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Economy / Jobs

For centuries, London has been the work capital of the world

In Migrant City: A New History of London, Panikos Panayi explores the role immigration has played in the capital’s development. In this extract, he looks at the role the city’s economy had in attracting migrants.

The freedoms of London, especially in contrast to European cities, acted as a key factor in attracting all manner of refugees to the metropolis: the exiles escaping the French Revolution in the 1790s,3 German revolutionaries in the Victorian period, governments in exile during the Second World War, those fleeing persecution in the Cold War, and the global crisis which followed the end of this conflict from the end of the 1990s – even though, by this time, British refugee policy limited and controlled those who could enter and settle in London.

However, this book has revealed London as the work capital of Britain and Europe and, for much of the past two hundred years, the world. The numerous personal accounts quoted essentially tell the story of foreigners moving to London in search of employment, as that remains the main motivation for migration for the vast majority of those who have settled in the metropolis. Once again, the economic significance of London, its size and the scale of the economy have all combined together to bring in people from all over the world working in all manner of occupations throughout the social scale and, increasingly, throughout the entire geographical area covered by the metropolis.

One of the unique factors about this city lies in its ability to attract people throughout the economic and social scale. The idea of London acting as a magnet for cheap labour offers just one explanation as to why this metropolis has proved such an important global magnet. Clearly, most of those who have entered the city seeking employment have worked in low-end manual and service-sector jobs since the 18th century, as the example of the long history of the Irish in the London building trade demonstrates. However, numerous other social groups have settled in the city. Few other international urban centres could claim the range and scale of global elites.

The importance of London as an international financial centre from the 18th century has proved fundamental, a status which European Jews helped to cement from the Napoleonic period onwards and which attracted bankers from other parts of Europe over the following century. The proportion of foreign bankers may have remained stable or declined during the course of the 20th centurym but the ‘Big Bang’ in financial services at the end of that century gave the City of London a new lease of life and power comparable with its Victorian and Edwardian status. This in turn helped to create a new service sector to provide for the needs of the growing international bourgeoisie with a key centre in the City, whether, for example, as cleaners or restaurant staff.


But these elites have also included individuals who moved to London directly as a consequence of the opportunities which the presence of British and international bankers provided. The arrival of classical musicians from the early 18th century occurred because of the employment opportunities which no other city could offer, because none had such a developed middle and upper middle class, both foreign and domestic born. The presence of a large bourgeoisie offered all types of job openings from those working in classical music to those who founded the restaurant trade as waiters, cooks and owners. 

Musicians and waiters filled a skills gap. Trained in occupations which had emerged on the European continent, they transferred their abilities to the European city where the greatest economic opportunities existed. As we have seen, during the course of the 20th century London also attracted a new group of musicians from Black America and the West Indies in particular, who imported jazz but also helped to develop musical forms such as ska and reggae.

Similarly, the presence of a dozen football teams in London meant that it had become well positioned to develop some of the most globalised football teams in the world whether in terms of ownership or from the point of view of the playing staff. Arsenal and Chelsea in particular illustrate this process.

But between Nathan Mayer Rothschild, as a banking elite, and Didier Drogba, as a sporting superstar, the Irish builders from the 18th century onwards and the South Asian women preparing aeroplane food in West London in the second half of the 20th century, come numerous others. They have settled in London and established all types of small businesses, from the Jewish and Irish street-peddlers interviewed by Henry Mayhew, many of whom existed on tiny profit margins (if any), to the plethora of migrant shopkeepers and restaurant owners residing in the capital in the second half of the 20th century.

The size of the London economy therefore offers the key explanation as to why people from all over the globe have settled to work in such a wide range of occupations throughout the social scale. While the international importance of the London economy determines its size, this globality is also reflected in the range of occupations which foreigners undertake within the city. But the central point to re-emphasise here is the position of London as work capital. Those who have settled in the metropolis have usually devoted their lives to work, the reason they moved.

The Irish navvies who have settled in the capital since the 18th century did so for the purpose of labouring in London’s streets, a pattern which continued into the second half of the 20th century. The life of Donall MacAmlaigh, one of hundreds of thousands of Irishmen working in the London building trade over centuries, offers just one example of the centrality of employment for manual workers who surrendered their rural existence for a supposedly better life, even though the reality of employment proved different. Many of MacAmlaigh’s post-war single male contemporaries worked long hours and spent much of their leisure time simply drinking, although other Irishmen and women established a better equilibrium in their lives.

Meanwhile, higher up the social scale, the life of the Turkish Cypriot immigrant Asil Nadir offers an example of another individual whose London life essentially revolved around work, on this occasion through the establishment of an international business empire, which, however, crashed in the 1990s. Clyde Best’s life revolved around football, an artist much like the classical music performers who migrated to London in pursuit of their artistic goals. Idolised by West Ham fans in the early 1970s, his career would fizzle out in the second half of that decade when he moved to the United States.

These examples demonstrate that the London economy has, for centuries, had an insatiable appetite for labour. Until the 20thcentury those who settled in the capital were primarily English people who would often pay with their lives in their search for employment because of the insanitary conditions existing there. The examples of the Irish drinkers and the failed businessmen such as Asil Nadir demonstrate that the London economy eats up and spits out people on all parts of the social scale. Working hard, the purpose of moving to the capital, does not guarantee success or social mobility. African cleaners who take on several jobs at once to make ends meet seem to have little prospect of achieving social mobility because of both racism and the fact that they cannot earn and save enough money to purchase a house.

Migrant City: A New History of London is published in hardback on 25 February.

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