Italian ancestors

This guide was last updated in August 2014

From artists and academics to builders, caterers and merchants, Italians have come to Britain for various reasons over the centuries – as Tamzin Outhwaite discovered when she traced her family tree. Colin Moretti offers his advice on how to track them down.

Italians have been coming to Britain since pre-Roman times. From the 13th century onwards there was a trickle of merchants, financiers, churchmen, academics, artists and aristocrats, most of whom returned home but there were always a few who remained. Numbers were generally low, fluctuating with the state of diplomatic relations with the various Italian kingdoms.

The real growth came with a surge of economic migrants in the 19th century. By the 1820s Italian strolling artists and musicians were a feature of London street life – Mr Punch is the most famous legacy of this street theatre. Artists and performers were perhaps the most visible presence but artisans also arrived.

From the 1820s to 1851, estimates put the Italian population of England at around 4,000, half of whom lived in London. Most walked overland from the northern valleys with skilled artisans, making barometers and other precision instruments, coming from Como and plaster figure-makers and sellers from Lucca. They often came for a season then returned to their home villages with their savings in time for the harvest.

By the 1870s the main source of Italian immigration was the region between Rome and Naples, the Parma and the Liri valleys. Those from Parma were often organ grinders, while the so-called "Neapolitans" (from the Liri valley rather than from Naples) were frequently ice cream makers and sellers. Increasing numbers stayed beyond the season and either saved enough to bring their families from home, or married local women and started families here. They encouraged other family members and friends from their villages to join them in a classic pattern of chain migration.

The centre of the Italian community in Britain throughout the 19th century was, and is today, Clerkenwell, in London. But as numbers increased and competition grew fiercer, so Italians spread to the north of England, Wales and Scotland, although they were never in great numbers in the northern cities.

The 19th-century wave of Italian immigration reduced to a trickle with the First World War, with many men returning home to fight in the Italian army, then on the side of the Allies. There were further surges in immigration after the Second World War, when the restrictions on emigration from Italy were lifted. Some Italian Prisoners of War chose to stay in Britain, often marrying local women. Many Italians were involved with the post-war boom in catering and building.

Photo © Getty images

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