The sheer size of London's population has always encouraged the growth of smaller communities within it. Shared experiences bring people together and during the 20th century shared experiences came to include ethnic background and sexuality, as well as religion, neighbourhood and class. London ended the 20th century with a myriad of overlapping communities, each bound together by a sense of people having something in common and a distinct identity.
In 1900 the most common shared experiences were bound up with where you lived. A sense of community existed in London's working-class districts of south and east London, where most families shared more or less the same social status and the same experiences of daily life. Women shopped in street markets; men met in local pubs; a family holiday meant an outing to the seaside or hop-picking in Kent.
Elsewhere in London, community identity was also a mixture of neighbourhood character and the daily experiences of the people who lived there. By the 1920s Chelsea and Hampstead were already known as somewhat bohemian districts where artists lived. Hampstead's bohemian spirit developed a modernist and continental edge in the 1930s with the arrival of migr Jewish artists and intellectuals, among them Sigmund Freud and Bernard Lubetkin.
Hampstead's cosmopolitanism developed in the years between the wars. But at the start of the 20th century, only a few districts in London visibly expressed the presence of a community whose shared experience was based on being 'foreign'. Clerkenwell had been home to London's small Italian community since the 19th century. London's German population had settled north of Oxford Street where Charlotte Street was sometimes known as 'Charlottenstrasse'. London in 1900 had a small Chinese community in Limehouse and a large Russian and East European Jewish community, which was well settled in Whitechapel and Aldgate.
Soho was London's 'French quarter' but developed a more cosmopolitan mix with the First World War and the night-club craze that came afterwards. War brought large numbers of Belgian refugees, alongside the French, Italian and Serbian soldiers who used London as a place for home leave along with the American, Canadian, Australian and African troops. By the twenties, Soho housed a floating population from all countries of the world.
In all these districts community identity revolved around churches, shops, welfare institutions, newspapers and places to meet and socialize. Schmidt's restaurant in Charlotte Street was a focus for the German community before the First World War. In Aldgate a close network of Jewish institutions and firms, from a Yiddish theatre to printers and publishers, helped a sense of community to flourish.
After the second world war new groups of migrants began to put their stamp on new areas of London. Caribbean workers and their families settled in two districts, Notting Hill Gate and Brixton, both near to the railway stations where boat trains from the south coast arrived. Stepney in East London also became a key place for new communities. It was described in 1953 as 'London's coloured quarter'. Cable Street was 'London's Harlem' with a caf culture that included Maltese, West Indian, Pakistani, Greek and Italian establishments.
In the last quarter of the 20th century gentrification diluted the association between communities and physical location. Although a Caribbean population continued to live in Notting Hill, the district's character changed with the arrival of wealthy, middle-class residents. By the end of the century London's Caribbean population had spread to other London districts, notably Newham, Tottenham and Hackney.
The Jewish community also migrated within London, a move which reflected increasing prosperity within the community itself. Shops and restaurants moved from east to north London along with the people. Blooms restaurant on Whitechapel High Street, founded in 1925 by Maurice Bloom and famous for its salt beef, closed in 1994 leaving only its branch in Golders Green. As the Jewish community left Whitechapel, so the Bangladeshi community moved in, bringing their own newspapers, shops, mosques and welfare institutions: all the ingredients a community needs to thrive.
The last quarter of the 20th century brought a new visibility for people sharing experiences of sexuality or lifestyle. The lives of gay Londoners began to change with the decriminalization of homosexual acts in the late 1960s. The subsequent campaign for full legal equality helped build a sense of community and common purpose among gay people whatever their individual background. Soho is the district particularly associated with London's gay community but, as for all London's communities at the end of the 20th century, shared experiences no longer depended on where you live.
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