The New Londoners, an exhibition featuring portraits of families from all over the world who call London home, is on display in the Breathing Space café section of the Migration Museum until 27 May. This blog profiles the exhibition, which features the photographs of Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins, a long-term supporter of the Migration Museum. It includes a ‘behind-the-scenes’ section written by Patrick Dowse, one of Chris’s photographic assistants, about the process of securing the photographs.
Within the UK there is nothing new about the perceived difference between London and the rest of the country – historically, there has always been resentment of the capital, for its wealth, its perceived low morals, its mix of people – but a recent survey of these differences showed the contrasts to sharp effect. One of the strange omissions from that survey, however, was the ethnic make-up of London in comparison with the rest of the country – strange, because London is known for its multi-ethnicity and is seen now to be probably the most ethnically diverse city in the world.
Haroon (left, seated) with his wife, Amina (right, seated), with their sons Milad and Manni (behind Haroon) and nephews Abdullah, Owain and Hamza. His niece Homaira (centre), with her son Imaan and daughter Negeen, and family friend Live (far right).
This multi-ethnicity lies at the heart of Chris Steele-Perkins’ The New Londoners project: ‘The whole world is here in London, and it is the most multi-cultural, most ethnic city in the world,’ he says. And, as a migrant himself and someone of mixed parentage (he was born in Myanmar when it was still called Burma, and identifies as half-Burmese), he was aware of the complexity of identity, both for individuals and for people constantly questioning individuals about it. ‘The question I still continue to be asked is “Where are you from?”,’ Chris says, ‘which has often got the subtext that you don’t really belong here.’ And yet, quiet evidently, people increasingly do feel they belong here, and one of the distinctive characteristics of the capital is the apparent ease with which cultures and ethnicities exist alongside each other. A new kind of identity seemed to be emerging, a new kind of Londoner, and Chris set out to document it, attempting to take photographs in London of people from all the 195 countries recognised by the United Nations (UN).
He set out to do so with a number of common principles: the photographs would all be taken in the subjects’ households; they would be of families, however they interpreted the meaning of family; they would be formal photos; and they would be accompanied by the transcript of an interview between Chris and the subjects of the photos. The result is The New Londoners, which exists as a website, as a photobook (published by Dewi Lewis and on sale in our bookshop) and as an exhibition, in the Migration Museum until 27 May and at the British Library until 7 July. The book, which documents 164 families (collectively hailing from 187 countries) was to be published on the day that the UK was due to leave Europe (Friday 29 March); its launch took place instead on Thursday 4 April at the Migration Museum.
‘My own family is a pretty decent fit for the family profile – with my wife [Miyako Yamada, foreground] being Japanese, my half-brother [Thein Mynt, left] half-Australian and me [in the door-frame] half-Burmese – so fairly early on I thought I would include myself, but built around my brother rather than me: I’m tucked away at the back. My mum’s in the picture as well, a small tiny framed print in the foreground.’ Also in the photo are Chris’s son, Cedric, by the mirror; Thein’s wife, Jean Miller, on the sofa; their son, Lewin, behind the sofa, and his partner, Francis, kneeling beside it.
Chris put feelers out through various contacts, but he was introduced to many of the people he photographed by subjects of earlier photographs, or he stumbled across them by chance, for example meeting a colleague of somebody from the Marshall Islands at a Magnum book-signing event. Some of the stories he heard from families, particularly those who had fled war, were harrowing: the matriarch of the Congolese family was tearful remembering the situation that led to her leaving her home country, the father of the Afghan family explained how the rise of militant Islamist rule meant his job as a satirical comedy writer was not only untenable but put his life in danger, and his wife spoke longingly of an era when women worked and wore skirts – painting a now unrecognisable picture in light of contemporary, conservative Afghanistan.
Having set himself the challenge of photographing people from every country in the world residing within the capital, Chris found that the concept of categorisation of countries presented some interesting questions. For one thing, some of the people he photographed identified themselves with countries – Kurdistan or Somaliland, for example – that have not been recognised by the UN. But there were other issues, too.
‘The idea had originally been to try to put together families from all the UN-recognised states, but I kind of gave that up as an idea because it seemed to be artificial,’ Chris explains. ‘I was intrigued to discover people from places like the Chagos Islands. They didn’t particularly want to be here. They hadn’t come of their own free will, as most migrants to Britain do. It’s a sad irony that they’re here, not because they’re trying to escape tyranny; it’s the opposite, they’re trying to get back to their homeland.’
Vanessa Calou (behind sofa), her brother, Misley Mandarin (right), their father, Michel Mandarin (left) and Vanessa’s daughter (perched on the sofa), Kaysea Calou. Michel was born in the Chagos Islands and lived there until he was expelled in the 1960s. Vanessa and Misley were born in Mauritius.
The islands of the Chagos archipelago were uninhabited until the French, using slave labour, established copra plantations on them in 1793. The islands were ceded to Britain in 1814 and have been British territory since. A 1966 agreement between the British and American governments led to the UK forcibly expelling the archipelago’s inhabitants between 1968 and 1973, in order to provide an unpopulated island for a US military base.
Some Chagossians and human rights advocates have said that the Chagossian right of occupation was violated by the British Foreign Office as a result of that agreement and have asked for additional compensation and a right of return. In February 2019, the UN’s highest court advised that the UK should end its control of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean ‘as rapidly as possible’.
Patrick Dowse, one of Chris’s assistants on The New Londoners, writes about his experience:
In the summer of 2015, as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student photographer, I found out that Chris Steele-Perkins was looking for an assistant for a project. I leapt at the rare opportunity to work with someone with such a rich photographic history.
Coming from a relatively small town in the North-East of England, London was a huge culture shock, which was partly why I had wanted to study in this city; to be part of a team working on this project with Chris only added to the excitement – and working on this project was a brilliant way-in to learning about and meeting people from a huge range of cultures and countries.
By the time I started working with Chris the project had been underway for over a year, but there were still about 160 countries left to cover – a lot of work still to do.
I worked alongside a team of other assistants and researchers, tracking down the remaining families, often contacting embassies, local community groups, blogs and online groups, such as Facebook groups set up for those living in London from different countries.
Social media such as Facebook were invaluable to me – I could use them to connect with those we had still yet to cover in the book: for example, I was able to contact someone from Tajikistan through a Facebook group set up to connect people from Tajikistan living in London and the UK.
We were welcomed into the homes of the families we photographed with open arms. As well as talking about that very British topic of the weather, we often had extensive conversations about their journey to the UK. And one thing I noticed was that, no matter which country we were photographing, no matter which part of the world they were from, we were always offered a cup of tea. That’s one thing that I noticed we all do in the UK when welcoming someone into our home.
Being given the rare chance to work on a project like this has taught us that we’re all the same as each other, no matter which country we’re from. Someone from every corner of the world has found London and now calls it their home. We all want the same thing: happiness, love and community. That’s all we’re after, whether we’re from the UK or Uganda, Venezuela or Vanuatu.
The impact on the project of the 2016 referendum
Chris began the project two years before Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. As the project widened, Chris came across people who had moved to London from all over the world for reasons as wide ranging as their countries of origins: work, study, love, curiosity. Some were asylum seekers and refugees, others students or people who had moved for their business. ‘These are the kind of ordinary, decent people who are getting by and doing stuff; [they represent] the exact opposite of the rhetoric that came out of the Leave campaigns,’ says Chris. ‘They are in all kinds of jobs, and in all kinds of work, and have all kinds of histories; not one of them strikes me as someone who’s just kind of sitting back and abusing benefits.’
Since that vote, many foreign nationals in the UK have spoken about a change in feeling, and now wonder what their futures hold, and whether they are still welcome. After the referendum, Chris says, there was a sense that people felt more vulnerable: most of the potential participants in the project who subsequently changed their minds about being involved did so in that ‘post-referendum era’.
Unlike the majority of England and Wales, London voted to remain part of the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Later in the summer of 2016 the newly elected mayor, Sadiq Khan, a British Muslim of Pakistani origin, launched the #LondonIsOpen campaign, proclaiming: ‘London is the best city in the world. We are entrepreneurial, international and outward looking. London is known as a city full of creativity, a place where anything is possible. The key ingredient of our city’s success has been the flow of brilliant ideas and talent from across the globe. Our city is comfortable in its diversity, proud of its history and optimistic about its future. London is open.’
Gert Van de Meersch (left), from Belgium, with his wife, Atija Sulubito Puma (right), from Mozambique, with their daughter, Marcia, and son, Sander. Marcia was born in Mozambique and came to London when she was two.
‘All these things go against the rhetoric of the Brexiteers,’ says Steele-Perkins, who moved to the UK from Burma (now Myanmar) aged two. ‘I think it’s kind of pathetic sometimes, hearing this notion of British values and things like that, as if we’ve had some kind of static system, which is unchanged and suddenly it’s been threatened by people coming in. The whole history of this island has been people coming here due to wars, colonial movements, European movements and so on; what we’ve got now is a product of a process of continuous evolution, which will continue.’
At a time of renewed racism and xenophobia, Chris considers The New Londoners a historical document. That the British Library has taken it into its collection is significant for him, adding to ‘the sense of it belonging to the tradition of recording’ – recording what Chris feels is the ‘greatest political issue of our time: migration’.
The New Londoners exhibition is on in the Breathing Space café at the Migration Museum until Sunday 26 May and at the British Library until Sunday 7 July. From 12 June to 8 September, it will be on display at Somerset House, London, as part of the exhibition Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain.
The photobook, The New Londoners, costs £35 and is published by Dewi Lewis and available in the Migration Museum’s bookshop.
For many people, there was a golden age when Britain was truly British, populated by the British, with shared cultural and religious values. This golden age is variously identified as that of King Arthur, or Elizabeth I or Victoria, or Churchill, among others. As is the case with most golden ages, all too often the evidence fails to support the myth. In the early nineteenth century, for example, the number of Germans in London was considerable (28,644out of a total population of 2.8 million, as recorded in the census of 1861, the first in which Londoners’ country of origin was sought) – but how diverse was the capital generally? This was a question explored by students at the University of Hertfordshire, and Adam Crymble, senior lecturer at that university, here discusses two illustrations taken from their findings.
Final year history students at the University of Hertfordshire went looking for images of London’s diversity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and had no trouble finding a veritable treasure trove. The images were brought together from already-digitised collections and shared via an Instagram feed that showcases not only Britain’s diversity but also some of the challenges and attitudes faced by migrant groups over the centuries.
The project asked students to consider what migration meant to the UK two hundred years ago. It proved a fabulous complement to the ‘What does migration mean in the UK today?’ poster project by our colleagues down the corridor, which is still on display at the Migration Museum.
It can be easy to forget about London’s long history with migration. The dominant narrative is that migration to the UK began in earnest in 1948, when the HMT Empire Windrush landed on British shores, discharging hundreds of Caribbean migrants and kicking off a wave of post-war immigration. But a quick trip into the digital archive of Scotch–London cartoonists George and Isaac Robert Cruickshank show that a diverse London stretches much deeper into the past.
‘Tom and Jerry “Masquerading it” among the Cadgers in the “Back Slums” in the Holy Land’ (1821), drawn and engraved by Isaac Robert Cruikshank and George Cruikshank (Public Domain, from the British Library collection).
During the course of their studies, students found two images from the Cruickshanks’ ‘Tom and Jerry’ series that are particularly illustrative of that fact. In 1821, the fictional English gentlemen Tom and Jerry, on their romp about town, delved into London’s most Irish space: the neighbourhood known as the Rookery of St Giles-in-the-Fields in the west end. Today it is but a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Station and the site of Google’s London offices. Two hundred years ago, however, it was a tangle of streets and a slum that many people feared to enter. Sometimes it was referred to as the ‘Holy Land’ – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the high concentration of Irish Catholics in the region and the ironically unholy behaviour to be found therein. It was described as a ‘rabbit warren’ of narrow passages and dangerously overcrowded houses where tenants rented a shared bed or a space on the bare floorboards for as little as 1p a night.
It was among these ‘cadgers’ that Tom and Jerry spent their evening in St Giles, in one of the area’s infamous subterranean public houses. The pair witnessed the locals in their evening revelry after a hard day of begging and stealing, followed by a night of hard drinking, singing, and fighting away their daily take. The poor people of St Giles lived for the moment. With no way to safely store valuables, they knew that a day that ended penniless was a night safe from robbery.
Tom and Jerry undoubtedly heard a few Irish brogues as they worked the room that fictional night two centuries ago. But the Cruikshanks’ depiction of the scene reminds us of something else: this was a diverse and cosmopolitan space. Most of that diversity is invisible to us, but there are at least three black individuals in the painting who act as a clear reminder that London was home to many different migrant groups. Two of those black people are dressed as sailors, highlighting the important role played by international trade in bringing people to London from around the world. The arrival of those particular individuals was of course linked at least tangentially to the British trade in Africans, which had ceased only in 1807, when the slave trade was finally abolished in the British Empire. But dark-skinned faces from other parts of the world could also be found on London’s streets – ‘Lascar’ sailors from India, and East Asians arriving on the ships from China were part of daily life in London.
What’s particularly noticeable about the black individuals in the image is that they are simply part of the evening festivities. One of them is joining a fistfight in the back left, another plays the fiddle at centre, and the third is smoking a pipe around a table of fast friends at right. Apart from the fistfight, which seems to include a fairly large group of people, there’s no sign these black people are unwelcome in this space, nor should they be in such a multicultural part of town.
Diversity did not stop there. Facing the viewer in the bottom-left foreground is a man exhibiting physical characteristics used to denote Jewishness in nineteenth-century caricature. His presence is a reminder that the capital was also home to two Jewish populations: Ashkenazi and Sephardic. He reminds us that London was not an exclusively Christian city in the early nineteenth century. Nor was it solely Church of England. In addition to the large group of Irish Catholics in the Rookery, the tiny parish of St Giles was home to a Sardinian Catholic Chapel, attached to the Sardinian Embassy, and a place for the city’s Italian population to come together and worship.
Within minutes from where Tom and Jerry stood and just a few feet to the west of the parish boundary was the most French part of London – St Anne Soho, which was home to both French Catholics who had fled the French Revolution in the 1790s, and the descendants of the French Protestant Huguenots who had fled persecution almost exactly a century earlier, in 1685. One must wonder if any French voices echoed out among those cadgers in the room. If they had done, it certainly would not have been unusual.
It’s a shame the figures in the painting cannot speak, for if they could, their voices would ring forth a chorus of accents from up and down the country, from Glasgow to Cornwall and everywhere in-between. London was a melting pot of English migrants who joined these strangers from further afield and came together on unfamiliar streets, where they built new relationships. Many of the British internal migrants passed through St Giles and its Rookery, adding their accents to the fray.
‘Lowest Life in London. Tom, Jerry and Logic among the unsophisticated Sons and Daughters of Nature at “All Max” in the East’ (1821), drawn and engraved by Isaac Robert Cruikshank and George Cruikshank (Public Domain, from the British Library collection).
Diversity was of course not limited to St Giles. A few months earlier, Tom and Jerry had spent an evening in the city’s East End, at a popular working class dance hall. The scene is labelled ‘Lowest Life in London’, which acknowledges class and racial prejudices of the day, but also challenges those fears by depicting a joyful scene that showcases the coming together of cultures and a blending of classes. The wealthy Jerry cavorts with a well-travelled peg-legged sailor who plays a tune on his fiddle. A black woman in a colourful dress jigs with an Irishman, while a white person minds her on-looking baby.
These imaginary images showcased some of London’s most diverse spaces in the early nineteenth century. In subterranean public houses, and dancing clubs on the edge of town, diversity was on the fringes. But, importantly, it was present. Faces of every shade, and accents of every pitch and timbre, rang through London. Windows into that lost world presented through the escapades of Tom and Jerry remind us of just how deeply embedded migration is in London’s history. It seems unlikely that London has ever been a white, Protestant, English city.
Adam Crymble is a senior lecturer and historian of migration at the University of Hertfordshire. He is himself a migrant to London. The images discussed in this article were collected by his final year history students who contributed images of migration and diversity to an Instagram feed celebrating Britain’s diverse past. With special thanks to Ellen Daly for contributing the image of Tom and Jerry dancing at the ‘All Max’.
Tickets for Kishwar Desai’s MMP lecture on the Partition of India are still ‘on sale’ (don’t worry: they’re free – you can book here) on the LSE website. Following the attention given to this turbulent event in the press, on TV and film this year, it will be fascinating to hear how the newly opened Partition Museum in Amritsar, India, has fared – and how the subject is being treated in the Indian and Pakistani media.
Lady Kishwar Desai – the chair of the Arts And Cultural Heritage Trust, which has set up the world’s first Partition Museum at Town Hall, Amritsar, Punjab – will be giving the MMP annual lecture at the LSE on Wednesday 22 November, on the subject of ‘Partition, 70 years on: what have we learnt from the division of India?’
On the Partition Museum’s website, Santosh Bali, one of the people whose oral history is available to listen to, comments that the present generation doesn’t know how the independent states of India and Pakistan came into being or ‘how we got this freedom’. Now in her 80s, she clearly feels that it’s a good thing that these stories are finally coming to public attention, even though the memory of those times still brings tears to her eyes. And Santosh, by her own admission, got off relatively lightly from the whole experience – her family only lost, in her words, all their belongings.
But it’s a funny thing, this kind of switch between ignorance and knowledge. If the younger generation in India and Pakistan knows little about the birth pangs of their countries, it is partly because the older generation held back from telling them. There is nothing in this that is particular to the Indian/Pakistani story. Holocaust survivors often went decades before talking of their experience, just as people who had fought in either of the World Wars of the last century found it impossible to talk about their experiences before their final years. It’s a phenomenon well known to psychologists (often called the 50-year rule) and brilliantly evoked in Richard Flanagan’s 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North:
Immediately after the war it was quickly like the war had never been, only occasionally rising up like a bad bump in the mattress in the middle of the night and bringing him to an unpleasant consciousness. [. . . ] Sometimes, it was hard to believe he had ever really been to war at all.
There came good years, grandchildren, then the slow decline, and the war came to him more and more and the other ninety years of his life slowly dissolved. In the end he thought and spoke of little else – because, he came to think, little else had ever happened.
If the limited knowledge a younger generation has of the previous generation is in part down to the lack of curiosity of one generation and the reticence of the other, there is another kind of ignorance (in the original sense of ‘lack of knowledge’) in terms of the stories and records that find their way into the public domain. A generation grew up in post-war Germany in largely blissful ignorance of its country’s role in the Second World War because there was no mention of it in the books they studied at school, and their parents and older relatives didn’t talk about it. Likewise, generations of young Japanese students grew up in a country where the 1941–45 conflict was a conspicuous blank in all schoolbooks. Who’s at fault for their ignorance?
Thanks to the TV programmes, films and features there have been this year in the press and wider media, the events of Partition are now part of the public domain in the UK in a way that they arguably were not before. My first awareness of Partition, though, was reading Freedom at Midnight (by Larry Collins and Dominique Pierre) in my 20s, a book that mapped the trauma of the period while allowing a (relatively) young British man to retain his faith in the Brits as the good guys. I don’t think I could hold on to that faith now, when so many other historical records provide a picture of the British imperial ‘adventure’ that is the polar opposite of the one I imbibed at school. I feel embarrassed about my ‘ignorance’ now, just as the young generation of the 1960s and 70s in Germany felt embarrassed, and then angry, about their ‘ignorance’ of their country’s past. But I’m not sure I blame myself for my ignorance, and I find it useful to remember that now when I am tempted to criticise others for their ‘ignorant’ views.
Knowledge is a burdensome thing but it is surely better than ignorance, and it can only be a good thing that the Partition Museum is shining its light on a period in the history of the Indian sub-continent that has for too long been shrouded in darkness. How important, too, if the 50-year rule mentioned above is true, for organisations such as the Partition Museum (and, in this country, the British Library and the Wiener Library, among others) to be gathering the oral testimony of a generation before it disappears.
Why not come along to the LSE on Wednesday 22 November and hear Lady Kishwar Desai reflect on the challenges of setting up this institution to collective remembering and on the differences it has made to the people involved, in one way or another, in the project?
Tickets for Kishwar Desai’s lecture, Partition, 70 years on: what have we learnt from the division of India?, are currently on sale. LSE students and staff are able to collect one ticket per person from the SU shop, located at Lincoln Chambers, 2–4 Portsmouth Street. Members of the public can ‘purchase’ tickets online via the event page on LSE’s website.