Tuesday, September 15, 2009

At the Turn of the 20th Century: Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Britain and a Fact-Finding Mission Abroad

There were nearly five million Jews who lived in Czarist Russia during the nineteenth century. They were forced to live within a specified area and were subjected to religious persecution and a life of great poverty. Many Jews emigrated during this time, about 150,000 of them immigrating to Great Britain. This wave of immigration peaked in the late 1890s when tens of thousands of mostly poor and semi-skilled and unskilled immigrants settled in the East End of London.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a public uproar about the rising tide of immigration that was often fueled by the media. During this period the British Brothers League was formed. Local politicians supported this organization; many anti-immigrant marches and rallies were organized and petitions were signed. They didn’t want Great Britain to become a “dumping ground” for the “scum of Europe.”

William Evans-Gordon was a conservative politician and PM within the British parliament. He also wrote a book entitled 'The Alien Immigrant', which was published in 1903, the year he took a fact-finding tour of Eastern Europe and the Baltic region.

Evans-Gordon travelled from St Petersburg to Krakow, visiting and photographing the major towns of Jewish settlement. It was his sentiment that alien immigration to Great Britain, especially Jewish immigration, should be limited. He called on the Parliament to set up a Royal Commission, and as a result of this, in 1905, the Aliens Act was passed.

The act for the first time introduced immigration controls and registration in Great Britain. The Act was designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through. It provided asylum for people fleeing religious or political persecution. Anti-Semitic elements wanted a stop or severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Britain, but were completely defeated. The 1905 Act did not meet any of the demands of restrictionists who wanted numerical restrictions on immigration.

According to Wikipedia, “Evans-Gordon continued to campaign for further anti-immigration legislation, seeking re-election in 1906. He kept up regular correspondence with Chaim Weizmann who would later write of him:

'Sir William Evans-Gordon had no particular anti-Jewish prejudices...he was sincerely ready to encourage any settlement of Jews almost anywhere in the British Empire but he failed to see why the ghettoes of London or Leeds should be made into a branch of the ghettoes of Warsaw and Pinsk.'"

This one-page exhibition at the Museum of Family History is entitled “At the Turn of the 20th Century: The Jewish Community at Home and Abroad, Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Britain and a Fact-Finding Mission Abroad, 1903."

By visiting this exhibition (and seeing some of the photographs taken during his visit), you can read what Evans-Gordon wrote about his European travels to Dvinsk, Vilnius, Pinsk, Libau, Lodz, Galicia and Romania. It provides an interesting perspective about how others viewed Jewish life within the Pale of Settlement and elsewhere within the Russian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century.

You can visit this exhibition at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/20c-evans-gordon.htm.

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