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‘This crowded isle’: the end of ‘Open Door’ Britain

In 1948, the British Nationality Act formalised a specifically imperial identity, just as Britain's empire tilted definitively towards decolonisation and commonwealth. For migrants from its colonies and former Dominions, this Act placed in law what already existed in practice: the 'Open Door' through which all could pass to take up their right of abode in the United Kingdom. Only 14 years later, the Open Door began to close through the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962. Using primary and secondary sources, we will look at the specific tensions and events that drove this change in migration policy and British culture.

NOTE: this week we will also have a short session on essay planning/dissertation outlining -- this was one of the great suggestions students offered me in last year's Mid-Year feedback! So please do think about your essay/dissertation topics in advance, and bring them along.

In addition it is worth noting that our secondary sources across this section of the module will often include very offensive language, in order to accurately represent the attitudes of the time, and to subject both the terms and the attitudes they reflect to historical analysis. You will, of course, also see this language in primary source material. It can and should be shocking to us; it is worth thinking critically about this and discussing it together. Do feel free to come see me if you would also like to discuss this privately.


Required Readings:

  • Roberta Bivins, ‘"The people have no more love left for the Commonwealth”: Media, Migration and Identity in the 1961-2 British Smallpox Outbreak’, Immigrants and Minorities, 25 (November 2008) 3: 263-289.
  • Kennetta Perry, 'Undoing the Work of the Windrush Narrative, History Workshop Online 2018. (Note that this is BOTH a key contribution by a major scholar AND a piece of public history).
  • Hansards Online Scan at least some of: Commonwealth Immigrant Act debates, 1961-2; Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 (Kenyan Asian Crisis debates) 1968; Immigration Act 1971; British Nationality Act, 1981; Race Relations Acts, 1965, 1968, 1976. You can find the debates and parliamentary questions relating to these Acts by keyword searching the historic Hansards database. You need not read ALL of the debates, which are copious (!), but do at least sample the tenor of discussions across this whole period. Note that the debates occur before the laws are passed but may continued after implementation, e.g. with the 1962 Act and its manifest failure to reduce migrant numbers. Read critically, and be aware that the language used can be offensive, particularly to our ears.

NB: If you are not completely familiar with the legislative process in the UK, you may find this webpage useful (I did when I started researching in this area!):

Passage of a Bill

It takes you through the process by which a Bill becomes law through parliamentary debate in each of the Houses of Parliament, with additional information on each stage of debate available by clicking that stage.

You might also enjoy the blog below, by historian Evan Smith:

Discussion Questions:

  • Why did Britain immigration policy change so radically in the years between 1948 and 1962?
  • Why was health so often deployed in debates about immigration in post-war Britain?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of political rhetoric and statements as sources for understanding responses to migration?

Background Readings:

Brett Bebber, ‘“We Were Just Unwanted”: Bussing, Migrant Dispersal, and South Asians in London’, Journal of Social History, 48:3 (Spring 2015), 635-661.

Roberta Bivins, Contagious Communities: Medicine, Migration and the NHS in Post-War Britain (Oxford: OUP, 2015), e-book.

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 1970s Britain (London; Hutchinson and Co., 1982).

Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, eds, Migration, Health and Ethnicity in the Modern World (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), E-Book esp. the chapters by Bashford, MacLellan, Bivins and Welshman.

D. W. Dean, ‘Conservative Governments and the Restriction of Commonwealth Immigration in the 1950s: The Problems of Constraint’, The Historical Journal, 35 (1992), 171-194.

William Deedes, Race without Rancour (London: Conservative Political Centre, 1968). (A participant's account)

Fred van Hartesevldt, ‘Race and Political Parties in Britain, 1954-1965’, Phylon, 44 (1983), 126-134.

Randall Hansen, Citizenship and Immigration in Post-war Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) -- but read critically: this is a book with a strong historiographical and political agenda

Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race (Oxford: OUP, 2016).

Francesca Sobande, 'Black Women and the Media in Britain. In eadem, The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Bill Schwarz, The White Man’s World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011),

Bill Schwarz, ‘“The Only White Man in There”: The Re-Racialisation of England, 1956-1968’, Race and Class, 38 (1996) 65-78.

Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire 1939-1965 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Wendy Webster, ‘The Empire Comes Home: Commonwealth Migration to Britain’ in Andrew Thompson (ed.), Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 122-160.

John Welshman and Alison Bashford, ‘Tuberculosis, Migration, and Medical Examination: Lessons from History’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 60 (2006): 282-284

Amrit Wilson, Dreams, Questions, Struggles : South Asian Women in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2006) E-book.

Amrit Wilson, Finding a Voice : Asian Women in Britain (London: Virago, 1978).

Rachel Yemm, 'Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election', Contemporary British History, 2018 (Advanced Access) DOI: 10.1080/13619462.2018.1535973

Patrick Zylberman, ‘Civilising the State: Borders, Weak States and International Health in Modern Europe’, in Alison Bashford (ed.), Medicine at the Border Disease, Globalization and Security, 1850-the Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006), 21-40