English History

ENGLISH HISTORY: In 1905 The Aliens Act & Building Borders Over Controlled Migration Ending Victorian ‘ Golden Age ‘ of Migration

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#AceHistoryDesk – The Aliens Act of 1905 was the first attempt by the British Parliament to establish a system of controlled migration: The Act ushered in a new era of increasing border controls, seen as the main way to regulate whoever could enter the country.

Italian ice-cream seller, London, early 1900s © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
HISTORY TODAY: Italian ice-cream seller, London, early 1900s © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As such it is seen by historians as a watershed moment, putting an end to the Victorian ‘golden age’ of migration, which, with its ever-decreasing transport costs and growing demand for labour, saw the movement of people reach unprecedented levels.

Concern over migrants was nothing new for British society. Initially, there were the Irish, who, fleeing the Potato Famine of the 1840s, settled in large numbers in the UK where they joined the ranks of the workers of the fledgling Industrial Revolution. Although a great many of them settled only temporarily in Britain, a large number remained. Albeit technically already a part of the UK, their presence in England, Scotland and Wales constituted a crisis for British society.

They were subjected to racial abuse, vilified in official reports, and required special relief payments from the government, and their presence created tensions within the labor market. A few decades later, towards the tail end of the century, the story was repeated for migrants from the Continent.

There was public outcry that German clerks accepted lower wages than their local counterparts, for example, while Italian ice-cream vendors were accused of preparing their products in unhygienic conditions: the London Evening Standardwarned in 1892, contrary to the official sanitation inspectors, that ‘Italian ice-cream makers we have always with us nowadays, and from their abiding place too commonly fever proceeds’. Eventually, public attention focused on the so-called ‘Polish Jew’ – Jewish people from the western side of the Russian empire, which, at that time, included Poland. In this area, known as the ‘pale of settlement’, Jews were allowed to live on a permanent basis. From the 1880s onward, prompted by terrible antisemitic persecutions, the Pogroms, many fled. Around 150,000 settled in the UK.

Anti-immigration sentiment became organised at the turn of the century, driven chiefly by the British Brothers’ League, founded in 1901, and Major William Evans-Gordon, who became Conservative MP for Stepney in 1900 on a strong anti-immigration platform.

Warnings were issued that, if immigration was not stopped, England would soon witness ‘summary measures of similar aim with those adopted by the Russian Government’ – ethnicity-based persecution and decimation. Not just strongly antisemitic, their rhetoric focused on the idea of a ‘foreign invasion’ of destitute aliens who worsened the living conditions in the inner city slums. One anti-migration essay stated: ‘Uneducated and slovenly when they come, they never improve, and despite all efforts to restrain them, they persist in following here the same mode of living which they practiced at home’ and ‘The emigration lists are swollen with the names of Englishmen prevented from making a worthy living in their own land.’ Although none of the official reports found any links between a foreign presence and lower wages, this idea gained momentum.

But what constituted an immigrant? The Union of the Crowns under James Stuart (VI of Scotland, I of England) prompted the question of the Scots’ relationship to the English legal system.

This was answered in Common Law in ‘Calvin’s Case’ of 1608, which stated that the only meaningful requirement was being born into allegiance to the king. The so-called Ius Soli, the law of the land, meant that all British-born descendants of immigrants, and everybody born in overseas territories directly controlled by the crown, were considered British citizens.

It is on this basis that the Alien Act was passed in 1905. Its most important provisions were that ‘leave to land’ would be refused to those migrants who could not support themselves or were likely to become a charge on the state for health reasons.

Naturally, in order to screen the migrants in such a way, the Act also provided that they could only disembark in approved ports where an Immigration Officer, a new position created as a direct consequence of the Act, would inspect them together with a health official. Refused immigrants could appeal to the Immigration Board. This established, for the first time in the UK, an administrative machine for the control of migration, with all its members appointed and instructed by the Home Secretary. The Act also created criminal offences for both immigrants and the captains of the ships which transported them. The strong discretionary powers enjoyed by successive British governments in matters of migration were present from the start.

Although this might appear to be an efficient system for the control of immigration, in practice it was limited in its effects, because it only applied to ships which carried more than 20 ‘aliens’ in third class accommodation. First and second class passengers were exempt from any form of control. Moreover, political and religious refugees were explicitly exempt from these provisions and their right to asylum recognised in legislation.

The Conservative government that passed the Act was soon ousted by a new Liberal administration. The discretionary powers transferred to the new Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, who used them explicitly to instruct the members of the Immigration Board that immigrants should be given the ‘benefit of the doubt’ where there was disputed evidence over their refugee status. From 1906 the press was allowed to attend board meetings and in 1910 immigrants were permitted legal assistance. The refusal rate under the new act was relatively low (the highest figure is 6.5 per cent in 1909) although there are indications that some groups, such as gypsies, were disproportionally affected by it. Moreover, there are many indications of widespread irregularities and officials were often openly hostile to immigrants: considerations which fell outside the scope of the Act were often aired during the board meetings, whether they be job concerns, employers being asked if they could find an Englishman to do the work that the migrant had been called to do, or moral considerations; and unaccompanied young women were regularly detained.

The act was in place for eight years before being eventually subsumed into the Alien Restriction Act of 1914 when the start of the Great War led to new, more stringent, border controls.

Belgian refugees on the harbour at Ostend waiting for a boat to England, 1914. © Getty Images
Belgian refugees on the harbour at Ostend waiting for a boat to England, 1914. © Getty ImagesMigration is central to the conversation about Britain’s relationship with the European Union post-Brexit.

What Makes a ‘Good’ Migrant? The heated nature of this debate became apparent in September 2017, when government policy documents were leaked.

They suggested that restrictions might be put in place in order to deter ‘unskilled’ EU citizens from working in the UK following Brexit. Such a policy takes its place within a long-standing narrative, which contrasts ‘good’ (‘useful’) and ‘bad’ (‘harmful’) forms of migration. The Australian ‘points system’, sometimes mooted for Britain, may be the best known example.

The division of migrants into positive and negative categories was evident in reactions to Irish migration to Britain from the 1840s onwards. By the last decade of the 19th century it was focused on one migrant group in particular: Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. The Aliens Act of 1905, the first peacetime legislation to restrict entry into Britain, was implicitly targeted at Jewish migration into the country.

In its literature, the Conservative government, headed by Arthur Balfour, and anti-migrant campaign groups made frequent distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jewish migrants. The Aliens Act reflected this. One pamphlet, published immediately before the legislation was passed, wrote of excluding:

All foreigners who are criminals; who suffer from loathsome diseases; who are turned out in disgrace by their fellow countrymen; who are paupers; who fill our streets with profligacy and disorder.
It concluded: The Aliens comprise all classes; honest men anxious to work (these are welcome); criminals driven from their own country; decrepit and diseased men and women got rid of by their relatives; immoral persons; thieves; and, indeed, the refuse and scum of every city in Europe.

The distinction between good and bad minorities was apparent in the polemicist and anti-migrant campaigner Arnold White’s 1899 book The Modern Jew. White described the existing Anglo-Jewish community as being:

[As] proud of the traditions of Trafalgar or of the sovereignty of Shakespeare as any of the legitimate descendants of the people whose names are written in the Domesday Book. The whole of the class of which I am speaking are … notoriously better citizens than the average Englishmen.

Yet, at the same time, White attacked contemporary Jewish migration in the most intemperate language, referred to the expulsion of 1290 as a precedent and wrote that immigrants from Eastern Europe ‘menace the English Jews along with the rest of their fellow subjects’.

At the heart of the Aliens Act was a distinction between migrants who could ‘pay their way’ and those who would be dependent upon the state. In fact, as evidenced by statistics on pauperism, Jewish migrant communities were less likely to fall back upon the provision of the state than their neighbours, being largely provided for by local Anglo-Jewish charities. But the perception of the parasitical ‘alien’ was a strong one. The Act and its provisions were explicitly targeted against ‘steerage class’ passengers – i.e. the poorest migrants.

‘Bad’: ‘The Ghetto’, a photograph taken in East London, c.1890. © Getty Images.

The contrast was not confined to the Right. Divisions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrant groups were also apparent on the British Left. At the TUC conferences of the mid-1890s there was heated debate over the need to prevent the entry of migrants working in trades and industries in which a proportion of ‘native’ labourers were out of work.

By the time of the Aliens Act, however, the position of the socialist and trade union movements had shifted. Some on the Left condemned the economic discrimination apparent in restrictions on entry being linked to wealth. In one 1904 pamphlet,

The Foreigner in England’, H. Snell wrote: ‘If you are a millionaire you are … welcome in Park Lane, but if you are a Jewish tailor flying from injustice and persecution, you are not welcome in England at all.’ It was also apparent that the restrictions of the Act would be used against political refugees fleeing autocratic regimes. The Left remained wary of migrant workers lowering wages and undoing the trade union gains of the last decade, but there was some sympathy for the poorest migrants targeted by the Act. These men and women were, after all, potential comrades in the class struggle.

Other migrant groups in the Edwardian period were characterised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ en masse. Italian migrants were seen as violent and politically suspect.

German and French arrivals were generally depicted in positive terms, although both communities were connected with economic competition in certain trades and, again, political radicalism. Chinese migrants were associated with the opium trade and depicted as a demographic threat: the 1900s were the high point of the paranoia surrounding the so-called ‘Yellow Peril’.

This narrative of where migrants stood in British society was transformed by the First World War. Germans and Austrians in Britain, who up to this point had been portrayed positively, were now suspected of disloyalty and worse.

Families were broken up, with one partner, Russian or Polish, abruptly classified as a ‘friendly alien’ and their spouse, German or Austrian, an ‘enemy alien’, liable to internment. A new migrant group appeared: Belgian refugees. There was a significant amount of public sympathy for them, at least for the duration of the conflict. At the same time there were sporadic outbreaks of violence against migrant groups in British cities during the First World War – against Germans, Jews, Chinese and, in 1919, after the war had concluded, against African, Caribbean and Asian servicemen.

The dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants was, and remains, fluid and subject to external factors:

The ways in which migration and the position of migrants in society are perceived is constantly changing. The period between 1899 and 1919, as in our time, illustrates how subjective these labels can be.

Daniel Renshaw is Lecturer in History at the University of Reading & Marc Di Tommasi is a teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh and researches the history of migration.

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