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Clair Wills on immigrants

Clair Wills talks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new book documenting the experiences of immigrants who arrived in postwar Britain seeking a better life

West Indian immigrants arrive at Victoria Station, London, following their journey from Southampton Docks. Originally published in ‘Picture Post’, 1956. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Getty Images)
Published: September 16, 2017 at 11:10 am
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In context

Following the Second World War, an exhausted Britain witnessed unprecedented levels of migration, as displaced European refugees and economic migrants from across the globe arrived to fill the gaps in the workforce. Clair Wills’ new book aims to reconstruct what life was like for those who arrived in postwar Britain, through the eyes of the immigrants themselves.

Why were you interested in looking at postwar Britain through the eyes of immigrants?

Histories of the postwar period are dominated by the idea that Britain “never had it so good”. In that story, immigration appears only incidentally, when race relations reached crisis point. So we hear about the 1958 Notting Hill riots, the 1964 Smethwick by-election (in which Conservative Peter Griffiths was elected after an explicitly racist campaign), and Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. But what about everything in between? I wanted to get underneath the big political story to the variety of smaller everyday stories about life as an immigrant in postwar Britain.

I was keen to get away from looking at immigrants from the perspective of the host community, as very often they were thought of as a problem, in explicitly racialised terms. Some British people were constantly complaining about immigrants committing crime, increasing queues at the doctor’s, taking up primary school places or being benefit scroungers. So there’s an enormous amount of source material if you want to tell that story. Getting at the other side of the story is much harder. You have to find first-hand accounts from immigrants themselves.

What state was Britain in after the Second World War?

The Ministry of Labour was absolutely panicked about the lack of manpower. It took a long time for those in the armed services to be demobbed, while a number of women who had been corralled into wartime work now wanted to leave. On top of this, the school leaving age was raised in 1947. All of this took large numbers of people out of the workforce. So the ministry was desperate to fill this gap, and encouraging migration was one solution.

With some exceptions, 1940s Britain was a largely monocultural community. Migrants stuck out a mile, even the Irish, who claimed in memoirs that they could recognise each other from a mile away.

What motivated people to move to Britain in this period?

The majority were economic migrants. We think of the wave of ‘Windrush’ migrants from the Caribbean, but until the mid-1950s they were only a tiny proportion of the people who came to work in Britain. Irish, Indian and Punjabi migrants were also moving to Britain, because there was no work for them back home. Meanwhile, the Second World War had left Europe with a huge amount of displaced persons. Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Poles were also brought to Britain from refugee camps in Germany, largely in order to work.

British companies and the government were actively going abroad to source workers on group work schemes. London Transport ran a ‘Barbados scheme’ to recruit bus conductors, while leaflets written in Punjabi offered £10 to anyone who could convince a friend to come and work in Yorkshire’s mills. These schemes could transform communities – Bedford’s London Brick Company sourced its workers from Calabria, and by the end of the 1960s, 20 per cent of Bedford’s population was Italian.

There’s an assumption that migrants took the jobs that British people no longer wanted. But that’s only partly accurate. It’s true that after the war, the British were used to more modern workplaces and didn’t want to work in grim foundries with no toilets, or as cleaners in TB isolation hospitals in the middle of nowhere. Migrants did take these jobs, but they were also filling new jobs, which British people also didn’t want.

As factories and mills modernised, new low-grade jobs were created that were very hard to fill. For example, Yorkshire mills replaced old equipment with expensive new machines that were not worth turning off at night. This created a new night shift that the locals had no intention of working, so migrants from Mirpur and the Punjab were brought in.

What did migrants expect their new lives in Britain to be like?

What is really sad is that the people who had the highest hopes about life here were often those who encountered the worst discrimination. West Indians usually left for Britain amid an atmosphere of celebration. As members of the Commonwealth, they thought they were going to the mother country. I was amazed to discover the number of people who really believed this imperial rhetoric. They had been educated to think that they were part of British culture, but for the most part their dreams of belonging here were cruelly crushed.

The Irish, on the other hand, left home in an atmosphere of absolute dread. The Catholic Truth Society published pocket-sized pamphlets for those going to England, advising them to avoid drinking too much, or fraternising with “women of low repute”. When my mother left Ireland for England in 1948, she was warned to watch out for English men in dancehalls who “couldn’t keep their trousers up”. For the Irish, migration was a moment of resignation, panic, misery and tragedy. There are countless stories of people weeping as the train pulled away, as if they would never return. In a sense, the Irish were right – in this period, emigration really was a door closed on the past. There was no Skype or cheap airfares. Communication was difficult, while journeys took a long time and were often prohibitively expensive.

How successfully did immigrants integrate in this period?

The displaced refugees from Europe’s camps knew very well that they would be staying for good. They could not go home, as borders had been changed and the countries they came from often no longer existed. As they knew they would be in Britain long-term, you would think that these groups would have integrated quickly. But actually, perhaps to do with language difficulties, it was only the second generation of these refugees that became fully at home here.

Meanwhile, most economic migrants arriving at the beginning of the postwar period didn’t imagine they were going to stay for long at all. They generally intended to come to Britain for just a few years before returning home with the money they’d made. For that reason, there was less emphasis on integration.

Things changed in 1962, however, when the Commonwealth Immigrants Act capped migration by ‘unskilled’ workers. While the act was intended to slash immigration levels, in fact it had directly the opposite effect. As large numbers of Indian and Pakistani men could no longer come over alone to work for a few years and send money home, these men decided to bring their families over and settle more permanently. In 1962, before the act, around 1,000 women and children moved to Britain, whereas after, in 1963, this number boomed to around 20,000. Integration was much smoother for people who got married or had families. Once you had children in the school system, you were required to interact with a much more varied section of British society.

What were the most fascinating sources you came across?

I came across a wonderful epic poem, called a Qissa, by Madho Ram, a Punjabi migrant who arrived in Wolverhampton to work in a foundry in 1958. It describes being taken to the pub for the first time, living in overcrowded lodgings and having a relationship with a white woman. Then his wife back home finds out, and things get very dramatic. Ram wrote his Qissa over about 12 years and used to perform it in the local pub.

Another was the writing of the Jamaican-born sociologist Stuart Hall. He moved from London to the West Midlands in the mid-1960s, and spoke about encountering an appalling, openly racist atmosphere there that he hadn’t come across elsewhere in Britain. Hall’s experiences highlight how many indigenous Britons found it hard to open up to difference presented by immigrants, and one response to that was racism.

Part of the story of immigration in this period is one of increasing racism, as what began in the 1940s as xenophobia about outsiders, narrowed and became more particularly focused on colour. In the West Midlands, Hall encountered a disenfranchised community that felt it had been left behind. He described discovering “a historical resentment that latched on to race”, and I think that’s really true of this period.

Where can we still see the impact of postwar immigration today?

From pizza and ice cream to swing music, Indian curry and Italian clothing, there are many brilliant things. But the most important thing the British have gained is a sense of their own difference. Many people found it hard to open up to alternative cultural mores and ways of living. But whether they wanted to or not, the indigenous Britons who found immigrants moving into their areas learnt about difference.

Why do you think the experiences of postwar immigrants are still important in 2017?

As the Brexit referendum highlighted, immigration is a major topic of debate in Britain, so it’s really important that we know about its history. Much of the language still used about immigration – about lack of resources, for example – is the same as that used in the 40s and 50s. I don’t think it can hurt for us to recognise that. If we are still using the same rhetoric under very different circumstances, then perhaps there’s something wrong with the rhetoric.


Clair Wills is the author of Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain (Allen Lane, 464 pages, £25).


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