Between British integration and Arab identity: The history of the Moroccan merchants of Manchester

The Moroccans of Manchester
7 min read
10 December, 2021
Arabs in the UK series: A look back into British Arab history, we find out more about the Moroccan traders of Manchester who managed to win the respect and appreciation of the wider society in which they lived.

​The Syrian/Lebanese mercantile community of Manchester existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they were not the only Arab group in the UK during this period. Moroccan traders formed a very distinct Arab community in Manchester.

While the two communities shared many features in common – both came to Manchester as traders, attracted by the opportunities the textile industry offered, both were intent on preserving their language and traditions, both left Manchester in the 1930s when the cotton trade declined, there were also marked differences in their relationship to their native country, the way they were received in Manchester, and the degree to which they integrated.

Moroccan merchants began visiting Britain as early as the sixteenth century, arriving at the port of St. Ives in Cornwall in 1589, according to Khalid Bekkaoui of the Moroccan Cultural Studies Centre. They stayed in the country for six months, visiting Hampton Court Palace and the markets of London and were invited to attend celebrations of the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation.

Moroccan merchants 1800s
Moroccan merchant traders in a market in Tangier, CIRCA 1885 (Photo by LL/Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

In the nineteenth century, Moroccan Muslim and Jewish traders began to settle in Manchester on a more permanent basis. In the 1830s Britain and Morocco signed treaties permitting their subjects to travel and trade in each other’s territories.

Moroccan families in 19th Century Manchester

The Moroccan merchants brought a range of mostly agricultural goods to Britain, including dates, almonds, beeswax, and oil and sent back textiles, silverware, Chinese tea, and spices to Morocco.

"Moroccan merchants began visiting Britain as early as the sixteenth century, arriving at the port of St. Ives in Cornwall in 1589"

The Fessi merchants exported silverware back to Morocco. Bekkaoui notes that the words manisheester and rite – after products bearing the insignia of Manchester manufacturer Richard Wright – entered the local vocabulary in Fes, to refer to good quality tea trays and pots.

The Surf Shack cafe on Wharf Rd
The Surf Shack cafe on Wharf Rd on Harbourside of St Ives town, Cornwall (Getty)

No longer a curiosity

In his 1992 article The Millet of Manchester, Professor Fred Halliday wrote that the Moroccan traders in Manchester were intent on preserving their religion, customs, and language in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Writing in 1905, Louis Hayes, a Manchester merchant, described what the community was like in the middle of the nineteenth century:

“Early in the [eighteen] sixties as you passed along the business streets of the City, you would suddenly come in sight of some white turbaned individual, whose gay Eastern dress appeared in such strong contrast to the sombre hues of the attire of all those about him. At first the sight of one of these men in Moorish garb was a very uncommon occurrence, and people would stand and smile as one of them passed along. But now they have ceased to be a wonder, and so they go to and fro and do their business in their usual quiet way, and make their purchases at the shops without more than perhaps a casual glance from the passers.”

In his book, Reminisces of Manchester, Hayes noted how close-knit the merchants were and how different their style of business was from English merchants. The latter group were initially shocked by the openness and trust between Moroccan merchants and how, if you wanted to discuss business with one of them, you would have to do so in front of all the others.

“At times this was somewhat embarrassing to the seller, but their manner of doing business was pleasant and easy enough when you had once been admitted to their general friendship,” he says.

In the 1890s, the Manchester City News had published several negative reports about Syrian and Lebanese merchants in Manchester but in contrast, it reported on the Moroccan community and their culture with respect and appreciation while lamenting their departure around 1936 when a large group of Moroccans left the city.

"Moroccan traders in Manchester were intent on preserving their religion, customs, and language"

British citizenship

A report from 2 October 1936 notes that children born to the community in Manchester acquired British nationality and these children then passed it on to their own descendants born in Morocco.

“Having borne a large family, many of the children born in Manchester enjoy British nationality, and although returned to their native city of Fez, other generations born in Morocco claim by right British nationality, of which they are very proud and value its privileges, although they may never probably see the country.”

The report also described how the Moroccans preserved their Islamic faith and performed communal prayers when there was no mosque in the city.

“The habits of this Moroccan Colony in Manchester were not unusual, except that one of the gentlemen undertook to see that the meat was provided in accordance with the Mohammedan rites… This same gentleman also led them to prayer every Friday, the service of which was held in a house in Parkfield.”

"Moroccans preserved their Islamic faith and performed communal prayers when there was no mosque in the city"

The Manchester City News praises the Moroccan merchants for their honesty and hospitality. It also notes, however, that most of the Moroccan merchants had married black women, purchased as slaves in Morocco, and brought them back to England. 

Hayes also speaks highly of the Moroccan community in his 1905 book. 

“Taken as a whole, these Moors were a thoughtful, peaceable, kindly and sociable set of men. Mohammedans by faith one could not but admire and respect them for their strict observance of all that their religion enjoined”. 

Abdelmajid Benjelloun, a Moroccan novelist whose parents immigrated to the UK in 1919, when he was only one, recalls in his autobiographical novel Fi Al-Tifula (On Childhood) that it was not only business opportunities that kept the Moroccan traders in Manchester. 

“They had a strange inclination to the enjoyment of life, that joyful life that English cities and their resorts offered them,” he says, recalling that Moroccans were fascinated with England’s public parks, green spaces, and seaside resorts and would often go on hikes and picnics as well as to the cinema and theatre. 

Benjelloun recalled that he and other Moroccan children would mix freely with British children and their parents, attending the same schools. While his parents insisted that their son be exempted from Christian prayers at school, he and other children would celebrate Christmas, exchanging gifts with British children. 

However, Benjelloun’s experience was not entirely positive. He recalls that he was often bullied by other children because of his Moroccan origin and as a result developed a timid character. 

"While the early Moroccan community in Manchester was relatively small and eventually returned to Morocco, they provide an excellent example of how an Arab community integrated into British life at a time before modern conceptions of citizenship and racial equality had been established"

Most of this early Moroccan community had returned to Morocco by 1936 when the Lancashire textile trade declined. 

“Apart from the considerable material loss to the city, Manchester has lost a body of good citizens who, while retaining all their oriental customs and attributes, built up for themselves a reputation second to none for honest dealing and clean living,” the Manchester City News said. 

While the early Moroccan community in Manchester was relatively small and eventually returned to Morocco, they provide an excellent example of how an Arab community integrated into British life at a time before modern conceptions of citizenship and racial equality – with their associated protections – had been established. 

By the 1930s when most of the original Manchester Moroccan community had returned to their country of origin, other Arabs – notably Yemenis – were establishing a more permanent presence in Britain’s cities.

Amr Salahi is a staff journalist at The New Arab with a focus on Syrian, Egyptian and Libyan affairs

This article is part of a special series called Arabs in the UK: An exciting new project that sheds light on the Arab population in the United Kingdom and aims to showcase their continuing contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles from this series: 

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