Today in London’s radical history: Italian restaurant workers union hold first meeting of London Italian restaurant workers union launched, 1901.

Ironically as it may seem in these times, in the nineteenth century, Britain was a popular and open destination for political exiles and others forced from their countries for their beliefs, or because of their race or creed…

This was due to a relatively liberal asylum policy, unique then among European countries. A tradition of free access to the country had long roots, linked as it was with the idea of free trade and based on the knowledge of the advantage of learning skills from foreigners. Work that one out Theresa.

Of course this isn’t to say that there had never been discrimination, distrust of and attacks on ‘foreigners’ – there had been and would be again.

But 19th century British government’s largely did not pass any legislation in order to regulate immigration, except under very particular circumstances, so that from 1826 to 1905, apart from a gap due to the revolutions of 1848-50, all migrants, either refugees or not, enjoyed complete free access to the United Kingdom.

British legislation on extradition also made England safer than other countries for political refugees. Indeed, British law did not authorise extradition for discussing political ideas or holding unorthodox opinions. (British policy toward immigration would change completely with the introduction of an Aliens Act in 1905.)

Substantial communities of migrants grew up in London, notable among them political refugees, fleeing from persecution, arrest, imprisonment and sometimes torture and execution in their home countries. Exiles from European countries formed the vast majority – Germans, Italians, French, Russians, Poles often forming the largest groups, and all shades of political opinion among them. Nationalists working against the large empires which then ruled much of Europe (or to unite countries then divided), republicans, liberals and later socialists, communists and anarchists… These colonies often settled in London, for many the first port of call, and having access to work, intellectual life, and usually having groups/communities of their compatriots already established…

The first significant groups of Italian refugees moved to London during the 1820s, as government repression followed the failure of the revolutions in Naples and Piedmont in 1820-21. At this time, Italian refugees together with the Poles were the largest community of exiles in London.

Successive governments, from before Italian unification (when Italy was split into a number of rival states), and after it, put into practice repression in order to repress the activities of various political movements. As Italy became unified, focus shifted from the nationalists and republicans who had plotted unification for years, to the more radical social and political groupings…

By the 1830s, this community of Italian refugees became one of the most active and influential in Europe. Some of these Italians eventually integrated themselves into English life, and obtained important positions within society.

In January 1837, leading Italian nationalist republican, Giuseppe Mazzini, a central figure in 19th century Europe, arrived in London. For thirty years he played a crucial role in Italian refugee and migrant community during the first half of the nineteenth century. These activities were only briefly interrupted when Mazzini left for Italy in order to take his part in the revolutions of 1848, but he was forced to return to his refuge in London after the fall of the Roman Republic, of which he was president, in 1849. The number of political refugees who escaped to the United Kingdom from the European reaction reached probably its height in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 revolts.

From the 1870s, socialists and anarchists became the most marked out groupings for repression in Italy, the latter especially. This strategy of repression was based on several special measures taken by the different governments in power, both of the Right and of the Left, and carried out by the police and security forces. The most effective measures were preventive detention, which compelled some anarchists to spend many months in jail before trial, laws against the press, and finally, the most threatening among them, the domicilio coatto (forced domicile) and the ammonizione (admonishment). 

During these recurrent periods of severe repression, for the Italian anarchists “the only way to escape […] was to go underground or flee into exile”.

The countries where most anarchists found refuge were France, Switzerland and Belgium, but some of them emigrated to the United States while others established small communities in the Balkans, in the Levant and in South America.

Originally, the laws concerning forced domicile and admonishment were promulgated against common criminals, in particular to fight brigantaggio (banditry), but, after the Left gained power in 1876, they were directed especially against the anarchists. Indeed, the government did not grant the status of political activist to the Internationalists; instead, it regarded them as an ‘association of malefactors’.

Substantial numbers of Italian political exiles grew up in Holborn, Soho and Clerkenwell, the areas where the Italian community traditionally settled. The Italian colony in those years was generally very poor, although their poverty was alleviated by mutual aid due to the existence of a long standing and supportive community. The first Italian immigrants who moved to London for economic reasons, particularly during the period 1840 -1870, were mostly unskilled workers and their activities were mainly itinerant: most of them were organ-grinders, street peddlers, figure makers or ice-cream sellers. At the end of the century, catering became the main sector in which Italian people were employed, particularly in the Soho area. Tito Zanardelli, one of the first Italian anarchists who arrived in London, addressed his propaganda to these categories of workers in 1878.

A significant section of the anarchist community was itself active in the catering trades (a record of anarchists by trade in the late Victorian period lists 4 working as dishwashers, 14 waiters, and 5 cooks). Some of them opened their own restaurants.

The anarchists tried numerous times to organise the workers of the community. During the 1890s a large number of Italians were employed in the catering trade, especially as cooks and waiters who worked in the restaurants in Soho. At the turn of the century, with the expansion of catering services in London, the number of Italian cooks and waiters increased steadily. They lived mainly around Soho and Holborn. The employees in restaurants and hotels were unorganised; they often had to take work under any conditions and were subject to a harsh sweating system. “The German, Swiss, of Italian waiter usually did not receive any wages, but, on the contrary, he had to pay his employer a percentage of 6d. or more in the pound of his gross takings in tips.”

The catering sector became the one of the centres for organised Italian exile politics. However, unions often didn’t last long, and the campaigns were said alter to have “had few tangible results”. The hotel trades and catering were ‘so much fragmented in small units and so often temporary and seasonal’ represented a major obstacle. As with other ‘casual’ or seasonal work, the nature of the job made it hard to maintain consistent organisation (for instance, the tailoring and building trades also found it hard to keep networks alive). On top of this, much of the Italian anarchist migrant community was constantly caught between their lives in London and their orientation towards their homeland, and activists were liable to return to Italy when they could…

In July 1893, leading Italian anarchist exiles Malatesta, Gori, Merlino, and Agresti, referred to the establishment of a new workers’ association in opposition to the Circolo Mazzini-Garibaldi in a letter to the director of the newspaper Londra-Roma, Pietro Rava, and raised the issue of poor working conditions in the restaurants. In 1901, the Italian anarchists announced in their newspaper, L’Internazionale, the first meeting of the Lega di Resistenza fra i lavoratori in cucina in Londra. The meeting was to be held at the headquarters of the Circolo Filodrammatico, at 38-40 Hanway Street. This meeting took place on 20 January, according to the L’Internazionale; several orators spoke in front of a large audience, and a British worker urged the waiters to join the Amalgamated Waiters Society. The meeting ended with the endorsement of a resolution urging the waiters to fight for ‘l’abolizione delle mance e un adeguato salario’. This was “not intended to be another friendly society but focused on economic struggles: reducing working hours, for increasing wages, especially focusing on Italian bosses who “took advantage of the miserable conditions and adaptability of their exploits them.”

L’Internazionale dedicated many articles to the anarchists’ attempt to organise the waiters and dishwashers employed in the restaurants of the capital. The newspaper also published the correspondence of a waiter, Vincenzo Mayolio, who described the harshness of working conditions in restaurants.

I am not sure what happened to this union, but a few years later in 1905, an Italian anarchist, named Bergia, launched a campaign against employment agencies. These agencies were the main way Italian workers in the West End restaurant trade got work (not much has changed in many so-called casual trades, in 100 years, it seems). Bergia opened a rival ‘free employment agency’ based in his own restaurant in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, and called a meeting on December 2nd 1905 for Italian cooks to discuss the formation and structure of a ‘Lega di resistenzia’. The restaurant’s address was also used for the correspondence of the secretary of the Caterers’ Employees Union. Indeed, in order to reach the catering workers, Bergia founded, with the English activist, M. Clark, the newspaper, the Revue. International Organ for the interests of all Employees in Hotels, Restaurants, Boarding-Houses, etc. The articles in the newspaper were written in English, German, and French. The campaign among the Italian waiters gave rise to some results. Inspector Frosali reported that, at a meeting organised at the German Club where the French anarchist, Gustave Lance, spoke about the trade union movement. Another Italian anarchist involved in the organisation of waiters was Giacinto Ferrarone, who, like Bergia, came from the north Italian town of Biella (and signed his articles in anarchist newspapers as Giacomino Giacomini). Ferrarone exercised some influence among Italians employed in hotels and restaurants, most of whom were from Piedmont too. For this reason, in April 1905, he was chosen as a speaker at meetings to campaign for the abolition of the employment agencies. Ferrarone later joined the socialists but continued his organisational work. He promoted the creation of sindacati di resistenza (trade unions) that, in his view, represented the workers’ real interests.

He was also the tenant of the headquarters of the Lega di Resistenza dei lavoratori della mensa, constituted as the Sezione Italian adella Caterer’s Employees Union, at 55 Frith Street, Soho. But his career as a labour organiser for the anarchists or socialists ended abruptly when he left London at the beginning of August 1907, after stealing the funds of the club, Nuovo Sempione, of which he was the secretary.

However agitation among the catering workers continued and in 1909, the mobilisation of workers in restaurants and hotels, led especially by the socialists, resulted in demonstrations against the ‘Truck system’, the system used by employers for sharing tips among their employees. Abolition of all Registry offices and Employment Agencies and a weekly day of rest were the main aims of the protest. In February 1909, the French group and the editors of the newspaper the Revue met at the International Club to maintain the campaign and plan a demonstration in April. The demonstration took place in Trafalgar Square on 18 April.

The anarchists’ involvement in the catering workers’ struggles drew worker into their orbit politically. In the wake of the repression of a popular uprising in Barcelona in 1909, the Spanish authorities executed libertarian educationalist Francisco Ferrer. This led to widespread protests across Europe. In the months following the rising in Barcelona and after Ferrer’s arrest many meetings and rallies were organised in London. They were all well attended. Many Italian waiters and scullery-boys were present.

This post owes pretty much everything to Pietro Di Paola ‘s excellent thesis

later published as The Knights Errant of Anarchy

Another (first-hand) account of organising West End restaurant workers in a slightly later period can be found here.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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