Was the Nineteenth Century a
Golden Age for Immigrants?
The Changing Articulation of National,
Local and Voluntary Controls
The history of Britain in the twentieth century has been punctuated by a series of legal and administrative devices designed to limit, deter and regulate immigration. At its close, aspiring immigrants and asylum seekers have to confront a series of legal and bureaucratic obstacles as they attempt to establish their claim to settle. Yet, at the beginning of the century, the ports of Britain were open to all and the right to asylum was unqualified.
The modern regulation of immigration to Britain can be traced to the Aliens Act of 1905. Legislation introduced in 1793 and 1803 to deal with the circumstances of war with France was finally repealed in 1826. Between that date, however, and 1905, immigration to Britain was free from state control. For most of the nineteenth century, information gathered at British ports was of such poor quality that, apart from the snapshot provided by the census, ministers and civil servants had no reliable guide to the dimensions of immigration. As a result, in the late nineteenth century, when the influx of East European Jews to Britain began to excite the concern of social reformers, politicians and journalists, no-one was able to provide an accurate estimate of their number (Gainer 1971: 6–14).
It was the agitation against Jewish immigration which gave rise to the 1905 Aliens Act. The Act introduced a new species of