The 1905 Aliens Act: Anne Kershen Looks at the Background to a Significant Benchmark in British Anti-Immigration Legislation

By Kershen, Anne | History Today, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The 1905 Aliens Act: Anne Kershen Looks at the Background to a Significant Benchmark in British Anti-Immigration Legislation


Kershen, Anne, History Today


THE ALIENS ACT OF 1905 was a watershed in British history, marking as it did a victory for the opponents of unrestricted alien access into Britain. It was significantly the first such legislation to be passed in peacetime. In the context of what was to follow, it was the point at which the liberal, 'Open Door' approach to immigration began to close; a process that continued throughout the twentieth century.

Before 1905 restrictions on who could enter the country had existed, but these earlier Aliens Acts were passed in times of war. The Aliens Act of 1793, for example, was a direct response to the renewal of war with France and fear of 'Frenchie spies'. The Act required all aliens to have documentation and enabled the prohibition of, but did not ban, alien landing. When peace resumed, restrictions were relaxed, and by the 1830s controls on alien entry had been abolished. Though an Aliens Act was put on the statute book as a safeguard when the revolutions swept Europe in 1848, restraints were never imposed. Apart from criminals, those proven to be carrying contagious diseases or showing signs of madness, most of the nineteenth century passed without restraint on immigrant entry. By the third quarter of the century, Britain was perceived as a beacon of economic opportunity and freedom, the most tolerant country in Europe and beyond, the United States having introduced immigration control in 1882.

From the mid-nineteenth century, migrants arrived in Britain from all parts of the world. However, it was the large influx of Eastern European Jews from the Russian empire that brought forth criticism, demands for restrictions on entry and expressions of anti-alienism. In fact though all outsiders could be described as 'aliens', the designation was predominantly used to describe pauper Jews who were arriving from Russia, Russia-Poland and Romania. As a result, the protagonists calling for restraints on alien entry became known as antialienists.

Spitalfields, an area of some 200 acres immediately to the east of the City of London, on the western edge of what is today the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, had been a first point of settlement for immigrants and refugees since the readmission of the Jews in 1656. In the 1880s and 1890s, the overcrowded nature of the district was exacerbated by the arrival of between 40,000 to 60,000 Eastern European Jewish immigrants. They came in search of economic opportunity, one that was being increasingly denied them in the Russian empire. A further factor was the pogroms and restrictive May Laws of 1882 that followed the assassination of the Tsar in 1881. …

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