Welcoming new citizens to Tower Hamlets

imageOn Thursday I had the honour of being the Tower Hamlets community representative at our borough’s latest British citizenship ceremony. This ceremony is the final step that new British citizens take once they have been accepted by the Home Office for naturalisation. It is a celebratory event at which new citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen and receive their certificates of naturalisation in front of friends and family. I made the following speech to welcome the new citizens, my first public speaking event as a new councillor. It includes a potted history of the borough which residents might enjoy reading.

Tower Hamlets Citizenship Ceremony, 16 October 2014

Good morning everyone,

It is with enormous pleasure and pride, as well as a few nerves, that I welcome you all to your citizenship ceremony…and my very first speaking event as a new Tower Hamlets councillor.

Today’s ceremony represents something special and uniquely personal to each of us. And that includes the friends and family who have come to show their support.

Anyone who has ever come into contact with the Home Office will understand that none of you has chosen an easy path in seeking citizenship!

Getting that invitation letter through in the post was no doubt the high point in a very long-running saga of telephone calls, paperwork, setbacks and delays. That letter may have represented to you hard work and great sacrifice. Tough times when you wondered if it was worth it. It may even have represented heartache, as you contemplated the places and people left behind to come to the UK…and then feared that you may not be able to stay here and keep all the precious new relationships you had built in Britain.

But you made those difficult choices. You endured.

Here today you will receive your reward – to have greater certainty and security in your lives, to be able to maintain the relationships you have built, to live in one of the greatest cities in the world and, most importantly, to become a member of a nation that values freedom, individuality, democracy, mutual respect and equality before the law.

Britain is the product both of those who were born here and of those who journey here, and there could be no greater example of what that successful mix of peoples can achieve than our great capital city. London is the physical embodiment of the life, labour and love of generations of people who have used their talents to create and change and build and challenge.

You are now officially a part of that story, and your tale as a citizen begins here in Tower Hamlets, one of the capital’s most historically colourful boroughs.

Our borough is lucky to have as its centrepiece the Tower of London, a World Heritage site which has played a pivotal role in our nation’s history. Guy Fawkes was tortured there after his plot to blow up parliament. William Wallace (or Braveheart as he is better known) was imprisoned in its walls. Thomas More, the great Catholic opponent of the Protestant reformation, was executed at the Tower, as was Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s infamous second wife whose ghost still haunts the Beefeaters today. Sir Walter Raleigh grew tobacco on Tower Green. And sitting in the Tower’s vaults are some of the world’s most extraordinary and precious diamonds in the Crown Jewels.

It is from this great British building that our borough takes its name, ‘The Hamlets which owe their service to the Tower’. At that time, these hamlets – or small villages – were surrounded by farmland and marshes. Indeed the East remained open countryside until relatively recently.

Yet as more and more ships came to deliver their cargo to London from the British Empire, the hamlets around the Tower began to swell with poor labourers who worked the new docks being built along the River Thames. They were joined by a stream of migrants who arrived in London for the first time via the river. Protestant Huguenot refugees came from France in the late 1600s. Then arrived Irish migrants and Jewish people from Eastern Europe seeking refuge from persecution. Later, in the 1970s, Bangladeshis from the Sylhet region took up jobs in the textiles industries and built up the Great British curry industry around Brick Lane. Since then, new waves of migrants have come from almost every conceivable part of the globe.

In the Victorian era, many in the East End lived lives of squalor and crime, a situation preyed upon by infamous killer, Jack the Ripper, who stole many of his victims from our borough. Yet this squalid climate nurtured great social reformers too. Appalled by the conditions in which impoverished East Enders lived, William Booth set up the Salvation Army in Whitechapel. Similarly, Thomas Barnado, opened a school in the East End to care for and educate vulnerable orphans from which the famous Barnado’s children’s charity grew.

Ours is also a very political borough. Before the October Revolution many Russian Bolsheviks, including Lenin himself, visited the East End to attend their party congress. A young Stalin stayed at Tower House on Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel. At the end of that same road, the bell of Big Ben, as well as America’s Liberty bell, were cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The East End was also a key location for the suffragette movement that gained women the vote and it was in Cable Street, Shadwell, that Oswald Mosley’s fascists were confronted in a stand against racism and intolerance.

It was this borough which endured and bore the brunt of the Blitz when London was showered with bombs during the Second World War. But it was also this borough which housed infamous East End gangsters, Ronnie and Reggie Kray.

Tower Hamlets has also witnessed a lot of economic change, from the decline of the docks in the 1960s to huge revival and regeneration in the 1980s as Canary Wharf emerged as a new hub for business and enterprise. In 2012, Tower Hamlets was one of the host boroughs for the London Olympics. Right now we are seeing East London transform itself once again as an important global centre for tech, while areas like Brick Lane, Spitalfields and Shoreditch inspire fantastic street art, and culinary experimentation. When it opens in 2018 Crossrail promises to bring a whole new wave of regeneration.

This borough more than any other represents just how successfully London evolves, renews and revives itself by harnessing the energy and fresh ideas of its people. And what people it has produced – people of endurance, of variety, of notoriety, people who have tried to change this nation for the better.

What better place to become a British citizen?

Now it is your turn to add your own flavour to this magnificent melting pot. Forget those who say London is a lonely place with no sense of community. There are endless opportunities to contribute and engage, whether through voting, volunteering or building new enterprises and we encourage you to do all of those things. The advantages of British citizenship naturally come with responsibilities too and we hope that in everything you do you show respect for the law, full engagement with the democratic process and kindness and tolerance towards your neighbours.
It is left only for me to thank you for coming here this morning to join in this happy celebration, and for allowing me the privilege of sharing this experience with you.
Welcome to Britain, my fellow citizens, and your fresh new chapter.

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