Over the centuries, immigrant communities in one famous London neighbourhood have produced things that are now considered as British as fish ‘n’ chips or a pint of beer – such as fish ‘n’ chips and a pint of beer…
Britain has forever been a country shaped by ‘foreign’ influences.
From the Romans to the Vikings, the Saxons to the Normans and through the centuries that followed, our language, our dialects and our culture have always adapted, adopted and absorbed influences from near and far.
Major cities in the UK in particular have been shaped by immigration and migration, non-more so than the capital itself.
It’s often said that London is a city made up of ‘villages’, different neighbourhoods with distinctive characteristics. Many of these ‘city villages’ were formed by people who came to London from distant places before making specific areas their own.
"Consider yourself one of us..."
The East End of London - Spitalfields, Hoxton, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, with Brick Lane at the centre - embodies for many what it means to be a Londoner. Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the area as the backdrop for their most celebrated novels with East End residents providing the very definition of a local Londoner - a cockney.
Historically, these neighbourhoods have experienced the largest influx of migrants and immigrants in the whole of London.
The first big wave of immigration to the area was the Huguenots during the 17th century, fleeing persecution in France. The Huguenots were master silk weavers but most of the new arrivals found employment in the Black Eagle Brewery, now the Truman building that still dominates Brick Lane.
These refugees from France transformed the whole of the British beer industry, introducing techniques and flavours that still characterise a traditional British pint today.
The Huguenot community eventually left the grand houses they’d built in the area and were replaced by a surge of immigration from Ireland in the eighteenth century. The majority of these new arrivals were weavers from the west of Ireland who continued the artisan traditions of the area begun by the Huguenots.
A second wave of Irish immigrants in the 19th century chose to settle in the north of the city, Camden Town and its surrounding suburbs, the East End Irish community slowly followed.
Those that remained in the cramped, overcrowded area were bolstered by a surge of immigration from the south of Italy and Sicily. The Italians settled mostly around Clerkenwell and Farringdon throughout the 19th century as Brick Lane and Spitalfields became home to Askenazi Jews escaping pogroms in Russia and the east.
From the late 19th century right up until the mid-1960s the streets of Shoreditch and Spitalfields were filled with Jewish bakeries, theatres, synagogues haberdasheries, butchers and textile workshops where Yiddish was the most commonly spoken language.
Many Yiddish words and phrases became part of commonly used English - glitch, nosh, schmooze and tush - to name but a few. And traditions such as fish ‘n’ chips originated in this neighbourhood – the very first combined fish 'n' chip shop was opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, near Bethnal Green around 1860.
From Kosher town to Bangla town
Eventually, the Jewish community slowly moved to the north of the city (as the Irish had before them) and a new community of immigrants moved in, carrying on many of the customs and trades started by previous generations of immigrants to the area.
In the 1970s kosher butchers turned into halal butchers, bakeries became curry houses, haberdasheries became sari shops and synagogues became mosques. Bangladeshis had arrived in the East End and were making Brick Lane their own.
Today in Brick Lane, fashionable bars, shops and art galleries compete for space with the older more established Bangladeshi curry houses and sweet shops.
The very first curry house opened in Brick Lane in the middle of the 1960s, set up by a navy chief from Bangladesh who jumped ship in the East London docks.
It became the model for other restaurants on and around Brick Lane. These curry houses quickly became popular with diners from all communities in the area, and in the 1970s and 1980s Indian restaurants throughout the UK modelled themselves on the Brick Lane curry houses.
Now, curry, specifically chicken tikka masala (an ‘Indian’ dish invented in Britain), has replaced fish ‘n’ chips and roast beef as Britain’s national dish.
Welcome home, wherever you’re from
Since the birth of the city, the people that live in London have not only come from all parts of Britain and Ireland, they’ve come from every corner of the globe.
Those that choose to make London their home don’t just become Londoners; they define what it means to be a Londoner.
More about life in London
Our guide to London provides information about London’s varied neighbourhoods and links to useful services around the city.