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Feature essay

Political refugees in Britain, 1826–1905

  Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) by unknown photographer Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) by unknown photographer
The Aliens Act of 1905, introduced by Aretas Akers-Douglas, home secretary in A. J. Balfour's administration, prohibited the landing in Britain of ‘undesirable’ immigrants, meaning those too poor to support themselves or their dependants. Enacted in response to a brief period of alarm against east European Jewish immigrants, and after a campaign in which the MP for Stepney Sir William Evans-Gordon was particularly prominent, the new statute marked the first time in eighty years that the British government had limited the influx of foreigners. In 1826 wartime legislation restricting the admission of foreign aliens was replaced, and thereafter anyone could come in. The country had no means of stopping them for most of this period, and almost none of expelling them if they misbehaved. (The only exception was extradition.)

Most migrants were economic—attracted by the work and opportunities for enterprise Britain offered. Among these was Friedrich Engels, who came to Britain initially (in 1842) to manage his father's firm in Manchester. The later Jews came because they were forced out of their own countries by persecution. Others who profited from this generous policy, however, were thousands of political (that is, politically active) refugees, of many persuasions: republicans, monarchists, liberals, anarchists, gentle philosophers, wild vengeful terrorists, and many in between. Engels's friend Karl Marx was one of these. Others included Mazzini, Louis Blanc, Herzen, Kropotkin, and Malatesta. They came not because they liked the country, and certainly not because of the work (they had the reputation of being disinclined to work at all), but because of the absolute and indiscriminate right of asylum Britain offered them. They were safe there. Lenin, who lived in London in the early twentieth century, was apparently rescued by a London policeman once, when a meeting turned ugly against him, after Russian police spies sowed a rumour that he was a spy. Political refugees could not even be extradited, if they could show that the crimes they were accused of abroad—however terrible—were politically motivated. Looking back on this now, after a century, it seems extraordinary.

The refugees

 Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) by Nadar, after 1871 Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) by Nadar, after 1871
The British tolerated the political refugees out of principle. They gained little from having them there. A few made significant contributions to British life, including Sir Anthony (born Antonio) Panizzi, the greatest librarian of the British Museum (he built the Reading Room), who came in 1823; and the famous son and grandchildren of Gabriele Rossetti (1824). Otherwise, however, they were viewed as a nuisance. Some Britons feared their politics. In 1848, in face of the prospect of thousands of ‘reds’ swarming in from the continental revolutions, parliament hurriedly passed a temporary act enabling the government to expel those it felt to be dangerous. It was never, however, used against any of them, and lapsed after two years. Foreign police spies started up rumours implicating the refugees in plots, hoping this would cause the British to temper their asylum policy. Marx, for example, was accused of plotting to assassinate the queen. At the time of the Great Exhibition (1851), several foreign police reports claimed that continental revolutionaries aimed to take advantage of the crowds expected there to start an uprising in England, including a cadre who would be disguising themselves as trees. (The exhibition, of course, was held in Hyde Park.) No one believed them. In 1894 Lord Salisbury (Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) introduced a bill into parliament to curb the refugees on the grounds of the political dangers they posed, but it failed. There is in fact scarcely any evidence of significant refugee involvement in British radicalism, apart from the case of the Polish Major Bartholomew Beniowski (1800/01–1866), who was involved in a Chartist rising in Wales in 1839; and possibly Martial Bourdin, the Frenchman whose death at the hands of his own bomb in Greenwich Park in 1894 was the inspiration for Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent (though Bourdin's bomb was probably intended for a ship bound for Russia). Most refugees were careful to behave themselves politically, for fear of compromising their security in Britain if they did not.

The refugees were more irritating to their new hosts socially. Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, for example, put British backs up by publishing in 1850 a book attacking the country (De la décadence de l'Angleterre) almost as soon as he landed there. Many of the exiles were reduced to beggary and even petty theft, which led to appearances in police courts, typically for stealing umbrellas or bottles of ketchup, or romantically conning innocent English girls. More seriously, one of them, Emmanuel Barthélemy, made it (in effigy) into the waxworks of Madame Tussaud—herself an émigrée—when he committed two murders and was hanged for the second, of an Englishman (his first victim was a Frenchman: he was let off for that) in 1855. Around 1910, after the passing of the Aliens Act, there was a notorious spate of burglaries and shootings in east London perpetrated by a bunch of Latvian revolutionary immigrants associated with Peter the Painter (Peter Piatkoff). But this sort of thing was rare.

  Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) by George Charles Beresford, 1904 Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) by George Charles Beresford, 1904
The main problem the political exiles posed was diplomatic. Foreign governments resented Britain's giving refuge to men (and a few women) they regarded as dangerous to them. Some suspected Britain of doing it on purpose, to undermine them vicariously. This was bound to concern the British government. In 1852 it received identical protests from nearly every country in Europe demanding Britain modify her asylum policy, which looked at one brief point as though it might lead to war—with Britain pitched against the whole continent. Ministers did not think these scoundrels—as they tended to regard the revolutionary exiles—were worth that. So governments tried to appease their foreign critics, for example by setting up a special unit of police to spy on the refugees; bribing many of them (mainly Hungarians) with passages to America; and expelling a number—including the novelist Victor Hugo—from the island of Jersey in 1855. That was done under local Jersey rules; British law still prevented their being expelled from Britain, so most of them simply decamped to London, or neighbouring Guernsey. Then in 1858, after Felice Orsini's attempt on the life of the French emperor outside the Paris Opéra with a bomb made in Britain, which really annoyed the French, the government of Palmerston (Henry John Temple) tried to mollify them by, firstly, prosecuting one of Orsini's accomplices, Simon Bernard, in a British court (because he could not be extradited); and, secondly, introducing a new bill into parliament to make ‘Conspiracy to Murder’ abroad a more serious crime. This, however, backfired when Bernard's jury acquitted him, against all the evidence; and when the House of Commons rejected the bill, bringing Palmerston's government down with it. That was not only important at the time. Whenever similar measures were mooted after this—at the time of the suppression of the Paris commune in 1872, for example, which saw another influx of French socialists—civil servants harked back to the events of 1858 as a reason why ministers should tread carefully here. It was a democratic thing. 1858 showed that the ‘people’ would not brook any kind of incursion on the right of asylum, whatever their governments might have preferred.

The reason for this, again, was not any particular fondness for the refugees. Some were quite popular: the more refined Italian ones (like Panizzi and Rossetti) among the whig intelligentsia, for example, and ‘heroes’ like Kossuth and Garibaldi when they arrived in Britain, to welcomes from vast crowds in the streets. That, however, did not last; and the British people proved notoriously mean when financial appeals were launched, for example by the Chartists, to support the ordinary, run-of-the-mill exiles in Britain. In any case the exiles tended to keep to themselves, living in little ghettos of their own (the Seven Dials area of London was one), socializing in their own cafés, and rarely bothering to acclimatize themselves to British society: as why should they? Their whole purpose in life was to get back to the continent as soon as possible to revolutionize it. Britons did not support their being there because they knew and liked them, therefore; still less because they (or most of them) shared their political views. It was a matter of principle. It was the policy of asylum for refugees the British were defending, not the refugees themselves.


  Anna Maria Tussaud (bap. 1761, d. 1850) self-portrait, 1842 Anna Maria Tussaud (bap. 1761, d. 1850) self-portrait, 1842
This does not mean that the principle was not alloyed by baser motives. It was. Hostility to the ‘tyrants’ from whom these refugees were fleeing was one, if that can be counted base. It may have had an element of chauvinism in it. The point is, however, that in the nineteenth century this chauvinism favoured the refugees—‘my enemy's enemy’—rather than being turned against them, as it is today. It was also a very liberal kind of chauvinism. It went further than simple dislike of foreign governments. Victorian liberals were struck by the idea that tyranny fostered extremism. Two things followed from that. The first was that if the refugees who came to Britain were extreme and violent, the fault was not theirs, but that of the regimes which had forced them out. It is not a big step from that to saying that foreign countries which suffered political violence—the anarchist bombs that ravaged France and Spain in the 1890s, for example, some of whose perpetrators (including Jean-Pierre François and Théodule Meunier) sought refuge in Britain—‘had it coming to them’. One can understand why the French and Spanish governments got so upset. The second important rider was that Britain must be less vulnerable to political violence, because she was so well—liberally—governed. It is interesting that all three of the men (Britons) who tried to assassinate Queen Victoria during the course of her long reign were found to be mad; a sane person attempting a pot-shot at her would undermine that whole assumption. That is another reason why even the fieriest refugees were not feared in Britain (together with the fact, which we have noticed already, that they did not on the whole behave threateningly there). Lord Palmerston used a vivid metaphor to express this in the House of Commons on 1 April 1852:
A single spark will explode a powder magazine, and a blazing torch will burn out harmless on a turnpike road. If a country be in a state of suppressed internal discontent, a very slight indication may augment that discontent, and produce an explosion; but if the country be well governed, and the people be contented, then letters and proclamations from unhappy refugees will be as harmless as the torch upon the turnpike road.
That was the thing. Britain could afford to tolerate all these monsters, whereas other countries could not. That boosted her people's national amour propre. The more monstrous the refugees were—and some of them could be made to appear pretty monstrous—the better it made them feel about themselves. It was an immense source of pride. ‘Every civilized people on the face of the earth’, proclaimed The Times of 28 February 1853, in the face of more continental hostility, ‘must be fully aware that this country is the asylum of nations, and that it will defend the asylum to the last ounce of its treasure, and the last drop of its blood. There is no point whatever on which we are prouder and more resolute.’ No government could go against that.

Nor did any British government, before the First World War. Though the 1905 Aliens Act brought Britain's policy of open and unfettered immigration to an end, it made a deliberate exemption in favour of those fleeing from countries where they faced prosecution or punishment on political or religious grounds. Such immigrants could still not be turned back or thrown out of Britain if they merely claimed refugee status—they did not even have to prove it. The act would not have gone through parliament otherwise. The British people were too attached to their ‘proud tradition’ of asylum. Tatters of that remain today. Now, however, it is a privilege, to be earned and justified, often after months behind walls and wire. Then it was an automatic right.

Bernard Porter


self-portrait, wax model, 1842, Madame Tussaud's, London; Anna Maria Tussaud [see illus.] · Nadar, photograph, after 1871, NPG; Peter Kropotkin [see illus.] · G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1904, NPG; Joseph Conrad [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in G. Mayer, Friedrich Engels, 2 vols. (1934), frontispiece; Friedrich Engels [see illus.]