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A Tolerant Country?

By W.J. Fishman | Published in History Today 1992 
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Immigrants in Britain
  • A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees And Minorities In Britain
    Colin Holmes - Faber and Faber, 1991 - 127 pp. - £5.99

Towards the end of the Second World War, historian Herbert Butterfield noted: 'We teach and write the kind of history which is appropriate to our organisation, to the intellectual climate of our part of the world'. In this context many of our chroniclers have portrayed Britain as an open society, historically a haven for foreign refugees fleeing from economic and political oppression, whom, we have on balance, treated with liberal-minded tolerance. Colin Holmes, pioneer historian of immigration into this country, essays to dispel such illusions by presenting a more realistic appraisal of government policy and host attitudes towards the incoming 'alien' during the recent past.

He reveals actual responses to the immigrant 'invaders' from the 1870s onwards. First the Irish workers, albeit British citizens since the Act of Union of 1801, were regarded by both government and indigent folk as cheap, competitive and, therefore, unwelcome labour and polluters of urban life. From Continental Europe came an influx of Germans (the 1911 census records 53,324) who followed diverse trades from sugar workers, bakers, waiters, clerks and governesses to an upper echelon of bankers, financiers and industrialists. There is evidence of continual hostility towards them, reaching a crescendo at the outbreak of the First World War with the incidence of widespread anti-German pogroms notably in London and Keighley. The greatest antipathy was directed towards the German gypsies, when, between 1905 and 1906, hundreds of them, with actual government connivance, were sent hack to Europe where, a generation later, they would certainly have ended up in Hitler's gas chambers.

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