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Jewish immigrants have been arriving in Britain since the Norman Conquest, if not earlier. After the mediaeval community was expelled in 1290, immigration virtually stopped until the time of Oliver Cromwell, but then a steady stream began arriving again.
Until the late 19th century, the immigrants came mainly from countries relatively close to Britain like Holland, Germany and Poland. The journey would start by coach, cart or on foot to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, or Bremen. From there, several hundred of these early migrants travelled each year in small ships (steamships towards the middle of the 19th century) to the ports of Hull, London and Southampton, or the Channel ports of Dover, Folkestone and Margate.
These immigrants in due course settled into what became known as the Anglo-Jewish establishment. They were integrated into English society and had middle-class, conservative values. They would come to see the next generation of Jewish immigrants - those from Eastern Europe towards the end of the 19th century - as alien.
The closing decades of the 19th century saw conditions becoming increasingly desperate for Jews in Western Russia and Eastern Poland (known as the Pale of Settlement Grinding poverty affected Christians as well as Jews, but the Jews were also subject to restrictions on movement and other discriminatory laws, periodic attacks on their property, and sometimes physical violence in the form of pogroms, anti-Jewish attacks that in some cases were officially sanctioned.
At the same time, following the development of steamships, long-range travel was becoming easier. Large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe began to make the decision to emigrate to the West. The routes they travelled along varied widely, as did the price they might expect to pay for their tickets. The more a person could afford, the quicker and more comfortable the journey.
The alternatives were to cross the border into neighbouring Austria-Hungary or Germany, or to travel to a port on the Baltic (Libau, Riga or Stettin) or the Black Sea (Odessa). Here the migrants would embark for their new life in the West. Many were travelling to the United States, South America, South Africa or Australia, and simply used Britain as a staging post. For many others, however - perhaps 100,000 before immigration laws slowed the numbers down - Britain was the destination of choice.
Before travelling, some emigrants obtained a passport or travel permit to leave the Gubernia in which they lived. This could be difficult to obtain and was an additional cost that prevented many poor Jews from leaving legally.
Even those who did get passports often found that they had to bribe soldiers policing the Russian borders or ports before they could leave. Others found that they were included on a shared passport along with unknown strangers. Very often, it was the shipping agents who got the passports for them. This reduced the cost of the passport, but again resulted in a number of people appearing on a family passport with people with whom they had no connection.
Each stage in the journey was fraught - corrupt officials, the danger of robbery and deception, and unnecessary delays and expenses. Even at Baltic ports, such as Libau, where police controlled access to vessels for the 24 hours before sailing, it was still possible - through bribes - to gain passage to the west without any documentation.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews were to flee their homelands, with or without passports. For the poor Jew migrating from Russia one of the few words they needed to know was 'England'.
Most of those leaving Russia in the late 19th century travelled to Hamburg, Bremen, Rotterdam, Amsterdam or Antwerp. They crossed into Austria - Hungary or Germany, travelled to the nearest railway station and then journeyed across Europe by train to a North Sea port.
Night-time rail travel was cheaper, so most migrants arrived in port during the early hours of the morning. Having reached the port, the migrants would be housed in port-based lodgings until their ship was ready to sail.
For those who had journeyed for days or weeks across the European mainland, the final reward was travel in a clean, fast and safe vessel. Most of the ships working the short sea routes between Germany, Holland or Belgium and Britain were relatively comfortable, regardless of passenger class. As shown by the SS Cameo (a vessel owned by the Wilson Line of Hull), such ships were designed for transporting large numbers of passengers.
First- and second-class passengers enjoyed above-deck travel, but most Jewish migrants travelled below deck in the third-class tween decks Conditions in the 'tween decks were far from elaborate, but they did offer comfortable travel for the two-day crossing to Britain. Read more about Arrival by the Thames
This contrasted with conditions on board ships leaving the Baltic ports. After 1893, increasing numbers of immigrants sailed to Britain direct from Hang Libau (Liepaja), or Riga. Migrants liked these ports because there were no medical inspections before sailing, and the direct sea-journey was cheaper than crossing mainland Europe.
Even the poorest Russian Jew could afford these crossings, but they involved a much longer journey along the Kattegat or via the Kiel Canal (between Brunsburg and Holtenau) than those from the North Sea ports.
The journey lasted between four and five days (before the opening of the Kiel Canal in 1895, which reduced the journey-time by a day), and conditions on board were horrific - the vessels used were often designed for the shipment of cargo, foodstuffs or livestock.
The difficulties of the journey were made worse by anxiety about the medical examination which all third-class aliens had to have on arrival. After the creation of the Port Sanitary Authorities of England and Wales (under the General Health Act of 1875), Port Medical Officers of Health boarded each vessel arriving with aliens on board as it sailed into port.
Though the medical examination was not as thorough as those at Ellis Island in New York, any passenger showing signs of smallpox, cholera, typhus, yellow fever was isolated from the rest. While the remaining passengers were free to land, those suspected of carrying an infectious disease were separated from family and friends, and placed in isolation hospitals. Separation would leave all members of the group that much more vulnerable to the risks that can be expected on arrival in an unfamiliar land where few people spoke their native language.
On Arrival in the Humber or Thames, the newly arrived immigrant often went straight to see members of their own family who had already settled in England, or else their Landsleit. Kinship contacts of this sort lessened the risks of falling into the hands of crimps.
The threat of robbery and deception, and the risks of female immigrants who were travelling alone becoming prostitutes, caused great concern throughout the Anglo-Jewish establishment. The settled community did not want to be seen to be encouraging more poor Jews from Eastern Europe to migrate to Britain, fearing it would lead to an increase in anti-Semitism
At the same time, they were concerned to protect their fellow Jews from the dangers they faced as new arrivals.
In 1879 Simcha Cohen, an immigrant baker, set up a shelter for needy immigrants in his premises in Aldgate, London. Although this was declared "unhealthy" and closed by some members of the Anglo-Jewish community, it led to the establishment in 1885 of an official Jews' Temporary Shelter in Leman Street. This gave food and a place to stay to newly arrived immigrants for up to 14 days. Also in 1885, the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women was founded to protect women from being drawn into prostitution, with its own shelter at nearby Tenter Street North.
The East End shelters were in part helped by the Russo-Jewish Committee (established in 1891), and other shelters were established in towns with large numbers of Jewish immigrants. Members of the Anglo-Jewish community supported such charitable efforts with fundraising bazaars, balls, gifts at family celebrations, and donations.
As the level of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe continued to rise, from the late 1890s onwards both the gentile and the Anglo-Jewish communities began to call for immigration quotas.
In 1900, after years of political campaigning by activists in the East End of London, Thomas Dewar and William Evans-Gordon were elected to Parliament. Their aim was to bring about limits to alien (and especially Jewish) immigration.
In 1903, they helped to persuade Parliament to call a Royal Commission into the effects of alien immigration into Britain. Two years later the first Aliens Act, limiting immigration into this country, was passed.
Now the majority of East European Jewish migrants arriving at British ports were travelling as transmigrants to more distant destinations. New York and Cape Town were their destinations, not London, Leeds or Manchester, and the ship owner became legally responsible for preventing alien immigrants from landing illegally at British ports.
Between 1880 and 1914, an estimated one million Jewish transmigrants arrived at the British ports of Grimsby, Hull, Hartlepool, Leith, London, Newcastle and Southampton. After arrival at an east-coast port of entry, most crossed Britain quickly to the western ports for the next leg of their journey.
At places like Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Southampton, they would board steamships destined for transatlantic ports such as New York, Buenos Aires, and Quebec, or for Cape Town. The burdens associated with mass immigration were now shifted to more distant lands.
Many migrants had relations already settled overseas who were willing to pay for the cost of their journey. Most Jewish immigrants to the US, Canada and South Africa travelled on what were known as pre-paid tickets. Such tickets were relatively cheap - with passage to America falling to just £2 10s (two pounds and ten shillings) in the early 1900s.
The patterns of migration common throughout the 19th- and early 20th-century virtually came to a halt in Britain with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
A limited number of Jewish migrants continued to travel to, and through, Britain in the years between the First and Second World Wars, although the United States had by then placed its own severe limitations on immigration, which limited the number of transmigrants arriving in Britain. With the rise of the nazis in Germany in the 1930s, many Jewish refugees sought entry to Britain, but only some 50,000 arrived. After the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, many East European Jews sought refuge there. By this time, mass Jewish immigration to Britain had all but ceased.
For the first-generation arrivals in Britain, naturalisation was a means to settling permanently and acquiring citizenship in their adopted home. They and their children (born British citizens) are a good example of the ability of an immigrant group to integrate with their host community whilst retaining a unique cultural and religious identity.
Creators: Nicholas J Evans
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