by David Zenian
From as early as the 7th century, Armenians have come to British Isles, often seeking the help of monarchs and church leaders in times of national crisis, but while the early contacts remain mostly anecdotal, recorded history begins with a well documented exchange of letters in the 13th century between King Henry III and King Hetoum in which the Armenian monarch appeals for help from the Crusaders.
Later in 1385, a similar appeal was made by King Levon V during a visit to London on a campaign to enlist the help of the British throne against the Mamluks from Egypt who had invaded Armenia.
The increasing contacts paved the way for many Armenian merchants to travel to the British Isles, especially those who were already familiar with the trading routes between Europe and the East.
Archival records show that several of these merchants were granted the status of “Free Citizens of England” in 1688 in recognition of their help to the British rulers of India.
While the formation of an Armenian community was still decades away, individuals were active in such endeavors as printing, translation and other cultural activities.
In the early 1700′s, Archbishop Thomas Vanandetsi visited London and had an audience with Queen Anne to discuss the possibility of establishing an Armenian printing press in England, an objective which was later fulfilled by Armenian merchant Gregor Khaldariants in 1870 who published translations of several Armenian ecclesiastical books in English, French and Latin.
Today, London has become the focal point of a vibrant Armenian community, but it was the city of Manchester where it all started taking shape when prosperous Armenian merchants began settling there in the early 1800′s.
Among the first “settlers” were the Capamagian brothers who were later followed by other members of their immediate family. According to available documents kept by the Public Record Office in Kew, Surrey, Hovsep Capamagian became a British national in 1847—probably the first Armenian to do so.
According to data compiled by the same Public Record Office, 65 Armenians took British nationality between 1847 and 1900, while more than a dozen firms were advertised in Slater’s Directory of Manchester in 1861.
By 1862, some 30 Armenian merchants had already established successful business ventures in Manchester, in effect opening the way for a new influx which escalated following the first wave of Armenian persecutions in Ottoman Turkey in the 1890′s and again after the Armenian Genocide in 1915.
Like everywhere else in the Diaspora, the Manchester Armenian community felt the need of a spiritual leader, and invited Rev. Father Garabed Shahnazarian who established the first parish and celebrated the first Armenian Holy Mass at a rented chapel on March 31, 1863.
The event was a turning point, and in 1869 construction began on the first Armenian church which was completed in 1870, and with the consent of the community, named “Holy Trinity” which still functions to this day.
The church brought greater cohesion to a once scattered community of merchants, and soon, their attention started focusing on the less fortunate Armenians living under persecution in their ancestral homeland.
Many of the so-called “Old Country” institutions were also established, including the Hunchagian Revolutionary Party (1887), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (1890), along with such home-grown groups like the Friends of Armenia (1897), the Anglo-Armenian Association (1893), the Armenian Patriotic Association (1888), the Armenian United Association of London (1898), and the British Armenian Chamber of Commerce (1920).
Only 15 months after the Armenian General Benevolent Union was established in Cairo in 1906, the Union’s vice-president Yervant Aghaton Bey arrived in Manchester not only for a fund-raising mission, but also an appeal to join the Union.
It was in 1907 that the AGBU Manchester branch was established, which was followed in 1910 by the birth of the Union’s London chapter.
Together, the greater AGBU family in England was active in several major fund-raising drives to benefit their fellow Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
After the First World War, the influx of Armenians into Britain escalated, first from the Armenian territories of the Ottoman Empire, and over the following decades from the Middle East, Cyprus, Iran, India, eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Armenia.
But despite its ancient roots, little was done to record and preserve the history of the Armenian community in England—not until Ms. Joan George took an active interest and began the arduous task of research and writing.
Her book, Merchants in Exile: The Armenians in Manchester 1835-1935 was published in April 2002.
In an interview in London, Ms. George, an active and energetic woman of 80, said she was born in Manchester into an already assimilated family. Her mother was Armenian and her father an Englishman.
“My only link with Armenian things was rice pilaf,” she explained. “But despite the fact that I had moved away from Manchester more than 50 years ago, I had not lost interest in my ethnic origins.”
What triggered her project to document and write the history of the Armenians of Manchester started with a simple newspaper article in 1989 which, as a matter of fact, was rejected by the paper’s editors.
“I had done so much work for the article and it was not published. I told myself, fine, I can use the material as a starting point for something better … a book,” she said. It took Ms. George “ten winters and one spring” to complete her work which is based on in-depth research into the archives of many local government institutions, starting with trade associations, birth and death records, church documents, and first hand eyewitness accounts.
“To tell you the truth,” Ms. George explained, ” my ignorance was my main motivation. Like every community, the first generation often absorbs itself in its new surroundings … there is assimilation, and it’s up to the second generation to go back to its roots and rediscover its past,” she said.
A true labor of love, the book takes a close look at the socio-political and family backgrounds of the old Manchester families—or as Ms. George explains, the merchants in exile.
“I did not know that the Manchester Armenians were constantly involved in fundraising for their beleaguered compatriots. I did not know that in 1920 they chartered three ships, filled them with clothing, medical supplies and other goods and sent them to Armenia,” she said.
“I also did not know that they often lobbied for Armenian causes, something which today’s community is trying to do now. I learned a lot from my research. It brought me closer to my roots” Ms. George said.
Today, some 15,000-18,000 Armenians live in England. They have two churches in London and one in Manchester. There is an Armenian House, along with the St. Sarkis Armenian Church in London, which was built in 1922 by Calouste Gulbenkian in memory of his parents, Sarkis and Takouhi, and the restored St. Yeghishe Armenian Church.
Manchester, the place where it all began, has lost most of its Armenians. Many have moved to London and others have assimilated and disappeared from the Armenian scene.
But the community still remains vibrant. New talent, a younger generation of activists, and the energy after the birth of an independent Armenia is opening new opportunities and a new life to one of Europe’s oldest Armenian communities.
“We have to look ahead, but we should also know our history, and especially our own roots in this country which is home. We have never been isolated. In fact, we owe our progress and achievements over the centuries to our ability to adapt to our new surroundings,” Ms. George said.