Refugee Week

The Keskidee Centre

The Keskidee Centre was envisioned by Oscar Abrams, a Guyanese architect and cultural activist, in the 1970’s. A centre providing educational, social and cultural activities for a disadvantaged and primarily West Indian community in the borough of Islington, the Keskidee provided a thriving space for Afro-Carribean arts and theatre to flourish in Islington. This was the first dedicated arts centre in Britain for the black community and would continue to be an important hub for African and Afro-Caribbean politics and arts well into the 1980’s.

Keskidee Centre, 64 Gifford Street, N1 0DP

In 1948 the British Nationality Act was enacted, conferring British nationality to all citizens within the Commonwealth and Colonies, and enabling them to work and settle in Britain with their families. Britain needed people to help rebuild the country after the Second World War and to assist with labour shortages in the transport system, postal service and the newly formed National Health Service. Many Britons from the former colonies within the West Indies, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados, were invited to come Britain.

Between 1948 and 1970 many thousands left their homes in the West Indies to live and work in Britain. There were a variety of reasons behind this migration. Many people were seeking new opportunities for themselves and their families and were attracted by the prospects in what was frequently referred to as ‘the mother land’. Some were looking to settle permanently in Britain, others to work in Britain for a while, save money and return home. Many were returning soldiers from the West Indies who had fought for Britain during the Second World War.

In 1948 just under 500 people arrived from the West Indies. This number rose significantly year-on-year, and by 1972 300,000 West Indians had settled permanently in the United Kingdom. This wave of arrivals has been labelled the Windrush Generation, referencing the ship MV Windrush which carried the first Caribbean workers to Britain in 1948. These migrants were not always warmly welcomed by Britons and were frequently discriminated against. Black Britons often found it hard to secure housing and find employment, despite a national shortage of workers. Available housing tended to be low quality and found in poorer inner-city areas.

Throughout the 1950s right wing parties and politicians such as Sir Oswald Mosely, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists, exploited the growing resentment against black Britons.  The summer of 1958 saw an increase of violent attacks against Black people, culminating in riots in Notting Hill, which had a large Caribbean community, as well as the city of Nottingham. In 1959, a Caribbean Carnival was held in Notting Hill in response to the riots and the general mood of race relations in Britain at the time. This event was the precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival which has grown to become Europe’s largest street festival. Bowing to growing public pressure, the British government restricted immigration by enacting the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 and by 1972 only people with parents or grandparents born in Britain could permanently reside in Britain, effectively curbing immigration from the West Indies.  By 1972, 172,000 people from the Caribbean, an entire generation, had permanently settled in Britain and were contributing across all sectors of society.

To meet the needs of the growing Caribbean population in London, a community and cultural centre was created. The Keskidee Centre project was the vision of Guyanese-born architect and cultural activist Oscar Winston Abrams (1937 – 1996). Abrams arrived in Britain in 1958, later becoming Chair of the Islington branch of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, which fought for better housing and education for newly arrived black Britons. Abrams wanted to provide both self-help and cultural activities for the local West Indian community under one roof.

Oscar Abrams, 1990’s

In 1971, Abrams bought the former Gifford Mission Hall on Gifford Street, close to Caledonian Park, for £9,000. Later that year it was formally recognised as the Keskidee Centre, named after a bird native to Abram’s homeland. The centre was to provide a unique and hugely influential cultural and political environment throughout the 1970’s and the early 1980’s. The Centre’s motto was ‘A community discovering itself creates its own future.’

The Keskidee Centre, 1975

The Keskidee quickly became a thriving cultural venue and, for many years, it was the only place to experience Caribbean theatre in London. The centre also offered legal advice and practical classes on literacy and typing, yoga and cookery, as well as photography, painting and pottery. During the building’s early days, the location proved a drawback. Many people unable to find it. Additionally, actor and director Yvonne Brewster remembers, “there was the train line that ran behind it. So during performances sometimes you had incredible competition from iron wheels.” Oscar Abrams said he was “full of joy” when the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), which wanted to increase the recognition of West Indian art forms within British society, approached him to use the Keskidee for its own events. He knew John La Rose, one of CAM’s founder members, and strongly believed that the centre would be enriched by hosting the movement’s activities.

Music, art and poetry all played a vital role in attracting young black people to the centre.  African and reggae roots music found a spiritual home at the building and provided many young black people with their first experience of live music. Up and coming bands such as Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse played to an eager audience and in 1978, world famous Jamaican musician Bob Marley used the centre to make a video for his song Is this love? featuring a a young Naomi Campbell who took part along with other children. The Centre also held regular dances and discos.

The Keskidee Theatre Workshop was a full-time pioneering drama company totally dedicated to black theatre. Directors such as Rufus Collins and Howard Johnson, playwrights Lennox Lewis, Derek Walcott and Edgar White, and actors like Yvonne Brewster, Anton Phillips and T-Bone Wilson all contributed to the centre’s creative process. Backstage technicians were selected from the black community, including one of the Caribbean’s leading theatre designers, Henry Muttoo. Equally ground-breaking was the Keskidee Community Theatre Workshops, which concentrated on developing work directly influenced by the experiences of the black community within contemporary Britain.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, who created dub poetry at the Keskidee, was also its first paid library resources and education officer. His poem Voices of the living and the dead was staged at the centre and produced by Jamaican novelist Lindsay Barrett, with music by Rasta Love reggae group, “it was fantastic, you know, having written something and having it staged with actors and musicians. That was back in 1973 before I had a poem published anywhere. That was before anyone had ever heard of Linton Kwesi Johnson.”

Linton Kwesi Johnson performing his poem Tings, written in 1991.

The Keskidee addressed the needs of local youth and gave a generation of black teenagers a space of their own.  Abrams wrote, “…teenagers respond drastically to anything they call their own.  The Keskidee Centre aims to be their place.” This was echoed by a Keskidee youth who experienced life at the centre during the 1970s, “for this area I think it was good, you know, not just the centre but as a young black guy growing up because when you’re young you ain’t got a lot of self-direction. It helped me to grow anyway.”

The centre also provided a forum for political discussion. It facilitated speakers from Grenada, Uganda and Zimbabwe, who often lectured about colonialism, national liberation and the evils of imperialism. Linton Kwesi Johnson remembers the leaders of the main political gangs in Jamaica coming to meet Bob Marley at the Keskidee to persuade him to go back to Jamaica to perform at a peace concert.

Keskidee Carnival flyer, 1974

By the late-1970s, the Keskidee’s reputation reached distant shores, resulting in theatre tours of Europe and the cross-cultural Keskidee Aroha tour of New Zealand in 1979, where the company met and performed to remote Maori communities. During this period, the Keskidee Theatre Workshop was also selected to represent Britain at the New York Lincoln Center Fringe Festival. These overseas tours were a timely reminder of just how far the Keskidee had come in its short existence.

The Keskidee Centre reached its peak in the mid-1970s, but by the early-1980 it had fallen into decay.  Diminishing funding and the pressure of combining so many activities under one roof led to crippling debts and, consequently, its demise; the costly 1979 tour of New Zealand was later identified by Abrams as the origin of the centre’s financial difficulties. By the late-1980s, the centre attempted to reinvent itself as a theatre crafts training centre for black youths; However, by 1992, the venture had proven to have only a marginal reach and closed. The property subsequently sold off. 

Site of the previous Keskidee Centre after a fire ravaged the building in 2012

The former mission hall came full circle and reverted back to religious use, housing the Christ Apostolic Church and the Power-Age Christian College. A green heritage plaque was unveiled at the church on the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Keskidee Centre by David Lammy MP and former resident artist Emmanel Jegede. Sadly on 8 March 2012, a devastating fire broke out and ravaged the building, raising it to the ground.  The site remains empty today, however its legacy lives on. In 1987 Abrams said, “the most outstanding achievement for me personally is the consciousness the Keskidee brought to the black community and groups that subsequently became interested in the arts.” This remains a fitting epitaph to his, and the Keskidee Centre’s, inspirational legacy and the critical role it played in Britain’s recent social history. 

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

The Victoria

Over the past three centuries Islington became a new home for thousands of Irish economic migrants, who brought with them many cultural traditions and the melodic sounds of Irish music. In the 20th Century, it was common to hear the sound of the Irish fiddle wafting out of windows and into the street from pubs such as The Favourite and The Victoria. Jimmy Power was one of the finest Irish fiddle players on the London-Irish music scene, bringing the sounds of his homeland to these Islington pubs in the 1960’s – 1980’s. Over time, many of the pubs that hosted Irish musicians have shut down or been revamped for the modern day, but The Victoria in Holloway still physically stands tall as a symbol of what once was.

Stop 6: Victoria Tavern, 203 Holloway Rd, N7 8DL

The arrival of the Irish into Islington began in the 1700s, mainly as agricultural labourers. The early part of the 19th Century attracted large numbers of Irish migrants, drawn by London’s rapid economic growth. This increased when many from Ireland fled the effects of the Irish potato famine during the 1840s.

Clerkenwell tunnel, Farringdon Road, in 1868 – the work of the navvies.

By 1851 there were over 6000 Irish people in Islington and Finsbury. Many found work in domestic service, in the construction business and as navigators or ‘navvies’ building canals, railways and roads. Irish navvies along with farmers from Scotland and tin miners from Cornwall’s contributions can be seen in the construction of Farringdon station and the new Metropolitan line, which opened in 1863. Their lives were difficult, working long hours on physically demanding construction sites, and poverty as a result of precarious employment meant that they often lived in squalid conditions. Laid out in 2017, Navigator Square in Archway pays tribute to the navvies. The Pogues, who were founded locally at Kings Cross, tell of the lives and hardships endured by the navvies in their 1985 song Navigator:

Many of Islington’s Irish settled around the Angel and City Road, Archway and Upper Holloway, often experiencing poor and overcrowded living conditions. Although most Irish shared much of the poverty and deprivation of the English working class, they suffered considerable animosity on the basis that they were undercutting wages and taking jobs and houses.

Following the Second World War (1939-45) the British economy boomed and a new wave of Irish migrants arrived in Islington, especially to Archway and Holloway. Almost unlimited work was available in the construction industry and the new National Health Service was to depend heavily on young Irish women; at times, over 85% of the Whittington Hospital’s nursing staff were Irish. In the decade between 1951 and 1961 the Irish-born population of the borough doubled to a record 15,473. 

With an increasing population from the 1950s, members of Islington’s Irish community would come together in large numbers to enjoy their culture and heritage. Irish dancing schools were set up and dancehalls provided space where young Irish people could socialise and exchange news from home, such as the Gresham Ballroom in Upper Holloway. Live Irish music was played in pubs in north Islington. Among these venues were The Favourite on Queensland Road and The Victoria on Holloway Road, where musicians regularly performed traditional Irish music. The Archway Tavern was another well-known location for Irish music and bands.

The Favourite, 1973

It was at these pubs that Jimmy Power spent many hours enjoying Irish music and entertaining Islingtonians with his skill on the fiddle. Jimmy Power was born in Ballyduff, County Waterford, Ireland in 1918. His long-time piano accompanist Reg Hall, recalled, “His father, a fiddle-player himself, had died a few weeks earlier during an influenza epidemic leaving Jimmy a musical reputation to live up to and a string-less fiddle hanging by the fireplace.” Regarded now as one of the finest Irish fiddle players, Power learnt his art from violin lesson from the age of ten. His music was heavily influenced by him grandmother and uncle, but he was otherwise self-taught as a fiddler.

Leaving home in his teens under orders from the local priest, Power enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, playing uilleann and war pipes in its band, but deserted prior to the outbreak of World War Two. He moved to Glasgow, before working in Leeds and Sheffield and then settling in London in 1947. A carpenter by trade, in the 1950’s Power would enter the London-Irish music scene. By the mid-1950’s, he was playing fiddle for London County Council dance classes and Irish dancing competitions. He formed The Four Courts Ceilidhe Band, which toured Irish dance halls of London and the Midlands, and went on to make records with the Four Courts and on his own. He was noted to be “a very individual player with a unique style embracing short, sharp bowing and plenty of trebling.”

Jimmy Power, left, with his fiddle. Image from Paddy Fahey Collection, courtesy of Brent Museum & Archives

In 1965 Power and his long-time piano accompanist Reg Hall began a session at the McManamon’s The Mulberry Tree pub, in Bromley-by-Bow. When the McManamon’s moved to The Favourite in Holloway, Jimmy Power and Reg Hall followed. Between the McManamon’s and a healthy range of Irish musicians, they would establish one of London’s most famous traditional music sessions. Geoff Wallis recalls these details about Power and the Islington pubs with great detail here.

To be frank, The Favourite was not exactly the most physically welcoming of pubs and sometimes the smell from the nearby Islington Council Refuse HQ was a little overpowering, but socially it was one of London’s friendliest bars and was advantageously placed not far from the Holloway Road tube station. That geographical position meant that it was easy for other musicians to reach and take part in what was not so much a session as a Sunday lunchtime show, choreographed by Jimmy Power from the pub’s small stage (constructed by Jimmy himself and equipped with a basic amplification system consisting of one microphone, an amplifier and a speaker hung on the far wall).

Geoff Wallis

Originally the Favourite sessions took place on Sundays. With a license to open from noon until 2pm Power was the MC, also played regularly as a duo with his right-hand man, Hall, on piano. Hall described how the licence restrictions were pushed to their limits with the local constabulary, “it was usually well on the way to half-past when the last tune was played and Jimmy would lean into the mike and tell everyone to “go home and have your dinner!”.

The Jolly Tinker Reel, with Jimmy Power on fiddle. ‘Paddy in the Smoke’ was recorded live at The Favourite in 1968

The sessions were popular and subsequently expanded to take place on other nights of the week. In 1968, Paddy in the Smoke was recorded at The Favourite by Bill Leader, showcasing the range of musical talent that could be hear at the pub. Hall played piano on all bar one song and Jimmy Power features on the fiddle in 5 of the recordings. In the 1980’s, Power retired from the sessions at The Favourite and they transferred nearby to The Victoria. Wallis describes The Victoria as “a bar with even worse toilets than The Favourite and, believe me, that’s saying something.”

The Victoria in 1982

The Victoria in Holloway had existed as a public house from the 19th Century. Originally the address of the pub was 1 Queens Place Holloway Road, prior to street renumbering – The Victoria still resides in the same location, but the current address is 203 Holloway Road, N7 8DL. The pub has seen a number or reincarnations in recent years, as Phibbers in 2008, 12 Bar Club in 2015, Beer Kat in 2016 and Liquor Works in 2017. Back again as the Victoria Tavern, the architecture of the building remains, but now sports viewings, quiz and pizza nights make it a very different pub to the one that Jimmy Power frequented and played at in decades gone by.

The sessions at The Favourite and The Victoria were part of the essence of London for almost twenty years. The exceptional skill and vigour that Jimmy Power, Reg Hall and so many others brought to Islington’s pubs enlivened the borough and captured the spirit Irish culture.

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

Paradise Park Children’s Centre

Paradise Park Children’s Centre is an important stop in Islington’s refugee and migrant history for its links with a key member of Islington’s Somali Community, Councillor Rakhia Ismail. Since 2014, Councillor Ismail has held her monthly Councillor Surgery at Paradise Park Children’s Centre, helping her local community with a variety of services. In May 2019, Councillor Ismail made history when she was elected as Islington’s incoming Mayor and the first ever female Somali Mayor in the United Kingdom. Islington has one of the largest Somali communities in Britain and as a local Somali resident and Councillor, Councillor Ismail has been at the forefront of supporting Somalis in London, alongside her wider role supporting her ward of Holloway.

Stop 5: 164 MacKenzie Rd, N7 8SE

From the early 19th Century, when Somaliland became a British Protectorate, the first Somali seamen came to London, to work in the Merchant Navy, and settled near the docks in Tower Hamlets. Accounts of the time show that many of these seamen only planned to stay in London long enough to earn enough money before going back to their families. In Somalia, they were dubbed ‘The Fortune Men’ as they promised to take their wealth back home. Because they saw their stay as temporary, many did not learn English or integrate fully into British society.

Somalia, located on the Horn of Africa, occupies an important geopolitical position between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and southwestern Asia. A former British Protectorate and an Italian colony, Somalia became a nation state in 1960, but by 1977 war had broken out with Ethiopia over disputed land ownership and caused severe difficulties to Somalia’s fragile economy; prices of fuel and grain increased, and these stressed were amplified in 1978-1979 when a severe drought affected most of the country, bringing the Barre Government to the verge of collapse.

Three opposition parties formed and soon committed to an armed struggle against the government, initiating a civil war. Northern Somalia was worst affected at this time, with towns destroyed and 72,000 people killed in the town of Hargeisa alone. 400,000 fled the country. Following further drought and the effects of war, the country faced severe food shortages and in at least 500,000 Somalis died of starvation in 1992. The state-run health system had collapsed entirely, with only a few rudimentary facilities run by foreign relief workers. It was within this context that many Somali refugees arrived in Britain to start a new life.

Hand printing textiles as part of local Somali community group, Back 2 Basics Create

Some of those who arrived were political refugees, fleeing persecution and repression, whilst others were escaping the devastating impact that war had brought to their life in Somalia: famine, insecurity and abject poverty. Many suffered from malnutrition, bereavement, stress and were often deeply traumatised by the civil war. Upon arrival, Somalis faced a language barrier, culture shock, problems understanding their rights and racism. Such problems meant that some people became isolated and house bound, and prevented them from taking up many social or healthcare services on offer in Britain. Moving to a country by choice is very different to arriving as a refugee, when people have been forced to leave their country due to conflict.

If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky

Somali proverb

By 2009, the UK was believed to have the largest Somali community in Europe. The 2011 census suggested there were 99,484 Somalis in the UK and over 2,500 people in Islington identifying Somalia as their country of birth, (>1% of Islington’s total population). An important member of this community, Councillor Rakhia Ismail, has worked hard to support Somali refugees and made history in May 2019 when she became the first female Somali to hold the position of Mayor in the United Kingdom. Councillor Ismail was born in Somalia and came to Britain as a refugee in the 1980s. She has lived in the Islington since 1993 and was first elected to Islington Council in 2012.

2019-2020 Mayor of Islington, Rakhia Ismail

Since 2014, Councillor Ismail has held monthly Councillor surgeries at Paradise Park Children’s Centre. The surgery acts as a one stop shop for local residents, where they can find all the information they need. These are important meetings as the community can meet with their representatives directly, ask questions and raise concerns. The Paradise Park Children’s Centre has played a vital role by providing a safe and welcoming space for locals to engage with Councillor Ismail for six years now. The Centre itself was built by Islington Play Association and Islington Council in 2005 and is described by Councillor Ismail as having “the most amazing, friendly and diverse community”.

For over two decades Councillor Ismail has worked in the voluntary sector, first engaging Somali and BAME local residents with children’s services and then in schools across London. She is the founder of Back 2 Basics Create, a charity supporting hard to reach women and mothers and to advance education and relieve the needs of Somali communities within London. She was a founding member of Islington Stand Up to Racism, where she campaigned against Islamophobia. Previously, Councillor Ismail has worked as a freelance surface pattern designer and teacher. She also led numerous art projects placed at venues across London, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Crafts Council, and Islington Museum.

Rakhia Ismail

Councillor Ismail said of her role, “It is such an honour to (be) the Mayor of Islington, the borough is my home and this role is a chance to meet and experience the inspiring people and all the things that make our community so amazing.” Aisha Abdi, a committee member at Finsbury Park Mosque, said of Councillor Ismail, “She is a role model to all Somali women. Her becoming mayor is a good opportunity for the younger generation of women to know what’s available to them.”

More wonderful work is being conducted locally by the Islington Somali Community (ISC), a registered charity that was established at the end of the 1990s to help newly arrived refugees. The organisation works with Somalis of all ages in Islington and neighbouring London boroughs to “improve the wellbeing of the Somali population and to work towards the full integration of refugees in the local community”. The group has become an essential pillar for the Somali Community, with over 3,000 cases dealt with a year – providing advice and information to Somali refugees and asylum seekers.

Some of the ISC’s invaluable work includes:

  • Crisis Intervention – help refugees and asylum seekers experiencing acute mental ill health
  • Connect – support to older isolated Somalis in Islington, a two year project focused on Finsbury Park
  • Mother tongue and Supplementary School – classes offering educational support and Somali language – Montem Primary School, Hornsey Road
  • Regular women’s support group
  • Support for young people to:
    • Re-engage with education, training and sports
    • Provide tailored education away from alcohol and drugs
    • Progress unemployed young people into training and jobs.

Organisations, such as the ISC help refugees come together in their shared experience, as well as help subsequent generations of migrants connected with their cultural heritage through engagement and language programmes. With a long musical and art tradition, a core component of Somali heritage lies in their poetic tradition. Somali refugees have brought with them a rich cultural heritage to Britain:

I remember who I am

I am a scattered daughter

Somalia my country

East Africa the broad place

I call home

Excerpt from a poem by MAMA East African Women’s Group 1995

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

Islington Refugee Services and Support

Islington has long been a place where migrants and refugees have settled. The borough is central, accommodation has often been cheap and there is a history of tolerance – Finsbury was the first UK constituency to elect a South Asian MP – Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892.  Islington today is an especially diverse place with 33% of residents born outside of the United Kingdom compared to 14% nationally.  The most common countries of birth for Islington residents outside the UK today are Ireland, Turkey and the United States – and we have explored a little bit of the rich Islington Irish migrant story in this tour.

Our tour this week has concentrated on the migrant experiences, both current and historical, around the Holloway area.  This area also houses some of the many Islington based organisations who support refugees and migrants in varied ways.  We know that refugees suffer disproportionately with poor mental health – 61% of asylum seekers in the UK experience serious mental distress and there are organisations who do amazing work in this sphere. Some organisations work to build resilient and healthy communities and individuals in Islington others use Islington as their base to reach out nationally and internationally to campaign and develop programmes for refugees and migrants.  Here are just a few examples of the 96 organisations providing services for refugees and migrants identified in the Islington Directory.

Stop 8: Hilldrop Community Centre, Community Ln, Hilldrop Rd, N7 0JE


Hilldrop Community Centre, located at Community Lane, Hilldrop Road, N7 0JE,, is a large, multi-purpose facility offering a wide variety of activities and services to their diverse local community. Hilldrop Area Community Association is based at the centre and aims to enhance the wellbeing of their community with a focus on employement and health.  A number of migrant community groups organise  activities here which support health, heritage, education and social well-being. In recent years Hilldrop has partnered with the Evelyn Oldfield Unit (see below) to provide ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses.

Manor Gardens Welfare Centre, at 6-9 Manor Gardens, N7 6LA, is a longstanding Islington charity promoting the health and well-being of Islington Residents – founded in 1913 as the North Islington Infant Welfare Centre and School for mothers.  How appropriate that they run the Bright Beginnings Project which, since 2016, has supported 1,500 newly arrived women from the migrant and refugee communities through maternity and birth by providing bi-lingual Maternity Mentors.

Manor Gardens, home to the Manor Gardens Welfare Centre and the Baobab Centre

Manor Gardens also provides advocacy services – they have worked with refugees and newly arrived migrants for many years and have a pool of trained community interpreters who between them speak over 30 languages. They also employ trained advocates who speak Arabic, Farsi, Spanish and Turkish as well as being fluent in English.

The Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile finds a home at Manor Gardens. The organisation was formed in 2008 by a group of clinicians – experienced human rights workers – who identified many unmet needs in the models of treatment and support offered to young asylum seekers and refugees who had experienced human rights abuses during their developmental years.  As an alternative to the ‘clinic’ approach where individuals come for weekly appointments as a form of ‘treatment’, they offer an approach based on the idea of a ‘Therapeutic Community’. Clinicians, caseworkers and group workers encourage and enable all young people to become active members of the community and participate in community life. There are about 80 young people who visit the Centre regularly from all across Greater London where they can participate in individual and group psychotherapy as well as activities such as music workshops and eat together. Baobab social workers also provide essential support to deal with the complex practical needs of these young people.

A testament to Baobab’s work (

Another Islington organisation using the approach of a healing community is Room to Heal who work in Culpepper Gardens and Mildmay Community Centre.

Evelyn Oldfield Unit (EOU), is based in Resource for London, 365 Holloway Road, www, They have been ‘enabling BAMER communities for nearly 25 years’ by providing, developing and coordinating specialist aid and support services for established Refugee and Migrant Organisations.  Their aim is to increase refugee and migrant organisation capacity and potential for meeting the needs of their communities.  Examples of their work include delivering, at Resource for London, training sessions for community organisations on financial management and fundraising.  The also run an evening beginners ESOL class (English for Speakers of Other Languages) which aims to fill a gap normal service provision does not provide – drop-in sessions are available for individuals who have uncertain immigration status and don’t qualify for free English classes or those who cannot commit to a regular learning session or cannot afford to pay for college tuition.

As a member of the Mayor’s Migrant and Refugee Advisory Panel the EOU contributes to the London Strategic Migration Partnership (LSMP) –  a cross-sector partnership to maintain strategic overview of the state of migration in London. The LSMP helps inform the Home Office and the Mayor of London of key issues and trends in immigration operations, immigration policy and integration affecting London’s economic growth and future planning.

Islington and beyond

Islington Refugee Forum is based at Voluntary Action Islington, 200A Pentonville Road, N1 9JP,  An independent, refugee led organisation it was created to act as a common voice for refugees improving their quality of life and supporting their integration into the community.  Their vision that a cohesive and inclusive group of refugee community organisations working in partnership with other voluntary sector organisations and services can drive real change in the lives of refugees by sharing resources, improving access and building capacity.

Finally Islington is home to one of the best known organisations addressing the human rights of refugees and migrants internationally – Amnesty International is the world’s largest grass-roots human rights organisation. It champions the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants by pressuring governments to honour their responsibilities, protect those within their borders and properly process asylum claims. Amnesty International UK ( is based in Clerkenwell. 

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

Holloway Prison

Holloway Prison operated from 1852-2016, exclusively holding female and young offenders from 1903. Thousands of women were imprisoned there over its history. The story of women behind bars has long held the public imagination and many well-known prisoners have passed through Holloway’s doors. A vast array of experiences from Holloway were captured in Islington Museum’s 2018 project Echoes of Holloway Prison, including that of German Jewish refugees interned by the British government as ‘enemy aliens’. Eva Holmes was a small child when this happened to her family. They had sought a refuge and a new life in England, but the tense political climate ended up working against them. The diary of Eva’s mother and Eva’s letters help us to understand the hardships they faced.

Stop 7: Holloway Prison, Parkhurst Rd, N7 0NU

At the beginning of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution in their homelands arrived in Britain. Anti-immigration and anti-Semitic feelings towards these new arrivals grew. In 1902 the Bishop of Stepney said Jews were ‘swamping whole areas once populated by English people’ and an editorial in the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1905 proposed ‘that the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and rates simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land.’ The government’s response to this was to enact Aliens Act (1905). This was the first time legislation had been passed to restrict immigration into Britain.

Nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments grew with the outbreak of World War One. This was fuelled by the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania on 7 May 1915. Anti-German protests and riots erupted across Britain, with anger and violence were directed towards German and Austrian residents. German owned businesses and shops were attacked. The government responded on 12 May forcing the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ under the Aliens Restriction Act (1914). By November 1915, over 32,000 people had been interned, though those who had become naturalised citizens were exempted.  Following the end of World War One, this legislation was not repealed, rather a new piece of legislation was enacted, the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act which extended the powers of the wartime Aliens Restriction Act into peacetime; obliging foreign nationals to register with the police, enabling their deportation and restricting where they could live.

Following their defeat in World War One, Germany suffered harsh economic penalties, set out in the Treaty of Versailles; the peace treaty that officially ended the war. Many felt shame in Germany for losing the war and many citizens struggled to adapt to the Weimar Republic; the new democratic state established following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This period of upheaval allowed many radical groups across the political spectrum to blossom. One such group was the National Socialist Party, or Nazi Party, which blamed communists, socialists and Jewish people for Germany’s economic and social problems. In 1929, Germany experienced a period of severe economic difficulty and unemployment, following the global great depression that started in the USA. The Nazis capitalised on this situation, scapegoating Jews for the crisis, and quickly began to win elections. By 1933 Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, was appointed Chancellor and all political parties banned and opposition politicians imprisoned. A general boycott against Jews and Jewish businesses was quickly established, and by 1935 new laws came into force which stripped Jews of their German nationality, banned Jews from universities and key professions and public roles and forbade marriage with non-Jewish citizens. In 1938, Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany meaning the same anti-Semitic measures were introduced there.

As a result of this persecution, many Jews attempted to leave Germany and Austria from 1935 onwards. Leaving was not that easy, however, due to tighter immigration controls and difficulties in obtaining visas for many countries including Canada and the United States. In 1937, Britain introduced stricter immigrations controls in response to the increased demand of people wanting to enter the country. Despite this, around 74,000 German and Austrian refugees settled in the UK prior to start of World War Two in 1939. Shortly after the outbreak of war, all Germans and Austrians living in the UK were classed as enemy aliens and required to register their details with the authorities. The Home Office set up Alien Tribunals to examine the case of every registered alien and place them within one of three categories:

  • Category A – high security risk and interned
  • Category B – doubtful and subject to restrictions
  • Category C – ‘loyal to the British cause’ – free

The vast majority were initially classified as Category C. Category A aliens were interned in camps throughout the country, including the Isle of Man. Initially 500 people deemed high risk by the authorities were arrested; However, as the threat of invasion intensified, an additional 25,000 men and 4,000 women were interned between May and June 1940. This included many Jewish refugees escaping Nazi oppression. 

Susi and Ludwig Liebermann, and their children Eva and Albert, were a German Jewish family who relocated to England in 1937, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In his native Germany, Ludwig worked as an industrial chemist but obtained employment at Fishers Foils, an aluminium foil factory in Wembley, on the advice of his German Jewish employer. In November 1939, Susanna and Ludwig appeared before the Aliens Tribunal and were subsequently classified as Category B aliens. Ludwig was immediately dispatched to a men’s internment camp on the Isle of Man. 

Entrance to HMP Holloway, circa 1860’s

Susi, Eva and Albert were interned in HM Prison Holloway in June 1940. Eva shared her memories of Holloway Prison with Islington Museum in 2018; “…the only thing [I remember is] a sort of recreation space, there was a kind of closed in space…where we were allowed to spend some time during the day…it was rather bleak, I remember that, and there was no grass or anything, it was just a kind of exercise yard….” Mothers and their children were held together in the prison’s hospital wing; However, the prison was quickly deemed an unsuitable environment for children, who were taken away from their mothers and sent to alternative locations. Eva wrote of her wartime experiences on 8 June 1940, “On Saturday afternoon the (Principal) Sister said to mummy that my brother and I were going to a home. I cried a lot and so did mummy…”

Eva’s recollections on 8 June 1940

Eva and Albert were taken temporarily to the Ladywell Institute in Lewisham, then on to a children’s home in Kent. Susi was subsequently moved from the hospital wing to a cell within Holloway Prison, where she wrote a diary documenting her experiences. Susi’s diary only came to light after she had died. In it she notes her shock at the contact she had with the ordinary prisoners along with their language and their general attitude. These were people she would never normally have met or interacted with in her everyday life. She also feared, quite rightly, that some of the people she was incarcerated with were actually Nazis or Nazi sympathisers. 

Prison and grounds at HMP Holloway.

3,600 women, half of whom were officially classified as refugees, were sent to Holloway Prison before being dispatched to special internment camps on the Isle of Man. Some were initially sent with their children; others were separated beforehand. Author and journalist Caitlin Davies in her book Bad Girls, A History of Rebels and Renegades describes this as “a shameful period of Holloway’s past. Thousands of women who had escaped persecution in Germany were labelled the enemy and separated from their children, not because of what they had done but because of who they were.”

Susi was able to write to her children, but with the family separated and held in different locations across the country, this offered little comfort. This changed in June 1940 when Susi and her children were sent to the same internment camp in the Isle of Man. Eva notes that “we were both on the Isle of Man together but [our father] was in a different place, the men and women were kept in separate camps.” She recalls seeing him only once during their time there. 

By March 1941 the family was reunited and sent back to their home in Wembley. Eva said that she gets “very distressed when I see children in England put in refugee centres today, it seems to me we’ve learned nothing. My parents were aliens – enemy aliens. It’s the same now, when you’re at war you assume everyone is the enemy; it’s like the Middle East today and discrimination against Muslims. When there is such a degree of ignorance, then there is paranoia and people end up in prison.”

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

Carlo Gatti’s Ice Well Plaque

Italians have been settling in London for centuries, with a great many settling in Islington. Carlo Gatti left his Swiss-Italian home town in 1847 to go on to become a successful entrepreneur in Islington, bringing hot chocolate and ice creams to the masses. The plaque to his ice well on Caledonian Road remains an import reminder of Gatti’s personal legacy, and of the major role Italian culture played in shaping our borough and influencing what we eat.

Stop 3: Gatti Ice Well Plaque, 445 Caledonian Road, N7 8TD

During the early part of the nineteenth century, Italy was subject to significant and turbulent changes. Dominated by the French during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Napoleon was proclaimed King of Italy in 1805. Large numbers of farmers were forced from their land as a consequence of widespread agricultural destruction following the wars. Many skilled workers were also forced to leave due to economic hardship, including barometer and precision instrument makers from Como and specialised plaster makers from Luca, who were attracted to the growing city of London. Key figures from Italian Society were exiled during this period by the new regime who also settled in London. Notable figures include the statesman and republican activist Giuseppe Mazzini (1805 – 1872), the poet and artist Gabriele Rosetti (1783 – 1854) and patriot Antonio Panizzi (1797 – 1879). Clerkenwell quickly became the centre for this new Italian community, gaining the nick-name ‘Little Italy’. The area was relatively affluent and became a hub for these skilled craftsmen. Successful firms such as Negretti & Zambra, manufacturers of thermometers, barometers and optical instruments such as telescopes, populated the area.

Italy suffered a severe economic collapse in the latter part of the nineteenth century which saw a much bigger wave of emigration to the UK. Driven by economic desperation, huge numbers left their homeland with many flooding into London’s Little Italy. Most of these newer arrivals lived in slum-like conditions and had very little to do with the earlier, economically successful settlers.  Little Italy was an area that was actually quite divided. The worst slums were found around Saffron Hill and Leather Lane, an area full of pickpockets and fences, described by Charles Dickens in great detail in Oliver Twist. Surveys conducted in the 1880s showed that Italian household conditions were the worst of any group in London. The Italian consul published a report in 1895 estimating there were 12,000 Italians in London, with southern Italians traditionally making their home in Little Italy while those from farther north were establishing a newer base in Soho.

Little Italy – Eyre Street Hill, circa 1900

Switzerland, known as the Helvetic Confederation at the end of the eighteenth century, had also been invaded by the French during the Revolutionary Wars. Swiss independence from the French was finally established at the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna. Ticino, the country’s only Italian speaking territory, became a canton within the Helvetic Confederation in 1802. It was a particularly poor part of the country, with a localised rural-based economy. The contemporary geographer Conrad Malte-Brun described “The canton of Tesino [Ticino] is the poorest, and the people the most ignorant of any in Switzerland.”  As with neighboring Italy, poverty in Switzerland led to mass emigration, especially from Ticino. The economic situation was so dire that local councils actually paid men to leave!

Carlo Gatti (1817-1878) was born in Ticino and was one of the many migrants who left in search of a better life elsewhere. He would go on to become a hugely successful entrepreneur, making a big impact both here in Islington and across the capital. He was responsible for the introduction of several ‘new’ and exciting eating experiences for Londoners, including making ice cream available for everyone! Gatti initially left for Paris in 1847, where his father was employed selling chestnuts. He walked the 600 miles from Switzerland to meet him in the French capital. Later that year, Gatti moved to London, settling in Little Italy, and started selling waffles from a stall in Greville Street.

Gatti was a talented entrepreneur, building up his business quickly. In 1849 he went into business with a fellow Swiss countryman, Battista Bolla, opening a café and restaurant in Little Italy. They specialised in selling chocolate and ice cream. Drinking chocolate was also novelty at the time and they exhibited a chocolate making machine in the window of the café to attract customers. In I851, Gatti and Bolla exhibited their chocolate making machine at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace which was described by Queen Victoria as a very curious machine. The same year, Gatti established a stand in Hungerford Market, near Charing Cross, selling pastries and ice cream in little shells. The ices sold for one penny and he is credited with being the person who introduced ice cream to the masses, previously only a luxury the rich could afford. There are claims that he sold up to 10,000 penny ices per day by 1858.  The ice cream on these ‘penny licks’ was dispensed onto small glass stems.  These stems were not cleaned before being reused, an incomprehensible concept by today’s standards! 

Alberto Rapacioli with his Gatti ice cart, 1930s, courtesy of Islington Local History Centre

In 1851, one third of the working Italian population were travelling street musicians, with many playing the mechanical barrel organ. By 1871, this figure had substantially increased to half of the working population. The Italian community was not always popular though. There were calls from London’s middle classes to ban these musicians, who viewed them as a noisy nuisance. By 1900, selling ice cream had become the dominant trade for Italians, replaced organ grinding as most common occupation, with 900 ice cream vendors living in Little Italy. The Ice-Cream Man or ‘okey-Pokey Man was a common sight. This colloquial name came from his cry of Ecco un poco! meaning ‘Here’s a little (taste)!’ in Italian.

Gatti started importing ice from Norway around 1857. The ice was shipped to London, brought up the Thames and eventually transferred onto barges in Limehouse. The barges took the ice up the Regent’s Canal to Gatti’s two newly opened ice warehouses. One of these was located on Battlebridge Basin (and now houses the London Canal Museum) and the other on Caledonian Road, near Cally Park.  Its location is marked by a green plaque.

Green plaque to Carlo Gatti where his ice well was located

Prior to refrigeration, the best way of storing ice was away from sunlight, underground in circular brick-lined ice wells.  These wells were approximately 30 feet in diameter and 40 feet deep, therefore able to store large quantities of ice. Ice packed closely together minimises melting, and the larger the volume stored together the colder it stays.  The ice was then cut and distributed across the city on his distinctive yellow and brown wagons to the ice cream makers, though the bulk was bought by merchants dealing in dairy, meat and fish products.

In 1854, a fire closed the Hungerford Market.  Fortunately, and slightly unusually for the time, Gatti was insured and received financial recompense for the loss of his business.  He used this money to build a music Hall in 1857, however this venture was short-lived and the building sold to the South Eastern Railway in 1862 and subsequently demolished in order to expand Charing Cross Railway Station. Using the proceeds from this sale, he opened another music hall in Westminster in 1865 and a third under the railway arches under Charing Cross Station in 1867. The Charing Cross Theatre now occupies this site. After making his fortune in London, Gatti retired to his native Switzerland in 1871.

United Carlo Gatti and Stevenson ice company. Staff of Battersea depot on an outing to Hastings, 1921-22.

The Italian population peaked in the early twentieth century, however slum clearance, road building and development in Clerkenwell led to the gradual dispersal of the Italian community across London. In the Second World War local Italians were viewed as enemies of the people – and sent to prison camps and the Little Italy district suffered heavily during the Blitz; However, the legacy of the Italian population remains in the area. Not only did Gatti, and scores of Italian migrants, make an impact on the London food scene by making chocolate and ice cream accessible to the masses, they also made huge contributions to the economy and left a lasting legacy on our cultural scene.

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

Caledonian Park

By 1848, a storm of discontent swept through European states, culminating in a series of republican revolts against monarchies. Beginning in Sicily, most of Europe tried, and failed, to implement a political revolution. The aftermath left many political activists repressed, disillusioned and often in need of refuge. A key figure of the Hungarian revolt was Lajos Kossuth, whose exile landed him in London for many years. His arrival to Britain was celebrated locally, with a rally held in Copenhagen Fields in Islington attended by 25,000-50,000 supporters. No longer ‘fields’, the site is now home to Caledonian Park and the Cally Clock Tower.

Stop 1: Caledonian Park, Market Road, N7 9HF

Count István Széchenyi, politician and champion of the Hungarian Reform Age, made four long stays in England, and wrote in his diary, “In my opinion three things must be chiefly learnt from England – the constitution, the machines, and horse-breeding”. The ideas of constitutionalism and liberty resonated with Hungarian progressives and Britain presented a beacon of hope for revolutionaries in the nineteenth century. With no real immigration restrictions, a free press and the rights to free speech and assembly, vast numbers of continental radicals would pursue a new life in Britain.

By 1852, over 7,000 political activists would seek sanctuary in Britain, with most settling in and around London. Amongst them was a key member of the Hungarian independence movement, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth arrived in England on 23 October 1851 after being exiled from Hungary the year before. Born on September 19, 1802 in Monok, Hungary, Lajos Kossuth was from a noble, but not wealthy family. He studied at the Protestant academy of Sárospatak, but became frustrated by his narrow life after his education. In 1832 his employer sent him as a substitute delegate to the national Diet (parliament) in Pozsony, now Bratislava. Here, Kossuth was introduced to ideas of political reformation and he developed his own philosophy on political radicalism for Hungary.

Of the utmost importance to Lajos Kossuth was national liberty. After a long period of Turkish occupation, Hungary was ruled from Vienna by the Habsburg dynasty from 1718. No social or economic growth was possible, in Kossuth’s eyes, until the Hungarian people could govern themselves. Without the ability to present his ideas to the Diet, Kossuth sought to encourage public engagement in politics via descriptions of the Diet’s proceedings in the form of colourful ‘political pamphlets’. These were widely read articles; however, they landed Kossuth a prison sentence for ‘subversion’ after being arrested on 4 May 1837. Released in 1840, Kossuth became a popular hero with the public.

Lajos Kossuth, 1856

In 1847 the county of Pest elected Kossuth as their representative to the Diet. He became the leader of the ‘national opposition’ and undertook a number of rogue actions whilst looking after the finance portfolio in government. During the Hungarian revolution of 1848-49, Kossuth was integral to the cause of political reformation and independence from Austria. He became the Governor-President of Hungary, declaring this independence from Austria and demanding a parliamentary government for his country; however, the Russian Tsar Nicholas I assisted the Habsburgs to stamp out the revolution and Kossuth fled in exile in 1850.

Lajos Kossuth would migrate to England in 1851 and would live in London until 1859. Kossuth was generally well-received in Britain upon his arrival. Crowds gathered to greet him all over England, and when The Times published article attacking him, people burnt copies of the newspaper publicly. The Central Committee of the Metropolitan Trade Unions wanted to congratulate Kossuth on behalf of the working classes, and organised a rally in Copenhagen Fields (now the location of Caledonian Park) in Islington on 3 November 1851 to do so.

The London Evening Standard reported on 4 November that, “the place selected for this purpose, in consequence of the immense number that were expected to greet M. Kossuth with a hearty welcome, was Copenhagen-fields – the hotel there being the headquarters of the united committee”. Copenhagen Fields had welcomed large demonstrations of this nature in the past, with a demonstration and protest in Copenhagen Fields to march for the pardon of the Tolpuddle Martyrs organised by the Central Committee of the Metropolitan Trades Unions.

A procession took place from Russell Square all the way to Copenhagen Fields, with music and banners. One such banner in gold lettering proclaimed: “The Tower Hamlets. Welcome, Kossuth, the exiled leader of Hungary, soldier and patriot, who having defeated the army of Austria, fell a victim to internal treachery and Russian treachery”. Another read simply, “What is life without Liberty”.

The shops along the procession route were all closed, but in their windows stood spectators, many wearing the Hungarian national colours. The London Daily News reported that 12,000 to 15,000 people took part in the procession, but those amassed on Copenhagen Fields were vastly greater: The Examiner reporting 25,000 spectators, whilst the Morning Advertiser suggesting 50,000 attendees!

Rally in support of Lajos Kossuth, Copenhagen Fields, 1851

A platform was erected in front of Copenhagen House, where an address was made from the ‘Inhabitants of London’ to Kossuth, the transcript of which was mounted on a handsome crimson roller and presented to Kossuth. The Hungarian revolutionary addressed the crowd, having learnt English from reading the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, stating that, “It is to me highly gratifying to know that a large party of the present meeting belongs to the working classes”. The excitement of the event lead to many attendees being pushed into the duck pond in front of Copenhagen House in an attempt by some to get closer to the action. The event culminated in a dinner at Highbury Barn Tavern, with 800 attendees.

The Foreign Secretary at the time, Lord Palmerston, has supported many of the failed revolutions of 1848 and was determined to meet with Kossuth. It was forbidden and Palmerston’s resignation was called for by Queen Victoria. With Prime Minister Lord Russell suggesting this would not be a popular move, Palmerston remained in post. Lord Palmerston declared his indifference to royal displeasure by instead receiving the Trade Unionists from Islington and Finsbury, who read out their address from the rally at Copenhagen Fields, praising Kossuth and condemning the rulers of Austria and Russia.

Kossuth was regarded as freedom fighter for democracy during his lifetime, particularly in Britain and America. So many more radical thinkers would find support and refuge in Islington during his time. Kossuth would continue to fight for his cause, and encourage revolutionaries from afar. He was re-elected to the Hunagarian Diet in 1867, but never took his seat, instead choosing to live in Turin, Italy, for the remainder of his life.

The only known voice recording of Kossuth

The only known voice recording of Kossuth, taken 20 September, 1890 states, “This question will be answered by the judge of the world-history. Let the sacred martyrs in their mortal remains be blessed, let them in their spirits be blessed with the best knowledge of the fatherland’s God of liberty, through eternity. October 6th will find me, who is unable to throw myself down in the dust of the Hungarian Golgotha, on my knees in the hermit’s abode of my homelessness, stretching my aged arms towards the country that has cast me out, blessing the sacred memory of the martyrs with the fervent sentiments of gratitude, their faithfulness to the homeland, and for the sublime example they gave to those who came after, and asking the God of the Magyars with ardent prayer to make victorious the appeal that searches the very marrow of the bone and sounds from the lips of Hungaria to the Hungarian Nation. So be it, Amen!”

Lajos Kossuth died in Turin on 20 March 1894. He wrote on his deathbed that he was not against the Habsburgs, but the joint statehood of Hungary and Austria. His body was taken to Budapest, where he was buried with great ceremony and splendour.

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.

Refugee Week

ANC Print Shop

Apartheid was official policy of institutional racism and segregation in South Africa between 1948 and 1994. It was a system designed to disempower black South Africans and ensure the white population remained in power. In the face of brutal repression, marginalised South Africans and their supporters fought against the apartheid regime, backed by people from all over the world. Many people in Islington joined the fight. They took part in demonstrations, boycotted South African goods, went undercover in South Africa and campaigned for political prisoners to be released. Islington was home to the African National Congress (ANC) London headquarters between 1978-1994, forming a base for actions around the country, and the ANC’s print shop in Islington at 1 Mackenzie Road would provide a space to print materials promoting the Anti-Apartheid cause.

Stop 4: ANC Print Shop, 1 MacKenzie Rd, N7 8QZ

Following the 1948 election, the ANC joined the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress and the white Congress of Democrats to fight apartheid. The ANC Youth League began a ‘Programme of Action’ employing boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience. In 1955 many of those opposed to apartheid created the ‘Freedom Charter’ – a vision for a multi-racial South Africa. Some black South Africans broke away to form the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The South African apartheid government responded with the five-year long Treason Trials. On 21 March 1960 the PAC organised a demonstration in Sharpeville Township against the pass laws, which controlled movement of black South Africans. The police opened fire on the crowds, killing 69 people. The government declared a state of emergency, arrested 18,000 people and banned the PAC and the ANC, forcing the organisations underground and initiating an armed struggle. In 1963 ANC leaders were arrested at their secret headquarters in Rivonia. Eight were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage. Over the next two decades the South African apartheid government responded to activism with the brutal repression of its population, and the detention and torture of political activists.

The injustice of the apartheid system led to growing anger all over the world. South African exiles in London brought stories of apartheid to the British public. This included Sylvester Stein, who was editor of DRUM, a magazine fighting for the rights of black South Africans. As the South African government brutally cracked down on dissent, Stein escaped to Islington in 1957.

Fighting Apartheid in Islington. Copyright Morning Star, Courtesy Marx Memorial Library, London

Islington Anti-Apartheid Group was one of many local campaign groups in Britain, supported by the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) head office. Campaigners promoted the boycott of South African goods in supermarkets and targeted companies which supported apartheid. The Islington AAM group held fundraising benefits, raised awareness and collected funds for the fight against apartheid. The City of London AAM group was formed in 1982 and led by Norma Kitson, a South African exile who lived in Islington. From 1986 they ran a four-year non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy protesting against the apartheid regime and for the release of political prisoners.

Islington Council sticker, 1985

Islington Council formed its first Race Relations Committee in 1979 and began its long connection with anti-apartheid groups. In 1983 it was one of the founding members of the Local Authorities Against Apartheid (LAAA) campaign, adopting charters to disinvest from South Africa and providing support in-kind to the movement; However, from 1986 restrictions on ‘political actions’ by local authorities were brought in by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher limiting future LAAA actions.

The ANC London headquarters was located at 28 Penton Street, Islington from 1978 to 1994. It formed a base for actions around the country under the leadership of Oliver Tambo. Tambo was born 1917 in Bizana, South Africa. After receiving an education at mission schools, he attended the University of Fort Hare where he received a Bachelor of Science in 1941 and subsequently studied law. Along with Nelson Mandela, Tambo was a cofounder of the ANC Youth League in 1944. Briefly teaching in Johannesburg, Tambo then threw himself wholeheartedly into nationalist politics and law, opening South Africa’s first black law practice with Mandela in 1952. In 1958 he became ANC deputy president.

Acting President Oliver Tambo (left) at a reception held by the AAM on 13 June 1977 during the Commonwealth Conference held in London. Copyright © 1977 Andrew Wiard,

As a result of the South African government’s outlawing of the ANC after the Sharpeville massacre, Tambo left to set up the ANC’s foreign headquarters. He would spend more than 30 years in exile (1960–90), located predominantly in Lusaka, Zambia and in London during this time. Under his leadership young, white, non-South African men and women who could enter South Africa without suspicion were recruited to the ANC cause. Many ‘London Recruits’ were enlisted by Ronnie Kasrils from the Young Communist League, and the London School of Economics. Islington was the home of several of the recruits, although due to strict secrecy they were not aware of each other at the time. The recruits travelled to South Africa, smuggling in letters and weapons, unfurled banners and undertook reconnaissance keeping the fight against apartheid alive. In summer 1970, London Recruits converged on five cities in South Africa, a cassette player broadcasting ANC speeches and freedom songs whilst they simultaneously detonated leaflet bombs, blasting ANC leaflets into the air.

Leaflets were an important way of educating and communicating with the masses on the struggle against apartheid. The ANC print shop at 1 Mackenzie Road, Islington was where the ANC materials were printed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but also where the ANC Media Committee would meet to discuss press campaigns countering South African claims and to gather support in Britain for the anti-apartheid struggles. Such campaigns included the boycotts, fund-raising and sanctions.

Leaflet for meeting at Islington’s West Library, 1984. Image courtesy of AAM Archive, Bodleian Library

During the 1980s the South African apartheid government targeted anti-apartheid activists with burglary, arson and bombs. The most significant action in Britain happened on 14 March 1982 when a bomb was detonated at the Islington ANC headquarters. An ANC march had been organised for that day, and the bomb may have been intended for Tambo who often held early-morning briefings. An ANC researcher, asleep in the building, was injured and nearby buildings had their windows blown out. Most felt the South African state was involved in the attack and in 1999 nine South African security policemen admitted to the attack during an amnesty hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Pretoria.

By the 1980s South Africa was increasingly isolated. Resistance was growing in South Africa, while anti-apartheid activists across the world put pressure on the regime and their own governments. Calls for the release of Nelson Mandela grew louder and culminated in a concert at Wembley Stadium for his 70th birthday and the 1988 Freedom Rally in Hyde Park which started from Finsbury Park. By the end of the decade the position of the South African government was untenable. In 1990 the ban on the ANC, PAC and South African Communist Party was lifted. Oliver Tambo was able to return to South Africa and Mandela was released after serving 27 years in prison. Islington was one of 42 local councils which declared on his release: ‘The elimination of apartheid is a responsibility of all citizens and their representatives, wherever they may live’.  In 1994 Nelson Mandela became President in South Africa’s first democratic election.

Upon Mandela’s election, the ANC moved out of Penton Street in 1994 and the LAAA movement transformed into ‘Action on Southern Africa’, continuing to provide support for previously marginalised South Africans from Penton Street until 2006. Islington Council supported initiatives such as Denis Goldberg’s ‘A Book and Ten Pence’ campaign, with the launch took place at Islington Town Hall. ‘A Book and Ten Pence’ was a drive that saw almost two million second-hand children’s books and tenpences sent to the black townships in South Africa, encouraging literacy and growth in amongst those who had been cruelly sidelined for decades.

“During the difficult years in the run-up to liberation we could always contact the office in Penton Street and find out how the struggle was being seen internationally”

High Commissioner for South Africa Dr Skweyiya at Penton Street’s plaque unveiling

With thanks to the Marx Memorial Library and AAM Archives for their contribution to this article.

This article was produced for Islington as a Place of Refuge, an online tour developed by Islington Museum and Cally Clock Tower, in conjunction with Islington Guided Walks. Centred around Refugee Week 2020’s theme of ‘Imagine’, Islington as a Place of Refuge explores diverse stories from migrant history in relation to the London Borough of Islington.