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A History of Immigration to Britain

Some people say that Britain has always been a "nation of immigrants". How true is this? Alistair McConnachie compiled this document to record – all in one place – the levels of immigration prior to the early 1950s. The takeaway is that prior to this point, immigration was very gradual, sometimes unwelcome, and mostly so few as to be unnoticeable to the vast majority. It demonstrates that levels today are a historic abnormality. All emphases are our own.


At the end of the Mesolithic time, 4,000 BC, there may have been around 3,000 people in Britain. At the beginning of the Bronze Age, 2,500 BC, the population has been estimated at 20,000, and rising, by the later Bronze Age, 1000-700 BC, to around 100,000. By 100 BC there may have been around 250,000 people in Britain, which had risen to 500,000 by 50 BC. (1)


These were the related tribes of the Britons, Scots/Gaels and Picts. Celtic languages evolved during the Later Bronze Age, around 1000 BC. Where did they come from? There is little to suggest major population movement occurred during the Iron Age, 700 BC-43 AD.

The Celts descended in large part from Britain's own Neolithic people. (2)

ROMANS 43-410 AD

The invasion saw around 20,000 combat troops and the same number of auxiliaries, making a figure of around 40-45,000. (3) The Romans kept around 16,000 legionaries stationed here, with perhaps around the same number of dependants and auxiliaries, (4) some of whom would be drawn from the native population. Paul Johnson writes, "For the mass of the British, the Roman occupation was a disaster." (5)

Their course of conquest led to the destruction of the Celtic societies of the south. Estimates for the population by 200 AD vary between 1 and 2 million. (6)


Leslie Alcock writes:

...Bede tells us that 'three very powerful German peoples' were involved, 'that is Saxons, Angles and Jutes'. Archaeology and place-names studies would add other names to these, including Franks, Frisians and Suevi. Broadly speaking, we have to deal with ethnic and cultural elements coming from as far apart as the Lower Rhine and the tip of the Jutish peninsula...He tells us that the 'race of the English or Saxons'...came 'from three very strong tribes of Germany'...He explains that the Saxon homeland was the region 'now known as Old Saxony', while that of the Angles was the 'land called Angulus...between the provinces of the Jutes and the Saxons'. Angulus must correspond broadly with the modern Angeln towards the base of the Schleswig-Jutland peninsula; the territory of the Jutes lay in the northern part of that peninsula; and Old Saxony was the land between the Elbe and the Weser. We have no means of knowing what mixture of oral tradition and pure speculation lay behind Bede's analysis, but for more than a century archaeologists have been collecting material to confirm and amplify it. (7)

Frisians were from the Frisian Islands and the area to the north of the Netherlands, and the Franks were from areas along the Rhine and Merovingian Gaul. The Suevi (also spelled Suebi) or Suebians were Germanic peoples originally from the Elbe river region in what is now Germany and the Czech Republic.

"To this amalgam the term 'Anglo-Saxon' can well be applied" writes Alcock, (8) and suggests "in the sixth century the Anglo-Saxon element in the population of Britain amounted to no more than fifty to a hundred thousand." (9)

Alcock believes the population around 200 AD was at least a million but that it had declined markedly by the start of the fifth century.

Paul Johnson writes:

Arthur's [circa 475-537] real achievement was that he delayed, indeed for a time reversed, the progress of Germanic settlement. This had important consequences, for it prevented the British from being exterminated in, or wholly expelled from, the lowland area. It is true that British culture disappeared almost completely. (10)


Notoriously disinclined to celebrate diversity, the Viking "immigrants" brought terror, death, destruction, and the almost complete eradication of the indigenous Christian culture. The first Viking attack was recorded in 789 AD at Portland, Dorset, and then in 793 AD against the Angles monastery of Lindisfarne, and then in 795 against Iona Abbey.

Alfred of Wessex, King of the English, repulsed the Danes at the end of the 9th century, but the Northmen were too strong to be permanently defeated, and Canute, King of Denmark and Norway, triumphed in 1016.

Viking history effectively ended in England with the Battle of Hastings, although it lasted longer in Scotland with Magnus Barefoot's seizure of the Western Isles between 1098 and 1104. King Haakon IV's Northmen were finally defeated at the Battle of Largs on 2 October 1263.

What numbers are we talking about? Lloyd and Jennifer Laing write:

In the late seventh century the Laws of Ine of Wessex announce that 'up to seven men' were thieves, 'from seven to thirty-five a band and above three dozen an army'. In 786 Cynheard's army amounted to eighty-five men, which was nearly sufficient to capture Wessex from king Cynewulf. Hengist and Horsa are described as having come over in three ships, while Cerdic and Cynric came over in five. In other words, war bands coming to England were of the order of 100-250 men. (11)

This suggests that Viking voyagers should be numbered in the hundreds, not thousands.


Writing of the Norman invasion and "Continental" takeover, Paul Johnson writes:

When William dismissed his mercenaries in 1070, nearly all returned to France...The probability is that the Continental settlement did not involve more than 10,000 people – and perhaps as few as 5,000 out of a population of well over a million. England simply acquired a new ruling class. (12)


- All these people were different tribes of the same European race.

- Their numbers were few.

- They came, predominantly, from a small part of Northern Europe.

- They were not so much "immigrants" but settlers.

- Sometimes they were invaders and their initial presence was often physically resisted.

- As such they changed, and often violently destroyed, the original culture.

- In some cases, they took over the reins of government.

- They were entering a land which was virtually empty, and which remained so, right up until the 17th Century, and arguably later!

- This migration process occurred over two thousand years.

- There were not millions of people waiting to follow them.

JEWS 1066-1290, from 1656, and particularly 1881-1914 and 1933-39

Until relatively recently, Jews represented the only substantial non-Christian presence in Britain. The first definite settlement occurred shortly after 1066. It has been suggested that they may have helped finance the invasion. (13)

Their main activity was money-lending. For example, Magna Carta 1215 declares, "If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age..."

Paul Johnson has written that Magna Carta undermined the economic basis of English medieval Jewry. (14)

Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and founder of the first English Parliament, decreed in 1231 that: "No jew or jewess in my time, or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world shall inhabit or remain, or obtain a residence in Leicester." (15)

In 1290, the community of around 5,000 (16) was expelled by Edward I. Another estimate claims the figure "exceeded fifteen thousand." (17)

Paul Johnson has written: "In the fourteenth century English agriculture suffered grievously from the absence of Jewish finance, and the failure to provide a native substitute." (18)

By 1348, England's population has been estimated at between 4.5 and 6 million. (19)

Menasseh Ben Israel, from Amsterdam, was concerned about the security of Jews in Holland, and wanted to see England opened up as a country of refuge.

To that end, in 1650, he published The Hope of Israel aimed at Christian fundamentalists, which argued that Jews had to be scattered throughout the world, including England, before the Messiah would return.

He presented a petition to Oliver Cromwell on the matter. Cromwell favoured the readmission of Jews for predominantly commercial reasons. He called a convention in Whitehall to discuss the matter in December 1655.

It decided there was no law preventing re-admittance because, it argued, Edward's act had been one of Royal Prerogative – but it could not agree to readmission. However, Cromwell had made it clear that he was unopposed, and although no law was passed enabling their residence, and with Charles II subsequently unopposed either, Jews began to re-settle. (20)

William of Orange embarked upon a policy of encouraging wealthy Dutch Jews, who were also financing his operations, to settle in Britain.

Geoffrey Alderman writes (his reference here is to the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the subsequent creation of the official "National Debt"):

As a corollary, however, the Jews had to become the staunchest supporters of the Glorious Revolution of 1688...As shareholders in the National Debt, the richer sections of the community risked financial ruin had there been a Stuart restoration; for such an event would certainly have been followed by a repudiation of government debts. (21)

In 1685 there were 400 Jews in Great Britain, which had doubled by the end of the century. In 1753 there were probably less than 8,000. By 1815, there were around 20-30,000. (22)

The next period of Jewish immigration was from Russia, Lithuania and Poland towards the end of the 19th Century.

David Coleman, Oxford University writes:

The Jews who fled from the Russian Empire (including Poland) and Romania, especially after 1882, seeking entry to Britain and other Western countries, were not so welcome. For the most part they were unskilled and destitute. They were conspicuous by appearance, language and religion. It was a migration unique in British history. There had been poor religious refugees before (like the 10,000 'poor Palatines' of the reign of Queen Anne [1702-1714]), but never had there been non-Christian refugees in such numbers. The return of the Sephardi Jews (expelled in 1290) from 1656 onwards began as a tiny migration which had grown to a prosperous and well established community by the 19th century. The arrival of the East European Ashkenazi Jews in large numbers (about 120,000 inferred from the Census of 1911), their concentration in certain areas, the pressure they imposed on housing and employment, provoked growing demands for immigration control. (23)

Around 55,000 Jews arrived between 1933-1939. (24)

In 1995 there were 285,000 Jews in Britain, down from a post-war high of 400,000. (25)

In 2021 there were 271,000 identifying with the Jewish religion in England and Wales according to 2021 Census figures here, and its table below.

LOMBARDS and HANSA 1250-1598

These were small numbers of merchants from Lombardy in Italy, and from the Hanseatic League, a trading association of German and Baltic towns.

Based in London, Lombards gradually replaced Jews as the country's financiers, during this period. The Hansa merchants were squeezed out when their operation near London Bridge was closed down in 1598. (26)


The Flemish and Walloons came from "The Low Counties" which are now Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and parts of northern France and Germany.

They came to East Anglia in the 13th and 14th century spurred by warfare, civil strife and good wool. They came in the 16th century escaping religious persecution.

In 1440 there were 16,000 foreigners in England, (27) among a population estimated between 2 and 2.5 million, which had fallen by at least 60 percent since the Black Death. (28)

GYPSIES from 1500

Gypsies began to arrive in small numbers around this time. Elizabeth I tried to expel them with her 1562 Egyptian Act. (29)

HUGUENOTS 1560-1720

Protestants from France began coming in earnest around 1685, and increasingly after 1688.

W. Cunningham writes that around 80,000 landed in England and Ireland. Some moved to America and Germany and perhaps around 40,000 remained. (30)

The Campaign for Racial Equality estimates 50,000 Huguenot newcomers between 1680 and 1720. (31)

In 1558 the population was around 2,500,000. Between 1603-1625, it has been estimated at between 4-4.5 million, and 5,600,000 in 1630. In 1750 the population of Great Britain was probably a little over 7,000,000. (32)

PALATINES 1693-1709

Palatines from the German Palitinate were largely unskilled and destitute. They were based initially in Southwark. By October 1709, an estimated 13,000 had arrived in England. Some moved on to Bolton and Liverpool, while others continued to Ireland, the West Indies and America. (33)

AFRICANS 1555-1833 and onwards, and WEST INDIANS

Africans arrived in small numbers due to Britain's involvement in the slave trade.

For example, Elizabeth I issued an open letter on 11 July 1596 when the population of Britain was around 3 million, which read:

Her Majestie understanding that there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie...Her Majesty's pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande, and for that purpose there ys direction given to this bearer Edwarde Banes to take of those blackmoores that in this last voyage under Sir Thomas Baskervile were brought into this realme the nomber of tenn, to be transported by him out of the realme. Wherein wee require you to be aydinge and assysting unto him as he shall have occacion, therof not to faile (34)

Again in 1601 she issued a proclamation which declared herself to be:

"highly discontented to understand the great numbers of negars and Blackamoores which are crept into this realm...who are fostered and relieved here to the great annoyance of her own liege people...should be with all speed avoided and discharged out of this Her Majesty's dominions. (35)

Numbers continued to remain small – albeit to manie for Elizabeth.

However, towards the end of the 18th century, at the height of the slave trade, there was a more substantial population estimated variously between 10-20,000, mainly centred around London and the ports, in a total population in England and Wales of 9,000,000. (36)

It declined during the course of the 19th century, and according to David Killingray, census returns suggested the following estimated figures for Africans in the UK:

1911 - 4,540.

1921 - 4,940.

1931 - 5,202.

1951 - 11,000.

Most came from West Africa, were male, and lived mainly in London or the other major ports of Liverpool, Bristol and Cardiff. (37) Killingray believes the designation "African" was intended to include immigrants from the Caribbean and America.

The West Indian Comes to England states:

The movement of West Indians to the United Kingdom was unimportant until 1954 and it would appear that the number never exceeded 1,000 per year before 1951, with an average of 2,000 in 1952 and 1953. In 1954 the figure was 10,000 and in the three succeeding years rose to over 20,000 per year: 1955 - 24,473, 1956 - 26,441, 1957 - 22,473, 1958 - 16,511...The estimated West Indian population in the United Kingdom at 31st December, 1957 was 99,823. (38)

The 1991 Census put the black population at 890,727.

The 2021 Census put the black population of England and Wales only, at 2,409,278 which was up from 1,864,890 in 2011 (see Appendix below).

INDIANS AND CHINESE 1700 and onwards

There was no organised migration of Indians into Britain before WW2.

However, tiny numbers of sailors, students, and professionals had been entering Britain since India's first contact with the Empire. Most returned after their mission was accomplished.

As recently as 1939 the Indian population of the City of Birmingham was estimated at 100 – that is, one hundred. (39)

The total of both Indians and Pakistanis in Britain in 1955 was 10,700. (40)

The 1991 Census put the number of Indians and Pakistanis at 840,255 and 476,555 respectively, and 162,835 Bangladeshis.

The 2021 Census put the number of Indians and Pakistanis in England and Wales only, at 1,864,318 and 1,587,819 respectively, which was up from 1,412,958 and 1,124,511 in 2011. There were 644,881 Bangladeshis, up from 447,201 in 2011 (see Appendix below).

Most of the early Chinese arrived as seamen, after the treaties of Nanking in 1842 and Peking in 1860 opened up China to British trade. However, their population in Britain remained very small.

In 1871 it was recorded as 207, and as 1,319 in 1911. (41)

The 1991 Census put the number of Chinese in Britain at 156,938.

The 2021 Census put the number of Chinese in England and Wales only, at 445,919 which was up from 393,141 in 2011 (see Appendix below).


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a steady trickle of people from all over Europe. In England and Wales, the 1871 census recorded 32,823 Germans out of an overall European-born population of 89,829, in a total English and Welsh population of approximately 33 million.

Scotland's population at the time was around 3,350,000.

In 1911 the English and Welsh census recorded 53,324 foreign-born Germans. (42)

In England and Wales, the 1871 census recorded an Italian population of 5,063 and by 1911 this number was 20,389. In Scotland, census returns for these years were 268 and 4,594 Italians respectively. (43)

BELGIANS 1914-1918

Some 19,000 wounded Belgian soldiers arrived during the war. In addition, 240,000 Belgian refugees were scattered throughout Britain by 1919. (44) Virtually all were repatriated, and in 1921 there were 9,892 recorded in Britain. (45)


In the 1931 census there were 44,462 people claiming Poland as their birthplace. Those who arrived during WW2 and stayed on, constitute the core of the present-day Polish community. In 1951 there were 162,339 Polish-born people in Britain. By 1971 the figure had dropped to 110,925. (46)


There were 334,000 German and Italian POWs employed in areas such as agriculture. (47) Some 15,700 Germans and 1,000 Italians remained after the war. The rest were repatriated. (48) After WW2, work-permit schemes recruited Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Austrians and Poles, although not all remained.

Kathleen Paul writes:

A conservative tally of the total number of aliens recruited under the Attlee government [July 1945-October 1951] yields around 345,000...By 1952, 110,000 work-permit applicants had been resident in the country for over four years and may be counted among those aliens who planned to make their home in postwar Britain. (49)

We have not considered internal British Isles migration, for example, from Ireland, and we conclude at the point when immigration levels changed dramatically.


(1) Paul Johnson, The Offshore Islanders: A History of the English People, (London: Pheonix Paperback edition, 1992), pp. 19-20.

(2) Scotland's Story magazine (Glasgow: First Press Publishing, 1999), no. 2, p. 22; no. 3, p. 19.

(3) Guy de la Bedoyere, Eagles Over Britannia: The Roman Army in Britain, (Stroud, Glos.: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2001), p. 25.

(4) de la Bedoyere, Eagles, p. 17.

(5) Johnson, Offshore Islanders, p. 23.

(6) Johnson, Offshore Islanders, p. 25.

(7) Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367-634, (London: Penguin Classic edition, 2001), pp. 278-279.

(8) Alcock, Arthur's Britain, p. 279.

(9) Alcock, Arthur's Britain, pp. 310-311.

(10) Johnson, Offshore Islanders, p. 31.

(11) Lloyd and Jennifer Laing, Anglo-Saxon England, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), pp. 55-56.

(12) Johnson, Offshore Islanders, p. 62.

(13) Archie Baron, "Hidden Exodus", The Listener, 1 November 1990, pp. 26-27.

(14) Johnson, Offshore Islanders, p. 107.

(15) Oliver Wright, "Leicester spurns its anti-Semitic founding father", The Times, 17 Jan. 2001, p. 3.

(16) Commission for Racial Equality [CRE], Roots of the Future: Ethnic Diversity in the Making of Britain, (London: CRE, 1996), p. 9.

(17) W. Cunningham, Alien Immigrants to England, (London: Frank Cass, 1969 edition), p. 70.

(18) Johnson, Offshore Islanders, p. 108.

(19) Michael Anderson, Ed., British Population History: From the Black Death to the Present Day, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 74.

(20) Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, (London: Pheonix Paperback edition, 1993), pp. 275-278.

(21) Geoffrey Alderman, The Jewish Community in British Politics, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 4-5.

(22) Alderman, Jewish Community, pp. 4, 7 and 9.

(23) David A. Coleman, "UK Statistics on Immigration: Development and Limitations", International Migration Review, Vol. xxi, No. 4, Winter 1987, pp. 1138-1169.

(24) Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 66-67.

(25) "Where do we stand?", Jewish Chronicle, 14 September 2001, supplement sec., p. vi.

(26) CRE, Roots of the Future, pp. 11-12.

(27) CRE, Roots of the Future, p. 11.

(28) Anderson, Ed., British Population, p. 75.

(29) CRE, Roots of the Future, p. 16.

(30) Cunningham, Alien Immigrants to England, p. 230.

(31) CRE, Roots of the Future, p. 13.

(32) Charles Arnold-Baker, The Companion to British History, (Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Longcross Press, 1996), p. 1021.

(33) Cunningham, Alien Immigrants to England, pp. 250-253.

(34) Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, (Concord, MA: Pluto Press, 1984), p. 10.

(35) Fryer, Staying Power, p. 12.

(36) Fryer, Staying Power, Ch. 4, p. 68.

(37) David Killingray, Ed., Africans in Britain, (Ilford, Essex: Frank Cass and Co., 1994), p. 2.

(38) S. K. Ruck, Ed., The West Indian Comes to England: A Report Prepared for the Trustees of the London Parochial Charities by the Family Welfare Association, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1960), p. 51.

(39) Rashmi Desai, Indian Immigrants in Britain, (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 3.

(40) Desai, Indian Immigrants, p. 6.

(41) Colin Holmes, John Bull's Island: Immigration and British Society 1871-1971, (London: Macmillan, 1988), p. 32.

(42) Holmes, John Bull's Island, pp. 22-23.

(43) Holmes, John Bull's Island, p. 30.

(44) Holmes, John Bull's Island, p. 87.

(45) Holmes, John Bull's Island, p. 101.

(46) Holmes, John Bull's Island, p. 212.

(47) Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 67.

(48) Holmes, John Bull's Island, p. 211.

(49) Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 78.



We find the info, for all of the UK, neatly detailed in this table, on the "2001 United Kingdom census" Wikipedia page here.

2021 CENSUS DATA (and 2011 Census Data)

On the HM Gov page entitled "Population of England and Wales" it states:

"This data uses the standardised list of 19 ethnic groups that were developed for the 2021 Census. The ethnic groups used in the 2021 Census were slightly different from the 2011 Census ethnic groups."


On the HM Gov page entitled "List of ethnic groups" it states: "The Censuses in Scotland and Northern Ireland use different ethnicity classifications." This page also describes the differences between the ethnic classifications in the Censuses, from 2001 to 2011 to 2021 (2022 in Scotland).


We are told, however, on the same page, that if we want to "combine data" (otherwise known as getting a figure for the UK as a whole) then:


5. Combining data

If you need to combine data for the different countries of the UK, you can use the GSS [Government Statistical Service] harmonised categories for either:

England, Wales and Scotland

England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

These harmonised classifications are based on the 2011 Censuses.


Clicking on the link "England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland" in the paragraph above on that page, will take us to a page which details these 13 "harmonised" ethnic identities for all the UK. It unfolds under the drop down buttons under the heading "Presenting and reporting the data (outputs)".


The 13 "harmonised" ethnic identities are:


Irish Traveller    

Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups   

Asian/Asian British          





Any other Asian background

Black/African/Caribbean/Black British

Other ethnic group         


Any other ethnic group


Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find a table which details the figures for these 13 "harmonised" identities for all of the UK combined, but we have contacted the GSS to enquire.


However the figures for the 2021 England and Wales census only, are here and report that "from 2011 to 2021, the percentage of people in the white British ethnic group went down from 80.5% to 74.4%." The information is detailed in the table below.


Ethnic minority groups, 2011 and 2021, England and Wales

The Table below for England and Wales only, is a screenshot of the information which appears on the Excel spreadsheet "Download table data (CSV)" which is downloadable under the info in section 3, on the above page.




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