Merchants to Magnates, Intrigue and Survival: Armenians in London, 1900-2000
with a foreword by Christopher J. Walker
London: Gomidas Institute, 2009,
xii + 282 pp, foldout map, photos,
ISBN 978-1-903656-82-3, paperback
UK£16.00 / US$25.00
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Armenians have been visibly present in Britain for more than 100 years. They have appeared in many guises - as engineers, doctors, intellectuals, financiers, carpet dealers, musicians or political refugees. London has been the main place of settlement, though Manchester was more important in the late nineteenth century. They have become partly assimilated, yet usually stayed distinct, in a manner which one could call exemplary in these days when the issue of multi-culturalism is debated...
The Armenian presence in Britain often seems to have been underpinned by admiration for British qualities of ‘fair play’, of decency, and of upright, basically Christian values. To a great extent this was the public face of Britain until the end of the 1950s, when diversity, vigour and fun intruded colourfully, breaking the mask of unity (which was maintained by not a little hypocrisy)...
We also get a vivid sense of the political pressures that British Armenians could be subject to, in a story that Joan George relates concerning Professor Garabed Hagopian, who was living in Fulham, south-west London. This gentleman had been editing a journal which openly discussed the misrule (and worse) that Armenians were then subject to in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid apparently knew of this publication, and put in a complaint about it to prime minister Lord Salisbury. Owing to the unspoken and unofficial alliance between Britain and Turkey, this led to the visit of two CID officers to Hagopian’s home. A firm speech in the House of Commons by James (later Lord) Bryce, the outspoken champion of Armenians, put a stop to any further similar police harassment.
World War I was the most critical, and indeed appalling and shocking, time for Armenians. The picture of the community in London during 1914-18 is strongly painted: committees, relief activities, and speeches. At this time Britain was, for the first time for decades, officially on the side of Armenians. As well as detailing the London Armenian war effort, Joan George reminds us of Armenians who were killed in action on the Western Front, serving in the British Army...
Joan George also makes us aware of the Armenian presence in Britain in World War II. We come across the flying ace Noel Agazarian, who, despite having his first Oxford University entrance rejected on the grounds of being a ‘coloured gentleman’, was welcomed there by the more progressive Wadham College. He then went on to join the University Air Squadron, before becoming a flying ace in the Battle of Britain. He was eventually shot down in the Libyan desert. The fate of his brother Jack too is remembered here: as a member of SOE, he was caught in Paris by the Gestapo, tortured and murdered in March 1945...
[The British Armenian community]was so diverse that, almost without a break, we switch from the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Europe to the Zorian String Quartet, an ensemble by which the violinist Olive Zorian and her colleagues brought progressive culture to the British at a time when they were barely aware that they wanted it.
The Armenian presence in Britain can perhaps be summed up as resembling an array of different streams flowing into the broad, occasionally diverse, arcane and alternative river, which is British national life. Sometimes they have created a riff of turbulence; more often they have engaged creatively with existing British qualities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joan George is a British Armenian. Her mother, Marie-Nevarte Manoukian, born into Manchester’s Armenian community, became assimilated when she married Roger Chorlton, a member of an old established Manchester family. However, despite having an English father, upbringing and education, Joan’s interest in her ethnic origins remained.
After spending most of her long life in the south of England, with varied interests expressed in freelance writing, she finally decided to research the socio-political and family backgrounds of the Manchester Armenians. The result was Merchants in Exile: the Armenians in Manchester, England, 1835-1935, (Gomidas Institute), 2002.