Britannia’s Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600
by Eric Richards
Hambledon & London, £19.95, pp. 388, ISBN 1852854413
In the middle of the 19th century, Londoners grumbled about the number of Italian urchins grinding barrel organs on street corners. Criminals and people-traffickers had brought many of them to Britain and their melody- making was becoming a nuisance. Charles Babbage complained that their racket was disrupting his concentration while he was trying to build his calculating machine. The Times got equally huffy. With a change to the law making life more difficult for the grinders, the money, such as it was, fell out of the barrel-organ market. The boys grew up and went into the next big thing — ice cream-vending. A century and a half later, some of their descendants, still discernibly of Italian origin, remain here, scooping dollops of ‘Mr Whippy’ from vans that announce their presence with an irritating jingle that is the ancestral voice of their organ-grinding forebears.
What would British café life in the second half of the 20th century have been like without its Italian community? Would the City of London be a world financial centre had Jews and Dutchmen never come over to offer their expertise? What new Jerusalem would have risen without Irishmen in the building trade? Robert Winder’s new book Bloody Foreigners (the title is meant to be ironic) celebrates the waves of unknown hopefuls who arrived here and whose struggles and legacy have been forgotten. It is also a compendium of those celebrated immigrants who have so enhanced our national life that their foreign origins have been overlooked. He makes no apology for using their example to promote the case for a more welcoming attitude towards immigration to Britain today.
The result is one of those books that would have made a stronger case had it gone about its task with greater detachment. On immigrants’ contributions to their adopted home, Winder provides unstinting testimony. He has a good eye for the telling anecdote and there is much to intrigue and delight. Escaping persecution and making a better living were the primary motivations for their arrival. If only the author had a sense of why Britain was their destination of choice (and not the various countries they crossed to get here) he would have written a really important book. Instead, Winder’s sceptred isle, populated by large numbers of bigots and idiots, appears as a drab background against which the foreigner sparkles. After 300 pages or so, the narrator’s one-sidedness begins to grate. It is as if they arrived by mistake and merely tried to make the best of a bad job. In fact, many could not embrace the colours quickly enough. As even Winder recognises, the Parsee lawyer, Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree (Conservative MP for Bethnal Green 1895-1906) was so loyal to the crown that political opponents dubbed him ‘Bow-the-Knee’. Never mind race, the interesting point is that a Tory could get elected in Bethnal Green.
In the aftermath of the second world war the influx to Britain from Eastern Europe (and also from Ireland) far exceeded that from the West Indies, although it was the latter that emerged as the more contentious. Some immigrants have fitted in far more easily than others. Although Britain has taken its share of the dispossessed (including those it had in past centuries actively dispossessed in Ireland) it has never equalled the United States’s acknowledged role as the world trading exchange for rags to riches. Winder concentrates on the xenophobic and religious hurdles that those coming to Britain have had to jump. Often they have been shamefully high. Yet a more than fleeting examination of the social and class distinctions that have marked the immigrant experience could present a fuller picture. In Ornamentalism, David Cannadine noted how social and attitudinal affinities during the Raj made for relative harmony between the British and Indian upper classes. There remains room for further study of the extent to which money, class, education and the connections they ensure, rather than racial and national origin, have determined the success of immigrants in Britain. After all, current government policy appears to be directed — at least in principle — towards attracting those with particular aptitudes and rejecting the unqualified. This is the attitude Britain’s former dominions now adopt towards accepting British emigrants.
The British diaspora is the great theme of Britannia’s Children. Its author, Eric Richards, Professor of History at Flinders University in Adelaide, analyses the 25 million emigrants who left the British Isles since 1600. The four constituent parts of the British Isles exported more people than any other country until the 20th century, spreading British ideas and outlooks and, most recognisably of all, English as the world’s most widely used language. What was more, this haemorrhage of talent was not necessarily bad for the mother country. It saved Ireland and the Scottish Highlands from an even more Malthusian fate, while in the 18th and 19th centuries England’s population size still increased at a far greater rate than those of her less peripatetic European neighbours.
We did, of course, enjoy the advantage of the British empire with its seemingly limitless expanses of land for the taking. The ‘White Dominions’ were a vast lebensraum that needed to be tilled and tarmacked. However, this is far from being a full explanation. Most emigrants from the British Isles opted to settle under the protection of the Stars and Stripes not the Union flag long after the rebellious colonies had declared their independence from London. Crossing the Atlantic was not just the first preference of Her Majesty’s Irish subjects. In the late 1880s, the heyday of the Victorian empire, three-quarters of all British emigrants went to the United States.
Occasionally the government stepped in to guide the process of emigration, sending convicts to New South Wales and trying to create a buffer in Canada against Uncle Sam’s aspirations to assert his manifest destiny over the continent. Funds were made available between the 1920s and 1970s to help populate the White Dominions (and keep them white). Well-intentioned philanthropy also dispatched orphans and the underprivileged to what was hoped would be a better life under the sun than in the slums of industrial Britain. But the most telling aspect was rather how little this huge migration was officially directed.
Neither book dwells at length on what must surely be a key point. Europeans have always emigrated in large numbers to Britain. In contrast — and except in the 17th century when some Puritans decamped to Holland and 30,000 Scots ended up in Poland — Britons have never been involved in systematic emigration to Europe. Why was the European traffic one-way? Can we attribute this to the greater appeal of Britain’s liberties, urban culture and business opportunities compared with what we believed our continental neighbours offered us? May it merely be explained as a long-term testimony to the unique ability of Britons to undertake any task — and travel any distance — so long as it does not involve mastering a foreign language? Winder strikes a low blow against Euro-scepticism when he implies it is replacement therapy for those who are not ‘allowed to go on about Fuzzy Wuzzies any more’. But the evidence only demonstrates that we have never voted with our feet for Europe. As Professor Richards shows in his admirably scholarly and objective book, Britannia’s children have never been Little Englanders or Europhiles. They have always looked first to the opportunities on the far side of the world’s great oceans.