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The Life Cycle
Finding Out More
Britain is an island of immigrants and descendants of immigrants. The archaeological record clearly shows groups of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Danes arriving and settling in early Britain, bringing new skills and their culture.
In the Domesday Book (see Domesday Book research guide), the National Archives's oldest and most prized record, many of the landholders listed are Norman soldiers and clergy who arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066. Their influence can be heard every time we open our mouths, as they brought with them tens of thousands of French and Latin words to add to Old English. Among these invaders were individual men and their families, from across Europe and further afield, who came to trade or just ended up here by chance, although it is rare that they appear in the written record.
London has always been a great attraction to immigrants. Richard of Devizes noted of the city that in 1185: 'All sorts of men crowd here from every country under the heavens.'
Other ports also attracted immigrants. One of the earliest nonconformist registers (dating from 1567) is for a congregation of French-speaking Belgians (Walloons) in Southampton. Flemish and Dutch weavers, however, preferred to settle in eastern England, initially around the village of Worstead in Norfolk (see www.worstead.co.uk/info).
One of largest groups of refugees to come to Britain were the Huguenots (Protestants escaping religious persecution in France). They came in two waves a century apart in the 1570s and 1580s and 1680s and 1690s. Their main settlements were in London (particularly Spitalfields and the East End), Bristol Canterbury, Norwich, Plymouth Rye, Sandwich and Southampton. More information about them can be found at olivetreegenealogy.com/hug/index and www.rootsweb.com/~engcam/HuguenotsandWalloons.
During the 19th century Britain prided itself on the liberal attitude it had towards immigrants. In fact, restrictions were only introduced during the first decade of the 20th century to try to control Jewish migration from Russia and Poland.
Unlike in most other European countries aliens did not have to register with the authorities until 1914. Few, if any, records about individuals at that time survive - so a potentially major source of records does not exist.
Most migrants to Britain were attracted by economic opportunities, or just drifted here for one reason or another. The great writer Joseph Conrad, for example, arrived as a penniless Polish sailor.
By the end of the 19th century most towns and cities had small, close-knit communities of Polish or Russian Jews, Chinese, Italians and Germans - although the Germans were largely expelled during and after the First World War.
Only the East End of London and the docks areas in other cities (especially Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow) had anything approaching the melting pot of nationalities common in America. By far the largest community, however, was the Irish - and because they were regarded as British citizens there are few official records of immigration.
Britain has always had a great maritime tradition. Many sailors (but few officers) came from West Africa (often known as Lascars), East Africa (particularly Somalia) and Asia. They often settled in small multiracial communities near the docks in port towns: Tiger Bay in Cardiff is perhaps the best known example. For more about Tiger Bay click on www.bbc.co.uk/wales/about/baypeople.
In Liverpool Chinese sailors and their families settled in an area by the docks that became known as Chinatown.
Read the Acts of Parliaments dating from 1793 relating to immigration and naturalisation and discover how the legislation created the records of migration at Acts of Parliament and Immigration Records. To read more about Immigration Records (from censuses, passenger lists, certificates of aliens and refugees, internment, naturalisation and merchant seamen records) and to find out where they are, please follow the link provided.
Read our Further Reading Suggestions for Family History Research that we feel are vital to aid you with your research in this area.
Creators: Simon Fowler
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