26 July 2006
There has been a Greek presence in London since ancient times. In the fourth century BCE, the famous navigator Pytheas left and account of a journey he had made to the island and later generations of Greeks sailed to what is now the west of England in search of tin, a rare commodity in the eastern Mediterranean.
During the Roman occupation of Britain, between 43 and 410 CE, the number of these visitors probably increased and some of them found their way to London, the capital of Roman Britain.
In the Museum of London there is a charm against the plague written in Greek. It was found at 68 – 69 Upper Thames Street and probably belonged to a 4th Century CE Greek Londoner. It is inscribed on a piece of lead, which would then have been rolled up and worn around the neck on a thong. We even know his name: the last line says “Lord God, watch over Demetrius”.
London also hosted Greek residents in medieval times. We know, for example, of two brothers, Andronikos and Alexios Effomatos, described in the surviving documents as 'Grekes', were recorded as living in the city in about 1440. They came from Constantinople, what is now Istanbul, but which then was the capital city of the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire.
By 1440, Constantinople was a city under siege and only thirteen years later, in May 1453, it was captured by the armies of the Ottoman Turks. It is therefore likely the Effomatos brothers had come to London to seek a more secure life than could be offered by their home city. In 1445, the king of England, Henry VI (1422-1461), granted the brothers permission to remain in London and to practice their trade of gold wire drawing. They made a costly type of thread in which thin strands of gold were intertwined with silk, and which was then used in expensive luxury fabrics and in ecclesiastical vestments, a craft for which Constantinople had been famous in its heyday.
Thanks to this royal grant, the brothers remained in London for many years. They lived first in the area of Cripplegate, much of which is now covered by the Barbican Centre, and later they moved to Broad Street, in what was then the Italian quarter of London. Andronikos, the elder, died in about 1472, but Alexios was still there in 1484, over forty years after his first arrival.
It was, however, only in the seventeenth century that a distinct Greek community, as opposed to isolated individuals, began to emerge. For a number of reasons, the number of Greeks reaching London began to increase. Some were refugees, fleeing the troubles which were at that time convulsing the Ottoman empire. One of them was Gregorios Argyropoulos, the owner of an estate near Thessaloniki. When a Turkish soldier was accidentally killed on Argyropoulos's land, the Ottoman authorities held him responsible and forced him to flee overseas and eventually to London in 1633. A charitable collection was made for him in London churches, and he was presented with £48 before he departed the following year.
Others were sailors. As England’s overseas trade increased, ever greater numbers of ships plied between London and the ports of the Ottoman empire. Those ships were often short of able-bodied men to crew them so their captains would enlist local Greeks to make up the numbers. At the end of the voyage, many of these individuals found themselves unceremoniously dumped on the quayside in London’s docklands and had to make do as best they could.
Some of these new arrivals showed particular enterprise in starting up businesses selling a commodity which was then very new in London: coffee. One of them was an individual called Pasqua Rosee who set up his establishment near St Michael’s, Cornhill in 1652. A blue plaque in St Michael’s Alley now marks the site of this first London coffee house.
Another early Greek entrepreneur in London was Georgios Constantinos (d. 1728), from the island of Skopelos in the northern Sporades. Following his discharge from the British navy, Constantinos had first set up his coffee house at Wapping but by 1677 he was operating from the more prestigious surroundings of Devereux court, just off the Strand. He appropriately named his coffee house ‘The Grecian’ and it became one of the most famous gathering places in London for men of letters and science, numbering Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other members of the Royal Society among its clientele. These days the Grecian is the Devereux public house, but the bust of Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, over the doorway is dated 1676 and so would have been there in Constantinos’s day.
As the numbers of Greeks in London increased, a movement began to press for the establishment of a Greek church. In 1674, a delegation led by a priest called Daniel Voulgaris, petitioned the Privy Council for permission 'to build a church in any part of the city of London or the libertyes there of, where they may freely exercise their religion according to the Greek church'. Although the seventeenth century was a period of acute religious intolerance, the petition was favourably received. Many Protestant clergymen of the Church of England looked favourably on the Orthodox, because they too were at odds with the Pope in Rome. A church was completed on the edge of Soho in 1681, the work led by Joseph Georgirenes, Archbishop of Samos.
Sadly this first venture was not a success. Georgirenes, presumably out of ignorance of the city, had chosen a site far removed from the riverside areas where the potential congregation actually dwelt, while a number of scandals concerning the funds collected to finance the project brought it into some disrepute. In 1682 the Greeks sold the church, which was taken over by a congregation of French Huguenots. The building survived until 1934, when it was finally pulled down. The inscription which commemorated its foundation in 1677 survived, however, and can still be seen in the cathedral of St. Sophia. A reminder of the church also survives in the name Greek Street in Soho.
After this, the Greeks of London worshipped at the Russian Orthodox chapel, originally established just off the Strand, and which later operated from sites in Burlington Gardens, Great Portland Street, and finally in Welbeck Street. Yet this church too had its problems. Most of the congregation, apart from merchants who came briefly to trade, were poor sailors and artisans who had little money to spare for the upkeep of the church. By 1753 most of the paint had peeled off the altar screen and one of the priests declared that he expected the building to fall down at any moment.
During the early nineteenth century, however, matters were to change radically, largely as a result of events inside the Ottoman empire. In 1821 the Greeks rose in revolt against their Turkish overlords and the ensuing war of independence was marked by savage atrocities by both sides. Faced with upheaval and uncertainty, many of the wealthy Greek merchants of Constantinople and the island of Chios moved abroad, and some of them found their way to London.
Among the first to arrive were members of the Ralli family from Chios, who established the firm of Ralli and Petrocochino at 25 Finsbury Circus in the early 1820s. In 1827 Alexander Ionides (1810-1890) arrived from Constantinople and set up the firm of Ionides and Co. A Greek chapel was set up on their premises in 1837 as a temporary measure.
Other families arrived in the years that followed, the Argentis, the Agelastos, the Schilizzis, the Rodocanachis, the Mavrogordatos and the Scaramangas, to name but a few, and, to start with, most concentrated their business in Finsbury Circus and the surrounding area. They flourished on the importation of grain and oil seed from the Baltic and the export of finished textiles and manufactured goods to the Levant.
The Greek community had thus been transformed from an insignificant minority into an extremely wealthy and influential group. It had a recognised leader in Pandia Ralli (1793-1865), who, in 1835, was appointed as the first Greek Consul in London.
In 1843 Pandia Ralli proposed that a purpose-built church should be erected, funded by voluntary contributions from the Greek community. Ralli did not make the same mistake as Georgirenes and chose a site at 82 London Wall, close to where many of the leading Greeks lived in Finsbury Circus.
When the church opened in January 1850, it excited a great deal of attention, partly because it was designed in Byzantine style, which was almost unknown in London at that time, but also because the £10,000 cost had been met entirely by a community of only a little more than two hundred people. Unfortunately, nothing remains of this church today.
In the years after the inauguration of St. Sophia, many of the wealthier members of the Greek community became increasingly integrated into British society. An increasing number had been born in Britain and educated at public schools, particularly Harrow and Westminster. Some played a prominent role in public life. Pandeli Thomas Ralli (1845-1928) was MP for Bridport from 1875 to 1880, and Lucas Ralli (1846-1931), was created Baronet in 1912. Many of these wealthy and influential people were buried in the Greek section of West Norwood cemetery where their elaborate tombstones and mausoleums, many in classical Greek style, can still be seen.
By 1870, however, the situation had changed again. The numbers of Greeks in London were no longer to be reckoned in hundreds, but in thousands. The wealthier families tended to move away from the old base in the City to the West End, particularly to Paddington, Bayswater and Notting Hill.
Once again there was a need for a new church, and so in 1877 work began on a new church, with the £50,000 cost being met by the Greek community. Again a Byzantine design was chosen, that of John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913). The new church of St. Sophia, in Moscow Road, Bayswater was consecrated on 5 February 1882 and is still the cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Church in England.
The Cathedral now has a small museum in its crypt.
The activity of the Greek community of Victorian London was by no means restricted to the worlds of politics and commerce. Alexander Ionides was also an art collector and his house at 1 Holland Park became a meeting place for artists and writers. This was something that was continued by his children. His son, Constantine Ionides (1833-1900), retired from the family stock broking business in 1882 and retired to Brighton where he concentrated in building up his art collection. In his will, he bequeathed all 1138 items to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where most of the paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Degas, Delacroix and Millet, are now on public display.
Alexander’s daughter, Aglaia Coronio (1834-1906), was a well-known literary hostess and a friend of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. She posed for Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), while William Morris (1834-1896), G.F. Watts (1817-1904) and George du Maurier (1834-1896) were frequent guests at her house.
Two cousins of the Constantine Ionides and Aglaia Coronio also left their mark on the London art scene. The sculptor Maria Cassavetti or Zambaco (1843-1914) was the mistress and muse of Edward Burne-Jones. She featured in many of his paintings, notably as Phyllis in Phyllis and Demophoön (1870), now in the Birmingham City Art Gallery, and as Morgana le Fay in The Beguiling of Merlin (1877), which can be seen in the Lady Lever Gallery on Merseyside. Maria Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) was a significant artist of the second generation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. None of her work is on public display in London but some of it can be seen in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool.