10 June 1940
On the evening of 10 June1940, just hours after the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Italy, anti-Italian mobs attacked shops, restaurants and other businesses owned by families of Italian origin. The violent assaults were widespread across London, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester and other cities. In the Soho and Saffron Hill districts of central London, many shop owners put up signs explaining that they were British by birth or naturalisation, but a rampaging mob tore them down at the start of a night of rioting and looting, in which at least one Italian narrowly escaped being lynched.1
In Scotland, partly due to strong anti-Catholic sentiments, the assaults on property were particularly merciless. The Dundee Courier described how ‘extraordinary scenes of violence were witnessed in several parts of Edinburgh… All the Italian fish and chip and ice cream shops in the vicinity (of Leith Street) were attacked. Plate glass windows were smashed and the proprietors and their staffs and such customers as were in the premises had to take refuge in the back.’2 The newspaper shouldn’t have been surprised. The previous day it had published a highly provocative letter from a reader under the heading ‘Italians in Scotland’.
‘Sir – These aliens have been allowed so much latitude in Scotland they seem to think this country belongs to them. I do not know (how) these foreigners have sent huge sums of money out of this country by methods that would not be tolerated in any other. It’s time to put a stop to their activities.’3
The next day, the Daily Mirror reported the xenophobic attacks under the headline ‘Anti-Duce Fights,’ which implied that the mobs were pitted against an equal number of determined fascists, rather than victimizing vulnerable members of a minority community.4 In London, George Orwell walked through a shattered Soho to examine the damage. He noted in his diary that ‘the majority (of the shops and restaurants) had hurriedly labelled themselves “British” and that ‘Gennari’s, the Italian grocers was plastered all over with printed placards saying “This establishment is entirely British.”‘ He expressed particular surprise at the violence given that the savage Italian invasion of Ethiopia five years earlier, which had killed hundreds of thousands, hadn’t, as far as he could remember, caused any comparable disturbance on the streets of Britain’s cities.5
- ‘Anti-Duce Fights in 2 Cities,’ The Daily Mirror, 11 June 1940 p. 3 and ‘Shops Wrecked by Angry Crowds in Middlesbrough’, The North Eastern Gazette, 11 June 1940 p. 6.
- ‘Anti-Italian Riots,’ The Dundee Courier, 11 June 1940 p. 3. See also ‘Rioting During Night of Big Round Up,’ The Scotsman, 11 June 1940 p. 6.
- ‘Italians in Scotland,’ The Dundee Courier, 10 June 1940, p. 4.
- ‘Anti-Duce Fights in 2 Cities,’ The Daily Mirror, 11 June 1940 p. 3.
- George Orwell, Diaries, 12 June 1940 cited in Travis Elborough, Our History of the 20th Century As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters, p. 202.
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