Immigrants and the Industries of London, 1500–1700

Luu, Lien Bich
Date published: 
June 2005

For centuries London had been a magnet to merchants and artisans from the continent, but the flow of migrants increased greatly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the arrival of religious and political refugees. It is estimated that some 50,000 Dutch and Walloons fled the southern Netherlands to England between 1550-1585, bringing with them capital, skills, technical know-how as well as social networks. In the late seventeenth century another massive wave of immigration brought 50,000 Huguenots from France. Like their predecessors, the majority of these refugees gravitated towards London, helping to reinforce its cosmopolitanism and diversity.

In addition to strengthening Protestantism in England, economic historians have described the arrival of these refugees as major industrial landmarks. Their skills, capital and enterprise contributed to the expansion of London and its transformation from a peripheral and backward European city to become the workshop of the world by the nineteenth century.

Immigrants and the Industries of London 1500-1700 examines the processes of migration, the reception of immigrants, and their economic contribution. It focuses on the transformation of three crafts - silk weaving, beer brewing, and the silver-trade. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the book places the phenomenal growth of early modern London and technological developments within particular trades in broader European contexts. It proposes a new way of conceptualising the process of skill diffusion: movements of skills from Europe, spread of skills within the immigrant population, and transmission of skills from immigrants to English artisans. The anglicisation of foreign skills was a protracted process, often taking more than three centuries to complete. Known to contemporaries as aliens or strangers, the inferior status of immigrants and the resulting discrimination acted as major obstacles, affecting both their ability to integrate and their willingness to impart trade secrets. The book ends with a consideration of present-day immigration debates by suggesting some of the lessons we can draw from the early-modern experience of migration.