London has long been the principal place where migrants to the UK choose to settle.
During the second half of the 19th century, though they comprised less than 4% of London’s population, three-fifths of the foreign born community in the UK resided in the capital. Today, London accounts for almost 40% of the UK’s foreign-born population.
A wave of Commonwealth immigration followed WWII and the independence of Britain’s colonies. Until 1962, all Commonwealth citizens could enter the UK without restriction. The passage of legislation that year to prohibit this provoked a spike in immigration to ‘beat the ban’. In 1951, a third of London’s foreign-born population were from Commonwealth countries; by 1971, the figure was two-thirds.
Historically, immigrants to London have tended to live close together, and many of them did so in poverty and overcrowded conditions in London’s East End: 40,000 Russians and Poles, many of them Jews who had fled from the pogroms of the 1880s, were resident in Stepney in 1901, a figure exceeded by only five towns in Poland itself. Today, Bangladeshis are the most prominent community in the East End, while there is a large community of Portuguese in Stockwell; Poles in Hammersmith; Vietnamese in Hackney; Somalis and Gujarati Indians in Wembley; and Koreans in New Malden, to name just a few.
Post-WWII immigration fuelled social tension. Notting Hill is usually cited as the epicentre of London’s first ‘race riot’. In the summer heat of late August 1958, white mobs attacked the homes of West Indian immigrants with petrol bombs, and over the next fortnight, the attacks spread. The frayed history of London’s race relations has left its trace in the capital’s culture, not least because Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian journalist, started the Notting Hill Carnival in 1959 in response to the events of the previous year. The enduring success of the Carnival stands in evocative contrast to the defeat of Oswald Mosley in Notting Hill in 1959, his last electoral stand.
Human capital. The chart shows the percentage of Inner London residents born overseas. Note: People born overseas does not include residents of the Republic of Ireland.
Today, a third of London’s population is foreign-born, and in inner London, the proportion is close to 40%. It can plausibly claim to be one of the most ethnically diverse cities on earth. Over 300 languages are spoken by its schoolchildren, many of them by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the post-WWII Commonwealth migrants. It boasts the largest Hindu temple in Europe and the largest mosque in Western Europe.
The accession of eastern European countries to the EU has precipitated a new wave of immigration to London and the rest of the UK. Like the migrants on the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean in 1948, many of these intend to return home after a few years. But today, the ease and cheapness of transport may mean a greater proportion fulfil that ambition.