9 Great London Immigrants

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 20 months ago
9 Great London Immigrants

Around 41% of inner London's population is made up of foreign-born people. As they continue to contribute to, and shape, our city, here's a list of nine immigrants who really made their mark during their time here.

William the Conqueror, France

Photo: Dun.can

OK, OK, the Duke of Normandy's passage into London was unlike any other immigrant's (and one you'd struggle to get away with these days). But his impression on the evolution of London is unquestionable — notably with one landmark. As HV Morton puts it, "All we know for certain of the Tower's origin is that William the Conqueror gave a charter of independence to London with one hand, while with the other he built the Tower to show his "beloved subjects" that, in spite of their liberties, he was their master." The Tower of London remains a jewel in the city's crown, not to mention a surefire source of income.

George Frideric Handel, Germany

Moving to London in 1712, the bewigged composer came to be adored by the city so much that 15 years later, he was naturalised as a British citizen. Handel was not just a soundtrack for the royal family, but for London itself — his Water Music is synonymous with the Thames. As George Bernard Shaw later said, "Every Englishman believes that Handel now occupies an important position in heaven." Handel's Brook Street residence neighbours that of another great musician, Jimi Hendrix, with both now twinned as an unlikely museum.

Olaudah Equiano, Nigeria or the Americas

Although there's some doubt as to where Olaudah Equiano was born, there is none about the impact he made when he arrived on British shores. Pinged back and forth across the globe as a slave, Equiano eventually bought his own freedom, and poured his efforts into working towards the abolition of slavery. As the founder of the Sons of Africa, he lobbied Parliament for better conditions on slave ships. It was in London, at 67-73 Riding House Street, that Equiano finally sat down to write his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African — published in 1789. The harrowing tale — bookended with appeals to Parliament and the Queen — was a catalyst in ending slavery. It's commemorated in a green plaque.

Mary Seacole, Jamaica

For reasons right and wrong, Mary Seacole's statue stirs emotions in the 21st century Londoner. Photo: Matt Brown

Much of Mary Seacole's good work happened on foreign shores, notably during the Crimean War, where she bankrupted herself by helping soldiers with her own funds. Her return to London — where she'd previously been denied a place in Florence Nightingale's nursing team — saw her lauded as a heroine by the British Army, royalty, and Britain as a whole. Seacole remains an important beacon for black Londoners and Brits; in 2016, when her statue was unveiled outside St Thomas' Hospital, it caused some rather ugly arguments to bubble to the surface. On the other hand, the fact the statue was unveiled showed that enough people cared about her legacy to ensure Seacole was immortalised.

Karl Marx, Germany

Photo: Max Nathan

After Belgium and Paris decided they didn't want Karl Marx, London took him into its bosom — and he stayed here for the rest of his life. From safe havens such as the British Library and his flat on Dean Street, Marx wrote his magnum opus Das Kapital. London is also where he went on his infamous lamp-smashing pub crawl (he never did pay us back for that). Marx is commemorated across London; in the Marx Memorial Library, on walking tours, and, of course, by that left-leaning memorial in Highgate Cemetery.

The Brunels, France*

You can still don a top hat and pose next to some of these chains, in Millwall

While Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth, his father was born in Normandy, and both were educated in France. Everyone knows the photo of Brunel posturing by the hulking great chains of his ship the SS Eastern (above); what many don't realise is that you can still pose by some of those chains at the remains of the slipway in Millwall. It was working together on the Thames Tunnel, that the father-son team created their finest London legacy — it remains in use today, as part of the Overground network. Put simply, London would not function as it does today without these two great Frenchmen. Pay your tributes to both at Kensal Green Cemetery.

Harry Gordon Selfridge, America

Public domain

The state of Oxford Street on a Saturday has much to do with Harry Gordon Selfridge. As the man who gave London its first 'democratic' department store and "x days till Christmas", the Wisconsin tycoon revolutionised consumerism in the city. He also may be guilty for getting us hooked on Coke — Selfridges once had an American soda room. As much as he gave to London, he also tried to get what he could out of it; he pleaded with London Underground bosses for a tunnel for shoppers leading from Bond Street station to his store. They said he could have it if he paid for it. Selfridge's answer was not recorded.

Zaha Hadid, Iraq

Hadid's marvellously swooshy Aquatics Centre. Photo: Fabio Dell'Anna

Many of Zaha Hadid's early architectural designs on London never came to fruition; among her unrealised student projects were Malevich's Tektonik (a hotel on the Hungerford Bridge) and a regenerated Trafalgar Square. The Baghdad-born architect went on to make her mark on the capital, with the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, and most memorably, the spaceship-like London Aquatics Centre. Zaha Hadid Architects remains in Clerkenwell, although it's a shame Hadid's successor stands for a deregulated and privatised London.

Monica Ali, Bangladesh

By way of Bolton and Oxford, Bangladeshi-born Monica Ali has made London her home — and subject matter. Her 2003 debut novel Brick Lane opened thousands of Londoners' eyes to life for Bangladeshi people in the British capital — although the book and subsequent film adaptation weren't without controversy. The fictional Imperial Hotel in Piccadilly formed the backdrop for another of her books, In The Kitchen. Still living in London — and the only living figure on our list — Ali continues to speak out for the rights and advantages of, immigration.

You're right, technically this is 10 Great London Immigrants.

Last Updated 02 March 2017