For centuries, London has been the work capital of the world

Brick Lane in London’s East End, 2008. Image: Getty.

In Migrant City: A New History of London, Panikos Panayi explores the role immigration has played in the capital's development. In this extract, he looks at the role the city's economy had in attracting migrants.

The freedoms of London, especially in contrast to European cities, acted as a key factor in attracting all manner of refugees to the metropolis: the exiles escaping the French Revolution in the 1790s,3 German revolutionaries in the Victorian period, governments in exile during the Second World War, those fleeing persecution in the Cold War, and the global crisis which followed the end of this conflict from the end of the 1990s – even though, by this time, British refugee policy limited and controlled those who could enter and settle in London.

However, this book has revealed London as the work capital of Britain and Europe and, for much of the past two hundred years, the world. The numerous personal accounts quoted essentially tell the story of foreigners moving to London in search of employment, as that remains the main motivation for migration for the vast majority of those who have settled in the metropolis. Once again, the economic significance of London, its size and the scale of the economy have all combined together to bring in people from all over the world working in all manner of occupations throughout the social scale and, increasingly, throughout the entire geographical area covered by the metropolis.

One of the unique factors about this city lies in its ability to attract people throughout the economic and social scale. The idea of London acting as a magnet for cheap labour offers just one explanation as to why this metropolis has proved such an important global magnet. Clearly, most of those who have entered the city seeking employment have worked in low-end manual and service-sector jobs since the 18th century, as the example of the long history of the Irish in the London building trade demonstrates. However, numerous other social groups have settled in the city. Few other international urban centres could claim the range and scale of global elites.

The importance of London as an international financial centre from the 18th century has proved fundamental, a status which European Jews helped to cement from the Napoleonic period onwards and which attracted bankers from other parts of Europe over the following century. The proportion of foreign bankers may have remained stable or declined during the course of the 20th centurym but the ‘Big Bang’ in financial services at the end of that century gave the City of London a new lease of life and power comparable with its Victorian and Edwardian status. This in turn helped to create a new service sector to provide for the needs of the growing international bourgeoisie with a key centre in the City, whether, for example, as cleaners or restaurant staff.


But these elites have also included individuals who moved to London directly as a consequence of the opportunities which the presence of British and international bankers provided. The arrival of classical musicians from the early 18th century occurred because of the employment opportunities which no other city could offer, because none had such a developed middle and upper middle class, both foreign and domestic born. The presence of a large bourgeoisie offered all types of job openings from those working in classical music to those who founded the restaurant trade as waiters, cooks and owners. 

Musicians and waiters filled a skills gap. Trained in occupations which had emerged on the European continent, they transferred their abilities to the European city where the greatest economic opportunities existed. As we have seen, during the course of the 20th century London also attracted a new group of musicians from Black America and the West Indies in particular, who imported jazz but also helped to develop musical forms such as ska and reggae.

Similarly, the presence of a dozen football teams in London meant that it had become well positioned to develop some of the most globalised football teams in the world whether in terms of ownership or from the point of view of the playing staff. Arsenal and Chelsea in particular illustrate this process.

But between Nathan Mayer Rothschild, as a banking elite, and Didier Drogba, as a sporting superstar, the Irish builders from the 18th century onwards and the South Asian women preparing aeroplane food in West London in the second half of the 20th century, come numerous others. They have settled in London and established all types of small businesses, from the Jewish and Irish street-peddlers interviewed by Henry Mayhew, many of whom existed on tiny profit margins (if any), to the plethora of migrant shopkeepers and restaurant owners residing in the capital in the second half of the 20th century.

The size of the London economy therefore offers the key explanation as to why people from all over the globe have settled to work in such a wide range of occupations throughout the social scale. While the international importance of the London economy determines its size, this globality is also reflected in the range of occupations which foreigners undertake within the city. But the central point to re-emphasise here is the position of London as work capital. Those who have settled in the metropolis have usually devoted their lives to work, the reason they moved.

The Irish navvies who have settled in the capital since the 18th century did so for the purpose of labouring in London’s streets, a pattern which continued into the second half of the 20th century. The life of Donall MacAmlaigh, one of hundreds of thousands of Irishmen working in the London building trade over centuries, offers just one example of the centrality of employment for manual workers who surrendered their rural existence for a supposedly better life, even though the reality of employment proved different. Many of MacAmlaigh’s post-war single male contemporaries worked long hours and spent much of their leisure time simply drinking, although other Irishmen and women established a better equilibrium in their lives.

Meanwhile, higher up the social scale, the life of the Turkish Cypriot immigrant Asil Nadir offers an example of another individual whose London life essentially revolved around work, on this occasion through the establishment of an international business empire, which, however, crashed in the 1990s. Clyde Best’s life revolved around football, an artist much like the classical music performers who migrated to London in pursuit of their artistic goals. Idolised by West Ham fans in the early 1970s, his career would fizzle out in the second half of that decade when he moved to the United States.

These examples demonstrate that the London economy has, for centuries, had an insatiable appetite for labour. Until the 20thcentury those who settled in the capital were primarily English people who would often pay with their lives in their search for employment because of the insanitary conditions existing there. The examples of the Irish drinkers and the failed businessmen such as Asil Nadir demonstrate that the London economy eats up and spits out people on all parts of the social scale. Working hard, the purpose of moving to the capital, does not guarantee success or social mobility. African cleaners who take on several jobs at once to make ends meet seem to have little prospect of achieving social mobility because of both racism and the fact that they cannot earn and save enough money to purchase a house.

Migrant City: A New History of London is published in hardback on 25 February.
 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.