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Category: Black East End of London

St Patrick’s Day … London Irish historical connections

I REALISED as I looked around my Essex classroom 40-odd years ago that pretty much all of us came from somewhere else. The name were Jewish, Welsh, Scots or Irish: even digging back a couple of generations, my own provenance was a good mongrel mix of Lowland Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cheshire and Norfolk. And of course most of us Essex people – from Romford, Ongar and Brentwood – had come from London a generation or so back. East Enders escaping the dirt and bombs of Charlton, Poplar and Tottenham for decent indoor plumbing and a front and back garden in Basildon or a suburban semi in Upminster.

But by far the biggest group was the Irish. Not surprising when you consider that that the occupants of the Emerald Isle had largely decamped during the mid-nineteenth century, seeking escape from poverty and famine and finding work in building the roads, railways and housing estates of a mushrooming London. Our city was built by the Irish (and they’d been coming for centuries before of course) but the English have always had an ambivalent, at times violently hostile attitude … no matter how much Irish blood runs in our veins. Dip into the DNA of most Londoners and you’ll find a bit of Cork, Kerry or Cavan in there. St Patrick’s Day is an excuse for Londoners to drink too much Guinness and paint the

John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

town green. But let’s take a look at ten historic London-Irish connections that go beyond the blarney.

  1. In 1736 there are violent riots in Spitalfields, as locals turn on the Irish incomers, who differ in dress and culture and speak Gaelic.
  2. 1780: The Gordon Riots. The Irish had been settling in the East End for generations and there was a substantial population at the East End of Cable Street, which became known as Knockfergus. The eccentric MP, Lord George Gordon, instigated anti-Catholic riots in 1780, and it led to violent attacks on the homes of Irish Londoners there. By the time the smoke cleared on the Gordon Riots, 700 were dead.
  3. Huguenots would also settle in Spitalfields and, like the Irish, would be feared and attacked by some of the locals. In their case it was because they brought superior silk weaving skills which put the locals out of work. The Huguenots were Protestants of course, who would left the Low Countries to flee persecution after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But many of their number would be encouraged to settle in the Irish ‘colonies’, in an echo fo the Scots Planters, who took looted Irish land. The roots of religious conflict between England and Ireland go deep, and are often very tangled.
  4. In the late 19th century, hysteria about revolution was running high in London, with genuine fear that the the overthrown of Crown and State was being plotted. The fears weren’t entirely without foundation of course. Most of the hysteria was directed at immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were bringing new socialist ideas with them, and from Ireland – from where Popish plotting against the Crown was suspected.
  5. Edmund Spenser, born in 1582 in West Smithfield. Spenser was a man of his time, combining a political role with his genius as a poet – he gave us The Fairie Queene of course. But the sublime beauty of his writing was matched by a brutally pragmatic approach to ‘The Irish Problem’. In his time as an administrator in Ireland, Spenser advocated a de facto genocide against the Irish people, in his pamphlet A View of the Present State of Ireland.
  6. In 1822, Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary and proposed a new Metropolitan police force for London, basing it on the Royal Irish Constabulary he had founded eight years before (the first force to bear the nickname ‘Peelers’).
  7. 1912: A year of mass strikes in the East End and around Britain. For the first time, there was a union between the garment workers (largely Jewish) and the dockers (largely Irish) though the strike would peter out with little solid achieved.
  8. 1936: For Bill Fishman, an eyewitness at the Battle of Cable Street 24 years after the above dispute, the union of disparate groups there had its roots in that 1912 linkup, saying: “It was moving to me to see bearded Jews and Irish dockers side by side as comrades.” Some stories, it seems, take decades to play out.
  9. 19 Princelet Street, the East End’s Museum of Diversity. The Irish take their place alongside the Jews, Huguenots and others. And with the first-ever Jesuit Pope now being enthroned, it’s interesting to reflect just how dangerous it was for the followers of Ignatius Loyola (and Catholics generally) during certain periods of the East End’s past.
  10. No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. London-Irishman John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) famously took this as the title of his memoir, citing this as a sign commonly seen in guesthouses in London in the 1950s. Debate than raged about how common (if at all) such signs actually were, but certainly Irish labourers arriving from Cork and looking for board would find some doors slammed in their faces. And if you were black…

First Indian MPs in House of Commons

The House of Commons today is more representative of the British public than it once was – yet the average MP is still white and male. Progress towards greater representation by Black, Asian and female members sometimes seems painfully slow.

So it comes as something of a shock to realize that there were Indian MPs as long ago as the tail end of the nineteenth century. One of these trailblazers, Sir Manchergee Merwanjee Bhownaggree, landed the Bethnal Green seat in 1895. But Bhownaggree wasn’t universally loved by his fellow Indians, earning himself the sneering soubriquet of ‘Bow and Agree’.

There was a trio of Indian MPs in the Commons during the last half century of Empire, and they neatly represented the whole of the parliamentary spectrum. Dadabhai Naoroji represented the Liberal Party in Finsbury Central between 1892 and 1895, and the firebrand Shapurji Saklatvala who represented Battersea North for Labour (while being a paid-up member of the Communist Party) during the 1920s.

The trio of Parsis MPs

All three were Parsis, members of the Zoroastrian religion founded by Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in Persia in the 7th century BC. This faith, devised in what is now Iran, is based on the idea of life being a continuous struggle between lightness and dark, good and evil. But each of the three MPs was radically different from his fellows.

Bhownaggree had been born in Bombay on 15 August, 1851. It was a privileged childhood, lived under the British Raj. His merchant father sent his son to Elphinstone College and then to the University of Bombay. The young graduate became a journalist before replacing his father as the head of the Bombay State Agency in 1872, then becoming the Judicial Councillor of Bhavnager.

Bhownaggree and East India Company

But his thoughts had always leaned to Britain and its influence on India. As a student he had won a prize for a dissertation on the East India Company, which he subsequently worked up into a book. In 1877 he translated Queen Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands into Gujarati, and dedicated the book to the Prince of Wales. It seems a bizarre piece of work to modern eyes, yet many Indians were fascinated by Britain and the far-distant Queen of England (and Empress of India).

In 1882 he moved to London to train as a barrister, spending the next few years shuttling between London, India and Iran. He busily lobbied in England for the Indian State of Bhavnagar and ran into his first controversy, with fellow Anglo-Indians claiming the young lawyer was living in style in London on funds raised from the impoverished state.

But if he was making enemies among fellow Indians, he was earning establishment honours. The young Bhownaggree was created Companion of the Indian Empire in 1886, while Iran awarded him the Order of the Lion and Sun.

Bhownaggree enters Parliament

Bhownaggree quickly realized that to gain a real voice he had to gain a parliamentary seat. The Indian voice in Britain was almost exclusively with the Liberal Party (in the late nineteenth century the main party in the Commons along with the Conservatives), but Bhownaggree had a good pitch to make to the Tories, of whom he was an enthusiastic supporter. He argued that his election would shatter at a stroke the idea that Indians were naturally Liberal, while gaining huge publicity for the Tory cause.

The party agreed, but put him up in an ‘unwinnable’ seat, against the popular Liberal MP, George Howell, in Bethnal Green – a traditional Liberal stronghold. Remarkably he won. His opponents would argue he did it by becoming more British than the British themselves: he argued against Home Rule for Ireland, and against the disestablishment of the Church of England. Perhaps also the large Irish and Jewish constituency of Bethnal Green warmed to this fellow outsider who didn’t want to change things too much?

Howell himself was bitter. ‘After ten years hard labour in Parliament…I was kicked out by a black man, a stranger from India, one not known in the constituency,’ was his sour slant on the loss. The people of Bethnal Green were more open minded, returning Bhownaggree with an increased majority in 1900.

Where the new MP really upset people, though, was with his argument that India should stay in the Empire. Dinshah Wacha, secretary to the Indian National Congress (INC), called him ‘a tool of the Anglo-Indians’ doing harm to India’s cause ‘by his abject slavery [to the Conservatives]’.

Bhownaggree and Gandhi

So ‘Bow and Agree’ became a popular jibe, though not entirely fairly. Before he lost his seat in the Liberal landslide of 1906 he argued against the ‘drain of Indian resources’ (the British Government systematically taxed India to fund other parts of the Empire, including Tibet). And Gandhi himself expressed support for the Bethnal Green MP, saying ‘We in South Africa have begun to rely on your continuous labours in the House on our behalf’ and calling him ‘our greatest champion in the House of Commons’.

Arguing within a context of support for Empire was a tricky balancing act though, and the mood was turning … increasingly Indians wanted the British out of India altogether. By the time Bhownaggree died in 1933, the prevailing wind was with Gandhi and his supporters, and the East End MP was a figure of Empire and the past.

For more, see Bhownaggree By Hinnells and Ralph, Hansib Publishing, ISBN 1870518489, £3

East London’s Black writers



London’s Black history is inextricably bound up with slavery. There are stories of displacement and cruelty, of people bought and sold as chattels, denied their past and any kind of future.

A further injustice is that, though there had been Black Africans in London since the Middle Ages (and in 1772 judge Lord Mansfield estimated there were 14,000 slaves in England in addition to free Black men and women), these powerful stories were effectively written out of English history.

Yet despite enormous barriers, a number of Black writers were active, writing down their horrific experiences – and their ambitions for a better future for their people – in the 1700s. A new publication, Power Writers*, uncovers and celebrates five African writers who came to London in the 18th century. Their work – and the journeys they took to deliver it – make extraordinary reading.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw was born a prince in the city of Bournu, near Lake Chad, probably in 1710. An unhappy childhood in a family who decided Gronniosaw was insane, ended when he left to travel with a Gold Coast merchant. Suspected of being a spy, the boy escaped being beheaded by the furious king – instead he found himself sold into slavery.

His journeys took him to Holland, where he learned to read, embraced Christianity and educated himself with evangelical tracts such as John Bunyan’s The Holy War. Fetching up in London he took the name James Albert and settled in Petticoat Lane. His travels around England saw him meeting Benjamin Fawcett, a dissenting minister, and through him the Countess of Huntingdon. It was his new friends who were to publish A narrative of the most remarkable particulars in the life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniaw, an African prince, as related by himself in 1772. It was the first of the Slave Narratives, and opened the floodgates; over the next decades there would be hundreds more.


John Marrant’s experience was very different. An African, born free in New York in 1755, he was a gifted musician, master of the violin and French horn. But his life was changed forever when he attended a Methodist service, given by the celebrated preacher George Whitefield. A sceptic, who had gone along to disrupt the service, John was instead converted on the spot. He set to travelling around the US, preaching and converting Native Americans to Christianity.

Though born free, John was to lose his liberty in dramatic fashion. Press-ganged into the Royal Navy during the American War of Independence, he served his time and was eventually discharged in London. The Countess of Huntingdon once more lent a hand, arranging for the publication of A narrative of the Lord’s wonderful dealings with John Marrant…’. Marrant then settled in his new city, at 69 Mile End Road.

Increasingly, the narratives were allied to the abolitionist cause. Olaudah Equiano had been a child in what is now Nigeria, then a slave in America and the West Indies before becoming a free man in London. His narrative, first published in 1789, told an extraordinary story of achievement against enormous odds. After working on a Barbados plantation, he spent his teenage years in the Royal Navy, becoming a skilled seaman. He survived a shipwreck; taught himself to read, write and do accounts; saved £40 to purchase his freedom; settled in London working as a hairdresser; and became involved in the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in London, based in Whitechapel.

But it was the narrative that was fuel to the abolitionists. It included the damning query ‘O, ye nominal Christians. Might not an African ask you, learned you this from God … Why are parents to lose their children’ a cruelty that ‘adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery’.

Power Writers also looks at the work of Phillis Wheatley. Kidnapped from Senegal at seven, she was sold into a Boston family. At a time when many white Americans doubted the ability of Black people to learn to read and write, Wheatley became one of the most celebrated poets of her day.

And there is Ottobah Cugoano. Born in what is now Ghana, taken to Grenada and then England as a slave, he won his liberty and published one of the first overtly abolitionist tracts by an African in English.

Extraordinary and inspiring stories, and there are many hundreds more. They could change the way you view the history of our city.
*Power Writers is published by Tower Hamlets African Caribbean Mental Health Organisation, £4 from local libraries and Bow Idea Store, ISBN 1871593506