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The Somali Community in the Port of London

Frankincense and myrrh
The British Protectorate
Firemen of the stokeholes
East End Somaal Town
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East End Somaal Town

Somalis in the London docks

According to an Act passed in 1894 Somalis could only take jobs in the seafaring industry. This meant that many Somalis who became stranded in London worked in the docks.

Some Somali seamen had settled around Cable Street. This is where they established their own boarding houses prior to the First World War. There was more settlement of Somalis in London after the war.  

This settlement was mainly of seamen who looked for accommodation in Stepney, Poplar and at East and West Ham.

Life between the World Wars

Aden - A quayside in the port area, showing dhows laid up, refitting or under construction.
View full size imageAden - A quayside in the port area, showing dhows laid up, refitting or under construction. © NMM
Life for the Somali men in London was often difficult. Few Somalis spoke much English and, like other black and Asian seamen, they were often attacked during the years of recession that followed the First World War.

In 1919 and again in 1930 there were riots and attacks on black and Asian seamen in many British ports. By this time there were probably also some Somali in Canning Town and around Customs House.

Cable Street, Shadwell.
View full size imageCable Street, Shadwell. © NMM
In London the British Union of Fascists (BUF) under Sir Oswald Mosley were particularly active in the East End. In 1936 a mixed group of East Enders, including the Somali seamen and dockers, took to the streets in opposition to the BUF in an event that became known as the Battle of Cable Street. Though the event did not remove the BUF from the East End, it did limit its influence.

Somalis in the Second World War

Many Somali seamen joined the merchant navy in the Second World War, despite the hostilities they felt in the East End. They served on troop ships in southeast Asia and north Africa.

During the Second World War the British were pushed out of Somaliland by the Italians, who attacked from Italian Somaliland. British military administration was introduced into both the Italian and British areas in 1941, when both areas became a British Protectorate, following the defeat of the enemy.


The Fortune Men

Al-Huda Mosque and Cultural Centre, Bethnal Green.
View full size imageAl-Huda Mosque and Cultural Centre, Bethnal Green. © NMM
The rise in Somali employment in the British merchant navy and the shortage of manpower in post-war Britain encouraged many Somali ex-seamen to work for a few years in Britain. London’s familiar East End attracted many of these men who were known at home as the 'Fortune Men'.

Because they intended to return to Africa, these Somalis were slow to organize themselves. However, a small community did develop around Lemen Steeet, with five restaurants catering to the Somali community.

By the 1950s the Brocklebank Line sailed from England through the Suez Canal and called at Berbera once a month between October and April. There was a weekly service from Berbera to Aden, which was now second only to New York as a world port. Apart from the Somali seamen arriving in London there were also a few students.

Independence and migration

On the 26 June 1960 the Republic of Somalia became independent. Migration from drought-ridden Somalia was a feature for much of the late 20th century. By the 1970s there were an estimated 20,000 Somalis living in Aden.

The first wave of refugees to arrive in London in the late 1980s were mainly from the Isaaq clan from the former British Somaliland. These people had arrived in England via refugee camps in Ethiopia and Djibouti. They tended to settle alongside clan members such as the former seamen of the East End.  

Somaal town superstore and Internet cafe, Bethnal Green.
View full size imageSomaal town superstore and Internet cafe, Bethnal Green. © NMM

By the 1990s there were an estimated 100,000 Somali refugees in and around Aden. They were fleeing from:

  • the civil conflict that gripped Somalia in 1993
  • the border disputes with Ethiopia
  • the drought and famine in the 1990s that resulted in the death of over one million Somalis and a second wave of refugees.

Many of the people in this second wave first sought refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya. They were from the Mijertein sub-clan of the Darood who had been persecuted by the government of Siad Barre (1919-). A large number of these refugees eventually settled in Italy and Canada.  


Somali restaurant and shop, Bethnal Green.
View full size imageSomali restaurant and shop, Bethnal Green. © NMM

Somaal Town

Today there are an estimated 70,000 Somalis in London, with the largest group of over 10,000 in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Most of London’s Somali population is concentrated to the east and northeast of the City.

Along the Mile End Road between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green underground stations is an area sometimes called 'Somaal Town'. Along a small stretch of the road there is a mosque and cultural centre, and across the road are Somali-owned shops and restaurants.

An Internet cafe in 'Somaal Town' helps the Somali community in East London keep in touch with family and friends abroad. There is even a distinct Somali Bravanese community at Hackney with speakers of Chimini. 

Somalis south of the Thames

Woolwich Market, Woolwich Arsenal, Greenwich.
View full size imageWoolwich Market, Woolwich Arsenal, Greenwich. © NMM

There is a Somali community to the south of the Thames, based in Thamesmead, Plumstead, Woolwich and Erith. This community is served by a mosque and Islamic cultural centre at Plumstead.

The market and several Somali fast-food stores serve the community at Woolwich and Plumstead.


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