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International Socialism, March 1977


Joanna Rollo

History of Immigration


From International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, pp.17-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Black people have in the last year faced a concerted attempt to treat them as a scapegoat for the crisis. Calls for tighter immigration controls have come from a spectrum ranging from the National Front to leading members of the Labour Party.

In the first of a two-part article Joanna Rollo shows that Irish and Jewish immigrants were in their day also blamed for the failings of the system. The second part, which we hope to publish in our April issue, will deal with the role of immigrant workers in the modern capitalist economy.

THE RICH tell us that travel broadens the mind but the poor travel through necessity and the history of immigration is a history of transportation in chains, of refuge from brutality, of recruiting leaflets which promise abundant possibilities in this ‘land of opportunity’. But more than anything the history of immigration into industrial Britain is the history of finding cheap labour to fuel industrial expansion.

Immigration is as old as the capitalist system. Elizabeth II’s government plans to deport thousands of black workers, but 400 years ago Elizabeth I deported black slaves who were the domestic servants of the aristocracy:

‘Her Majesty, understands that there are late divers Blackamoors brought into this realme, of which kind there are already too manie ... these kinds of people should be sent forth of the land.’ [1]

From the Irish worker who dug the ditches in the 1840s to the black worker who sweeps the streets today, immigrants have always slotted in at the bottom. They have always been the cheapest source of labour available and they have always been recruited and encouraged to come here for that purpose; encouraged with the promise that things will be better here:

‘In the narrow crooked streets of Whitechapel, in the smelly and dirty holes and corners of the workshops working twelve to fourteen hours a day for a paltry starvation wage ... here have the Jewish workers of Poland, Russia, Germany and Austria ... found their better life?’ Aron Lieberman, Jewish Socialist in 1876. [2]

‘A British person came out to the Philippines and told us of the opportunities that awaited us. There were leaflets and pamphlets which painted a golden picture of training and the jobs that would be open to us afterwards. I paid my fare to come over here, about £150. As I see it we are cheap labour. As soon as I have taken my exams I will receive notice from this hospital. No other hospitals can accept me because of the unemployment’. Jose de la Cruz, nurse, in 1977. [3]

And through the years another pattern emerges. Those who have never felt it necessary to defend workers’ wages or standards of living are the same ones who, in times of crisis, leap to the defence of ‘British’ workers from the ‘immigrant hordes’.

Racialism finds fertile ground in this country, whose ruling class has the oldest traditions of imperialism. (It was the plunder of India that put the ‘loot’ and ‘looting’ into the English language). If people have been told since the day they were born that were it not for the ‘civilising mission’ of the British empire, most of the world’s inhabitants would still be rolling about in the dirt without religion, then it is not difficult to dupe them into believing racialist propaganda about anyone whose great-great grandfather was not called John Smith.

Racialism is not a reaction to skin colour, features or accent or ethnic differences. The racialist offensive against the Irish workers in the early 1800s was every bit as poisonous and baseless as the onslaught on blacks today. The popular image of the Irish was of a dirty, drunken and stupid race – ’little above the savage’. Those ideas were portrayed in magazines like Punch where the Irish were caricatured as anarchistic apes. At the turn of the century the blame for the terrible social conditions – slum housing, sweatshops and unemployment – was laid at the door of the Jewish immigrant.

The dominant ideas in any society are those of the dominant class and racialism is one of the most powerful ideological weapons the ruling classes possess.

Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the history of the last 200 years. It is always when the mass of the working people are stricken by crisis, in the times of social turmoil and upheaval, that the racialists thrust themselves to the fore. During the first half of the 19th century, when thousands of Irish immigrants came to Britain, English workers were fighting for their lives – the industrial revolution was booming, but for those who created the wealth it meant mass unemployment, poverty and despair, in England as well as Ireland.

Why the Irish came here

THE GREATEST number of immigrants at any time were Irish refugees from the famine of 1846 and 1847. ‘Starving Ireland is writhing in the most terrible convulsions,’ wrote Engels in October 1947. [4]

‘Irish emigration to England is getting more alarming each day. It is estimated that an average of 50,000 Irish arrive each year; the number so far this year is already over 220,000. In September 345 were arriving daily and in October this figure increased to 511’.

It is impossible to estimate how many people died in the catastrophe known as the ‘Great Starvation’, but the figure is around one million. It was the greatest human tragedy of the 19th century and it reduced the population of Ireland by a third, through death and emigration.

The potato blight affected crops throughout Europe, but only in Ireland did hundreds of thousands starve to death. Only in Ireland, because only there were most of the people totally dependent on the potato for food.

‘... Their food commonly consists of dry potatoes, and with these they are ... obliged to stint themselves to one spare meal on the day... they sometimes get a herring, or a little milk, but they never get meat except at Christmas, Easter and Shrovetide.’ [5]

In return for his labour the English landlord gave the Irish peasant a piece of land big enough to live on and grow a few potatoes. Every penny earned was spent on rent, any grain grown was sold to pay the rent, any cattle raised went the same way.

During the famine enough food was produced to feed the starving twice over. The cornharvest was superabundant. But all that food was exported to England in the trade in death and misery which made huge profits for the Anglo-Irish landowners. [6]

The revenue from the food trade, and the rents wrung from the Irish peasantry, were invested in English industry, in the Industrial revolution. There was one other great source of wealth in Ireland – cheap labour.

The ‘remedy’ the English thought up for the great famine was forced emigration – the victims of starvation and eviction were shipped out on subsidised vessels, and landed in Liverpool, Glasgow and South Wales. As Marx put it

‘Begin with pauperising the inhabitants of a country, and when there is no more profit to be ground out of them, when they have grown to be a burden to the revenue, drive them away.’ [7]

Once in England the Irish workers found that they were to do the dirtiest, hardest, lowest paid work. Their homes were to be the decaying, rotting slums spawned by the industrial cities. ‘The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses is impossible to describe.’ [8] For more than 50 years before the famine Irish workers had come to Britain. Amongst the first were refugees from the brutal massacre of the United Irishmen’s uprising in 1798 and the systematic persecution that followed it for years. Others came as migrant workers to harvest the land:

"There are parts of Connacht where a man plants his potatoes at the proper season and shuts up his cabin and goes to England and labours; and perhaps his wife and children beg on the roads; and when he comes back to dig his potatoes, with the wages of his English labour in his pocket, he is able to pay a larger sum in rent than he could have extracted from the soil.’ [9]

The greatest numbers of all came to build the infrastructure of modern British industry. Between 1800 and 1850 industrial cities mushroomed all over the country. The products of the manufacturing industry had to be transported between those cities and out to the coast for export (since most people could not afford to buy these goods). Between 1830 and 1850 over 6,000 miles of railway lines were opened up. It was the sweat of the Irish workers more than any others which built those railways, built the roads, dug the canals and the ditches and erected the factories. An estimated 700,000 ‘cheap’ workers, whose mothers and sisters served the system as domestic servants, nurses or prostitutes.

‘The Irish Emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilised population spreading themselves, as a kind of substratum, beneath a more civilised community; and, without excelling in any branch of industry, obtaining possession of all the lowest departments of manual labour’ concluded the Report of the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain in 1836. [10] Apart from the reference to ‘civilised’ that is an exact description of what happened.


‘IN ALL the major industrial centres of England there is a profound antagonism between the Irish and English proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who brings down his wages and standard of living ... This antagonism between the two groups of proletarians within England itself is artificially kept in being ... by the bourgeoisie who know well that this split is the real secret of preserving their own power.’ [11]

Marx wrote that after 1864 but it was as true of the 1800s. There were riots in the 1830s and in the 40s – ’The Hungry Years’ – pitched battles took place between railway navvies. In Glasgow and the Lanarkshire coal fields a sport called ‘Hunting the Barney’ was invented. It was played by chasing and nearly murdering Irish immigrants. The years of Irish immigration were years of unemployment and starvation for English workers. The working class was battered, bruised, and hounded. Those who tried to organise risked execution, imprisonment or, like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were deported. But in the great strikes and uprisings of those years working-class organisation was born.

From the roots of the immigrant Irish came some of the greatest working-class leaders of the time. Men like Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien who helped organise and lead the Chartists. And John Doherty, who worked as a boy in the cotton industry of Meath and became the leader of the Manchester cotton workers, devoting his life to working class organisation. The Association for Civil and Political Liberty, one of the forerunners of the Chartist London Working Men’s Association, was formed in 1828 by radical, anti-O’Connellite Irish immigrants in London, and throughout this period there are hints at shadowy links between revolutionaries in Ireland and England. But that cutting edge of internationalism remained isolated. Most of the Irish immigrants

were unorganised, in a desperately weak situation, the bosses needed them as cheap labour and often used them as scab labour and English workers were taught, first, to despise them

‘The custom of crowding many persons into a single room now so universal, has been chiefly implanted by the Irish immigration ... the southern facile character of the Irishmen, his crudity, which places him little above the savage ... his filth and poverty all favour drunkenness. For work which requires long training or regular application the dissolute, unsteady drunken Irishman is on too low a plane ... but for all simple less exact work, wherever it is a question more of strength than skill, the Irishman is as good as the English man. Such occupations are therefore especially overcrowded with Irishmen; handweavers, porters, jobbers and such workers, count hordes of Irishmen among their number and the pressure of this race has done much to depress wages and lower the working class,’ wrote Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

That he, who three years later published the Communist Manifesto with Marx, could believe such stuff, shows just how unquestioningly and how deeply racialism is embedded in people’s minds. Once the ideas on which racialism breeds were established it was easy enough to lead English workers to believe that the Irish immigrants, not the bosses, threatened their livelihood

In 1811 the Boston Gazette reported:

‘The yeomanry of Lincolnshire have for many years been inviting them (Irish agricultural workers – JR) by public advertisement.’

The paper praises the seasonal worker’s ‘spirit of laborious industry’ and compares him to ‘the greedy Lincolnshire labourer, who desires to make excessive wages through the necessity of the farmer, and whome half a guinea a day, at the height of the season, will not satisfy’. [12] In 1836 a Manchester silk manufacturer is quoted [13]: ‘the moment I have a turnout (strike) and am fast for hands I send to Ireland for ten, fifteen or twenty families ...’ And ‘on at least two occasions, at Newton Heath and Preston, owners of mills brought over bands of immigrants from Ireland for the purpose of strike breaking.’ [14] Thousands of Irish weavers were thrown out of work as the effects of the Act of Union (1801) destroyed the Irish silk and linen industries. Many looked for jobs in England, in the textile mills being built in Manchester, Glasgow, Barnsley, Bolton and Macclesfield. Nearly all were employed as unskilled, ‘few if any are ever employed in the superior processes; they are almost all to be found in the blowing rooms ...’ [15] As textile production was organised into the new factories nearly half a million skilled craftsmen faced unemployment and starvation. Between 1805 and 1833 weavers’ wages fell from 23s a week to 6s 3d a week. [16] The ‘craft’ handloom weaving was destroyed and skilled men made redundant and replaced with manual workers in the factories. Little wonder that the weavers in Britain could be persuaded to see the Irish as their ruin.

Time and again the reports refer to the industrious, hard working ‘nature’ of the Irish in Britain. In 1836, a ‘Birmingham industrialist’ considered the Irish ‘very valuable labourers, and we could not do without them. By treating them kindly, they will do anything for you ... when you push them they have a willingness to oblige which the English have not ...’ [17] That is true of a section of Irish immigrants, but they were conscientious workers only because the imperialist English had beaten them into subservience in the first place. The ruling classes may have preached about ‘treating them kindly’; they certainly did not practice it. During the 1800s they were responsible for the most devastating rape of Ireland and brutal subjugation of its people. To give the absolute horror that resulted from their action a veneer of acceptability, they asserted that the Irish people were no more than the sheep and cattle with which they were being replaced. The attitude of the English aristocracy is reflected by a Royal Duke, in 1846:

‘I understand that rotten potatoes and seaweed – or even grass – properly mixed, afford a very wholesome and nutritious food. We all know that the Irishman can live upon anything and there is plenty of grass in the fields even if the potatoes should fail.’ [18]

The racial hatred rooted in that period continues to this day, but during the 1880s the racialist scapegoating found a new target.

Jewish immigrants: 1880-1912

IN THE 1880s decades of discrimination and persecution of the Jews in Russia came to a head. The Russian Tsars unleashed a massa’cre, hundreds of thousands were brutally attacked and their homes and properties were looted and burned by drunken mobs. Thousands fled the persecution, some of them sought refuge in England – over 30,000 between 1881 and 1891.

Jews had been settling in the East End for many years and it was to East London that most of the Jewish refugees made their way. The rest travelled to the industrial cities of northern England – Leeds, Manchester, Salford.

At the time the East End was the home of London’s poorest workers: It was the most densely populated area in Europe, filled with slums and sweatshops. It was so crowded that new building could only be erected by demolishing houses to make room for them. Between 1891 and 1901 homes in Stepney decreased from 7,277 to 5,735. The overcrowding was made worse since room had to be found not only for displaced families, but also for those who came to work in the new workshops.

A Jewish revolutionary, Rudolf Rocker, describes what the East End was like in the 1890s:

‘... There were at that time thousands of people in London who had never slept in a bed, who just crept into some filthy hole, where the police would not disturb them. I saw with my own eyes thousands of human beings who could hardly be considered such, people who were no longer capable of any kind of work. They went about in foul rags, through which their skin showed, dirty and lousy, never free from hunger, starving, scavenging their food out of dustbins and the refuse heaps that were left behind after the markets closed. ‘There were squalid courts and alley-ways, with dreary tumbledown hovels, whose stark despair it is impossible to describe. And in these cesspools of poverty, children were born and people lived, struggling all their lives with poverty and pain, shunned like lepers by all ‘decent’ members of society.’ [19]

The sweatshops flourished in the East End, employing men, women and children in trades which were undergoing reorganisation into factory methods of production – tailor and bootmaking mainly. Most of the immigrants who could find work were employed in the tailoring trade. (Many couldn’t and had to subsist on handouts from organisations like the Poor Jews Temporary Shelter, or the much less charitable Jewish Board of Guardians). Many of the sweatshops were owned by Jewish masters, like Samuel Montagu, Liberal MP, who became a millionaire from the conditions that gave those places their name and reputation:

‘At all hours of the day and night the street resounds with the rattle and whir of the sewing machines ... in one street there was a house where women worked from 7 a.m. to 1.30 at night ... ‘In Hanbury street we found eighteen workers crowded in a small room measuring eight yards by four and a half yards and not quite eight feet high. The first two floors of this house were let out to lodgers who were also Jews. Their rooms were clean, but damp, as the water was coming through the rotting walls ... in (another) room the floor was broken and the fireplace giving way. The boards of the stairs were so worn that in some places they were only a quarter of an inch thick and broke under extra pressure.’ [20]

The Jewish workers were a source of cheap labour for an expanding industry. The clothing trade was booming. At the time shoes and clothes were the main consumer goods for the working class market. Production of these goods was being organised into factories and the demand for cheap ready made clothes for increasing numbers of industrial workers was soaring.

The Jewish ‘Community’

ONLY A handful of the Jewish immigrants became millionaire financiers, the vast majority were pauper refugees, but nevertheless there was a popular image of the ‘rich Jew’. In 1894 Ben Tillet, Secretary of the Dockers Union, wrote in Labour Leader:

‘If getting on is the most desirable thing in this earth, then the Jew, as the most consistent and determined moneygetter we know is worthy of the greatest respect. That his money-grubbing is not universally respected only proves that the bulk of civilised nations, even now, do not believe in the commercialistic ideal of clean hands and blood-stained money.’ [21]

The Jewish community was far from homogeneous. At the top were the Chief Rabbi and men like Rothschild and Sir Samuel Montagu, who visited Poland in 1892 to try and stop further emigration to England. Lewis Sinclair, Jewish Conservative candidate for Romford in 1897, told his adoption meeting:

‘Now gentlemen I want to tell you that I am for “England for the English”; I want England to come first, second and third, and the foreigners to come a long way after. I say that the immigration of pauper aliens ... should in every way be withstood.’ [22]

And at the bottom, making the fortunes of the Montagus and the Rothschilds, were the wretched sweatshop workers.

As early as 1876 Jewish revolutionaries began a struggle that lasted over 30 years – the organisation of the sweatshop workers: In that year the newly formed Hebrew Socialist Union put out a leaflet for a mass meeting which read as follows:

‘It is known that working men find themselves everywhere in distressing conditions ... but however difficult life may be for all workers, it is worse for the Jewish workers, especially here in London, where the Jew has to work harder and longer and yet receives less wages than the non-Jew. Why is this? Because the Jewish workers are not as united as others. Here in England the Trades Unions consisting of thousands of workers’ societies in different occupations are closely banded together to protect themselves against the employers. But among the Jews there is no unity and the masters can do what they please. Thus we not only suffer from disunity but also as a result draw upon us the dislike and hostility of the English workers who accuse us of harming their interests.’ [23]

The first socialist paper to appear was the Poilishe Yidl in 1884, which talked to its reader ‘as a man, as a Jew and as a worker’ [24], and called on them to organise:

‘What good is talk when Jewish workers are complaisant, smug and nothing perturbs them? ... What one cannot or is afraid to do alone can be done by a host, by a united workers’ party.’ [25]

In 1885 Poilishe Yidl was followed by the monthly Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend), published from 1886 onwards by the International Workers’ Education Club in Berner Street. That year enough money was collected for the paper to go weekly. The weekly Arbeter Fraint was written in ‘the more popular vernacular and the circulation soared. It helped to stimulate the drive towards unionisation both in London and the provinces. Small trade unions under workers’ leadership sprang into existence in the major tailoring and shoemaking trades ... in Leeds the Jewish socialists responded by forming a workers educational union which generated the largest and strongest trade union in the clothing industry.’ [26] Towards the end of the 1880s depression set in again. Workers everywhere began to organise against rising unemployment and the bosses’ offensive, not least the Jewish workers.

In March 1889 2,000 marched to the Great Synagogue to demand ‘work, bread and the eight hour day’. Their lead banner described them as ‘Jewish unemployed and Sweaters’ victims’, and at a rally after the march the speakers called on the Jewish workers ‘not to depend upon the rich classes but to organise in a strong body for the abolition of the capitalist class’. [27] Unemployed Jewish workers continued organising during the years of the crisis. When the Chief Rabbi, to whom they first addressed their demands, refused to help and openly sided with the sweatshop masters, they occupied the synagogues. Their activities outraged the press, especially the London Evening News:

‘It is a natural result of our previous humane treatment of the Jewish immigrant ... It is bad enough to have these people coming over here to undersell our workers, but it will be little beyond endurance if they begin to riot in the streeets because we fail to find employment for them’ (24 January 1894). [28]

1889 and the Rise of Jewish Trade Unions

1889 WAS a year of massive class struggles. The newly organised gas workers won the eight hour day and a shilling an hour increase just by threatening strike action. 12,000 workers joined the victory march from the Embankment to Hyde Park. The dockers went on strike and in August called for an all London general strike to support their action. Amongst the first to respond were the leaders of the Jewish tailors unions. Their manifesto reads:

‘We have decided to join in the general demand for increased comfort and shorter hours of labour. Our hours at present being in an average from fourteen to eighteen per day, in unhealthy and dirty dens, we demand: ... that the hours be reduced to 10½ ... government contractors to pay wages at trade union rates ... we now appeal for the support of all tailors to join us and enable us to successfully enforce our demands.’ [29]

In the first three weeks of the strike over 6,000 Jewish tailoring workers walked out. The Balance Sheet of the Great Strike gives an idea of the solidarity they won through their action. Over £100 was collected in workplaces, meeting on the streets and through levies, by the craft unions, and the Dock Labourers Strike Committee donated £100. The introduction to the Balance Sheet reads:

‘We cannot refrain from emphasising with great pleasure the fact that the readiness and fraternal spirit shown to us by the trade union organisations and other English working men’s bodies armed us with a most effective weapon to carry the fight to victory. We only hope that our brethren all over the Globe will not fail to take a grand lesson of solidarity from the Dock Labourers’ strike, as well as from this of the tailors and other ... a lesson that will lead the workers of all countries to their complete emancipation and real happiness.’ [30]

Arbeter Fraint campaigned for other Jewish workers to follow the tailor’s lead, and produced a special edition during the general strike. By 1889 all functioning Jewish unions recognised the paper as their official organ.

After 1889 the strike movement declined. But the wave of unionisation it sparked off spread to Jewish workers. By 1896 there were 13 Jewish trade unions and double that number by 1902.

The Racialist Offensive

UNEMPLOYMENT ROSE sharply in the early 1890s, Kier Hardie estimated it at one million in 1893 – 10% of the working population. Between 1890 and 1900 a further 50,000 refugees entered the country. So it was in a time of great social crisis, when the working class was under vicious attack, that the racialists made their bid for an audience. Three of the noisiest and nastiest were the Earl of Dunraven, Arnold White and Sir Howard Vincent. All of them were associated with the Fair Trade League, which since 1887, had been demanding measures like import and immigration controls to ‘protect’ British industry. From 1890 on they led a massive campaign against immigrant Jewish workers. The methods they used were very like those used by today’s racialists. Vincent conjured up the image of ‘floods’ of immigrants arriving ‘in battalions and taking the bread out of the mouths ... of English wives and children’. [31] ‘Many men and women, struggling to keep a home over their heads, but driven out of work by the foreigner, who could ‘live on less’, and who would take less, and work longer, have said to me, ‘What’s the use? The Jews are coming in by thousands and there will be nothing left?’ wrote Arnold White in The Destitute Alien in Britain. [32]

The London Evening News joined the hue and cry and for three months its headlines screamed ‘Shut the Gates’ against ‘The Jewish Invasion’. It gave front page coverage to every racialist utterance and invented its own ‘facts’ when the truth contradicted it.

In 1891 White and Dunraven founded the Association for Preventing the Immigration of Destitute Aliens – they described its aims as ‘the protection of British workmen’. The racialist message was meant for workers – Jewish immigrants are taking your homes, your jobs, the very food from your mouths. Get rid of the Jews and you’ll solve your problems. And that message got some response.

Working class reaction

BOTH BEN Tillet and J. Havelock Wilson, Secretary of the Seamen’s Union spoke at the first meeting of the Association. However, ‘the organisers seem to have had some difficulty in dissuading speakers from using the platform for more general views about foreign seamen and the nature of the capitalist system.’ [33]

The words Tillet used to welcome a newly arrived group of immigrants at the London docks seem to reflect a fair section of trade union feeling at the time:

‘Yes, you are our brothers and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come.’ [34]

By 1891 more than 43 unions and trades councils had passed anti-immigrant resolutions, including the Dockers Union, ASLEF and the Miners’ Association (Durham). John Hodges chairing a session of the 25th TUC in Glasgow, September 1892, deplored ‘the enormous immigration of destitute aliens ... who take work at any price (so that) tailoring and kindred trades have been practically ruined’ [35], and the delegates passed, without vote or discussion, a resolution calling for restriction on the numbers of ‘foreign pauper labour’. The TUC congresses of 1894 and 1895 passed similar resolutions as did a number of trades councils.

A steady flow of racialist propaganda had turned fear of unemployment and weakening organisation into hositility towards Jewish workers. Some of the strongest anti-immigrant lobby were the leaders of the skilled unions representing trades employing Jewish workers. Goodman, Executive member of the Liverpool Operative Tailors Society complained that ‘unrestricted alien labour would force out native labour in large cities’. [36] The National Secretary of the Amalgamated Brass Workers called for regulation to ‘put an end to an evil which has been the means of providing a surplus labour market to become a ready prey to sweaters.’ [37] William Marston, Leeds branch of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors believed that

‘Subdivision of Labour is peculiar to aliens. English workmen are only considered proficient if they can make a garment from start to finish.’ [38]

Even men like Tom Mann and John Burns, President of the Dockers Union, fell into the trap. The Evening News reported Mann as saying that Jewish workers were causing unemployment in the Docks [39] and Mann supported a resolution to the London Trades Councils which declared:

‘In consequence of the efforts of trade unionists to organise the workers in towns and agricultural districts being largely nullified by the unrestricted admission of foreigners into this country representations should be made to the government to exercise tighter control.’ [40]

Burns, Mann and Tillet had all supported the Jewish tailors’ strike, speaking to strikers’ meetings, raising funds, etc., in 1889, and the Jewish workers had proved themselves solid trade unionists then, yet hardly 3 years later that seems to have been forgotten.

Many believed that immigrant labour was scab labour, since the bosses had a long tradition of importing foreign workers to break strikes. It was to stop scab trade that the International Working Men’s Association (the First International), was formed in 1864. There were also thousands of unorganised Jewish workers in the sweatshops who worked for next to nothing for hours on end but they were no more the cause of the ‘sweated labour’ system than their English brothers and sisters.

Skilled unions had been in existence for more than 50 years. They represented craftsmen and artisans, workers who were being displaced as their trades were transformed into factory methods of production. The Jewish worker, concentrated in these trades, was blamed for the decline of craft production, and the craftsmen joined the offensive against them. The unionisation of unskilled workers was relatively new, it had made huge gains in the strike wave of 1889, but in the years of crisis those gains were being steadily eaten away. Mann, Burns and Tillet were the pioneers of the ‘new unionism’. They were looking for solutions to very real difficulties, but they were dangerously deluded when they put the blame on immigrant workers.

Commercial recovery began in the mid-1890s and the racialists took a back seat for a few years. But the propaganda had served its purpose – it had diverted a growing anger that could have found its real enemy had it not been deluded into hounding Jewish workers. In 1895 Howard Vincent was jubilant:

‘I have recently addressed meetings in all parts of the country, and there is no more popular topic. The great distress will make it more so. Radical and Trades Union deputations came to see me even among South Wales Miners (who could never have seen an alien) to urge the matter.’ [41]

Had Jewish organisation been stronger at the time the story might have been different. But here too there were grave problems. Newcomers were very difficult to organise and most Jewish workers were organised into separate and therefore weak unions. Arbeter Fraint was still the only socialist paper for Jewish workers, controlled by the anarchists after 1892, and throughout the 1890s it suffered severe lack of finance and often didn’t appear. But Jewish organisation wasn’t destroyed – some trade unionists organised protests against the TUC resolutions – in 1894 through a meeting in Whitechapel, and after the 1895 resolution Jewish workers produced a pamphlet Voice from the Alien.

The tradition of solidarity, begun in 1889, continued. In 1893 a Jewish Workers’ Committee sent £34 to the Miners’ General relief fund.

‘All London Jewish Unions supported the engineering strike of 1897, sold penny tickets printed in Yiddish, and organised a procession through the East End, while the Cigarette Makers levied 3d on each member, even the girls.’ [42]

It was that solidarity which helped win English workers away from the racialists’ ‘solution’ and the small steps that had been made were crucial in the next few years.

The British Brothers League – Forerunner of the National Front

BY 1900 Unemployment was rising again. At the same time refugees from the pogroms in Moscow and Kishinev arrived in England and a new wave of racialist agitation began. In 1899 J. Havelock Wilson, Seamen’s Secretary (who was later to scab on the general strike) declared: ‘Workmen through the country are generally in favour of some legislation on the subject (of immigration)’. [43] By 1904 there was legislation – the Aliens Bill – the first law passed to control immigration. The man chiefly responsible for the passing of the Aliens Bill was Major W. Evans

A year earlier he had founded the British Brothers League, one of the first fascist organisations in this country. The League was active and gathered a lot of support, mainly in East London. Mass meetings were held in 1901 and 1902 and at one of them, in the People’s Palace in the East End, a crowd of 6,000 cheered when immigrant Jews were described as ‘rubbish’, ‘contents of dustbins’, ‘savages’ and ‘scum of the earth’. The propaganda was aimed at workers: ‘the immigration of destitute foreigners affects all classes, the working man is the most directly concerned. Consequently it was to the working Men of East London that I first appealed,’ said another of the League’s founders. [45]

In East London that appeal hit on target. Meetings of the League were stewarded by ‘big, brawny stalwarts, dock labourers, chemical workers from Bromley and operatives from Shoreditch, Bow, Poplar, Stepney, Bethnal Green and Mile End’. [46] In Tower Hamlets the League collected 45,000 signatures from ‘working men’ for a petition demanding immigration control.

But elsewhere trade unionists were turning their backs on the racialists. Manchester Trades Council and the Jewish Tailors Union jointly organised a public meeting in Heaton Park against the Aliens Bill. The Dock Labourers National Union submitted an undiscussed resolution against the Bill to the 1904 TUC, and John Burns spoke against the Bill at that Congress. The ILP wrote to the Times:

‘... to His Majesty’s Government, the alien question is a matter of locality – and money. If you are a chinaman you are welcome in South Africa, and if you are a millionaire you are equally welcome in Park Lane, but if you are a Jewish tailor flying from injustices and persecution you are not welcome in England at all.’ [47]

Jewish organisation had also strengthened – the policy of seperate unions was beginning to be abandoned.

From 1903 Arbeter Fraint grew in circulation and influence and was campaigning for Jewish workers to organise and join English unions. In April 1904 the anarchists called a mass meeting in Whitechapel to call for a general strike to abolish the sweating system – the meeting was packed – all 5,000 seats were taken and the police turned hundreds more away. By 1906 Arbeter Fraint was selling 5,000 copies a week:

‘Young girls who slaved in the sweatshops for a weekly pittance of ten or twelve shillings literally took the bread from their mouths to give the movement a few pennies ... in many workshops the workers nailed a cigar box to the wall, and dropped their pennies in it: for the Arbeter Fraint.‘ [48]

Jewish workers joined the wave of strikes in 1911, and in 1912 13,000 immigrant tailors walked out in support of 1,500 highly skilled West End tailors. And the Jewish workers gave as much support as they could to the dockers’ strike. As the strike dragged on and the dockers’ families faced starvation the Jewish people collected money, sent food and over 300 of the dockers’ children were taken in and fed and cared for by Jewish families.

Maybe 24 years later those children were amongst the dockers who led the militant vanguard of the movement that stopped Moseley marching through the East End.

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1. Socialist Worker, July 1976.

2. East End Jewish Radicals: 1875-1914, W.J. Fishman p.103.

3. Evening Standard, 2nd February 1977.

4. Marx and Engels: Articles on Britain, p.161.

5. The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson, p.472.

6. See Marx and Engels – Articles on Britain, p.161.

7. Ibid., p.162.

8. Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels, p.124.

9. Ireland Her Own, T.A. Jackson, p.207.

10. E.P. Thompson, p.476.

11. The First International and After, p.117.

12. E.P. Thompson, p.471.

13. Ibid.

14. The Great Hunger, C. Woodham-Smith, p.278.

15. E.P. Thompson, p.474.

16. Industry and Empire, E.J. Hobsbawn, p.93.

17. E.P. Thompson, p.474.

18. T.A. Jackson, p.245.

19. W.J. Fishman, p.235.

20. Ibid., p.50.

21. The English and Immigration – a comparative study of the Jewish Influx, John Garrad, p.191.

22. Ibid., p.56.

23. W.J. Fishman, p.112.

24. Ibid., p.140.

25. Ibid., p.147.

26. Ibid., p.154.

27. Ibid., p.166.

28. Ibid., p.205.

29. Ibid., p.170.

30. Ibid., Appendix 2.3.

31. The Alien Invasion, Bernard Gainer, p.6.

32. Ibid., p.20.

33. John Garrad, p.131.

34. Ibid., p.157.

35. W.J. Fishman, p.78.

36. Ibid., p.83.

37. Ibid., p.78.

38. John Garrad, p.161.

39. B. Gainer, p.23.

40. Ibid., p.31.

41. Ibid., p.95.

42. John Garrad, p.180.

43. W.J. Fishman, p.89.

44. [There is no Note 44. – ETOL]

45. W.J. Fishman, p.245.

46. Ibid., p.246.

47. B. Gainer, p.153.

48. Fishman, p.257.

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Last updated on 12.1.2008