In 1865, Alfred and Philip Holt founded the Blue Funnel Line and established the first direct steamship service between Europe and China. Prior to 1861, the London census showed a mere 78 Chinese-born residents in the entire city. This new steamship line would change all that.
The Blue Funnel Line quickly built up its reputation thanks to its high quality service, management and crews. Much of the staff was hired from England, Scotland and Wales; however, a large percentage of the crew was made up of Chinese sailors. By using Chinese crews, the Blue Funnel Line was able to cheaply staff their liners, as the Chinese workers were paid a mere fraction of the salary earned by the European seamen.
The first major influx of Chinese immigrants arrived in 1866. Quite a number of Chinese sailors arrived in Liverpool and decided to stay on rather than return with the ships. The sailors settled in near the docks in Cleveland Square, and the beginning of Europe’s oldest “Chinatown” was born.
The Holt Shipping Company established a series of boarding houses in the area to accommodate their workers, as many Chinese immigrants signed on for temporary service with the ultimate goal of settling in England. Numbers rose steadily, and by 1871 – a mere six years later – there were over 200 Chinese living in Liverpool.
A strong Chinese community naturally grew up in the area, as Chinese immigrants settled in and opened their own businesses. The resident Chinese ran a bustling trade, catering to their own countrymen who arrived unaccustomed to the English language and traditions. Chinese-run boarding houses, restaurants, laundries, and stores opened practically overnight, offering familiar comforts to new immigrants and visiting seamen.
Many of the Chinese men who settled in Liverpool ended up marrying local women. In fact, the Chinese seamen were often seen as better prospects for marriage (than their British counterparts) as they didn’t drink and were typically hard workers and good providers.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a further expansion of Chinese influence both in Liverpool and throughout England. The Chinese settlement in Liverpool gradually spread further inland, stretching along side streets such as Kent Street, Greetham Street and Cornwallis Street. Dozens of Chinese restaurants were established, as were quite a number of gambling houses which catered to visiting Chinese seamen.
London was seeing a similarly expanding Chinese population, with two distinct communities established in the East End. The 1891 census recorded 582 Chinese-born residents in London, and a full 80% were men (mostly settled sailors). By 1911, approximately 1,319 Chinese-born residents were living in England, and another 4,595 were serving in the British Merchant Navy.
The extension of thein 1919 brought a decline in the Chinese population; however, this provided the resident Chinese to further establish themselves and improve working conditions. Hundreds of Chinese laundries were established across the country, along with dozens of restaurants and even the first Chinese school.
World War II provided work for thousands of Chinese seamen, who were recruited to serve aboard British ships. At the end of the war, however, the Blue Funnel Line fired all of its Chinese employees – as did most other shipping lines – and thousands of Chinese seamen were forcibly repatriated. Many left behind wives and children, as they were never able to return to England.