Dictionary of London Immigrants |||

Swiss immigrants

Mercenaries were early migrants who sold their fighting skills to foreign powers. From the fifteenth century onwards Swiss soldiers of fortune were prominent in various conflicts. One of them was Henri Louis [Henry] Bouquet who served in the Dutch army and then joined the forces of the King of Sardinia; after a spell in the Vatican Guard, he entered the British service in 1755 and was put in command of the Royal Americans, a regiment made up of mercenaries recruited to push colonisation forward. He was one of the founders of Pittsburgh. The French Revolution and the creation of the Helvetic Republic accelerated the decline of the system as a result of the introduction of national conscription (mercenary service for foreign powers was finally prohibited in 1816). An intriguing consequence of the mercenary practice was the research into nostalgia. The term — a combination of the Greek nostos’ (return home) and Latin algia’ (longing) - was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer in his Basel medical dissertation. Having recognised the condition as mal du pays’ in Swiss mercenaries fighting in France and Italy, he established that gastronomic and auditory stimuli produced an intense sense of homesickness. Nostalgia is the psycholocial burden every migrant (even the most successful one) has to come to terms with.

The reformation of the church in Switzerland by Huldrych Zwingli, Jean Calvin, and Guillaume Farel came a little later than Martin Luther’s reform in Germany, but was more radical. Swiss cities offered a (relatively) safe haven to religious refugees. Following the first persecutions of Huguenots in France, Geneva attracted a flow of displaced persons from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. It became the undisputed capital of French-speaking Protestantism, the Protestant Rome’. The economic contribution of refugees to Geneva, Zurich, or Basel was considerable. Exiled craftsmen set up businesses as gold- and silversmiths, clockmakers, and founded textile manufacturies in Lausanne and elsewhere. Refugee printer Robert Estienne was instrumental in the creation of the Genevese publishing industry. Small town Geneva evolved into a major cultural and economical centre; its population almost doubled over a period of ten years. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 brought a second influx of Huguenot refugees. In this case the sheer numbers and abject poverty of those who had escaped persecution caused problems to the authorities. Most migrants moved to densely populated cities such as Lausanne and Bern where pauperism became rampant. These cities were no longer places of settlement, but passages to elsewhere. In 1694 Bern ordered all refugees to leave the territory. Many impoverished Swiss citizens joined the exodus. It is significant that the Société des Suisses in London, with the objective to render aid to members in need, was formed in 1703.

Large numbers of Swiss immigrants to London were of Huguenot descent. One of the most formidable figures was Theodore Turquet de Mayerne. Born in Geneva into a Huguenot family, he had settled in the capital in 1611 with his Dutch-born wife. In his long career, he served as physician to four kings, Henry IV of France, James I, Charles I, and Charles II of England. Living in St Martin’s Lane, his house was a resort of immigrant artists and artisans. One of those was enamel painter Jean Petitot, also born in Geneva. Mayerne introduced him to Charles I for whom he carried out many commissions. Petitot became the most distinguished enamellist of the seventeenth century.

Banking is seen as emblematic of Switzerland. In 1713, the Great Council of Geneva established regulations that required bankers to keep registers of their account holders, but prohibited them from sharing the information. The code of secrecy made Swiss banks a safe haven for funds for those fleeing the French Revolution first and for others seeking financial asylum later. Banking became the driver of the national economy. Ever since, in spite of periods of international economic crises and various scandals, Switzerland has kept its reputation as a nation of bankers. Many banks branched out into European capitals and some of their representatives made notable careers in London (and other capitals). Geneva-born Peter Thelluson, also of Huguenot descent, is an example. Running his business from Philpot Lane, City of London, he built an empire with massive interests in the tobacco and sugar (slave) trade from the West Indies. He took on British citizenship in 1762 and became a director of the Bank of England. His eldest son Peter Isaac Thelluson was created Baron Rendlesham in 1806.

Swiss migrants made an extraordinary contribution to the arts in Britain. Born at Schaffhausen in January 1706, George Michael Moser moved to London in 1726. Having settled in Covent Garden, he was hailed as the finest gold-chaser of his generation and a prominent member of the artistic community. On 28 November 1768 Moser, Francis Cotes, Benjamin West, and William Chambers petitioned George III to patronise a Royal Academy. Both Moser and his daughter Mary are named in the instrument of foundation dated 10 December 1768. Four days later, he was elected keeper of the Academy. Among the thirty-six founding members of the Royal Academy, two women are named: Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman, the extraordinary successful Swiss-born history and portrait painter.

Landscape painter Francis Bourgeois was born in 1756, the son of a watchmaker in St Martin’s Lane. From about 1776 onwards young Bourgeois was in the care of his future dealing partner Noel Desenfans, his father having returned to Switzerland after the death of his wife. By the 1780s Bourgeois and Desenfans were busy as art dealers. In 1786, the household moved to no. 38/9 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, where they exhibited as many as 360 pictures, with no fewer than fourteen Poussins in the dining-room. When Desenfans died in 1807, he left all the pictures to Bourgeois. The latter stipulated that the collection would go to Dulwich College, leaving an endowment for the creation of a new gallery to be designed by John Soane.

Swiss participation in British music has been significant. The date of arrival of impresario Johann Jakob [John James] Heidegger has not been recorded, but by 1707 he was involved in the introduction of Italian opera to London and closely associated with Handel’s activities in the capital. He served for many years as an organiser of festivities, including the October 1727 illumination of Westminster Hall for the coronation of George II. Of more significance was the presence of instrument maker Burkhat Shudi. At the age of sixteen he moved from Schwanden to London where he was apprenticed to Hermann Tabel, the Flemish-born harpsichord producer whose apprentices also included Jacob Kirkman. In 1729 Shudi set up a workshop at his house off Dean Street, Soho. Later, in 1742, he moved to Great Pulteney Street, where his sign displayed the plume of feathers, reflecting the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales. In 1761 he took on a Scottish cabinet-maker named John Broadwood as an apprentice. The latter married his daughter Barbara in 1769 and was taken into partnership by Shudi. Thereafter the harpsichords made by the firm were signed Burkat Shudi et Johannes Broadwood’. Broadwood would become London’s leading piano manufacturer and a major employer in the capital.

To the Romantic mind, geology was an exciting field of research. Novalis, Byron, Coleridge, Bilderdijk, and others, were intrigued by discoveries in a domain where scientists inspired artists. In Britain, mountaineering and alpinism became fashionable pastimes; collecting fossils a new passion. The exploration of Mont Blanc made a massive impact. In 1741, William Windham and Richard Pococke were members of a circle of British expatriates in Geneva known as The Common Room. In June of that year they explored Chamonix, the first travellers in the region to leave a written record of their observations. Their impressions, published in literary journals throughout Europe, started a craze to find out more about Chamonix. The passion for Mont Blanc was fired by Shelley who composed his ode Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni’ in the summer of 1816. The interest was further encouraged by the work of Geneva-born Jean-André Deluc. Living in London, he undertook an extensive geological tour of Britain during the years 1804 to 1807. Deluc was the first to propose the term geology’ in the sense as we understand it today.

Swiss immigrants in London were above all known as makers and/or importers of clocks and watches. Parcels were received from Switzerland via the ferry from Calais and brought from the port of Dover under bond to be examined by Customs Officers at Holborn Viaduct railway station. The goods could not be removed until import duties had been paid, so it was convenient for traders and agents to have an office near to the station. Swiss clocks ticked loudly in the Holborn district during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

By the mid-eighteenth century there was a considerable Swiss presence in London. The Sun and Thirteen Cantons at no. 21 Great Pulteney Street was named by a Swiss innkeeper in the mid-eighteenth century (Switzerland was divided in thirteen cantons at the time). In 1762 the Église Helvétique was inaugurated by a group of expatriates inspired by Justin Vulliamy, watchmaker in ordinary to George II. They rented a large room in Castle Street, Leicester Fields, and appointed Antoine Bugnion from Lausanne as their first pastor. As well as being a spiritual home for expatriates, the church also became a centre of help for indigent Swiss in London. In 1775, after appeals for funds and some financial aid from Geneva and Bern, the first Helvetic Chapel was built near Moor Street, Soho. It remained a focal point for eighty years until the Swiss Protestant Church at no. 79 Endell Street, Covent Garden, was built in 1853/4 after a design by George Vulliamy (a London-born descendant of Justin Vulliamy).

Swiss emigration in the nineteenth century was economically driven. Urban population growth, a dearth of job opportunities, failed harvests, and famine forced people to leave home. Hundreds of Swiss-Italians moved from the canton of Ticino to London in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Valle Leventina and the Val di Blenio had a long tradition of seasonal migration. For centuries locals had gained an additional income from selling roast chestnuts on the streets of northern Italian cities. During a series of poor harvests between 1847 and 1854, a large number of Ticinesi moved away. The men were employed as artisans or worked as waiters in the cafés and restaurants of central London. These immigrants had travelled by foot over the St Gottard pass (open only from June to September), and then moved on to Calais via Geneva, Lyons, or perhaps Paris. The prospect of finding paid work in the numerous Swiss-Italian cafés and restaurants in London encouraged a further exodus of emigrants in the latter half of the nineteenth century. 

Swiss Jews emigrated for a different reason. Although the Helvetic Republic of 1798 had established civil equality, French-inspired reforms did not apply to the Jewish population. In fact, any progressive changes were resisted and led to a revolt in 1802 when the crowd turned against the Jews in the infamous Plum War (‘Zwetschgenkrieg’). They were treated as foreigners and the Constitution of 1848 denied them the freedom of establishment, trade, and worship (the Jewish community was finally granted unlimited civil rights in 1866). For numerous Swiss Jews emigration to Britain was a way out.

During the nineteenth century Switzerland once again became a place of refuge. In the early 1830s a wave of for political dissidents arrived following the defeat of the revolutionary movements in neighbouring countries. The same happened in 1848/9 after the failed March Revolution in Germany. Some refugees found work as teachers. Many academic chairs at Zurich University (established in 1833), were occupied by German refugees. By the late 1870s Italy was confronted with the presence of militant anarchists. On 17 November 1878 Giovanni Passanante made a failed attempt to kill King Umberto I. The violent act led to a ferocious repression of left-wing movements. Arrests were made indiscriminately and suspects had no legal right to defend themselves. They fled abroad. Fear of anarchism throughout Europe led to a general tightening of the laws on political asylum. By 1894 political refugees were expelled from Switzerland and other nations. London was the only safe place to those who were persecuted. Under pressure from press and public opinion, British political attitudes were changing as well. It would eventually lead to the 1905 Alien Act which ended the liberal policy towards asylum seekers.

Once World War I had broken out, Zurich became a gathering place for European refugees. The city enjoyed a history of allowing freedom of (political) expression. Intellectuals, artists, and activists swarmed to the city and met in cafés discussing the precarious future of Europe, and planning political or artistic revolutions. Romanian Jews escaping ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies, young German and French citizens absconding conscription, they all gathered in neutral Switzerland. Pacifist poets such as René Schickele, Leonhard Frank, and Franz Werfel lived in the city. Repelled by the slaughter of war, artists had lost faith in traditional culture. The copying of external reality in order to create a self-contained work of beauty no longer made sense. Throwing overboard conventions and traditions, they sought to create an alternative by establishing - in the words of Hugo Ball - a playground of crazy emotions’. On 15 February 1916 Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors. Refugee artists from all over Europe besieged the establishment. On 15 June 1916, the only edition of the magazine Cabaret Voltaire appeared, edited both in French and German. In thirty-two pages and a drawing by Jean [Hans] Arp on the cover, it included a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, texts by Kandinsky, ‘Parole in libertà’ by Marinetti, and the reproduction of a poster by Marcel Janco. Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara took the opportunity to announce the future publication of a magazine entitled Dada. The word itself appeared here in print for the first time.

Until the late 1880s Switzerland remained a country of predominantly rural migration. At the same time, the number of skilled foreign workers was rising. As the economy expanded and began to prosper, many (Italian and German) immigrants worked on large-scale projects, such as the construction of the Gotthard railway tunnel which opened in 1882. At the outbreak of the First World War foreign migrants accounted for almost fifteen percent of the population, the highest in Europe. Protests against the large number of foreigners populating the main cities often deteriorated into riots. The war put an end to prosperity. Being a neutral state, Switzerland was spared the ravages of war, but suffered social unrest. There were tensions between German and French-speaking Swiss in their allegiance to the war; men were conscripted to guard the borders without compensation for lost income; the price of food rocketed; and inflation rose sharply, slashing the value of people’s savings. The economic hardship led to the national strike of November 1918. The post-war depression in the early 1920s and the global economic crisis that followed led to the collapse of the textile industry, creating mass unemployment. Numbers leaving the country were rising fast again.

Before and during the Second World War, Switzerland’s main political goal was to preserve its independence and stay neutral. Under the 1907 Hague Convention firms in impartial states were permitted to trade freely with belligerents. As Switzerland was surrounded by Axis powers, trade with the Allies was difficult. With few natural resources, Switzerland depended on imports from countries that controlled all access routes. Commercial contacts with Germany, Austria, and Italy increased and included arms and ammunition. The Swiss made painful concessions for the flow of goods to continue, including the acceptance of Nazi gold’ in their banking system, and the maintenance of a strict refugee regime. When the war finished, Switzerland’s economy was relatively undamaged and grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. Having resisted membership of the European Economic Community, is was a founding member of the European Free Trade Association in 1960. Post-war economic affluence meant that emigration for the Swiss was an option, a luxury, and a matter of choice. It was no longer a necessity imposed upon people by circumstances beyond their control. Those who settled in London, either permanently or temporarily, were young travellers, creative artists and scientists, or opportunity-seeking entrepreneurs. To many of them, London offered a swinging alternative to Swiss precision and punctuality.