History of Emigration (A Personal View) in the United Kingdom
Author: Bernard Scerri
When I was asked to speak on the “Maltese Connections Overseas” re History of Emigration I started frantically searching for material on the subject but to no avail. Fortunately, in August last year I visited Dar L-Emigrant and the first thing that caught my eyes were the three books on this subject by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. I could not resist the temptation and bought all three without hesitation.
It is not appropriate or relevant to relate in detail the contents of an already published history book. Besides, there is no particular document illustrating the chronological details of the Maltese immigrants into the United Kingdom. I have therefore decided to convey to this Convention the experiences that I have shared with other Maltese immigrants in the U.K. on this subject.
And so I read with interest some of the chapters of these books, which contained interesting pictures that brought back childhood memories of incidents that till then, were almost insignificant and only now brought it back home. My father emigrated to Canada in 1953 and returned back to Malta in 1955. Being too young to remember him leaving, I remember going to meet my father back on his arrival. Partly shy and partly confused I cannot express that strange feeling of being hugged together with my younger sister and brother by this strange man - my father! The only hugging I was used to was from my grand parents, mother and aunties. The shyness soon receded when I got so fascinated by the presents he brought us. Some years after there was the incident of the sinking of the Skaubryn. I remember my auntie saying that Dun Spir's ship (that is Fr Spiridion Tabone whom we knew at Kalkara) has sunk. Of course, at that time, my only concern was for the well being of Fr Tabone and only now, I realise the dangers, those others on board were exposed to and the ordeal they must have experienced.
I grew to hear more fascinating stories about Canada from my father, and later from cousins, uncles and aunties who emigrated to Canada, Australia and the U.K. I could never imagine any place beyond the shores of Malta before. In my teens, my college friends used to talk about friends they knew who went on working holidays to Butlins and others who went to work for the Mars chocolate factory in England. Having quite a sense of adventure myself, I almost envied them, though it was not what I wanted as a career.
Taking the Plunge
It was in 1970 when I decided to emigrate from Malta to the U.K. Here I met two Maltese friends, who I knew back in Malta. We tried to help each other the best way we could and used to discuss ways on how to go about things in London. But being that they themselves had just immigrated in England only a few weeks before me and were still learning, it was like the blind leading the blind. We heard that the Maltese ran Soho and that we were to stay away from those places. We knew about the nuns in Victoria and Fr Coppola. We used to visit other Maltese in London whenever we got to know of them. But our main concern really was not that of other Maltese but how to get a better job or better accommodation and how to integrate ourselves in the British way of life. Oh! It was very exciting when one heard the unique sounds of the Maltese language being spoken by some passers by, even if it was loud and usually followed by a few swear words. Obviously, thinking that nobody can understand them one can imagine the surprise and astonishment of these Maltese when they find out that there were other Maltese about.
Maltese and their Meeting Places
As time went by I learned of Maltese Cafes and places where the Maltese hanged about. I got introduced to some Maltese who had property to let and in many cases they already had other Maltese living with them. I got to know a Maltese baker though he could not bake the Maltese bread as it is baked in Malta. So my Maltese connection started to grow. There were Maltese living in Slough and Reading. The Mars Company that I heard so much about before predominantly employed these. There were many Maltese in East London, Mile End, Stepney, Bow, etc. Maltese were in South London, in Streatham and in Brixton, also in North London in Islington, Haringey and Hackney. So now the circle of Maltese grew considerably and we got together more often. At one time we were a party of some thirty Maltese and organised a barbecue at an allotment. Every one of us brought with him a Maltese dish that we all shared. This was very successful and enjoyable. We started talking about how to expand this concept and organise events for the Maltese in a bigger way. But that is all that happened, just talking. Several years passed and while we still gathered together on occasions there was still no interest in organising anything on a larger scale. Many came to the conclusion that anything one organises for the Maltese is doomed to fail. I started to think that maybe the Maltese do not want to be organised. Others argued that the Maltese will always let you down and that if someone is ever successful then there is always someone else that would want to start their own activities and that there aren't enough Maltese to support all these groups. Another question that always came up was that of the distance one had to travel. If we are to organise something on a larger scale how are we to bring these people together from all over London? We learned that there were other isolated groups that did the same as our group. We also heard that there was an organised group of the Maltese of Egypt, but we did not know much about them. Someone mentioned another group called the Malta League but they only wanted to associate with the English people. I thought this is preposterous, because as far as I was concerned all Maltese liked to meet other Maltese and always got excited when they met others of their own nationality. I was either being misinformed or naive. Of course, one thing I was not; that is I was not going to leave it there. I wanted to know more about these other organisations, perhaps even join them.
In the meantime I started to look at other areas outside London where there may be other Maltese Nationals. There were Maltese concentrated in Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Southampton. It seems that Maltese were everywhere but not in large concentrations, though one got the impression that more concentration existed near ports. I suppose this was obvious since many Maltese were in the services, they were bound to settle closer to their places of work.
Time passed and I am still not quite convinced in what to make of all this, though I believed that there might have been some element of truth in what had been said. After all this was coming from our community which are also Maltese. And if this is the sort of Maltese character one is trying to organise then one had to listen and interpret these statements correctly.
Birth of the Maltese Culture Movement
It was not until April 1998 that we decided to hold a small function for Easter. It was to be traditional Maltese, with figolli for the children and to be kept small. We invited a few people from church. Small it was never to be. Over two hundred people turned up, the hall was too small and we were overwhelmed. Following the success of our Easter function at Imnarja was also very successful and surpassed all our expectations.
This demonstrated that Maltese could be motivated and organised, even if for a short while. It also manifested that something proper had to be set up. This project had to take on board the problems of communicating with a scattered community, convert scepticism into enthusiasm, blend tradition with trend, keep it affordable, cater for the young and old alike, generate a sense of belonging and handle expansion. We went on to organise many more Maltese cultural events, which were very successful.
The first generation of Maltese immigrants had settled down in many parts of the U.K. and brought up families with many children. Some families were quite large and their children have been brought up the Maltese way. Nevertheless, it was important for the parents to provide adequate schooling or education for their children, and these were eventually sent to local schools. Consequently the children grew up using the English language as their first language rather then considering that the Maltese language was their mother tongue. In one sense their integration into the British system has enabled them to compete effectively with other English pupils thereby achieving a good standard of education in this country. Further on in their youth they have also obtained qualifications by which they progressed towards securing prominent occupations, which earned them good salaries. In another sense one could by somewhat sceptical about whether this should be regarded as an achieve-ment by the youths, for the very fact that their parents would have preferred to provide a Maltese-based education, which includes aspects of Maltese culture. Since this is not available, the most they could do is to have their children admitted into religious schools, and preferably the Roman Catholics Schools.
Bearing in mind that in general the primary aim of the immigrant is to seek full employment in a country that offers better economic stability from that of the country of origin that he or she has departed. In the Maltese case, those who had achieved good academic qualifications, usually had good job prospects, and were able to advance their financial condition to enjoy a good standard of living as well as proved able to settle down permanently and effectively with their own families. In the main many of these families live in their privately owned homes, which they could afford to maintain. In brief they have become well off and today they have made their families proud of their achievement.
However, there are others who may not have been so successful because of their lack of academic preparation since they would have left school at an early age and then decided to seek their fortunes abroad. They were forced to take up labour type jobs, which were mostly low paid and not always permanent. For this reason they were only able to bring up their own families within a limited means of livelihood and could only accept local authority housing. And if one measures success by the amount of wealth one gains, then perhaps one may be deemed to say that these were the lesser of the achievers.
Housing and the Maltese Connection
From a housing aspect the Maltese were always proud of their homes and origins, and nothing has changed here. This is clearly demonstrated when you walk inside a Maltese residence. Whether it is a single room or a semi-detached property, besides all the modern day comforts, you can rest assured that there is always a Maltese emblem, such as a Maltese cross or painting of a Maltese scene, or the Maltese dg¹ajsa etc. In other extremes one will be bumping into armour of the knights, pictures of grand masters, karrozzini, Maltese buses etc. One may get the impression that somehow you are somewhere in Valletta.
In a multicultural society such as in the U.K. the Maltese immigrants find themselves forming part of a larger immigrant population. Apart from integrating with the host community, most of the other ethnic communities feel the need to live together in harmony to make it easier to reside as a mixed community. It is possible, therefore, for them to socialise and interact in multicultural functions with the aided support of the local authorities, whose aims are to promote good working relations in the resident communities.
Throughout our interaction with other Maltese nationals, whether they came from Malta, Egypt, Tunisia or intermarried to other nationalities we noticed all these aspects, which I just mentioned. As this is merely an observation we need to seal this with some proper statistics and research. We have some surveys planned for the near future. Therefore, we find that until such surveys are carried out it is not proper to assert any conclusions. However, two years down the line, from the experiences we gather through the Maltese Culture Movement, we can safely say that:
- Scepticism mixed with controversy is very much alive though not overwhelming.
- Distance is still a problem though the organising of coaches solves this albeit at a cost.
- Communication is better now and the people are better informed. This is achieved through a combination of the following:
- The magazine we introduced recently and publish regularly
- A periodical newsletter of the Association of Maltese and Egypt
- A newsletter from the Malta High Commission
- The promotions of the Malta Tourist Office
- The advent of the Internet
- People outside London tend to be more loyal and supportive, though they attend fewer functions. Perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder. On the same line of thinking, this may explain why the Maltese migrants in Australia and Canada seem to be more responsive and cooperating with leaders of their communities who endeavour to coordinate events and associations in a structured approach.
- Some positive response from youngsters though again a lot of work has to be done from this aspect.
- The Maltese are predominantly always very proud of their origins.
Entertainment & Socialising
As a whole the Maltese in the U.K. want to mix and join in celebrations but will no longer accept second best. In the U.K. entertainment comes up to a very high standard and as such Maltese functions and entertainment have to meet the same standards, if not better.
The Present State of Affairs
In drawing a conclusion to the above reflections, it has been observed over recent times that, since the setting up of the Maltese Culture Movement some two years ago, a considerable number of members in the Maltese Community of the U.K. have expressed interest in this new endeavour. Many people who are associated with older organisations have attended our functions, even if not of curiosity only, and they seem to have gone home with a good impression of what the organisation aims to do. This, of course, is very promising and could only give us encouragement to proceed further with new ideas and accomplishments as the organisation gains better footing and receives more support in the future. In one sentence, our aim is to achieve a good positive response, and we shall not opt for second best.