Historical immigration to Great Britain

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Historical immigration to Great Britain concerns the inward movement of people, cultural and ethnic groups into the island of Great Britain before Irish independence in 1922. A significant amount of this movement was not immigration as a voluntary, peaceful movement but violent invasion or refugees forced to leave their homelands due to war or persecution. Immigration after Irish independence is dealt with by the article Immigration to the United Kingdom since Irish independence.

Modern humans first arrived in Great Britain during the Palaeolithic era, but until the invasion of the Romans (1st century BC) there was no historical record. With the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxons (c. 5th century AD) and Vikings (8th century AD) invaded and migrated to Great Britain. In 1066, the Normans successfully took control of England and, in subsequent years, there was some small-scale migration. In the 19th century, immigration by people outside Europe began on a small scale as people arrived from the British colonies. The overall foreign born population of Britain being 0.6% in 1851, 1.5% in 1901, many coming from Eastern Europe and Russia.[1]

DNA provides a direct record of the effects of immigration on the population.[2] Studies of DNA suggest that the biological influence on Britain of immigration from the Norman conquests up till the 20th century was small; The native population's genetics was marked more by stability than change.[3][4]


For the settlement/invasion of Great Britain before the arrival of the Romans see the article Prehistoric settlement of Great Britain and Ireland

Roman Empire[edit]

The first Roman invasion of Great Britain was led by Julius Caesar in 55 BC; the second, a year later in 54 BC. The Romans had many supporters among the Celtic tribal leaders, who agreed to pay tribute to Rome in return for Roman protection. The Romans returned in AD 43, led by the Emperor Claudius, this time establishing control, and establishing the province of Britannia. Initially an oppressive rule, gradually the new leaders gained a firmer hold on their new territory which at one point stretched from the south coast of England to Wales and as far away as southern Scotland.

During the 367 years of Roman occupation of Britain, the majority of settlers were soldiers garrisoned on the mainland. It was with constant contact with Rome and the rest of Romanised Europe through trade and industry that the elite native Britons themselves adopted Roman culture and customs, though the majority in the countryside were little affected.

The capital city of Londonium was an ethnically diverse city with inhabitants from across the Roman Empire, including natives of Britannia, continental Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.[5] There was also cultural diversity in other Roman-British towns, which were sustained by considerable migration, both within Britannia and from other Roman territories, including North Africa,[6] Roman Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and continental Europe.[7] Of Roman Britain's estimated 3 million population, the urban population was about 240,000 people,[8] with Londinium having an estimated 60,000 people.[9][10]


Germanic (Frankish) mercenaries were employed in Gaul by the Roman Empire and it is speculated in a similar manner, Germanic immigrants to Britain arrived at the invitation of the ruling classes. In the Post-Roman period the traditional division into Angles, Saxons and Jutes (Anglo-Saxons) is first seen in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by Bede, however historical and archæological research has shown that a wider range of Germanic peoples from the coast of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland and Southern Sweden also moved to Britain in this era.

After the withdrawal of the last Roman soldiers from Britain in the early 5th century, the number of newcomers increased, and it is speculated that relations with the ruling Romanised Britons became strained. By about 449, open conflict had broken out, and the immigrants began to establish their own kingdoms in what would eventually become the Heptarchy.


During the 5th century, the Dál Riatan Scots started raiding north-western Britain from their base in north-east Ireland. After the Roman withdrawal, this developed from piracy to full-scale invasion and, within a hundred years, they had established a kingdom in Argyll.


From prehistory to the present, there has been a continuous process of movement of people across the Irish Sea between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain. This tide has varied over the centuries in response to politics, economics and social conditions of both places, but has predominantly flowed from Ireland to Britain. Today, millions of residents of Great Britain are either from the island of Ireland or have Irish ancestry.



The earliest date given for a Viking raid of Britain is 789 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Portland was attacked. A more exact report dates from 8 June 793, when the cloister at Lindisfarne was pillaged by foreign seafarers. These raiders, whose expeditions extended well into the 9th century, were gradually followed by armies and settlers who brought a new culture and tradition markedly different from that of the prevalent Anglo-Saxon society. These enclaves rapidly expanded, and soon the Viking warriors were establishing areas of control to such an extent that they could reasonably be described as kingdoms.

The Danelaw, established through the Viking conquest of large parts of England, was formally established, as a result of the Treaty of Wedmore in the late 9th century, after Alfred the Great had defeated the Viking Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun. The Danelaw represented a consolidation of power for Alfred; the subsequent conversion of Guthrum to Christianity underlines the ideological significance of this shift in the balance of power. The Danelaw was gradually conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in later years. In parts of England today, the influence of the Vikings can still be seen, particularly in place names in the East Midlands and the north.

Between 1016 and 1042 England was ruled by Danish kings but the Anglo-Saxons then regained control until 1066.


The Norman invasion of Britain is normally considered the last successful attempt in history by a foreign army to take control of the Kingdom of England by means of military occupation. From the Norman point of view, William the Conqueror was considered the legitimate heir to the realm (as explained in the Bayeux Tapestry), and the invasion was required to secure this against the usurpation of Harold Godwinson.

In the years following the invasion to 1204, Normandy and England kept their close connection. This was in part secured by granting aristocrats lands in both domains, giving an incentive on all levels to maintain the union. The influx of Norman military and ecclesiastical aristocracy changed the nature of the ruling class in England, leading to the creation of an Anglo-Norman population.

There was further immigration and emigration during the time of the Angevin Empire from much of the west coast of France. After the loss of much of the Angevin lands in 1202, the strong trade links between Gascony and England led to a flow of people between the lands.

Jews and Roma[edit]

The first Jews in Britain were brought to England in 1070 by King William the Conqueror, while Roma in Britain have been documented since the 16th century. Although not normally included on UK censuses as British Asians, the Roma and Jews originated in South Asia and Western Asia, respectively. British Jews numbered fewer than 10,000 at the start of the 19th century.

Mainly Sinti (as opposed to the Roma, who are more common in parts of Central and Eastern Europe), consisting of tribes originating in South Asia (the Indian subcontinent) around 800, began arriving in sizable numbers in Western Europe in the 16th century, including in the British Isles. Mostly speakers of a dialect of the Romani language (a language very similar to Sanskrit and other Indic languages) and initially mainly travellers largely working as hawkers, basket weavers; also as ostlers, jockeys and many other occupations working with horses.

Early modern[edit]


The Huguenots, French Protestants facing a new wave of persecution, began arriving in England in numbers around 1670. King Charles II offered them sanctuary, and in all some 40–50,000 arrived, which was a sizeable number in that era. Many settled in the Spitalfields area of London, and, being former silk-weavers, brought new energy to this industry in the area and raised silk to an important fashion item in Britain.[11]


People from the Indian subcontinent have settled in Great Britain since the East India Company (EIC) recruited lascars to replace vacancies in their crews on East Indiamen whilst on voyages in India. Many were then refused passage back, and were marooned in London. There were also some ayahs, domestic servants and nannies of wealthy British families, who accompanied their employers back to "Blighty" when their stay in Asia came to an end.

The number of seamen from the East Indies employed on English ships was felt so worrisome at that time that the English tried to restrict their numbers by the Navigation Act of 1660, which restricted the employment of overseas sailors to a quarter of the crew on returning East India Company ships. Baptism records in East Greenwich suggest that young Indians from the Malabar Coast were being recruited as servants at the end of the 17th century, and records of the EIC also suggest that Indo-Portuguese cooks from Goa were retained by captains from voyage to voyage.[12] In 1797, thirteen were buried in the parish of St Nicholas at Deptford.

Beginning in the 17th century, the East India Company brought over thousands of South Asian scholars, lascars, and other workers (who were mostly Bengali and/or Muslim) to England, some of whom settled down and took local European wives, due to a lack of Asian women in the British Isles at the time.[13] Due to the majority of early Asian immigrants being lascars, the earliest Asian communities were found in port towns. Naval cooks also came, many of them from the Sylhet Division of what is now Bangladesh. One of the most famous 18th-century Bengali immigrants to Britain was Sake Dean Mahomed, a captain of the East India Company. In 1810, he founded London's first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House. He is also claimed as the person who introduced shampoo and therapeutic massage to Britain.[14]



By the mid-19th century, there were at least 40,000 Indian seamen, diplomats, scholars, soldiers, officials, tourists, businessmen and students in Great Britain.[15] In 1855 more than 25,000 of these were lascar seamen working on British ships. Lascars were a transitory group who would lodge in British ports in between voyages.[16] [17][18] By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were around 70,000 South Asians in Britain.[19] At the start of the First World War, 51,616 lascar seamen were working on British ships.[20] In 1932, the Indian National Congress survey of 'all Indians outside India' estimated that there were 7,128 Indians in the United Kingdom. The resident Indian population of Birmingham was recorded at 100 by 1939. By 1945 it was 1,000.[21]


During the 18th century, a small population of black people, thought to number about 15,000 by mid-century, were brought to Britain initially largely as the captain's share of the cargo of transatlantic slave ships. Many of these people became servants in aristocratic households and are frequently depicted in contemporary portraits of the family – often depicted in a similar manner to family pets. Many black people became part of the urban poor and were often depicted in the caricatures and cartoons of William Hogarth, but others attained highly respected positions in society, e.g. Ignatius Sancho and Francis Barber – a servant to Dr Samuel Johnson who became a beneficiary of his will. These ships stopped carrying black people to Britain after it banned slave trading in 1807.

Following the British defeat in the American War of Independence over 1,100 Black Loyalist troops who had fought on the losing side were transported to Britain, but they mostly ended up destitute on London's streets and were viewed as a social problem. The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was formed. They distributed relief and helped the men to go overseas, some to what remained of British North America. In 1786, the committee funded an expedition of 280 black men, forty black women and seventy white wives and girlfriends to Sierra Leone. The settlement failed and within two years all but sixty of the migrants had died.[22]


Throughout the 19th century a small population of German immigrants built up in Britain, numbering 28,644 in 1861. London held around half of this population, and other small communities existed in Manchester, Bradford and elsewhere. The German immigrant community was the largest group until 1891, when it became second only to Russian Jews. There was a mixture of classes and religious groupings, and a flourishing culture built up, with the growth of middle and working class clubs. Waiters and clerks were two main occupations, and many who worked in these professions went on to become restaurant owners and businessmen, to a considerable extent.[23] This community maintained its size until the First World War, when public anti-German feeling became very prominent and the Government enacted a policy of forced internment and repatriation. The community in 1911 had reached 53,324, but fell to just over 20,000 after the war.[24]

Russian Jews[edit]

England has had small Jewish communities for many centuries, subject to occasional expulsions, but British Jews numbered fewer than 10,000 at the start of the 19th century. After 1881 Russian Jews suffered bitter persecutions, and British Jews led fund-raising to enable their Russian co-religionists to emigrate to the United States. However, out of some 2,000,000 who left Russia by 1914, around 120,000 settled permanently in Britain. One of the main concentrations was the same Spitalfields area where Huguenots had earlier congregated. Immigration was reduced by the Aliens Act 1905 and virtually curtailed by the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act.[25] In addition to those Russian Jews who settled permanently in the UK an estimated 500,000 Eastern European Jews transmigrated through British ports between 1881 and 1924.[26] Most were bound for the United States and others migrated to Canada, South Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes. [27]

Estimated number of migrants between 1800 and 1945 [28]

Migrant group Migration 1800–1945 (145 years) Migration 1945–2010 (65 years)
Africans 10,000 1,000,000
Americans 70,000 250,000
Arabs 10,000 290,000
Belgians 240,000 40,000
Chinese 20,000 320,000
Cypriots 2,000 80,000
French People 40,000 100,000
Germans 100,000 300,000
Hungarians 2,000 38,000
Irish 1,500,000 700,000
Italians 40,000 160,000
Jews 220,000 80,000
Poles 5,000 500,000
South Asians 20,000 1,000,000
West Indians 10,000 400,000
Others 50,000 1,000,000
Total migration 2,339,000 6,231,000
Average migration per year 16,131 95,862

Immigration since 1945[edit]

Genetic history[edit]

Y Chromosome analysis[edit]

From Genetic analysis section, Sub-Roman Britain

Modern genetic evidence, based on analysis of the Y chromosomes of men currently living in Britain, the Western Isles, Orkney, Shetland, Friesland, Denmark, North Germany, Ireland, Norway and the Basque Country, is consistent with the presence of some indigenous component in all British regions.[29] For the sake of this study samples from the Basque Country were considered indigenous (a putative paleolithic Y chromosome). These studies cannot significantly distinguish between Danish, Frisian and German (Schleswig-Holstein) Y chromosomes although the Frisians were slightly closer to the indigenous samples. Areas with the highest concentration of Germanic (Danish-Viking/Anglo-Saxon) Y chromosomes occurred in areas associated with the Danelaw and Danish-Viking settlement, especially York and Norfolk. In these areas, about 60% of Y chromosomes are of Germanic origin.[29]

This indicates an exclusively male component. The extent of Danish/Anglo-Saxon contribution to the entire gene pool of these areas is also dependent on the migration of women. For example, if it is assumed that few or no Germanic women settled in these areas, then the Germanic contribution to the gene pool is halved to 30%, and in turn if greater numbers of women did settle, the contribution could be even higher than 60%.

Current estimates on the initial contribution of Anglo-Saxon migrants range from less than 10,000 to as many as 200,000, although some recent Y-chromosome studies posit a considerably large continental (Germanic) contribution to the current English gene pool (50–100%). A recent study by a team from the Department of Biology at University College London based on computer simulations indicate that an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England provides a plausible explanation for a high-degree of continental male-line ancestry in England.[30]

Mitochondrial DNA analysis[edit]

This indicates that a majority of maternal lines in the population go back to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. The lines tend to be similar in all parts of Britain, though with Norse input in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland. The source of many of the other lines is thought to be the Iberian Peninsula, but there has been some input from the Germanic areas into the east coast of England.[31]


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