Yesterday I passed through Little Italy. No not the one in New York, but the one in central London close to Farringdon underground station.
Back in the 19th Century the area started to attract people from Italy who were fleeing poverty and political unrest. In 1863 the Italian community opened its own church in Clerkenwell Road, St Peter’s seen here next to the Italian food shop. There are naturally plenty of Italian restaurants and cappuccino bars, together with Italian food shops and even an Italian driving school in the area. The blue plaque on the building in the corner is for Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the Maxim gun.
Like of lot of central London the area has had its ups and downs. Until fairly recently it was the centre of the city’s print trade and I remember when I started working in PR (back in the days before every desk had a computer) frequently running artwork to the various printers and typesetters in the area, Whole buildings like the ones below,
would be occupied by different printing companies and none of the buildings ever seemed to have lifts! However new technology and a general decline in the print trade has since freed up plenty of quite funky premises for conversion into loft dwellings, architectural practice offices and design studios.
There are still some curious little shops like International Magic here at 89 Clerkenwell Road,
It was founded around 50 years ago by the magician Ron MacMilan and is still run by his son Martin.
St Peter’s Church was designed by the Irish architect Sir John Miller-Bryson and based upon the basilica of San Crisogono in Rome. Unfortunately it was closed when I visited so I could not see the rather splendid interior and had to make do with the mosaic frieze from over the door.
Within the portico are two memorials, one to the local fallen Italian soldiers from World War One and just above it is this one,
which has a very sad history. When Mussolini declared war on Britain in 1940 Churchill had all Italian men in the UK rounded up and interned, even those who had fled Italy to get away from the fascists. One of the government’s bright ideas was to pack some of them off to Canada on the Arandora Star, only a German U-boat torpedoed the liner and about 700 of the Italian internees drowned.