This Day in Jewish History

1905: As Eastern European Jews Pour In, U.K. Enacts 'Aliens Act'

The word 'Jew' isn't in the act, but the timing of the railing against 'dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal' foreigners is suspect.

Charles Jasper Glidden with his wife Lucy in London during their round-the-world trip in a Napier car, picture taken in 1902.
University of Massachusetts, Lowell Libraries, Wikimedia Commons

On August 11, 1905, the United Kingdom enacted the British Aliens Act, the first time the country imposed restrictions on immigration, after it had always basically been open to all comers.

Although the word “Jew” did not appear in the Aliens Act, it has long been taken for granted that the legislation was in large part intended to limit the flood of Eastern European Jews into the country, a wave that had begun in the early 1880s.

Wracked by pogroms

Life for the approximately 5 million Jews living in the Russian Empire became especially harsh after 1881, with several waves of pogroms, then and again beginning in 1905.

Although the vast majority of the roughly 2 million people who fled the empire between 1881 and 1914 ended up in the United States, an estimated 125,000 and 150,000 came to the United Kingdom. No precise figure is available, because so long as Britain had an open-door policy, it kept minimal records of those who entered the country.

The arrival of so many foreign Jews, many of them unskilled and destitute, elicited a nativist movement in the country. Tens of thousands of them packed into London’s East End, where they competed with locally born English for low-paying, low-skill jobs.

The Manchester Evening Chronicle, in a 1905 editorial, endorsed the idea that the "dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and rates [tax revenues] simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land."

According to cultural historian David Glover, author of “Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin-de-Siecle England,” the word “alien” was almost synonymous at this time with the word “Jew.” The same goes for the word “foreigner.”

Anti-immigration poster, from 1902
Guardian, Wikimedia Commons

From nationalism to violence

One popular response that both reflected and exploited the anxiety caused by mass immigration was the British Brothers League, which held its first rally calling for legal restrictions on immigration in 1902. Although initially focused on keeping out immigrants who were impoverished, the League became increasingly anti-Semitic, with the meaning of its slogan “England for the English” being clear, and its actions moving from simply declaratory to encouraging violence against newcomers.

The Aliens Act, however, did not completely shut the door to immigration, Jewish or otherwise. Rather, it set a number of criteria for turning someone away from Britain.

These included, lacking “the means of decently supporting himself and his dependents”; being “a lunatic or an idiot” or having an illness likely to turn one into a public charge; or having been convicted of a non-political crime in one’s homeland.

The last of those criteria hints at the ambivalence that most British felt about the act.

Most felt strongly that their country should continue to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution at home, even if they arrived in the country without financial means. Several earlier attempts to pass a bill that would limit immigration failed in Parliament because they lacked a clause that provided for continued acceptance of what today would be called political refugees. (The Jewish Chronicle, in opposing a 1904 draft law that lacked a refugee clause, diplomatically referred to it not as “anti-Semitic,” but as “anti-English.”)

In contrast, the 1905 act included language guaranteeing that, “in the case of an immigrant who proves that he is seeking admission to this country solely to avoid persecution or punishment on religious or political grounds ... leave to land shall not be refused on the ground merely of want of means or the probability of his becoming a charge on the rates.” Nonetheless, the legislation placed the burden of proving that one was the subject of persecution on the applicant.

The immediate impact of the Aliens Act was a drop in Jewish immigration from the East. But a 1906 general election led to the transfer of power from the Conservatives to the Liberals, under whom the law tended to be interpreted in a way that gave the benefit of the doubt to arriving immigrants. Between 1909 and 1914, when World War I started and a far more draconian aliens act was adopted, the rate of immigrants from Russia and Poland returned to the rate of 5,000 a year that it had been at before 1905.