People migrated to Britain for many reasons. Many were refugees fleeing persecution and seeking asylum and safety. Some were forced to come here against their will, kidnapped or enslaved. Most, however, were economic migrants looking for work and a better life.
Britain was sometimes welcoming, and sometimes unwelcoming, to immigrants. Some integrated into British society quickly and easily, while for others it was a constant struggle. Several times throughout our history members of minorities had to organise and take action for recognition of their right to stay and belong.
The responses of different sections of British society varied. Governments often welcomed immigrants because they brought great economic benefit. On the other hand, many laws were passed to control and restrict immigration, especially in recent years. Working people sometimes feared that immigrants threatened their jobs and wages. There were times of anti-immigrant violence and even expulsion. However, most settled and were eventually accepted in cities, towns and villages.
There has been a deep and profound cultural and social impact, affecting language, fashion, food, music, literature and religious life. Economically, immigrants played a key role in the rise of manufacturing, the development of banking and capitalism, the industrial and technological revolutions and the modern service economy. The impact was not always easy, however. The changes brought by immigration often resulted in upheaval, conflict and communal tensions, as well as pressure on jobs and services.
In the 11th century England was colonised by the Normans. 800 years later Britain was the coloniser, ruling a fifth of the world’s people. Most of the migration stories over the last millennium (1000 years) were connected with Britain’s growing world role. The history of this country cannot be detached from world history, and the millions of people who migrated here were an outcome of that reality.
One pattern repeats again and again throughout our history. People arrive and are seen as outsiders, aliens, ‘the other’ with their strange customs, clothes, food and beliefs. Over time, they become British and what ‘Britishness’ means changes to include them. Some of those who migrated join those who are suspicious of the next arrivals, until they too become part of a ‘Britishness’ that has changed again. On one occasion in the Middle Ages, the silk weavers guild complained that Flemish weavers were threatening the jobs of ‘English’ women silk weavers. Many of those women were themselves immigrants from Italy and the Middle East.