Notes From the Margins…

Small Island: A Brief History of British Immigration ‘Concerns’

  • January 18, 2019
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Politicians tend to defer almost as a matter of course to popular ‘concerns’ about immigration, as though they were a novel reaction to the unprecedented 21st century phenomenon of ‘mass immigration’.

But these ‘concerns’ are actually part of a longer historical tradition, in which racist and xenophobic prejudices have been attached to different groups of people, in ways that are sometimes surprisingly similar to what we are seeing today.

In the late nineteenth century, Jews first began to arrive in the UK in large numbers.  Most of them were what we would know call ‘economic migrants’, fleeing poverty and antisemitism in the Tsarist empire, and they weren’t always welcomed.

In 1887, the Conservative MP for Tower Hamlets, Captain J.C.R. Colomb, asked ‘what great states of the world other than Great Britain permit the immigration of destitute aliens without restriction.’

These ‘destitute aliens’ were always understood to be Jews.  This was made clear by William Evans-Gordon, another Tory MP in the East End and one of the founders of the pre-fascist British Brothers League.



Where Nigel Farage, Melanie Phillips and others talk of ‘Muslim no go areas’, Evans-Gordon observed that ‘East of Aldgate one walks into a foreign town,’ where the Englishman lived ‘ under the constant danger of being driven from his home, pushed out into the streets, not by the natural increase of our own population but by the off-scum of Europe’.



As you might expect, the Daily Mail was already doing what it has done so often in different contexts.  In 1900 the Mail was at Southampton to report on the arrival of Jewish refugees from the Boer War.   Its reporter noted that ‘There were all kinds of Jews, all manner of Jews. They had breakfasted on board  but they rushed as though starving at the food… These were the penniless refugees and when the relief committee passed by they hid their gold, and fawned and whined, and in broken English asked for money for their train fare.’

So even then refugees were not ‘genuine’ refugees.

Such antisemitic caricatures were not always expressed so overtly.  The Manchester Evening Chronicle celebrated the 1905 Aliens Act – legislation specifically aimed at Jews and designed to meet ‘concerns’ about immigration at the time. on the grounds that ‘ the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous, and criminal foreigner, who dumps himself on our soil and rates [breeds] simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land.’

No need to say ‘Jew’ here.  People knew what was being referred to.

These racialised fears of the ‘criminal foreigner’ tended to increase in response to outbreaks of criminality/terrorism involving Jews, such as the 1909 Tottenham Outrage and the 1911 Siege of Sidney Street:



But then, as now, sometimes anti-immigrant hostility was just a question of ‘numbers’:


Image result for daily mail jews


The fear and loathing of foreigners also shaped opposition to the construction of the Channel Tunnel from the late nineteenth century onwards.



In 1882, General Garnet Wolseley, future commander-in-chief of the British army,  opposed the tunnel project, arguing ‘Surely John Bull will not endanger his birth-right, his liberty, his property…simply in order that men and women may cross to and fro between Britain and France without running the risk of sea-sickness?’

And in 1919, a former intelligence officer named Colonel Charles Repington opposed a new plan to build the Channel Tunnel on the grounds that it would lead to the ‘loss of our insularity and the easy access of shoals of aliens upon our shores’.

Repington was concerned about its security implications as an invasion route – and also as an entry route for foreign anarchists and Russian ‘Nihilists’.



Repington, like other commentators also worried about the potential influx of Frenchwomen who might bring their lax sexual mores into the nation and lower its moral standards. And who could blame them?



Repington also regarded foreign men as a threat, and worried that they might come to the country in such large numbers to breed with our women, thereby ‘Latinizing’ the national ‘stock’ and diluting our Anglo-Saxon essence.

Such ‘psychological factors’, as one British civil servant called them,  were one of the reasons why the Channel was not built until the end of the last century.

Even when it was finally opened in 1994, it did not take long before the Dover Express was railing at the ‘illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, bootleggers and the scum of the earth drug smugglers [that] have targeted our beloved coastline, leaving Dover with ‘the backdraft of a nation’s human sewage and no cash to wash it down the drain.’ This racist rant was aimed primarily at Slovak Roma, but Evans-Gordon would have understood it well.

And so we come to present day, when immigrants can casually be dismissed as ‘bloodsuckers’ who don’t ‘enhance’ our country and threaten our livelihood and our identity.


To point out these continuities doesn’t mean that we have always been racists and xenophobes.   It means that there have always been racists and xenophobes among us.  And those who stir up hatred and division to further their political aims:


Image result for nigel farage breaking point wikimedia commons


And at the moment, these people are winning, and telling us that we need to keep new groups of people out in order to preserve what we have always been.

Even though history tells us that, like ‘cheddar man’ we have always been something else:


Image result for cheddar man

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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