Aliens and Immigrants in England and Wales

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Because overseas arrivals leave a detailed paper trail today, many expect that foreigners arriving at British ports in the past will have left many records. This is far from being the case. The present control stems mainly from regulations made in the twentieth century.

For most ordinary working men arriving before 1793 there was little formality, though they might have met with deep suspicion from the Overseers of the Poor. They could, in theory, come to settle and work like those native born. The chief problems would be the language and the religion so they would live with other immigrants in communities, generally in the larger towns. If they were Catholic they would suffer in the same way as Catholics in England prior to 1828, without churches to attend or marriage or burial according to their own rites. It would only be if they wished to buy land, and then to vote in elections and take part in civic life, that they would find themselves, as aliens, debarred from doing so. To acquire these rights, by denization or naturalization, was expensive and beyond the means of most people. Their children, however, would acquire all these rights just by being born here.

What was an alien?[edit | edit source]

In earlier times an alien was someone born outside England or Wales. It had nothing to do with their parentage. Before the unions with Scotland in 1707 and with Ireland in 1801, these were separate countries with their own citizens who were aliens in England. However, in 1634-5, an Act in Ireland adjudged all Scots natural subjects of Ireland, something that was never done for the English. Thus English people going to Ireland were aliens there until 1801 and might take out naturalization there. Children born overseas of British parents were regarded as foreigners and might be naturalized in any one of the three British countries depending where they wished to live if they came to the British Isles. A married woman generally took her status from that of her husband.

Early aliens[edit | edit source]

Article 48 of Magna Carta (1215) had given foreign merchants the right to come and go in their trade with England but the numbers were very small, though there were about 3,000 Jews in England at that time. Flemish weavers came in the 14th century but it was not until 1540 that large numbers of refugees, both Huguenots (the French protestant followers of Calvin) and Walloons (from the Low Countries), started coming to the towns of southeast England, about 50,000 arriving by 1600.

Details of State Papers that contain returns of strangers are provided in The National Archives’ Research Guide mentioned below. Many aliens in London are listed in Richard E.G. Kirk and Ernest F. Kirk, eds., Returns of aliens dwelling in the city and suburbs of London from the reign of Henry VIII to that of James I [1523-1603] (Aberdeen, 1900-1908) [FHL book 942.1/L1 B4h v.10]. Those few refugees and foreigners who received annuities and pensions between 1556 and 1745 may be found in the printed Calendars of Treasury Papers.

The registers of baptisms, marriages and burials in the French, Dutch, German and Swiss communities that developed in London and elsewhere, formerly in the series of Non-Parochial Registers with the Registrar General and now at The National Archives (RG4 and RG8), are described in the article Non-Parochial Registers. Many are indexed on the website (£$).

The Huguenot influx continued in the 17th century, and reached its height in the 1680s when another 80,000 came. In the same century, there were smaller immigrations of German miners and Dutch drainers. Many are listed in William A. Shaw, ed., Letters of denization and naturalization for aliens in England and Ireland, 1603-1700 (1911) mentioned below.

Jews. The early Jewish settlers were all expelled in 1290 and it was not until 1541 that a small community of Jews again settled in London. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell gave a group of Sephardic Jews from the Dutch provinces (but originating in Spain, Portugal and Italy) the right to build a synagogue. By 1690, there were enough Ashkenazi Jews from Germany to open a separate synagogue. Those who became citizens before 1700 are listed in the volume just mentioned. See Edgar R. Samuel, ‘The Jews’, in D.J. Steel, ed., Sources for Roman Catholic and Jewish Genealogy and Family History (Phillimore & Co, 1974) [FHL book 942 D27ste v.3] and Anthony Joseph, My ancestors were Jewish (4th ed. London: Society of Genealogists, 2008) [FHL book 929.1 J774] and David S. Katz, The Jews in the history of England, 1485-1850 (1994) [FHL book 942 F2kd]. See also the website of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain (

Eighteenth century[edit | edit source]

Palatines. Although intending to go to America some migrants from the Palatinate stayed in England (some others went to Ireland). The embarkation lists of those shipped from Holland in 1709 are found in the Treasury Papers in The National Archives (T1/119). There are lists of names in Walter Allen Knittle, Early eighteenth century Palatine emigration (Philadelphia, 1937; reprinted Baltimore, 1965) [FHL book 973 F2pk], in Lou D. MacWethy, The book of names especially relating to the early Palatines and the first settlers in the Mohawk Valley (St Johnsville, New York, 1933; reprinted Baltimore, 1981) [FHL book 974.7 F2] and in ‘Lists of Germans from the Palatinate who came to England in 1709’ in The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, vol. 40 (1909) and vol. 41 (1910), together ed. John Tribbeko and reprinted Baltimore, 1962 [FHL book 942 A1].

Blacks. The international trade of the 18th century brought people from further afield, including slaves and black servants. One historian thinks that there may have been as many as 10,000 in the black community in London at the end of the century.

Irish. Also at the end of the century, and particularly after the Union of 1802, the Irish began to settle in England and Wales in large numbers. See the article The Irish in England.

French. It was, however, as a result of the great influx of refugees from France and from the countries at war with France, after the French Revolution, that the Alien Act was passed in 1793 and further strengthened in 1798. Details of the assistance given to some French emigres through a Relief Committee, 1792-1828, may be found at The National Archives. These and other records are not indexed though there is a detailed typescript descriptive list, 1789-1814, in the Reading Room at Kew. See The National Archives online Research Guide mentioned below.

Alien Act 1793[edit | edit source]

The 1793 Act required all resident aliens and those arriving in Great Britain after January 1793 to give their names, ranks, occupations, and addresses to a local Justice of the Peace. The Home Secretary sent round a circular in March 1797 asking for details of those who had arrived since May 1792.

From 1798, any ‘housekeeper’ who took in an alien as a lodger had to deliver similar details to the overseers of his parish. The overseers in turn were supposed to send copies of the lists to the Clerk of the Peace so that he could lay them before Quarter Sessions and send copies to an aliens’ office established in London. That office became part of the Home Office in 1836.

Remarkably few of these ‘Accounts of Aliens’ and ‘Householders’ Notices and Overseers’ Returns’ survive in Quarter Sessions records. There are certificates of arrivals issued at the port of Hull, 1793-1815, at Hull History Centre and copies are available to download at The only others known to exist are for London and Middlesex. At the London Metropolitan Archives there are 38 forms signed by aliens from eight Middlesex parishes in 1797 and another ten notices from householders (or summaries of notices by the overseers) from five Middlesex parishes (21 names, including Marc Isambard Brunel and two French priests who came to take the mineral waters at Islington) and from Westminster (about 260 names) in 1798, but that is all.

It is doubly unfortunate that most of the early records of the Aliens Office have been destroyed, but details of aliens arriving at English ports, in the two years 1810-11, may be found at The National Archives in FO83/21-22.

Arrival records 1826-1852[edit | edit source]

There were further Aliens Acts in 1826 and in 1836 when the Aliens Office was amalgamated with the Home Office. Both of these Acts produced records, some of which have survived.

The original signed certificates of arrival of individual aliens in England and Scotland resulting from the second Act are at The National Archives and run from 1836 to 1852, in 236 volumes (HO 2). They are arranged by port of arrival in England and Scotland. Each one shows nationality, profession, date of arrival, last country visited and occasionally other particulars. An index to the German and Polish certificates, 1847-52, compiled for the Anglo-German Family History Society ( is available at The National Archives, and all the certificates (and some related correspondence) are indexed by name on ($£). The records are not complete and it is believed that many aliens arrived at ports where this certificate procedure was not enforced.

The earlier certificates resulting from the 1826 Act have not survived, though the indexes to both series (HO5/25-32) run from 1826 to 1849.

Lists of immigrants 1836-1869[edit | edit source]

The 1836 Act produced another series of records, originally called ‘Lists of Immigrants’, covering the years 1836-1860 and 1867-69 (HO3). These are returns of alien passengers made by masters of ships and bound up in date order. They are indexed and available to download on (£/$). Previously Len Metzner had extracted some 36,000 names from the period 1853-69 for the Anglo-German Family History Society mentioned above.

Inward Passenger Lists 1878-1960[edit | edit source]

Those immigrants who came by sea between 1878 and 1960 may appear in the Inward Passenger Lists at The National Archives (BT26 and BT27). This large class of records is arranged by port and date of arrival but is not complete until 1890. It does not contain details of immigrants who came from Europe or the Mediterranean area of from anywhere by air. However, it is indexed by name on (£/$) and the Indian and Caribbean migrants who arrived in the UK between March 1948 and October 1960, are indexed on For further detail see The National Archives’ online Research Guide at

The Acts of 1870, 1905, 1914 and 1919[edit | edit source]

By the 1870s Britain was attracting merchants and businessmen, including the Germans who settled in Bradford and Manchester, and merchant seamen and labourers. In 1871, there were some 113,779 foreigners in the United Kingdom of whom about a third were Germans. The figures included about 9,500 Americans (there were 2,500,000 British subjects in America) and, by a convention signed in 1871 following the Naturalization Act of 1870, the nationality of those in England was made dependent on choice and not on birth.

Increasingly, political and Jewish refugees from the Russian Empire began to flood into London (mostly into Stepney), Leeds and Manchester, great numbers going also to Glasgow. In 1876, there were about 50,000 Jews in Great Britain of whom 80% lived in London. During the next 40 years they were joined by a further 120,000 Jewish refugees. The numbers were so large that, by the Aliens Act of 1905, restrictions were, for the first time, placed on the entry of those who were unlikely to be able to support themselves, unless they could show that they were the victims of political or religious persecution.

Worries about spies from Germany led next to the Aliens Registration Act of 1914, requiring all aliens to register with the police, and in 1919, to another Aliens Act which gave immigration officials the power to refuse entry and the Home Secretary the power to deport. Meanwhile, the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914, gave the inhabitants of the British Empire the status of British subjects.

The registration cards of aliens who registered in Bedfordshire under the 1919 Act survive for the period 1919-1980 at the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives ( They contain photographs and other information. Unfortunately it appears that in most other counties they have been destroyed though there is a sample 1,000 cards for the London area, dating from 1914, at The National Archives (MEPO 35) and available to download at

For those who were interned in the First and Second World Wars see The National Archives’ online Research Guide on Internees: First and Second World Wars at The surviving records of internees for the First War period are unfortunately very sparse.

Denization and Naturalization[edit | edit source]

Before 1873, the rights of citizenship could be acquired in one of two ways: denization or naturalization. Both were costly undertakings which only a privileged minority could afford.

  • Denization could be conferred by letters patent. On the whole, foreigners opted for denization because it was cheaper. It was not retrospective and it did not allow one to hold public office. However, it was used by Catholics and Jews as they did not have to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy required by naturalization. It was last granted in 1873. There are typescript indexes to the Home Office patents for denization, 1801-1873, at The National Archives.
  • Naturalization could be granted by Act of Parliament after five years’ residence and gave the same rights as those of a natural born citizen. The first Act conferring these rights on an individual is said to have been passed in 1437. Children of Englishmen born abroad usually opted for naturalization. The use of Private Acts became rare after 1844 but they are still occasionally obtained.

After 1663, aliens engaged in certain trades and manufactures specified in the Act were also given, if they took the same oaths of allegiance and supremacy as those taken by British office holders, all the privileges of native subjects. At the height of the war with France in 1707, foreign sailors who had served two years on board an English merchant vessel or ship of war were also naturalized. In spite of the costs associated with formal naturalization, it is always worth checking the published indexes. In 1704, for instance, William Mee, a bricklayer, native of Barrington, Lancashire, was naturalized in Ireland.

Between 1740 and 1772 foreign Protestants living in America and the West Indies could become naturalized British citizens, after seven years’ residence, if they took the usual oaths. About 7,000 did so and the details are given in M.S. Giuseppi, Naturalizations of foreign protestants in the American and West Indian colonies pursuant to statute 13 George II, c.7 (Huguenot Society Publications, volume 24, 1921) [FHL book 942.1L1 Bh4 v.24]. The record is, unfortunately, not complete.

Printed indexes 1509-1947[edit | edit source]

All foreigners naturalized by Private Act of Parliament in England and Ireland together with those to whom Letters Patent of denization had been granted, between 1509 and 1800, are listed in four volumes that contain all the genealogical information in the original Acts:

  • 1509-1603. William Page, ed., Letters of denization and acts of naturalization for aliens in England, 1509-1603 (Huguenot Society of London, Publications, vol. 8, 1893) [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h v.8; microfilm 824513.1].
  • 1603-1700. William Page, ed., Letters of denization and acts of naturalization for aliens in England and Ireland, 1603-1700 (Huguenot Society of London Publications, vol. 18, 1911) [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h v.18; microfilm 824513.2].
  • 1700-1800. William A. Shaw, ed., Letters of denization and acts of naturalization for aliens in England and Ireland, 1700-1800 (Huguenot Society of London Publications, vol. 27, 1923) [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h v.27; microfilm 824514.1].
  • Supplement. A supplement to Dr W. A. Shaw’s Letters of Denization … which formed volumes 18 and 27 … (Huguenot Society of London Publications, vol. 35 (1932) [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h v.27; microfilm 824514.1]. This volume indexes the whole of the Irish section omitted, by mistake, from volume 27, and includes additional naturalizations, 1709-11.
  • 1801-1947. The small number of people naturalized by Act of Parliament after 1801 (there were none between 1911 and 1975) may be found in the Index to Local and Personal Acts 1801-1947 (London: HMSO, 1949) [not in FHL]. The Acts themselves may be seen in the Parliamentary Archives (
  • 1801-1844. As mentioned above there are typescript indexes to the Home Office patents for denization, 1801-1873, at The National Archives.

Naturalization by Certificate since 1844[edit | edit source]

Since 1844, the Home Secretary has been able to grant a certificate of naturalization and this is now the normal procedure. Under the 1870 Act, the fee payable was £5 but by 1926 it had increased to £10. Until 1873, these certificates were enrolled on the Close Rolls, now at The National Archives (C54). Indexes are published regularly and there is a set at The National Archives down to 1960, but the names are all indexed, 1844-1934, in its online catalogue at The arrangement of these records, of the supplementary correspondence and of the indexes, is more fully described in the Records Information Leaflet No 70: Immigrants: Documents in The National Archives ( The records themselves are not available to public search after 1919.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Roger Kershaw and Mark Pearsall, Immigrants and aliens: a guide to sources on UK immigration and citizenship (2nd ed. London: The National Archives, 2004).
Roger Kershaw, Migration records for family historians (London: The National Archives, 2009).

Acknowledgment[edit | edit source]

This article is based with permission on the article ‘Aliens’ by Anthony Camp in Family Tree Magazine (UK;, vol. 15, no. 2 (December 1998) pages 17-18.