Migration is rarely out of the news these days, with the media polarised in its opinions. Things, however, were not that much different in the 19th century.
The 19th century in Britain witnessed significant population movement, from the familiar paths of internal migration to the influx of immigrants and the outflow of emigrants seeking new horizons. This era was marked not only by the shifting locales of native Britons but also by the diverse communities of immigrants who chose Britain as their new home.
This article explores the nature of migration during this period, delving into the intricacies of internal migration, the nuances of immigration, and the motivations behind emigration. Additionally, it sheds light on the role of the press in shaping public opinion, particularly in their coverage of immigration and opposition to it.
A defining feature of 19th century Britain was the high rate of internal migration. While most moves were short-distance, the urbanisation trend saw a significant demographic shift, with rural dwellers contributing to the rapid growth of urban areas. A staggering 40% of urban Britain’s demographic expansion during this period was attributed to this movement. Cities such as London, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow experienced substantial gains, with London emerging as the most sought-after destination, attracting 1.25 million migrants between 1841 and 1911.
Migration fuelled Britain’s economic growth during the 19th century
Initially driven by the quest for better economic opportunities, migration played a pivotal role in the economic growth of Britain. Young, single individuals often undertook longer-distance moves, contributing to the evolving landscape of urbanisation. However, by the late 19th century, a slowdown in rural-to-urban migration marked the onset of counter-urbanisation and suburbanisation trends.
Throughout the 19th century, Britain maintained an open-door policy towards immigration. Despite the open door, immigrants faced a wide spectrum of reactions, ranging from acceptance to hostility. The Irish, driven by the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s, formed the largest immigrant group. While their initial settlement in major towns and cities fuelled labour demand, it also sparked criticism, as native working-class sentiments clashed with the incoming Irish population. Stereotypes painted the Irish as uncivilised, igniting anti-Catholic sentiment and periodic outbreaks of violence.
Continental Europe contributed significantly to immigration, with Germans leading the way until the 1880s when Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe surpassed them. Hostility towards these newcomers prompted the 1905 Aliens Act, imposing restrictions for the first time. Smaller immigrant groups, including Italians, Lithuanians, Americans, and individuals from British settler colonies, also left their mark on 19th-century Britain.
The role of the newspapers in shaping public opinion
While newspapers of the time served as a valuable source for understanding migration, they also played a role in shaping public opinion, including opposition to immigration. Blanket hostility towards immigrants was not uncommon and the press became a battleground for debates and discussions on the merits and drawbacks of immigration.
The largest group of immigrants, the Irish, faced criticism for depressing wages, overcrowding working-class areas, and purportedly contributing to societal issues such as drunkenness and criminality. Newspapers echoed and amplified these sentiments, perpetuating pre-existing stereotypes of the Irish as uncivilised, ignorant and immoral. Periodic outbreaks of violence between the native working-class and Irish immigrants found their way onto the pages of newspapers, further fuelling anti-Irish sentiment.
Similarly, as Jewish immigrants surged in numbers from the 1880s, newspapers became platforms for characterising them as physically and morally enfeebled. They were accused of introducing sweated labour and edging native Britons from housing and labour markets. The 1905 Aliens Act, a response to this growing opposition, marked a turning point, introducing restrictions on immigration and granting authorities the power to expel immigrants deemed undesirable.
Emigration was also a concern
While immigration left its imprint, emigration was equally significant. Throughout the 19th century, emigration from Britain consistently outpaced immigration. Approximately ten million people, constituting about 20% of all European emigrants, left Britain between 1815 and 1914. This placed Britain among the top emigration rates in Europe.
Initially dominated by farmers and skilled artisans, the second half of the century witnessed a shift as urban areas became the primary source of emigrants. Young, single labourers sought opportunities abroad, facilitated by faster and more affordable steamship passages. The composition of emigration transformed from family-based to labour migration. The United States, Australia, and Canada were the primary destinations, with a redirection towards Australia and Canada after 1900.
Economic factors primarily drove emigration, as individuals sought higher wages and better employment prospects. Emigration also became a topic of political and public discussion, especially during periods of economic depression. Advocates saw emigration as a solution to overpopulation and unemployment, while critics questioned the impact on Britain’s colonies and dominions.
While migration was often a personal journey, newspapers of the time provide a rich source for historians to unravel its intricacies. Editorials, letters, and advertisements reflect the societal debates surrounding immigration and emigration. As we delve into the historical narrative of 19th-century migration, the newspaper press emerges as a vital thread, weaving together the diverse stories of those who moved, settled, and sought new beginnings in an ever-changing Britain. The press not only chronicled the migrations but also fuelled and reflected the opposition, shaping the perceptions and attitudes of the society of that era.