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The year aliens became alien

Angela Ellis-Jones on the report issued in 1903 that resulted in Britain's first attempt to control immigration

21 June 2003

12:00 AM

21 June 2003

12:00 AM

Uncontrolled immigration? A burden on the taxpayer? Terrorists in our midst? The current immigration crisis echoes events of 100 years ago which led to the passage of Britain’s first piece of immigration law. From the 1880s onwards, increasing numbers of Russian and Polish Jews sought refuge from pogroms in their homelands. With its long tradition of admitting refugees, Britain was a favoured destination. Germans, Americans and other nationalities also came in their thousands. Between 1891 and 1901, Britain’s alien population grew by nearly 70,000, to reach a total of 286,000. Of these, 135,000 lived in London.

At this time, there was no British legislation on immigration. Britain was the only country in Europe which had no means of excluding any foreigner who wished to enter. Passports were not required until 1914. The only provision regulating entry was an Act from the reign of William IV which required that the master of a ship arriving in Britain should declare to the chief officer of Customs at the port of arrival the number of aliens on board.

Many viewed the new arrivals with alarm. It was alleged that immigrants, who would work for lower wages, undercut British workers, and that their presence led to overcrowding in accommodation. About a quarter of the immigrants arrived destitute and required support from public funds. Some needed medical treatment. There was also a higher incidence of criminality (mostly among the American immigrants) and bankruptcy than in the indigenous population. And there were terrorists, who took advantage of Britain’s tradition of granting asylum to political criminals.

In 1894 Lord Salisbury introduced a Bill in the House of Lords to empower the state to prevent the immigration of dangerous aliens, but the Liberal government rejected it. Other Bills followed. In 1903 the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration, which had been set up the previous year, issued its report. It had taken evidence from scores of witnesses – local government officials, sanitary inspectors, factory inspectors, police, doctors, lawyers, and immigrant and British workers. It provided a treasury of information not only for contemporaries but also for historians.

The work of royal commissions at this time was premised on the basis that by getting the best minds to examine a problem thoroughly a solution could be found. Mind would triumph over the seeming intractability of matter. Royal commissions were expected to lead to action; only later did they gain a bad reputation as delaying devices.

The Commission recommended that the entrance of foreigners generally should not be restricted. Most were productive workers and respectable citizens. However, an immigration department should be established, whose officers would inquire into the ‘character and condition’ of the immigrants upon their arrival. Immigrants who were considered to be ‘undesirable’ – viz ‘criminals, prostitutes, idiots, lunatics, persons of notoriously bad character, or likely to become a charge upon public funds’ – would be refused admission. Likewise, any immigrant who within two years of his or her arrival had fallen into one of these categories should be ordered by a court to leave the country. Upon conviction on indictment, an alien could be required as part of his sentence to leave the country.


The Commission also recommended that provision be made for medical examination of immigrants at the port of arrival. Where the immigrant was found to be suffering from ‘infectious or loathsome disease, or mental incapacity’, the medical officer could debar him from landing.

The Commission’s recommendations were substantially enacted in the Aliens Act, 1905. The Act also conferred the right to appeal to an immigration board at the port of entry.

The Act had not been in operation for long before Balfour’s Conservative government was replaced by a Liberal administration which was very lax about enforcement. Nevertheless, the numbers of immigrants did fall. This vindicated the Commission’s prediction that implementing their proposals would both deter ‘aliens of the undesirable classes’ from leaving their homes, and also induce the shipping companies, which would be liable to repatriate those refused entry, to exercise greater care in selecting their passengers.

One type of undesirable immigrant was not deterred by the Aliens Act: the terrorist. That London remained a centre of terrorist plotting caused much resentment among foreign governments. Terrorists also posed a problem for law and order in Britain, in so far as they required money for their operations.

In 1910 three policemen were killed (‘the Houndsditch murders’) by Bolshevik terrorists who tried to rob an East End jeweller’s shop. Two of the terrorists took refuge in a house in Sidney Street. After a policeman was killed, the home secretary, Winston Churchill, was asked to send in the military. Churchill himself attended the ‘siege of Sidney Street’ as a spectator, and was subjected to abuse as a member of the government that had allowed such people to enter the country. (He had strongly opposed the Bill that became the 1905 Act.)

Now, as 100 years ago, Britain is faced with virtually uncontrolled incursions of large numbers of people, with unacceptable numbers of the destitute, sick, criminal and terrorist among them. But this time the scale is considerably larger, and the threat correspondingly greater. Last year 110,700 people applied for asylum, but informed sources double that. This compares with a total of only 70,000 immigrants in the decade to 1901. Two billion pounds of taxpayers’ money is now spent on asylum seekers each year, compared with a relatively small amount in the early years of the century.

The £2 billion is the official figure, spent on accommodation and subsistence; it ignores what could well be an even greater amount spent on medical care by what has become the International Health Service. The 1905 legislation realistically stipulated that those requiring medical attention should be refused entry. Britain could not provide adequately for the medical needs of her own people, let alone for anyone else’s.

Looking at our Third World health service, one might consider that this is still the case. Yet not only does Britain not have health checks at point of entry (as many other countries do); it also provides that both insanity and HIV infection are grounds for a successful claim of asylum.

What is so striking when comparing then and now is the difference in the mentalité of the British state. The Conservative government which passed the 1905 Act did not hesitate to protect British interests. It also had very clear ideas as to what constituted an ‘undesirable’ immigrant. Although only 30 per cent of adults had the vote at that time, the Balfour government nevertheless responded to democratic pressure to restrict immigration.

In contrast, the Blair government seems to want to do everything it can to erode British national identity, for which there can be no more potent solvent than mass immigration. Rather than try to ascertain exactly what is going on, how much it is all costing and what can be done to stop it, as a royal commission would have done, it pretends that nothing is wrong and denounces as a racist anyone who suggests otherwise. For such an egalitarian, non-judgmental government, the idea that anyone could be an ‘undesirable’ immigrant is elitist nonsense.

In 1903, Britain was a fully sovereign nation which had complete control over her immigration policy. Now much of it is subject to EU and human-rights constraints. The United Kingdom has less autonomy than the humblest African country to which she gave independence.

What on earth would the commissioners of 1903 have made of the asylum in which we are now living?


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