Italians Coming to the United Kingdom

There have been Italians within the confines of the United Kingdom since Roman times however modern immigration began with churchman, academics, artists, merchants and aristocrats from around the 13th Century. This gave way to an influx in the 19th Century with the vast majority coming from villages in the North of Italy, usually as seasonal workers who had walked across France to the French ports.

During the period of 1820 – 1850 there were approximately 4,000 Italians living in England with around half of them living in London and hailing from the Como and Lucca regions. By the 1870s this had grown to include the regions around Parma and Liri.

Many of these migrants who came for seasonal work remained beyond the season, often marrying local women or bringing their families with them.

The London epicentre of the Italian community was known then, as now as Little Italy and is located in Clerkenwell. Across many Victorian writings there are descriptions of the cramped and poor conditions which the Italians shared with the Irish population and the English poor. The hope always being that families saved enough money to improve their living conditions, often the reality was very different.

Some of the Italian population spread across the North of England into Scotland and to Wales, although not in huge numbers. The majority of which remained in London. By 1891 the Census indicates that the majority of those in London worked as street sellers and organ grinders. The Italian population in Manchester indicates that many were involved with modelling, plastering and tile makers. In Yorkshire many were involved in the cutlery industry especially around the Sheffield area. In contrast, those in Wales were involved with shipping, either working in industries that serviced shipping or as seaman on board British ships. Others worked in the coal industry, for which Wales is famous.

From the 1861 Census in Scotland we can determine that there was only 118 Italians in the region, by 1901 this had grown to a substantial 4,050. These Italian communities were becoming economically stronger often running food or ice cream venues and in some cases moving from the Cities to smaller towns.

The First World War reduced the Italian migration substantially and it remained fairly low until after the Second World War when we see a rise in Italians coming to the United Kingdom.

Some Italians came to the United Kingdom as Prisoners of War and after the war ended remained here, taking an English wife and building a new life. This then lends the way to the post war boom of immigration which often joined the earlier established Italian communities.

Furthermore, from the 1950s there was an influx from the Southern towns of Italy and Sicily. Those regions were often poor with limited work; therefore they travelled to the United Kingdom and became part of a workforce to rebuild Britain after the war. The most noticed communities are in Woking, Bedford, Nottingham and in Cambridgeshire.

Regardless of when those Italian migrants arrived they came bringing with them mementos from home, recipes, traditions, language and of course their religion. They say that the Church is often at the heart of the community, and that is especially the case with the Italian population. We shall see over the rest of this 4-part series about the Italian Churches that formed as part of the wider Catholic community.


Researching Italians in the United Kingdom

Researching Italians in the United Kingdom is the same as searching for any ancestral links; however you do in my experience need to think a little outside the box!

Surnames over time change, all surnames can, but imagine an accent to the English ear and what is said can be recorded as something quite different. In the main the names were unfamiliar and therefore spelt with a degree of guess work. There was also a need felt by some of the Italians to anglicanise their names, including forenames – Giuseppe becoming Joseph and Jo.

Civil Registration began in 1837 and in the early years the Italians were slow to record the births of their children.  As you would expect in the main the Italian population was Catholic and as such many Catholic records are not to be found in the International Genealogical Index (IGI), instead the Roman Catholic records are still held by the Parish Priest. Accessing these records can provide copious amounts of information in addition to the entry you are seeking. Witnesses at weddings, as well as sponsors at Baptisms and this is particularly useful if the name has been misspelt.

Occupations recorded on the Census can often give a clue as to the place of origin in Italy. For example those who arrived in Woking Surrey post the Second World War were mainly from the Mussomeli and Caltanissetta regions of Sicily and it is the same for earlier groups of migrants. The Italians, as many immigrants do, remained within the proximity of others from their own commune, town or Country. If you can not trace your ancestor, look at others in the location, if may provide a stepping stone to your ancestry.

Other records for researching your Italian ancestry within the United Kingdom are the Census records. The first Census took place in 1801 however it is not until the 1841 that contains useful information to researchers. There are instances of earlier census records surviving, but they are few and far between. The 1841 Census records the ages rounded up or down to the nearest 5 years. 42 years of age probably becomes 40 and 48 years probably becomes 50, so you do need to be a bit flexible with the ages. In 1841 the place of birth is merely a yes or no to whether born in the County. The 1851 Census does give more information, but the amount of data varies. Some are specific with the commune and Italy others simply reflect Italy.

Naturalisation records can be useful, but it was expensive and often the poor could not afford it. All aliens covered by the Aliens Act were required to register having entered the Country, but this often did not happen and the officials often did not enforce this. Sadly, most of these records have not survived.

Passenger records do exist, but often do not cover ships where the journey began outside of Europe. Directories are a really useful source especially if your ancestor had a trade. Many Post Office directories or Kellys Directories have survived.

Researching Italians in the United Kingdom does need to be approached using the accepted research methods, however in my experience it would be useful to think laterally and leave no stone unturned, no matter how unlikely that stone might be.

Look at surname mapping as an aid to your research. A rather useful mapping site is HERE. Insert your surname into the relevant box and the site produces a map of Italy and the instances in each region where that particular surname occurs. Click each region will provide the commune breaking the details of the data down further. You can see the results of my search for the name of ORLANDO, which is my Italian surname of interest HERE.



About Julie Goucher

Genealogist Julie Goucher sets to explore all aspects of researching ancestry and the lives of our ancestors in the United Kingdom in her monthly column for IDG, “Across the Pond.” Each month we will explore the lives of our forebears and seek to understand the Society they lived in through the obvious and not so obvious research opportunities. You can find Julie blogging at Anglers Rest:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.