When They Get to the Border

The Aliens Act of 1905 was the culmination of decades of anxiety about migrants – some of whom attempted to reach Britain by clandestine means.

A postcard depicting the expulsion of Jews from Russia and their welcome into Germany, 1899 © Bridgeman Images.

A breathless account of a furtive and perilous border crossing appeared in 1905 in a Hebrew-language literary journal published in Warsaw. Its author, Yosef Haim Brenner, was an aspiring writer and intellectual, self-educated in Russian literature, philosophy and the social sciences. He was also in flight from the Russian army, having deserted his post and fled across the border with Prussia by stealth, arriving eventually in the crowded throng of London’s East End. 

His journey from the Russian town of Oryol had been a long and arduous one, undertaken by railway, horse and cart and then on foot. His ordeal only truly began, however, after arriving in the border town of Strodov. There he, together with two other men, hid anxiously and in fear for their lives for several days until a ‘runner’ could be found to smuggle them across. ‘Our hearts were pounding’, Brenner recalled:

The word ‘border’ jangled our nerves … And the word ‘disaster’ kept droning away in our minds … We lay down to rest; perhaps we would feel better, perhaps the day would pass, but we couldn’t settle. We couldn’t leave the place and there was nowhere else to go. Not much longer to that great and terrible hour: the time to cross the border.

At the height of the great East to West migration of the long 19th century, clandestine journeys were far from uncommon. For those, like Brenner, hoping to leave the Russian Empire, complex and convoluted bureaucratic hurdles lay before them which often required both wealth and connections to overcome. Russian Jews rarely possessed either of these things, forced instead to place their faith and pass their fate into the hands of the network of agents, smugglers and ‘runners’ ready to assist their departure – at a price. Once safely across, a migrant’s troubles were far from over. In an age before passports were a requirement for entry, nations still fiercely guarded their borders against ‘undesirables’. By the close of the 19th century, increasingly draconian ‘anti-alien’ legislation formed ever-thicker paper walls against the poor, the unskilled and the ‘diseased’. 

In Britain, more liberal than most European nations, the battle lines over the entry of ‘aliens’ had been drawn and redrawn as the 19th century drew to a close, especially after Jewish immigration into the country picked up apace after 1881. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II (and the revelation of one Jew’s involvement in the plot) sparked widespread pogroms, accelerating the decision of many Jews to seek better prospects in the West. While some regarded fleeing Jews with great sympathy, others saw their unchecked entry as an unmitigated threat to Britain’s sovereignty as a powerful island nation. ‘England will be flooded … if things take not a different turn’, warned the Pall Mall Gazette  in early 1882. Staunch anti-alienists, such as William H. Wilkins, the private secretary to the Earl of Dunraven, went further still, declaring in-bound migration an ‘invasion’. In his view, Jews leaving the Russian Pale should be regarded with great suspicion. These were a people, Wilkins cautioned, prepared to ‘resort to many subterfuges’ to get across the border. What ‘class’ of citizens such duplicitous individuals would make, he inferred, was anyone’s guess.

This rhetoric assumed a new resonance after an outbreak of cholera in 1892. The disease’s rapid march across the Continent and its subsequent transmission to North America via trans-Atlantic shipping was attributed – largely incorrectly – to migrants travelling westwards. Unsurprisingly, the perceived potential for these travellers to ‘pollute’ the spaces through which they passed and to ‘infect’ the people they came into contact with heightened the sense of suspicion that surrounded them. Despite the attempts of the German authorities to set up control stations, transit centres and quarantine facilities to ‘sift’, ‘filter’ and, if necessary, ‘exclude’ diseased migrants, some British watchers remained wary. ‘Those that are passed by the inspectors … get a card marked with a red cross, and their baggage is similarly marked, and then … farther they go’, recounted one British journalist upon witnessing the controls in place at the Russia-Prussia border. ‘Many, however, slip through … who can say how many escape the control altogether?’

In reality, evading the control stations along the Russian frontier or those positioned to intercept migrants once they neared the ports of embarkation was both difficult and disadvantageous. Doing so would leave migrants exposed to the advances of unscrupulous agents, to arrest by German police or rejection by the shipping lines. Yet presenting the control system as flimsy, porous and poorly managed played into the hands of those agitating for restriction. It presented Britain as the victim of continental incompetence to curb the spread of the disease.

Geopolitics also played its part in the fears and anxieties which surrounded ‘suspect’ migrants. While control stations – if properly managed – acted as one line of defence against the diseased, ‘what is there to prevent the Russian Government from conveying them by steamship from its own ports?’ asked one London newspaper at the height of the crisis. Relations looking west were little better. The United States 1891 Immigration Act had awarded far greater powers to officials at New York’s Ellis Island to reject migrants if they did not meet the required standards of health, wealth and ‘morality’. This thrust ‘sub-standard’ migrants back into the European system, or deterred them from attempting the Atlantic crossing altogether. In the more sensationalist claims, this ‘division’ of humanity at transit centres such as Hamburg’s Auswandererhallen into the racially ‘fit’ and the racially ‘degenerate’, could mark the racial profile and material prosperity of receiving nations for generations. ‘Clean, sturdy, open-faced, sweet creatures; these for America and Canada – to work in the fields, to work in the factories, with their strong arms’, claimed one report, after sighting the centre’s inhabitants. ‘Filthy, rickety jetsam of humanity, bearing on their evil faces the stigmata of every physical and moral degeneration … These are for England.’ 

Given the stringency of control measures in place at the Auswandererhallen and other portside facilities, it is unlikely that truly unwell, or even simply ‘unclean’ migrants would have been allowed to travel to Britain without first undergoing treatment. Nonetheless, the suggestion of illicit behaviour and the contravention of regulations by migrants was enough to stoke the fires for immigration restriction. In January 1905 the Aliens Act, which severely curbed the entry of ‘foreigners’ to Britain, passed into law. In targeting criminals, the diseased and those without the means to ‘decently’ support themselves, it singled out those migrants most in need of clandestine routes of departure and covert means of travel. The spotlight shone on such journeys by scaremongers, devoted restrictionists and those with genuine concern for British sovereignty no doubt played its part in the passage of the act.

Hannah Ewence is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Chester. Her most recent book is The Alien Jew in the British Imagination, 1881-1905 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).