Nothing quite like home — The London of exiles

Every civilised person on the face of earth must be fully aware that this country is the asylum of nations, and that it will defend the asylum to the last ounce of its treasure, and the last drop of its blood.

-The Times, 28 February 1853-

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Since the late medieval times London has been a city where “all sorts of men crowd  from any country under the heavens”. The Russian exile Kropotkin celebrated London as a haven where exiled governments and national and political activists could continue their fights if their own homes became too dangerous —Jewish communities, however, were not as welcome. (Ackroyd, p.704-705)

This at least was true before the Alien Act in 1905, resulting from the widespread panic caused by a migratory wave of “undesirable aliens” to the UK (including East European Jews fleeing from anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire). Yet before 1905 Britain had no laws to deal with refugees and aliens, most of whom would flock to London. No gentile refugee or migrant was deported or harassed, but no secret policeman answering to his embassy was ever refused entry either (Benrard, p.1). That does not mean that there was no hostility among the British population towards certain “unsavoury” exiles. (Bloom C , p 108-110) And not all exiles (such as the french) would end up liking their new host country either.

I walked around London, tracing some of the exiles who lived or sojourned in this city of immigrants, particular exiles from the continent. I started my walk-in luxurious Notting Hill, were many of the better known and much-admired exiles of 1848 were welcomed here by their respective wealthy admirers.

Getting out of the station and passing by a taxi hut I headed past Kensington Temple and found the first place with a connection to a prominent exile. A blue plaque commemorates the small house next to the church as the “Birthplace of British Ballet”. Here in Bedford Garden, where once stood the Mercury Theatre , the Polish-Jewish exile and former Ballet Russe dancer Marie Rambert (after fleeing from war in 1914) started what would become Britain’s oldest dance company.

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She was the first and last woman emigre that I would encounter whose memory was not directly linked to her husband. Yet a place like this tells a story that stretches further back. Already in the 18th century, London hosted a vibrant community of Polish exiles that came from all walks of life. Yet Marie was an exception to many rules. Despite coming from a Jewish family from Russian Poland, money was not an issue for her, and her short time with the Ballet Russe granted her an international fame and ultimately the right to come to London. More than anything, she was self-reliant and came to London alone to continue her career as a dancer and a teacher.  She was not the only resourceful exiled woman, but her fame granted her a place in the stones of this city, and a trace in its history.

I continued to walk past Ladbroke square, and then turned right. White and pastel colour houses built in a grand neoclassical style, but mostly empty, were all around me. On one of them, just next to the entrance door, I found another blue Plaque. I could not get too close. The house was inhabited, the neighbours were glaring at me as I started to take pictures. I moved away as I look at the photo. “Louis Kossuth, Hungarian patriot, stayed here”.

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Kossuth was one of the most prominent “Forty-Eighters”. Those exiles that fled to London and the USA after the 1848 revolutions failed to bring the results they were hoping for. These activists were scorned thorough Europe, to the point that neither Switzerland, nor Belgium nor France could take them in. All that was left was  England.

John Stuart Mill wrote in a letter to a Polish revolutionary in 1850 that The Hungarians were the most influential and most appreciated among the exiles, especially if compared to the Polish and the Czechs, who were either scorned by Tories or dismissed by Liberals and Socialists alike “as belonging to ancient history, times gone by…”.(Bloom, 110) Like the Polish emigres, Hungarians have been a presence in London since at least 1608. The last wave of Hungarian exiles came after the failed Hungarian revolution against the Soviet authorities in 1956.

Kossuth was the ideal emigre. An aristocrat, he loved English common law, English literature and was a great orator. Yet the tired and defeated Kossuth initially felt embarrassed and uncomfortable  when thousands of Londoners came to hear his speeches in Copenhagen fields and then followed him in a procession through the city all the way to Guildhall. He was welcomed by the mayor of London as soon as he arrived to the capital and a few days later he was gifted a set of Shakespeare’s plays in a casket at the Lord’s Tavern pub, not too far from this house. Perhaps overwhelmed by the unwanted attention of the great and good, he ultimately left 7 years after and moved to Italy, but never went back to Hungary.

I headed south, crossed Holland park and walked towards Kensington before leaving the noisy High-street behind me to head towards quaint Edwardes Square. Opposite a 19th century private garden only accessible to those who can afford to live there was my next destination.

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Ugo Foscolo, unknown in Britain, was one of the first Italian patriots to go against the Austrian yoke. A poet, he fought for his country with the French during the Napoleonic wars, yet his hopes got wiped out after the congress of Vienna in 1915. Out of pride, he refused to go back to an Italy ruled by Austria and came to London together with his fellow Italian irredentists, among them the father of pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriele Rossetti. Foscolo considered himself a primogenito profugo (first-born exile) and this house, together with his Digamma cottage (which now is no more) became a place of pilgrimage for the 1848 Italian exiles that arrived to the city 20 years later. A regular guest at Holland house, his favourite part of London was Regent’s park, where he would often go for a stroll. Yet his fortunes did not last long, and he ultimately died a destitute. But as often, the trace we have left of his time in London is the short-lived fame of the poet, together with an empty cenotaph in Chiswick cemetery.

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It was then that I decided, like a good pilgrim, to end my walk at a shrine. And with that in mind I headed back to High Street Kensington and marched east towards Clerkenwell. I walked a straight line, through rich South Kensington, past the mighty Albertopolis by Hyde park, and only stopped for a moment to look for “The Polish institute and Zikorsky museum”. Next to the Iranian embassy, it was founded during WWII, when London granted asylum to the Polish exiled government . From London, Polish soldiers and generals under the exiled government continued their fight against Nazi Germany. Yet in the 1940s it was much harder for common people to find refuge here. Apart from supporting the Kinder-transport programme, Whitehall started to close its doors to most adult Jewish refugees . While the UK did offer refuge to the exiled governments of Poland, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic, to come to London was not a given right anymore, but a privilege which could be afforded with money, fame, political stature, or marriages of conveniences. An exile became someone that “deserved” refuge, the immigrant or refugee became illegal aliens, and the walls got higher.

 

 

I moved on to Knightsbridge, everywhere people rushed into shopping centres and high streets stores. Not impressed by this uninspiring display of wealth, I turned down Sloane Street, then past Belgrave Square Gardens and headed straight ahead towards Victoria station. The sun was setting, the streets were quiet. Most of the buildings around me were embassies and cultural institutes. After walking past the Colombian and Mexican embassy I got to the Italian Cultural institute. Two employers were talking outside in Italian, opposite to them there was a bronze statue of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I felt a sense of nostalgia.

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I kept walking and got to Grosvenor Hotel. And there I thought of the long list of famous exiles who would spend their first night in London there. One of them was on the run from the authorities for defending his right to speak against injustices: the French writer Emile Zola. He could afford only one night as he arrived at Victoria station with a pyjama wrapped up in a newspaper and “Grosvenor Hotel” written on a piece of paper. Most of his time in London was spent in a cheaper hotel in Upper Norwood. Where he spent his Christmas in 1898 with his “official” wife. He did his best to keep a low profile for the first few days, as the long-standing tradition of the Victorians to not comply with extradition orders from European countries was starting to dwindle. Luckily for Zola, the extradition treaty England has in place with France since 1843, which was never followed anyway, was ended in the 1860s.

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Grovesnor Hotel
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The Queen’s Hotel in Upper Norwood, where Émile Zola spent Christmas. Photograph: Émile Zola/© Association du Musée Émile Zola

I have been walking for a good 2 hours, my legs were giving up. So I boarded a bus and catapulted myself to Trafalgar square. My phone, which I was using to take pictures, was about to die and it was 17:00 already. Night had come, and it started to rain.

I went past the national art gallery, then up straight ahead to Leicester Square. There was a Christmas market and a lot of noise.  Here once stood two Hotels: The Sablonerie Hotel (Formerly William Hogarth’s house in London), where most Italian exiles such as Mazzini and Foscolo would lodge upon their arrival to London, and the German Hotel (Now Leicester House) were the majority of 19th century German exiles would go and where Karl Marx initially stayed before being kicked out for not paying his bills. Leicester square, together with Soho, became a meeting point for most German exiles in London.

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Leicester Square

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Hotel de Sabloniere, Leicester Square, London
Hotel de Sabloniere, Leicester Square, London. Artist Samuel Rawle Artwork medium engraving Copyright notice © Look and Learn / Peter Jackson Collection. Source: Look and Learn

I moved on, went through China town and then up Edward Street towards Soho. I then turned down an alley called Bourcher Street and, turning left, arrived at the next destination.

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Karl Marx’s House

The story of Marx and his life in London is well known. His time in Soho was not a happy one. I felt it ironic that this formerly infamous part of Soho is now off limits for most Londoners to live in.

I walked straight up Dean street until I reached Oxford street, then turned right and walked past Tottenham court Road and up Bloomsbury street, past the British Museum, where Marx wrote “Das Kapital” in its reading rooms. Less known is the fact that the Principal librarian of the British Museum at the time was Italian exile and naturalised British citizen Antonio Panizzi. A friend of Foscolo, he moved to London in 1823 and then, with a recommendation letter from the Poet, moved to Liverpool for a few years. His appointment to the British museum’s library was met with criticism due to Panizzi’s Italian origins. Which reminded me of a strange conversation I had with two English ladies while working at Eltham palace. They came to me to ask about a Tudor house next to the site. As I was explaining them the history of the building I was abruptly stopped. “Do you work here?” I answered I did, to which they replied “Strange, I thought this was meant to be English Heritage but you are obviously not English”, I stuttered. Some things don’t change.

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Robert Smirke’s much loved 1857 British Library is one of the most famous examples of the radial plan, which was introduced into library design to enable the efficient monitoring of readers by librarians.The project was a collaboration with then Head Librarian Antonio Panizzi. Source:https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/typology/typology-libraries/8621638.article

I kept walking up Bloomsbury, turned a few corners and got to Taviston Street. Here is a place I have grown fond of. Despite its strange modern look and very awkward acronym, the SSEES is another example of London’s history as a place of refuge even after 1905. Here, during the Great war, exiled Slav intellectuals from across the Habsburg Empire, together with the English scholar Seton Watson, founded a school where to teach the people of the UK about the culture of the Slavic nations which would be born from the ashes of Austria Hungary. One of its first lecturer, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, would later become Czechoslovakia’s first president. Still today, its aim is to promote and teach its student about Eastern European culture and history.

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I went in, as I needed the toilet and some water, and then headed over to my last destination. I went past Tavistock square and crossed over to Guildford street, passing by a blue Plaque with Lenin’s name on it.  I turned down Grays Inn Road and then right to Clerkenwell Road. Here I start to see different Italian shops. Old Italian restaurants, a driving school,  a Vespa shop, a leather shop and finally, Casa Giuseppe Mazzini. This place played an important role within the Anglo-Italian community. While Giuseppe Mazzini was in exile after many failed Italian uprising against the Austrians, he set up in here the “Italian Operatives Society” which was run for the Italian local community. Unlike other exiles I wrote about, Mazzini spent his time in London among other radical European exiles and the Italian community, and did not stop his revolutionary activities while there.

It was in this house in 1864 that  Mazzini met again with Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was visiting London victorious after the Mille expedition but also frustrated at the loss of Rome.  Like with Kossuth, large crowd would follow Garibaldi (who like Kossuth was tired and frustrated) around London. Yet here he met his former comrade and founded a new society: The “Mazzini-Garibaldi Italian Working Men’s society”  not too far from what is today known as the “Karl Marx memorial library” which was originally the “London Patriotic Society” and where, in 19th century London, British chartists and radicals would meet and invite the large community of exiles London was sheltering at the time.

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7 years after the meeting in London Italy was finally united. Mazzini came back to a new home while Garibaldi kept pursuing his career as a fighter by leading the Army of Vosges during the Franco Prussian war before moving to the island of Caprera in the archipelago of Sardinia. Foscolo’s ashes would be taken back home as well. Despite spending so much time in this city, could it really be considered home for them? Could they be called real Londoners, despite being foreigners? I would say yes. The city’s history is intertwined with their diasporas. London is a city of the world.

Mazzini was mesmerised by London, and often wrote about the allure of the city. I have  one of his quotation in my diary.

“When you look up, the eye loses itself in a reddish, bell-shaped vault, which always gives me, I don’t know why, an idea of the phosphorescent light of the Inferno. The whole city seems under a kind of spell, and the Witches’ Scene in Macbeth or the Brocksberg of the Witch of Endor. The passer-by look like ghosts, — one feels almost a ghost oneself.”

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My phone died on me, it was dark, and it was raining. Hungry and tired, I entered a restaurant called “L. Terroni and sons”. As I stepped inside a man greets me.

“Buona sera.”

 

 

 

Biography

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

Ackroyd Peter, London: A Biography, 2000.

Bernard Porter,The Refugee Question in Mid Victorian England, 2008

Bloom c., Victoria’s Madmen: Revolution and Alienation, 2013.

Margaret Walker, Italian exiles in London, 1816-1848, 1968. https://archive.org/details/italianexilesinl00wick/page/n19

Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4

Photos

Most photos are mine unless otherwise stated in the captions.

 

 

 

 

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