Before 1905, anyone who could afford the fare could enter Britain. “Any foreigner”, declared the Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery, in 1894, “whatever his nation, whatever his political creed, may find in these realms a safe and secure asylum as long as he obeys the law of the land”.
Jews naturally took advantage of this privilege. By the beginning of the 20th century, of around 160,000 Jews in Britain outside Ireland, around 83,000 were recent immigrants born in Russia or Poland.
Although small in absolute terms, the Jewish community seemed highly visible — in terms of clothing, accent and religious practice; and it was geographically concentrated, largely in the East End of London, and concentrated also in particular trades — primarily tailoring, peddling and boot and shoe making.
The first opponents of mass Jewish immigration were Jews themselves, members of a largely conservative community and fearful that their well-established position might be threatened by the arrival of impoverished co -religionists from Eastern Europe.
Jewish organisations took it upon themselves to repatriate those they believed to be unsuitable for residence; and in 1888, the retired Chief Rabbi, 85 year old Nathan Adler, sent an urgent message to rabbis in eastern Europe urging them to warn Jews “not to come”. He also told the British consul in Odessa that “it is most undesirable that people should proceed here”.
Immigration became a political issue after 1895 when Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary in the Conservative government, advocated restriction to protect the working man. It was, he believed, of little use for the state to regulate wages and working conditions if immigrants were undercutting wages and toiling in a sub-standard environment.
Chamberlain was supported by Conservative and Liberal MPs and candidates, primarily from the East End. The campaign for control was led by Sir Williams Evans-Gordon, a retired Indian army officer who in 1900 became Conservative MP for Stepney and founded an organisation called the British Brothers League to pursue the cause.
He persuaded the government to establish a Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902, of which he became a member, and in its report in 1903, the majority on the Commission recommended restriction.
But the report and much of the evidence refuted most of the allegations made against the immigrants, allegations similar to those later to be made against immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Suggestions that Jews were introducing infectious diseases, were insanitary, caused overcrowding and were a charge on the rates were shown to be without foundation. Indeed in 1905, there were no aliens in Whitechapel receiving poor relief, while in neighbouring Poplar, where there were few aliens, 6,000 were receiving relief. Jewish immigrants, the Royal Commission concluded, “appear to be industrious and thrifty --- They certainly are sober in habit, and are as law-abiding as the natives around them”.
Sir Kenelm Digby, former Permanent Secretary at the Home Office and part of the minority on the Royal Commission opposing restriction told The Times, “However poor a Jew from Eastern Europe may be on landing, --- his habits of thrift, industry, orderliness, and, above all, the incalculable advantage of sobriety bring about in the great majority of cases a rapid advance in his position.” He pointed out that 48 public houses had been closed in the East End since the arrival of the aliens!
The government nevertheless enacted a bill in 1905 designed to exclude “undesirable and destitute aliens”. But an alien who could prove that he was seeking “to avoid prosecution or punishment on religious or political grounds or for an offence of a political character, or persecution, involving danger of imprisonment or danger to life or limb on account of religious belief”, would retain the right to be admitted. So, ironically in the light of the motives of the restrictionists, the legislation actually guaranteed a statutory right of asylum.
The Aliens Act required immigration officials to make difficult judgments on the character or credentials of would-be immigrants. But there was a right of appeal to a board usually chaired by a magistrate, and the London board included 27 Jews.
Three months after the bill was enacted, the Conservative government was replaced by the Liberals who made the regulations more generous, Evans-Gordon complaining that this was “tantamount to the total repeal of the Aliens Act”. Even so, there were often arbitrary and unjust decisions by officials and the boards, many of which were reported in the Jewish Chronicle.
After the Act, the number of alien immigrants fell from 27,639 in 1906 to an annual average of between 11,000 and 13,500 until 1914. But this could have been due to some alleviation of conditions in Russia after the pogroms which followed the failed revolution of 1905. Even so, by 1914, London had more Jewish immigrants than any city in the world except New York and Chicago.
The Act has generally been regarded as antisemitic since of course the “aliens” were almost entirely Jewish. But this view needs to be qualified.
Socially, Jews were tolerated rather than fully accepted and faced considerable discrimination, but political antisemitism was certainly not widespread. No one suggested restricting the rights of Jews settled in Britain nor discriminating against them politically. “Nobody”, Evans–Gordon told Theodore Herzl, “has hitherto sought or suggested that a single privilege enjoyed by the Jews in this country today should be modified or removed”. No one in the Edwardian era suggested sending asylum seekers to Ascension Island, an idea bruited in Britain last year; nor, by contrast with today, were potential immigrants put into detention. According to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, 24,019 potential immigrants, including 73 children, have been held in detention centres. In this respect, Edwardian Britain was a more liberal society than our own.
Evans-Gordon wrote a book, The Alien Immigrant, detailing the sufferings of Jews living in the Pale, which he had visited, and he never proposed to exclude genuine victims of persecution. Chamberlain told an East End audience in December 1904 that Russian Jews were suffering “the grossest and most brutal persecution”, and he had suggested to Herzl that Uganda become a Jewish national home. Herzl was sympathetic but the proposal was rejected by the 1905 Zionist Congress. Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, introducing the Aliens Bill, declared that the treatment of Jews “has been a disgrace to Christendom”. And in 1917 he was to issue his famous Declaration. Of course a Jewish national home, whether in Uganda or in Palestine, would divert Jews seeking to come to Britain!
In his autobiography, published in 1949, Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, wrote “Looking back, I think our people were rather hard” on Evans-Gordon. “The Aliens Bill in England and the movement which grew up around it were natural phenomena which might have been foreseen...The reaction...cannot be looked upon as antisemitism in the ordinary or vulgar sense of that word.”
And he insisted that, “Sir William Evans-Gordon had no particular-Jewish prejudices...in his opinion it was physically impossible for England to make good the wrongs which Russia had inflicted on its Jewish population”. The British historian, Henry Pelling, has remarked that it is “a mistake to regard this hostility to the immigrant as necessarily ‘racial’ in character...The fact is that heavy immigration is, in the most literal sense, a disturbing phenomenon: and if those who are disturbed are socially very conservative they are likely to react strongly against it”.
Even so, the forces of liberalism proved stronger than those of restrictionism. Britain’s liberal culture remained powerful enough to ensure that she would remain, together with Scandinavia, where there are few Jews, what she has almost always been, despite Jeremy Corbyn, the least antisemitic of European countries.
Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King’s College, London. He is writing a book on the British government 1895-1914.