Skip to main content

History of Immigration to Great Britain in the 20th Century

I live in the UK and enjoy writing on a wide range of topics.

Immigration to Great Britain has evolved quite a bit over the last century.

Immigration to Great Britain has evolved quite a bit over the last century.

British Immigration Laws

Some years ago, the British government announced its goal to reduce total net migration to less than 100,000 by 2015. These goals provoked some tension and reaction from amongst the government and the general population, with many calling it counterproductive or harmful to economic recovery.

Provisional data from the Office for National Statistics for the year ending in March 2012 shows that there was a flow of 183,000 migrants to the UK; this is a reduction from the year before, which had 242,000. Controls and restrictions on immigration are nothing new, over the course of the 20th century there have been a number of regulations, and periods where the regulations were relaxed, on immigration.

Map of the British Isles

Map of the British Isles


People from around the world have been arriving in the UK for thousands of years; immigration to the UK did not just suddenly begin in the 20th century. The 20th century, however, was when the number of people immigrating to the UK really started increasing and regulation and control really began to take a front seat.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a small (but fairly steady) flow of people arriving in the UK from around Europe. This continued into the early years of the 20th century. According to the 1911 census, there were over 50,000 Germans and 20,000 Italians living in England and Wales. The First World War saw an influx of people arriving in the UK to escape the war. Just fewer than 20,000 wounded Belgian soldiers arrived in Britain during this period and a large number of Belgians arrived as refugees. The lead-up to the Second World War saw a similar phenomenon, with many Germans and minority groups looking to escape Nazi persecution. Caps were put in place, so not all attempts were successful.

Territories in the British Empire

Territories in the British Empire

Post-War and the 1950s

The end of the Second World War saw something of a reverse in the situation. The British workforce needed more people in order to aid recovery from the war and as a result immigration regulations were relaxed. Large groups of Poles and Ukrainians made the move to the UK as European Volunteer Workers; these groups came to the UK to provide labour to important industries that were needed to help the economy recover. In addition, the British Nationality Act was passed in 1948—this act allowed any subject of the British Empire the right to come and live and work in the UK without requiring a visa. The next few years saw a huge rise in immigration; within three years from 1953 to 1956 the number of migrants had increased from 3,000 a year to 46,800. In response to the rising numbers, a Cabinet Committee was formed in 1950, the cabinet advised against introducing restrictions but this was not followed up on.

The 1960s

In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed as an attempt to curb the high immigration levels. Under this new act, migrants looking to move to the UK needed to have a job waiting for them. Those that did not already have a job in the UK were required to have special skills that would help to fill labour demands. Despite the government’s attempts to regulate levels of immigration, numbers still remained fairly high. Refugees from Kenya and Uganda started leaving the political discrimination of their governments in the late 1960s. They were able to do this because their British Nationality, given by the 1948 act, was still applicable. The late 1960s saw even more regulations placed on immigration with the passing of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Migrants no longer only had to have relevant skills or a guaranteed job; instead, they had to have a ‘substantial connection to the UK’. A substantial connection was considered to be if you were connected by birth or ancestry to a UK national.

Past & present commonwealth realms

Past & present commonwealth realms

The 1970s and 1980s

The 1970s saw an average of around 72,000 immigrants arriving from the Commonwealth a year. As a result, 1972 saw the introduction of the Immigration Act which reduced the parameters for legal immigration even further. Those looking to move to the UK had to have either a work permit or parents/grandparents that were born in the UK. The Act also abolished any distinction between Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth immigrants.

The 1980s continued these fairly restrictive measures and the number of immigrants to the UK did fall—to an average of 54,000. Work permits became more difficult to acquire and the bulk of immigrants began to come from America and South Asia were mostly made up of individuals with special skills. The British Nationality Act was introduced in 1981 but only came into force in 1983. This act meant that those with British citizenship (held by those with a substantial connection to the UK) automatically had the right of abode. Any non-British citizens did not have this right and had to apply for naturalisation in order to acquire British citizenship.

The 1990s and Early 2000s

Though levels of immigration were reduced in the 1980s, the 1990s and specifically 1997 saw a large increase in the levels. This was due in part to the Labour government abolishing the ‘primary purpose rule.' This rule required foreign nationals who had married British citizens to prove that the ‘primary purpose’ of the marriage was not to obtain British residency. Proving that residency was not the ultimate goal was hugely difficult and many people were turned away. When this rule was abolished the number of people granted British citizenship, and therefore residency, increased.

Today the immigration system follows the points-based immigration system introduced between 2008 and 2010. In the next few years, it seems likely that the system and regulations may change again to allow the government to work towards its target of 100,000 immigrants a year by 2015.

Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.