen from northern Italy migrated to London seeking better employment opportunities. Others worked as hawkers or street entertainers.

Carlo Gatti left his Swiss-Italian hometown in 1847 to move to Islington. Here, he became a successful entrepreneur, bringing hot chocolate and ice creams to the masses. The plaque to his ice well on Caledonian Road remains an important reminder of the major role Italian culture played in shaping our borough and influencing what we eat.

By 1861, approximately 700 Italians were living in the Clerkenwell area, and it became known as “Little Italy.” Due to the relatively small numbers of Italian migrants, combined with their niche employment patterns, they generally experienced less hostility than encountered by other migrants of the time, although they were sometimes accused of bringing in disease and crime, and in the 1870s the issue of noise from street musicians briefly became a source of tension.

1890s: Indian migration

Born in India, Dadabhai Naoroji, built a strong academic career - gaining him the nickname ‘The Promise of India’. Naoroji moved to England in 1855 to join the first Indian business to be established in Britain, Cama and Co.

During Naoroji’s lifetime, India and its population of 250 million people made up 80% of the British Empire. Despite this, and its financial contributions to the Empire, India had no representation in British Parliament. Struck by the injustice of this, Naoroji stood for election several times throughout the late 1800s but faced a racist campaign from the media and from fellow politicians.

In 1892, he was elected as Finsbury Central MP, becoming the second person of Asian descent to be elected as a British MP. His later academic works explained the economic impact of colonialism and laid the foundations for Indian independence in the mid-20th century.

1945 to 1960s: People from the Caribbean and Ireland in health and education

Many Caribbean and Irish nurses came to Islington following World War II to help rebuild society. These nurses were instrumental to establishing the newly created NHS – so instrumental, in fact, that at times, over 85% of Whittington Hospital’s nurses were Irish. Britain actively encouraged immigration from Commonwealth countries and those who arrived made huge contributions to the health and education sectors here in Islington.

One member of this generation, Yvonne Conolly, had trained for three years as a primary school teacher in Jamaica before taking the decision to move to the UK. In 1969, Yvonne became the UK’s first female black headteacher of a primary school in Holloway, aged just 29 years old and in 2020, she was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for services to education. 

1970s: The Windrush Generation

Many Britons from the former colonies within the West Indies were invited to come to Britain to help rebuild society after World War II. By 1972, 300,000 West Indians had settled permanently in the UK. These arrivals have been labelled the Windrush Generation, referencing the ship MV Windrush, which carried the first Caribbean workers to Britain in 1948.

These migrants were not always warmly welcomed, and they regularly faced racism and discrimination. To meet the needs of the growing Caribbean population in London, a community and cultural centre was envisioned and created by Oscar Winston Abrams, a Guyanese-born architect and cultural activist. The Keskidee Centre, based near Caledonian Road, was the first dedicated arts centre in Britain for the Black community and it would continue to be an important hub for African and Afro-Caribbean politics and arts well into the 1980s. For many years, it was the only place to experience Caribbean theatre in London. The centre also offered legal advice and practical classes on literacy and typing, yoga and cookery, as well as photography, painting and pottery. 

1980s: Chinese community

By the 1980s, around 150,000 Chinese people lived in the UK. The Islington Chinese Association was established in 1986 to promote social harmony within the borough and within Greater London’s Chinese communities. The Association provides a variety of services to benefit the Chinese community in Islington, and has offered many classes on art, martial arts, dance, singing, English language, Mandarin and Cantonese. The charity also provides welfare advice to the Chinese community, celebrates Chinese New Year with an annual welcoming event and aims to promote and recognise the contribution of the Chinese community to Islington and the UK.

1990s: Fighting Apartheid

Apartheid was official policy of institutional racism and segregation in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. It was a system designed to disempower black South Africans and ensure the white population remained in power. In the face of brutal repression, marginalised South Africans and their supporters fought against the apartheid regime, backed by people from all over the world.

Many people in Islington joined the fight. They took part in demonstrations, boycotted South African goods, went undercover in South Africa and campaigned for political prisoners to be released. Islington was home to the African National Congress (ANC) London headquarters between 1978 and 1994, forming a base for actions around the country, and the ANC’s print shop in Islington at 1 Mackenzie Road was an important centre for printing materials that promoted the Anti-Apartheid cause.

1990 to 2000s: Somali refugees

Many Somali refugees made Islington their home following the outbreak of civil war and political instability in Somalia. Some of those who arrived were political refugees, fleeing persecution and repression, while others were escaping the devastating impact that war had brought to their life in Somalia.

Upon arrival, Somalis faced a language barrier, culture shock, problems understanding their rights and racism. An important member of this community, Councillor Rakhia Ismail, has worked hard to support Somali refugees and in May 2019, she made history when she was elected as Islington’s Mayor and the first female Somali mayor in the UK.

Thank you

We give huge thanks for the knowledge and expertise of these experts in helping us understand some of Islington’s important history. If you want to learn more, please visit their websites.

Islington's migrant history

We really encourage you to see Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online guided tour of sites in Islington that tell diverse stories from migrant histories. This is presented by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, with Islington Guided Walks.

Your story

Do you have a story or wish to contribute to this exploration of Islington’s history? Get in touch with us and help us amplify more important stories and voices.

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