Changing London

Celebrating tradition: Visiting London’s enduring Little Italy in Clerkenwell

With decades of construction and re-construction, Clerkenwell’s Italian influences are fast disappearing. But Little Italy is not completely gone as the continued presence of the magnificent St Peter’s, which hails from 1863, and a number of Italian businesses reminds us.

The church on Clerkenwell Road was the first Catholic church to be built in Britain after the Reformation and no expense was spared on the design. Modelled on the basilica of St Crisogono in Trastevere, the Renaissance-styled building was made from Italian marble and has a capacity of 1,500 people. Today, it remains a popular place for Italians living in London to get married.

St Peter’s Italian church, Clerkenwell Road

And it is from the church that since at the 1880s the procession of Our Lady of Carmel has been held on an annual basis (except during wartime) on the Sunday after 16th July. Musicians, floats depicting Biblical scenes and religious statues are paraded through the packed streets of Clerkenwell. Italians and non-Italians living in London from all over the capital to join the proceedings.

“It is on that occasion that Little Italy displays all its artistic genius for decoration,” wrote Count E. Armflelt of the festival in the 1902 publication, Living London. “Imposing triumphal arches are erected at the entrances of streets, garlands of flowers span the roadways, flags wave high and low, coloured lamps reach from house to house, gay tapestries hide the dilapidated walls, transparencies of the Virgin and the Saints appear at the windows, the street-corners are ornamented by large illuminated frames which bear the statues of the Madonna, and even the narrow courts and alleys blaze with flowers and brilliant colours.”

And then there were – and are still today – the colourful outfits. “The men and women and children are dressed in their best,” wrote Armflelt. “The young Neapolitan dandy wears for the first time his brand-new, broad-collared jacket, his rich-looking figured waistcoat cut to exhibit an immensity of white short-front and set off by a green or red necktie, and his flaming silk handkerchief from Sorrento; while the dear old dame from Apulia or Calabria manages – by some mysterious, seldom-resorted-to means – to make her deeply-furrowed face some four shades lighter than the usual tan of her complexion, and glories in the home-spun white-linen frills and ruffles, and the stiff starched capacious sleeves which tell of substance and long years spent at the spinning wheel.”

Armflelt noted that the route was two miles long and the procession took two hours, adding: “all traffic is stopped; the roofs, the windows, the balconies and the pavement are crowded with people, for the spectacle is unique.” In fact, it was claimed then that “no religious procession of modern Italy can compare in grandeur and quaintness with that of Little Italy in London.”

Clerkenwell’s Italian culture may be fairly subdued these days – save for special festival days – unless you nowhere to look but in years gone by it was a different story. Little Italy was dominated by Italians, the businesses they ran and the dedicated institutions they frequented.

Italy in London

While Italians had lived in London since medieval times, they didn’t move to the capital in sizeable numbers until the 19th century. The first wave consisted of skilled employees who manufactured watches, telescopes, thermometers and other precision instruments. Many established their homes and business premises in Hatton Garden, today a stretch lined with jewellery stores.

Little Italy – or ‘the Hill’ as it was known to its residents – grew dramatically following the Napoleonic Wars when poorer, unskilled immigrants moved to Saffron Hill and Leather Lane, as well alleys around Clerkenwell Road. There were more than one thousand Italians living in the area by 1850, a number which put considerable pressure was put on what were already slum-ridden streets.

The situation had been bad for some time, even as far back as 1598, with John Stow’s Survey of London recording a narrow pathway called Gold Lane (re-named in the medieval period Saffron Hill after fields of crocuses growing there) running through fields which was described as “a filthy passage in the fields, now both sides built with small tenements at the bottom of Oldboorne hill.” And Leather Lane had, by the 18th century, become a “narrow dirty street, infested with thieves and beggars.”

Many of the new, 19th century arrivals worked as barrel organists which the Times newspaper took to task in 1820, noting that they “infested the streets” with their animals. It added: “The public have of late been exceedingly annoyed by the appearance of a number of Italian boys with monkeys and mice wandering about the streets, exciting with compassion of the benevolent.” By 1800 there were more than 800 of these musicians (a figure which had risen to 1240 by the 1881 Census).

The following year the Times carried on its crusade against the young entertainers who it said had been brought from Italy to England by “traffickers”. Boys were sold an organ by the padrone – the gang master – with the cost deducted in instalments from their earnings, which the individuals only received half of anywhere. In 1856 the Times added: “It is impossible to exaggerate the nuisance,” it said. “We endure them simply as idle people endure dirt and vermin – because we have not the moral energy to get rid of them… It is an evil which threatens to make London unendurable.”

There was something of a victory against the organists in 1860. “No one has a right to play his noisy instruments within hearing of persons who are pursuing grave occupations,” said a London magistrate. But while licenses needed to be obtained in Paris, here legislation that followed simply required them to move on if there were complaints from residents.

The gang structure used by organists provided an inspiration for Fagin’s gang in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist. “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen,” the author wrote of the area. “The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but their stock in trade appeared to be children, who, even at this time of night, were crawling in and out of the doors, or screaming from the inside.”

From the organ barrels, other industries operated by Italians grew. Chestnuts were sold by the musicians as they travelled the streets, while in the summer months they switched to selling ice cream. Small-scale ice cream factories sprung up in Little Italy, but the way the product was manufactured and served created a public health crisis, not least the filthy grasses from which it was licked. “For cleaning they are dipped into dirty water which contains the mouth secretions of previous buyers, swabbed with a small wet offensive cloth and up-ended on a soiled barrow top,” noted a 1879 Lancet report. The solution came in the form of conical wavers, which reduced the washing required in the process.

When Clerkenwell Road was constructed in 1878, it sliced straight through Little Italy and in the process countless tenement houses were wiped away. But this community was by no means defeated.

Foods and crafts

Over the years, the number of different foods produced and sold in Little Italy was greatly expanded far beyond chestnuts and ice cream. Many people were employed trading in everything from pasta and cheeses to olive oil and cured meats. The list of items served sound reminiscent of an upmarket London delicatessen today.

Italians were employed in a whole manor of manual trades, not least in the building roads. The laying of asphalt provided considerable employment, however it was dirty work and labourers were often told to not wear shoes so that the surfaces they were creating were not damaged.

But Little Italy also provided work for skilled craftsmen. Hatton Garden in 1854 was said to be “a place where many cheap barometers and thermometers produced by Italians could be purchased.” Indeed the London trade directory of 1850 lists Italian opticians, barometer makers, carvers and confectionary manufacturers. And when the publication was produced a decade later even more businesses had opened up.

Little Italy peaked around 1900, by which stage St Peter’s School for Italians had close to 3,000 pupils. Shops, cafes and societies were all geared towards the Italian population, with celebrations in keeping as to what would have been experienced back home. The area was captured in an 1898 newspaper article:

“On Sundays Little Italy indulges its love of finery to the full, and the women, with their bright silk headdresses, large paste beads, and black and gold corsets, are really picturesque as they form gossiping crowds round the church door. The organ grinder comes out with his wide-brimmed hat and earrings and smokes a cheroot a foot in length.”

The first Italian school was at 5 number Leather Lane, established in 1841. Next to St Peter’s Italian church was from 1878 to the 1980s St Peter’s catholic school. There was also an Italian hospital which provided free care for migrants. And the now gone Mazzini Garibaldi Club, originally called the Society for the Progress of the Italian Working Men’s Club in London but it was re-named after its founders.

One of the biggest early contributors to the community of Little Italy was Guiseppe Mazzini, who arrived in 1836 having been expelled from Switzerland. He was revolutionist and Italian nationalist, who was admired by Charles Dickens and his contemporaries. In 1840 he founded a society for London’s Italian artists and a school in Hatton Garden followed. But when Mazzini discovered that the post office was opening his mail his case caused considerable debate in parliament. Even though he was a controversial character, political figures here ordered that his rights for privacy be protected.

Clerkenwell may once have been Italy in London, but respect for Britain was not forgotten. “There is hardly a home, a restaurant, a cafe, a baker’s shop, or other place where pictures can be hung and exhibited that has not the portrait of the Sovereign,” noted the aforementioned 1902 Living London publication. “Queen Victoria was especially revered. Her busts are numerous everywhere, and not infrequently her statuette is the most conspicuous ornament.”


Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, had an impact on Little Italy in more ways than one. His regime put a restriction on emigration in 1927 and then when he threw in his lot with Adolph Hitler, the Nazi chancellor, mobs gathered in Italian districts, like Clerkenwell.

The Italian population continued to decline following the Second World War, but didn’t completely disappear. If you know where to look businesses are still there, such as Organ Chiappa Ltd Builders in Eyre Street Hill.

Terroni, right next to St Peter’s, lays claim to being London’s oldest delicatessen and indeed the whole country, first opened in 1878 by Luigi Terroni with a speciality for wines and cured meats. Although it closed in 2003, it re-opened in 2012 and as well as offering a deli counter it now also now serves breakfast, lunch and snacks. When I visited I heard people speaking in mix of Italian, as well as native English.

The shelves around the edges of the shop are stocked with an amazing range of Italian products; everything from dried pasta and wafers to fine wines and even cleaning products. Tasty pieces of meat hang above the chillers crammed with olives, cheeses and more. And if you choose to dine at the tables scattered in the centre of the shop, you are in for a treat; great coffees, pasta and ice creams are swiftly served to customers. London’s Little Italy lives on.

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