Ukip is nothing new: the British Brothers’ League was exploiting immigration fears in 1901

Nigel Farage would envy the power and influence the BBL wielded. But its crude rhetoric about immigrants flooding the nation is all too familiar

The crowded East End ... Chrisp Street market in Poplar, 1904. Photograph: London Stereoscopic Compa

The crowded East End … Chrisp Street market in Poplar, 1904. Photograph: London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

Enoch Powell warned of “rivers of blood”. Margaret Thatcher, David Blunkett and Michael Fallon spoke of Britain’s towns being “swamped”. Ukip MEP Diana James claimed that the “floodgates would open”. Britain’s immigration “debate’’, it seems, has long been drowning in metaphors that play on people’s deepest existential fears.

As far back as 1902, Cosmo Lang, bishop of Stepney, east London, accused immigrants of “swamping whole areas once populated by English people”. The local Conservative MP, Major William Evans-Gordon, concurred. Together with neighbouring Conservative MP Samuel Forde-Ridley and Captain Shaw of the Middlesex Regiment, Evans-Gordon forged a populist anti-immigrant movement called the British Brothers’ League (BBL), which launched itself at a 1,000-strong rally in the East End in May 1901.

The Eastern Post and City Chronicle enthusiastically reported BBL activities and demanded that the government end this “foreign flood which has submerged our native population of East London”. Within months the league claimed 6,000 members, mostly local factory workers and unemployed, convinced by BBL propaganda that their precarious work situation, low pay, overcrowded housing and poor sanitation was caused by immigration. The BBL marched through impoverished East End districts, voicing working class concerns, but wealthier elements ran the organisation from its Gracechurch Street offices nestled comfortably within the City.

British Brothers League Poster.jpg

A poster for the BBL’s biggest rally, at the People’s Palace in Mile End in 1902. Photograph: ©Jewish Museum

Captain Shaw boasted of his elite recruits – “Oxford graduates” and “city merchants”, claiming that “medical men, clergymen, authors and journalists” were sympathisers too, along with 40 Tory MPs. Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, donated 10s/6d to the league. The Tory MP for Bethnal Green North-East, Mancherjee Bhownagree, a Bombay-born Parsi, endorsed “any action which might stop this undesirable addition to our population”. Bhownagree’s friendship helped the BBL deflect charges of racism, just as the 21st-century English Defence League promotes anti-Muslim spokespersons from its Sikh membership.

So who were these feared immigrants? Mainly pauperised east European Jews fleeing economic discrimination, religious persecution and, from 1881, pogroms enacted by the mob but encouraged by the tsarist Russian authorities. Non-Jewish Russians and Poles, Italians, Germans and Chinese came to the East End too, as economic migrants.

Britain’s monarch had powers to expel foreigners for the “peace and security of the realm”, but free movement of labour was generally unquestioned until Conservative politicians stoked up the immigration issue in the 1880s and 90s and sections of the media fanned the flames. Today’s scare stories about “Muslim extremists” echo those of the St James Gazette, which warned, in 1887, of “foreign anarchists and nihilists” among Jewish immigrants.

Emerging trade unions were worried that low-skilled migrants accepting long hours and low pay were undermining indigenous workers’ struggles for decent wages. Three times during the 1890s, the TUC passed resolutions calling for immigration controls. Jewish trade unionists wrote a remarkable document called Voice from the Aliens to counter one such resolution at the 1895 congress. It declared: “We, the Jewish workers, have been spoken of as a blighting blister upon the English trades and workers … were it not for us … the native worker would … have plenty of work, good wages … Well, let us … examine the condition of such workers with whom the Jew never comes in contact … the agricultural labourer, the docker, the miner, the weaver, the chainmaker, shipbuilder, bricklayer and many others … and answer: is there any truth in the remark that we are a “blighting blister” upon the English worker?”

Immigrant Jewish workers unionised themselves and made strenuous efforts to cooperate with existing labour bodies. Influential non-Jewish activists within William Morris’s and Eleanor Marx’s Socialist League supported them, as did tailors’ leader George Macdonald, cabinet makers’ leader Charles Adams, and Herbert Burrows, who helped to form a matchworkers’ union; but other labour activists were ambivalent. Irish dockers and immigrant Jewish tailors collaborated closely during the 1889 strikes, though the dockers’ leader, Ben Tillett, had described Jewish immigrants as the “dregs and scum of the continent” who made overcrowded slums “more foetid, putrid and congested”. He once told Jewish workers candidly: “We will do our duty by you, but we wish you had not come.”

The BBL’s East End strongholds in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Limehouse formed a horseshoe around the immigrant ghetto of Aldgate and Whitechapel. Oswald Mosley’s openly antisemitic movement of the 1930s formed branches in these very same districts. The BBL held its largest rally on the periphery of the Jewish area, at the People’s Palace, Mile End, in January 1902. Four simultaneous marches led by drummers converged on the building. The marchers held Union Jacks and placards saying “British Homes for British Workers”. Inside the hall, where 4,000 had gathered, an organ played There’s No Place Like Home.

Henry Norman MP (whose Wolverhampton South constituency was unaffected by immigration) set the tone. He deplored this country being made “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe”. This was England, he said, “the heart of the Empire, not the dustbin of Austria and Russia”. When local agitator Arnold White said aliens were not persecuted refugees but came “because they wanted our money”, supporters shouted from the floor: “Wipe them out!”
A Jewish tailoring workshop in the East End, c1910. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images
Local newspapers acknowledged opposition when they commented that 260 “big brawny” stewards “unceremoniously ejected” foreigners. The league’s opening rally in 1901 had attracted opponents too. BBL supporters wrote to the press about a “band of Socialists – foreigners for the most part [attempting] to upset the meeting”. Another wrote: “It made my blood boil” to see “swarthy, dirty foreigners attempting to put down our right to free speech.” A “Disgusted East Londoner” complained that many houses locally were “occupied by foreigners who, with their children, speak nothing but Yiddish”. He anticipated a time “when we English people dare not hold a meeting of our own”. Yet, it was the victims of anti-alienism whose voices were truly marginalised.

They organised their own public meetings to challenge BBL propaganda through an ad-hoc Aliens Defence League, temporarily housed in Brick Lane. They proposed practical solutions: unionising migrant workers so they could fight alongside indigenous workers for better conditions for all, and creating fair rent courts to deal with accusations against landlords, including immigrant landlords.

The BBL’s grassroots agitation gained 45,000 signatures on a petition pressing MPs to halt immigration. Nigel Farage may have shifted the immigration debate among mainstream parties today, but he would envy Evans-Gordon’s level of influence. When the government launched a royal commission on alien immigration, Evans-Gordon chaired it and set the agenda. It investigated the very charges the BBL had made – that immigrants arrived impoverished, destitute and dirty; practised insanitary habits; spread infectious diseases; were a burden on the rates; dispossessed native dwellers; caused native tradesmen to suffer a loss of trade; worked for rates below the “native workman”; included criminals, prostitutes and anarchists; formed a compact, non-assimilating community that didn’t intermarry; and interfered with the observance of Christian Sunday.

The commission struggled to back up its charges in its 1903 report. Far from dispossessing natives, the immigrants themselves lived in appallingly overcrowded conditions and mostly worked more than 12 hours a day for other Yiddish-speakers. Their dedication to education and self-improvement contradicted claims that they lowered moral standards. Nevertheless, the Tory government passed Britain’s first modern immigration law – the 1905 Aliens Act. This act created immigration officers who could refuse entry on medical and other grounds, and introduced internal controls – allowing subsequent deportation. Perhaps most importantly, the act categorised migrants as “desirable” and “undesirable”, establishing the invidious value system that still dominates today’s immigration discussion.

By the time the act came into force, the Tory government had fallen to a Liberal landslide, though Evans-Gordon retained his East End seat using the slogan, “England for the English, Major Gordon for Stepney”. The Liberals, having rejected the act in opposition, enacted it in government – a pattern Labour oppositions have repeated in recent decades.

The terms and language of the debate have barely changed since 1901. The “Voice from the Aliens” and their allies who argue that immigration enriches our society still struggle to be heard. And for all the decades-old rhetoric about swamping and flooding, who is actually being submerged? In 2014, more than 3,200 refugees trying to reach Europe from Africa by boat, drowned in the Mediterranean.

Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg is published on 20 March by Pluto Press, at £9.99. To order a copy for £8.79 with free UK p&p go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.

Rosenberg will be appearing at Bishopsgate Institute, London EC2 (18 March), Owl Bookshop, London NW5 (30 March), West End Lane Books, London NW6 (7 April) and Sutton House, London E9 (15 April).

From The Guardian . Article by David Rosenberg. 04.03.15

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