Jewish immigration and the Aliens Act

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'A Voice from the Aliens', 1895 (Courtesy of The Modern Records Centre)
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This pamphlet, written by Jewish trade unionists in 1895, attempts to counter the stories about Jewish ‘aliens’ in Britain that were popular at the time. It argues that there are wide structural reasons for poverty and unemployment in Britain and that immigrants are not to blame.

(Source information: the pamphlet can be found in the papers of William Wess - trade unionist, socialist and Jewish activist - at The Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, ref: MSS.240/W/4/2/9. A scanned copy of the full document can be found here)

From east to west: Jewish expulsion from 'The Pale'

Savage anti-Jewish riots or pogroms sanctioned by the states of Eastern Europe, combined with widespread economic and political discrimination, caused over three million Jews to flee to Western Europe and America from the 1870s and led to Britain’s first piece of twentieth-century legislation restricting immigration: the 1905 Aliens Act. 

Though there were a few wealthy Jews amongst them, most Eastern European arrivals were very poor and less westernised than earlier Jewish immigrants to Britain from Germany in the 1700s and early 1800s (see also: ‘Blood libels, castration and Christian fears'). Restricted by the Russian authorities to a ‘Pale of Settlement’, most of the six million Jews in the east of Europe lived in small villages or ‘shtetls’. Typically the Jews of the Pale were pedlars, carters and/or based in small workshops where they worked as tailors, shoemakers and metal workers. Some also worked in textile and tobacco factories. A few in certain regions worked in agriculture. 

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'Petty Coat Lane Londres' by Charles Chusseau-Flaviens, ca. 1900-1919. The photo is of Jewish people on Petticoat Lane, London, and shows Yiddish being used (Courtesy of George Eastman Museum, gift of Kodak Pathé)
Within the Pale economic opportunities were limited, and they worsened as the population increased. Restrictions on what schooling and occupations Jews could follow and where they could live were progressively tightened and peaked with the expulsion of the Jews of Moscow in 1891–1892. By this time, most Jews in Eastern Europe lived in crushing poverty not only in Russia and Poland, but in Austria-Hungary and Romania.

The nearly three million Eastern European Jews who came to Britain to escape these conditions arrived just at the time that Britain was experiencing a downturn in its economy and rising unemployment.  They congregated in London and other big cities which already had problems of poverty, unemployment and overcrowding. 

Beyond the Pale: Britain's doors close

The image of England as a liberal safe haven for persecuted people can be traced back at least to the time of the English Civil War when Protestant radicals such as the Levellers stressed the individual rights of ‘freeborn Englishmen’ against government; we can also see support for this self-image in Whigs’ welcome to the Huguenots and in the initial welcome for the Jewish Naturalizaton Act of 1753 (see: ‘Blood libels, castration and Christian fears’). With the flight of Jewish people from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century, British willingness to make space for refugees as well as this open self-image were tested. Anxieties about ‘diluting’ the strength of the English population rose up, as poor English and ‘alien’ poor had more children than the English middle classes, and nationalism and Social Darwinist theories took hold. 

In the end, the Aliens Act of 1905 marked the conclusion of an open-door period in British history. Also, although foreign migrants were referred to as ‘aliens’ rather than as ‘Jews’ in the legislation, anti-Semitic prejudice was widespread in the debates of the time. Poor Jews were said to bring crime, bad labour conditions, anarchism, dirt and disease into the country. We see some of these concerns expressed in the extract below from an 1893 House of Commons debate, where the Conservative MP for Thanet, Mr. James Lowther, shares his worries about the growth of the ‘Jewish race’ and the fact that the country is being ‘overrun’ by ‘destitute foreign immigrants’. Lowther’s speech sets the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ against newcomers and is filled with fears about foreign labour and the hygiene of ‘aliens’. 


(PDF - Extract from House of Commons debate 11 February 1893, courtesy of Hansard) 

Jews already established in Britain were torn between supporting their fellow co-religionists and worrying that these poor immigrants might spark off an anti-Semitic backlash. As a result, more-established Jews in Britain, who tended to be more assimilated and Anglicised, established their own relief agencies for their co-religionists and encouraged some to emigrate to America.

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Questions and Student Activities
  • Look at the main source, above, ‘A Voice from the Aliens’. In it, the authors say that ‘So long as the Anti-Alien sentiment in this country was confined to politicians, wire-pullers, and to individual working men, we, the organised aliens, took no heed; but when this ill-founded sentiment has been officially expressed by the organised working men of England, then we believe that it is time to lift our voices and argue the matter out’. What does this mean? Which group’s opinion do the authors hold most important? Why might this be?
  • Re-read James Lowther MP’s comments to the House of Commons, above. Which of his worries do you think are justified? Which do you think are unjustified? Are there any parts of his speech that remind you of the words of politicians about migrants in other time periods? If there are, why might certain ideas about migrants recur through history?