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Migration and communities in the East End

The subject of migration and the East End have been connected for centuries. Communities from all over the world have been drawn to live in Tower Hamlets.

Many lives have been shaped by colonialism and trade networks coming to live in the area due to how close it is to the ports on the River Thames.

Other migrants came for refuge, a place to work and an increasing ethnic diversity established in Tower Hamlets from before the 16th century.

Tower Hamlets has attracted particularly large waves in settlement of migrant communities from:

  • French Huguenot
  • Jewish
  • German
  • South-East Asia communities
  • African Caribbean communities

Each community consists of complex:

  • diverse backgrounds
  • religious practices
  • languages
  • culture
  • folklore
  • food
  • trade

All help the development of the borough. The records can be searched on our online catalogue.

Early migration began with the arrival of African slaves (and seamen), in port areas of the East End, ports central to the transatlantic slave trade.

The East End, particularly the West India Docks played a large part in the trade of African slaves. Some slaves remained in the East End as property of wealthy families living in Tower Hamlets.

Evidence of this type of migration can is available under library classification number 490. Collections are available under the library classification for Docks 960.

Seamen migrated to the East End from all corners of the former British Colonies. People from Eastern Africa, Southern and Eastern Asia were employed on British and European ships. They were referred to at the time as ‘Lascars’. Some also settled in East End dock areas from as early as the 16th and 17th centuries. In the library collection the classification of these ethnic groups can be found under the classification 440.

In the late 19th and throughout the 20th century evidence of this migration continued. Many African, Caribbean, Sub Sahara, Somali and Asian merchant sailors settled in dock areas surrounding Limehouse. Following the First World War, and the Black riots of 1919 there is evidence of concentrated migration of these ethnic groups in our newspaper collection. Specific newspapers that often make mention can be found on The British Newspaper Archives. To name a few East End titles, The Workers’ dreadnought and the Daily Herald.

Further into the 20th century London saw major increase in the African and Caribbean communities. This was as a result of post Second World War government policy to encourage migration to support economic growth.

As well as newspaper cuttings we also hold the archive of Edith Ramsey (ref P/RAM). Her papers on social work and education relate to the:

  • migration of African Caribbean people
  • migration of some Asian and Somali communities
  • refugees to Stepney.

This is reflected in the Records of the Tower Hamlets Institute for Adult Education and its Predecessors created in 1957 (ref no. I/THI).

For further information see our African and Caribbean Collections guide and walking tour guide.

The German migrant community began to arrive in Tower Hamlets predominantly in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were from the Hanover region and mainly settled in Whitechapel and Aldgate. Specialising in skills such as sugar baking, they cultivated this trade in Tower Hamlets for over a century.

We hold archives of the German Lutheran Church ref W/SGG established in Aldgate, the religious and social hub for the German community.

Reference for this community can be found under library classification 420 and 670.5 for the Sugar industry. We also have many deeds under our P archive management group relating to Sugar Bakers in Tower Hamlets.

Refugees fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century were drawn to the East End. They were predominantly based in Brick Lane and Spitalfields.

Among the first was the arrival of French Huguenots, protestant refugees who settled in Spitalfields in their thousands. The Huguenots brought with them refined skills in the silk weaving trade.

They also built churches in the Brick Lane area that are still in use today, as other places of worship. Our large collections of images and illustrations reflect their presence and influence in Tower Hamlets. In our library collection Huguenots come under classification 480 and silk weavers 680.

There was a large presence of Chinese migrants between the 1880s and early 1960s in Limehouse. At first the majority of these settlers were seamen finding temporary lodging in the Limehouse area. Many went on to marry local woman and settle permanently in the area.

Limehouse was coined ‘Chinatown’ from the early 20th century as many Chinese businesses emerged. These were in the food and laundry trades and the street names reflected the community. There was then a decline in number in the borough because of :

  • ‘Slum’ clearances
  • new post-Second World War housing provision by local authorities
  • new migrations to London

Chinatown in Westminster grew from the 1960s and communities grew across other London Boroughs. This creation of local community associations from the early 1980s reflects this. The cuttings and image collection document their migration story under classification 410.

See our Chinese community guide for further details.

The influx of the Huguenots was soon followed by Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms. These violent riots were aimed at the massacre or persecution of Jews, in Eastern Europe and Russia from the 18th to early 20th centuries. They also settled in the Brick Lane Spitalfields area, a place that attracted the majority of large waves of migration in the East End.

Their migration added to established Sephardic Jewish communities largely from Spain and Portugal. Their congregation centered around Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London with burial grounds in the East End.

The new migrants brought with them skills in tailoring and Jewish Synagogues took the place of previous Huguenot churches. For example, the Sandy’s Row Synagogue and The Great Spitalfields Synagogue. Many of our collections reflect the major influence the Jewish community had on the East End. Most notably the Jewish Chronicle, the newspaper established in Aldgate in 1841.

We hold copies in our microfilm collection available in our Reading Room. Also, in our library collection the Jewish Community come under classification number 430.

For further details on our holdings see Jewish community and Places of Worship guides and walking tour guide.

Bengali refers to the majority of the population of Bengal, the region of north-eastern South Asia that generally corresponds to the country of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Whereas, Bangladeshi refers to nationality and those coming from the country Bangladesh with 90 per cent being Muslim. It is also the most widely spoken language in Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi community has been one of the most recent waves of migrants to settle in the Brick Lane Spitalfields area.

The Bangladeshi’s settlement followed a similar pattern to Jewish migration. Buildings such as the Great Synagogue being re-purposed as the Brick Lane Mosque, which had also been a Huguenot church prior to both.

Following Bangladesh’s Independence in 1971 and warfare, people migrated to London for safety and opportunities of work. They followed family members employed and settled in the Spitalfields area.

The 1970s however, saw racial tensions evolve between members of the National Front Party. This put Brick Lane at the forefront of the Bangladeshi’s fight against racial violence.

Our cuttings and image collections are a reference point for these events. As well as various oral histories from the Bangladeshi community residing in these areas.

These oral histories can be found in the archive collection under reference number O/BEE.

Images and cuttings relating to the Bangladeshi community under library classification number 440. For further details see our Bengali community guide and walking tour guide.

Establishment of the Somali community in Tower Hamlets began with the settlement of seaman in the 17th century. However, during the late 1980s and early 1990s many thousands of Somalis fled their country to escape decades of civil war.

During this period the Somali population in Tower Hamlets more than trebled. Somalis began to hold regular protests in London seeking to bring:

  • international attention to the dictatorship
  • the plight of refugees
  • the civil rights emergency in their homeland.

This is reflected in our pamphlets and cuttings collections under classification 490.

The Vietnamese Community began to migrate to the East End following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. As refugees they arrived in Britain via Hong Kong in China (a British Colony at the time).

Many of these Vietnamese refugees settled in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs areas in Tower Hamlets. Explore papers of Peter Gibson relating to Gor Hoi Festival, Shadwell, 1987 under reference number I/THI/B/15/1. We have some items relating to the community in our library collection under classification number 490.

London has always been a centre for the LGBTQI+ community. Tower Hamlets, alongside other parts of the region, has offered LGBTQI+ people a place of refuge to live their lives with relative tolerance.

Before 1967, gay sex between men was illegal. Religious intolerance and sexual discrimination meant that lesbian and gay communities were, until late 20th century, 'hidden' within wider society.

We hold records of Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group ref S/LGG alongside many cuttings and printed material in the Library. We have library collection on this subject under classification 320.6.

See our Sexuality and gender identity in Tower Hamlets: LGBTQI+ collections guide for further details.

We would love to hear from you if you would like:

  • advice on looking after records
  • to help us develop our holdings to better reflect the diversity of Tower Hamlets.

You can explore our acquisitions guidance for further information.