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An earlier Latino immigration to London

Spanish people arrived in large numbers in London escaping from the Civil War,1936 -39, and many settled in the area near Portobello and Golborne Roads where housing then was cheap.


Graham Douglas


Many came from the Basque Country after Franco’s brutal repression centred on their ancient capital Guernica.

By the 1970’s a second wave of immigrants had begun and two institutions emerged to meet their needs: the Catholic Chaplaincy in 1962, now run by Padre Payo at 47 Palace Court  W2, and the Instituto Español Cañada Blanch in 1977, which is in the old convent in Portobello Rd.

The Portobello area is very multicultural, and is known for its annual Caribbean Carnival. But also for its tolerance, as Yvette explained to me while making pineapple juice on her stall, which pops up on sunny weekends near the flyover: “Here you can be whatever you want, no-one bothers how you dress or what you believe”.

There are Spanish bars and two well-established Spanish groceries. Garcia & Sons has been here since 1957, and is still run by the same family from Malaga.

The Prisma talked to Padre Payo and to the headteacher and her deputy from the Canada Blanch Spanish school.

Who was Vicente Cañada Blanch ?

He was a business man from Valencia (1900-1993), who used to sell oranges and did a lot of business in the UK, and when he retired he decided to give money for the first Spanish immigrants in London. There is also a Cañada Blanch Cultural Institute at the London School of Economics, and in Valencia a  cultural centre, linked to the university.

Do you run both the English and Spanish curricula ?

We are funded by the Spanish Government, so we only do the Spanish curriculum, but pupils can do the English exams too, and everything is offered in both English and Spanish and some subjects in Gallego, because the original Spanish community here was mostly from Galicia. We have to teach catholic religion for the Spanish curriculum but it isn’t compulsory, and the school is not religious.

Nowadays the students come from all over Spain, and they like the bilingual teaching, because it helps them improve their English.

What do you offer students that they can’t find in other schools in London?

The Spanish system is very different, it is more general and more academic. They do 10 subjects at Bachillerato level instead of 4 at A Level.

They have to have a basic level of Spanish to come here, unless they start very young. If not they go to ALCE (Agrupacion de la Lingua e Cultura Espanol) classes for a year.

Now that Spanish is an important world language, British parents are also sending their children here, we have 10% now from British families.

What does the school do in the local community?

We have exchanges with various schools and colleges in London, and the Lycee Francaise. In spring we have an Open Day when the community can visit. We also organize football training and we have a league with other colleges in the area. We have Portuguese and Gallego festivals.

And we are connected with the Cervantes Institute and a number of British universities to organize conferences.

The school is over-subscribed, and if students want to continue to study here they need to behave well and get good grades.

The school is fee-paying ?

It is free for children from Spanish parents, but for others the fees are £2500 a year, which is much less than other schools like the Lycee Francaise. We are inspected by the  Spanish Ministry of Education as well as by the British Ofsted inspectors.

Ernesto Payo: a lifetime in Spanish London

How did the community start?

After the Civil War, about 2000 people and their children came from the Basque Country. And there are still some here, many of them are in the Spanish club for pensioners in Camden Town.

The next wave began in 1962 -64 with a boom in the 70’s. We started this centre in 1962. And nearly all of them were from Galicia, mostly La Coruna.  Most of them worked in hospitals, hotels or domestics in private houses. Normally the owner of the bar in their home village would write a reference saying they had been a waiter for example – it wasn’t true of course ! So many worked at St. Mary’s hospital in Paddington that we used to say Mass there. It was like a village, they had their music, some of them got married together. This centre was meeting point, we put on dances here and organized a football team, food tapas. We helped them find jobsand accommodation, and when they were ill.

There was a mafia of agencies, who brought people from Galicia. They waited for them at Victoria Station and sent them to Scotland for a job that didn’t exist, having taken a lot of money both in Spain and here.

In 1971, there were about six families working in the Plaza Hotel in Queensway, and living in the loft. They all died in a fire. 16 couples with children were living in one house here in Clanricarde Gardens, with only one toilet and bathroom in the basement. I used to visit and we went to the Court.

People had two jobs, and the children were in Spain, so they sent money home to buy a flat in Spain while they rented rooms here. But they were afraid to open a business, so they didn’t do as well as the Italians and the Greeks, who opened restaurants and bought flats here. They weren’t allowed to change jobs until they had been here for 4 years, so they were exploited. They couldn’t change address and they had to notify the police where they lived. Now they have their own houses, their children are not waiters, they go to university.

What is your work like nowadays?

Many Colombians and Ecuadoreans come to the Centre as well as Spanish people.

Some young Spanish people who have not found jobs because of the crisis have eneded up begging on the streets. We let them stay here while the Spanish Embassy repatriates them.

In the 1970’s I did 300 weddings a year between Spanish people. Now they marry English people but they prefer to celebrate the wedding in Spain. I just fill in the forms, but we don’t have any weddings here.

We can’t have dances anymore because the neigbours complained, but I am chairman of the Galego Cultural Association. It is at a restaurant in Harrow Rd., where we have dances at weekends and classes in Galician bagpipes (Gaita Galega), and there is a golf group.

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