Street names in Norwich are a reminder of our Danish and Dutch Heritage
- Credit: Archant
What culturally shocked me most this month was hearing people on the telly say 'there are too many foreigners here.'
Shocking obviously because xenophobia is profoundly unpleasant but really more shocking to me because that's what England is, a polyglot nation composed of all sorts of nationalities and much the stronger for it.
That probably applies more here in the East over the last millennium than in most places, with the possible exception of London.
Leap back to before the Conquest and a big proportion of the population was Danish Viking, with DNA testing and archaeological finds suggesting that we also had Romani people and black people here in the 11th century too.
For a chunk of time we were actually part of the Kingdom of Norway, Denmark and Sweden – when, presumably, the locals asked if you'd really want Anglo-Saxons living next door.
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With 1066 and all that there was obviously a massive influx of Normans and Bretons, as well as probably the biggest Jewish community outside London, and ultimately a fusing of those people into 'the English'.
Moving beyond the end of the Middle Ages, the mid-1500s saw massive immigrations from the Low Countries with Dutch, Flemish, Walloon and French residents representing nearly 40pc of Norwich's entire population, helping us to maintain our position as England's second city by delivering textile industry innovations as well as a few minor bonuses such as printing, England's first Delftware pottery, gold and silver smithing, flower growing, landscape gardening, land drainage, painting and a slice of the local dialect.
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In the 18th and 19th centuries, large numbers of Italians arrived along with more French, Germans and Eastern European Jews. Most surprisingly perhaps, there is evidence of black residents from the mid C18th, some associated with the anti-slavery movement, others like the country's first black circus proprietor Pablo Fanque, and just ordinary residents, captured in parish register baptisms or paintings by John Dempsey. The 20th century saw more Italians, some former prisoners of war, as well as Poles and other mainland Europeans who had fought fascism then stayed. Later, Chileans, Cypriots, Chinese and other Asians arrived and more recently, the University of East Anglia and the Norwich Research Park has complemented the area's richness, adding at least 100 nationalities to the pot.
So today we walk along Danish (Pottergate) or Dutch (St Andrew's Plain) thoroughfares, we admire our majestic buildings, inspired by the Normans or the Flemish, we enjoy living in a city made richer and more prosperous by overseas innovation and we watch the Canaries, named after a little bird introduced by the Dutch.
So when the occasional person moans to me that foreigners dilute our intrinsic 'Englishness', I ask 'what's that then' and the analysis speaks volumes. St George – a Palestinian with a Greek father; fish and chips – Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain introduced fried fish and the Belgians, chips; ale - hopped ale introduced by the Dutch; gardening – Dutch; the Battle of Waterloo more than 60pc of Wellington's (an Irishman) army were from Holland, Belgium, Brunswick, Hanover and Nassau and, arguably, the Prussians made the difference; a Nation of Shop Keepers – Eastern European Jews; Churchill – half American; Bulldog – descendant of the Asiatic Mastiff; The Battle of Britain – a fifth of air crew were Poles, Czechs, Belgians, French, US or Commonwealth citizens and so it goes on.
The truth is, England is great because it has absorbed all the wonderful contributions of peoples fleeing from persecution or hardships to start a new life, and fused them into an identity that says openness and pluralism, not nationalism and xenophobia. We have welcomed 'differentness' to make the whole much richer and here in Norfolk, where we celebrate the virtue of 'Doing Different', a lot of that has been stimulated by the integration of overseas influences.