Immigration: This island's story

Modern immigration began when the 'Windrush' arrived at Tilbury from Jamaica in June 1948, but Britain has been attracting settlers since the Romans. By Michael McCarthy and Sam Henderson

It's older than you think. The impact of immigration on Britain goes back far, far longer than many people realise, and in fact has been a major shaping force in the structure of the nation. It's quite a history.

A date that is often given for immigration's start is 22 June 1948: the day that the ex-troopship Empire Windrush pulled into Tilbury docks bringing 492 Jamaican men and women to the UK. That date is indeed significant, because it does mark the start of the post-war immigration movement from the Commonwealth, and was officially commemorated as such by the Government on the 50th anniversary eight years ago.

But as to immigration's true beginning, let us quote Winston Churchill and a famous sentence from his History of the English-Speaking Peoples: "In the summer of the Roman year 699, now described as the year 55 before the birth of Christ, the Proconsul of Gaul, Gaius Julius Caesar, turned his gaze upon Britain." It was the Romans wot started it.

When Caesar crossed the Channel, Britain entered into history and, when a hundred years later the Emperor Claudius began a full-scale colonisation, Britain became part of the civilised world. For 367 years, the people from Italy shaped the life of this island (until they pulled out abruptly when Rome collapsed in AD410) and, although they took their language back with them in contrast to France, Italy and Spain, they have left substantial traces: a capital in London (it was Colchester before they arrived), the outline of the road system, the siting of many cities.

When they had gone, other immigrants, waves of them, mainly from north Germany, took their place: a tribe called the Angles, a tribe called the Saxons, a tribe called the Jutes. They eventually gave us the beginnings of our native language; they gave us the name of England; they gave us a settled agricultural society, in the post-Roman vacuum, and they adopted Christianity. Remember: they were foreigners when they came here. And they were by no means the last.

When Anglo-Saxon England met its bloody end on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066, yet another flood of foreigners swept in: the Norman French. They too were resented by the original inhabitants, as newcomers often are, but what they brought was positive in the extreme: civic order in the form of a tough, efficient, centralised government (the feudal system), access to the opening currents of architecture and literature in Europe and a language which eventually merged with Anglo-Saxon to give English its wonderful richness of vocabulary.

(For example, we have two sets of words for farm animals, one for looking after them, and one for eating them. Pig, cow and sheep are all Anglo-Saxon in origin; pork, beef and mutton are all Norman-French. The Anglo-Saxons did the looking after; the Normans did the eating. It was a tough life, at first, for the Saxons.)

But eventually integration took place, as it always does: in 1272, for the first time in two centuries, a king came to the throne who spoke Anglo-Saxon as well as he spoke French, and who had a Saxon name: Edward I. And in the following century the two languages merged into English, with French vocabulary overlaying Saxon grammar: you can see the process taking place when you read Chaucer.

All these waves of immigrants had fused to produce the English nation by about 1400, when English started to be used in official documents, but since then there have been numerous subsequent immigrant waves.

A fascinating one was that of the Huguenots, the French Protestants who were driven out of France by Louis XIV after 1685. Of the 500,000 who left and fled to all corners of Europe, approximately 50,000 came to Britain, many of them weavers who set up successful businesses, and the great majority of them settled in London, in Spitalfields and Petticoat Lane - just as the Bangladeshi community has done today. Bangladeshi Tower Hamlets was Huguenot Tower Hamlets once.

In the 19th century, further waves of incomers descended on Britain. Many thousands of Irish people began to sail across (a movement given enormous impetus by the potato famine of 1848), and settled in large numbers in towns such as Liverpool, whose population grew from 78,000 in 1801 to 685,000 a century later. (The Scouse accent is a clear descendant of Dublin.) Many of these people provided the labour to facilitate the exploding expansion of the Victorian economy.

They were succeeded, towards the end of the century, by the Jews, fleeing persecution in eastern Europe, especially Poland and Tsarist Russia. They had been here before. In London and other cities such as Lincoln, in Norman times, they had been subject to great prejudice, being made to wear yellow badges in 1217. Then in 1290, in perhaps the most shameful racist episode in British history, they were expelled, by Edward I, he who could speak English as well as French, mentioned above.

The Jews who came back to Britain in the late 19th century grew into a community of about 250,000 by the First World War, and then with the advent of Nazi power in the inter-war years, about 90,000 more Jewish people came from Germany - although Britain refused entry to further refugees from 1938.

It would be hard to deny that this immigrant community, though parts of the country were, as always, prejudiced against it, has had a positive impact out of all proportion to its size. The thinkers who fled from Vienna, especially, led by Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, made an unparalleled contribution to British intellectual life (joined eventually by the dying Sigmund Freud, who was allowed to settle in Hampstead in 1939). The children and grandchildren of this generation include many of Britain's best-known names: the playwrights Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Peter Shaffer, the actors Maureen Lipman and Peter Sellers, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, the painter Lucien Freud.

Finally there came the most recent of Britain's immigration waves, from what had been the Empire and turned into the Commonwealth: from the West Indies (beginning with Empire Windrush), from the Indian subcontinent, Hong Kong and China, from the Asian communities of east Africa and many more places. These groups of incomers have been substantial - they have raised Britain's ethnic minority populations to about 8 per cent of the total - and their positive impact has been substantial also: think writer Timothy Mo, who came here from his native Hong Kong, or poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah, both born in Jamaica.

It goes deeper than customs (such as providing us with a new and more tasty national dish to take over from fish and chips, chicken tikka masala). The incomers who have come since the Windrush docked at Tilbury have helped the remarkable transformation of Britain in the past half-century from a tight-lipped, highly stratified society into a community which is far more tolerant and relaxed about itself and have made London the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

And, in the decades to come, we can be sure that this latest wave of immigrants from our eastern European neighbours, will provide us with a whole new dimension of their own.

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