At the Turn of the 20th Century
Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Britain and a Fact-Finding Mission Abroad, 1903

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In the 19th century, Tsarist Russia was home to about five million Jews, at the time, the "largest Jewish community in the world". Subjected to religious persecution, they were obliged to live in the Pale of Settlement, on the Polish-Russian borders, in conditions of great poverty. About half left, mostly for the United States, but many - about 150,000 - arrived in Britain. This reached its peak in the late 1890s, with "tens of thousands of Jews ... mostly poor, semi-skilled and unskilled" settling in the East End of London.

By the turn of the century, a popular and media backlash had begun. The British Brothers League was formed, with the support of local notables, organizing marches and petitions. At rallies, its speakers said that Britain should not become "the dumping ground for the scum of Europe." In 1905, an editorial in the Manchester Evening Chronicle wrote "that the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and rates simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land."


William Evans Gordon is the author of the book 'The Alien Immigrant', published in 1903, the year of his travels discussed below. For him, this was a fact-finding tour of Eastern Europe and the Baltic region. He travelled from St Petersburg to Krakow, visiting and photographing the major towns of Jewish settlement. It was Evans-Gordon's position that alien immigration to Great Britain, especially Jewish immigration, should be limited. He thus called on the Parliament to set up a Royal Commission to take up this matter and, in 1905, the Aliens Act was passed.

The act for the first time introduced immigration controls and registration in Great Britain. The Act was designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through. It provided asylum for people fleeing religious or political persecution. Anti-Semitic elements wanted a stop or severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Britain, but were completely defeated. The 1905 Act did not meet any of the demands of restrictionists who wanted numerical restrictions on immigration.

Below  is Evans-Gordon's article as it appeared in the New York Daily Tribune on May 24, 1903.



Recent Personal Investigation Made by a British Member of Parliament
As it appeared in the New York Daily Tribune, May 24, 1903
Major W. Evans-Gordon, In World's Work
Major W. Evans-Gordon, In World's Work

England, of course--and America as well--attracts foreign elements from all parts of the globe. If a line be drawn from Kustendjeh, on the Black Sea, to Libau, on the Baltic, and another from Kalisch, in Poland, to the easternmost point of the province of Ekaterinoslav, in Russia, these lines will traverse the length and breadth of the vast area from which comes a mass of immigrants whom the English and American population must assimilate. England's doors are wide open to these people, and many thousands yearly pass the test of the immigration laws of the United States. The slums of Vilna and Warsaw, the ghettos of Lemberg and Galatz, the remote villages in the provinces of Minsk and Tchernigov, all send their quota to swell the ever rising tide.

As a member of the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration, I have thought it most important to investigate this question on the spot, and accordingly I spent the last Parliamentary recess in visiting the homes of all our different aliens. I propose to tell here exactly what I found.

I reached Dvinsk, my first halting place in the Russian Pale, on a mournful rainy Saturday morning. The town is said to have eighty thousand inhabitants, and some seventy thousand are Jews. The persecuting May laws of 1882 drove many of these from the villages and smaller towns into larger centres of population, hence the high proportion of Hebrews to be found in the place; hence also much of the misery and poverty from which these poor people suffer. The preponderance of the Jewish race was at once apparent, the Sabbath sending the whole place to sleep. Not a shop was open, not a stroke of business was being done. The only sign of life was in front of the synagogue; there a large crowd of decent looking folk were holding their church parade, promenading up and down.


The synagogue in Dvinsk

The market in Dvinsk


On the next day, Sunday, I was able to see the town it its business dress, though the Russian law forbids the opening of shops by the Jews till 1 p.m. on the Christian day of rest. After that hour the markets were in full swing, crowded with country folk and soldiers from the cantonments near by. All were eagerly doing business with the Jews. A peculiar feature was that the soldiers were mostly sellers and the Jews buyers. Strips of embroidered Russian cloth, old boots, uniforms and a mass of miscellaneous odds and ends were the articles which the Czar's "Tommies" had for sale.  Every article was the subject of a protracted bargain, and each group of soldiers in their white jackets and caps was surrounded by a crowd of Jews, in long rusty black coats, with the characteristic stoop of the shoulders and flowing beards. Around the markets were many drinking and gambling dens and disorderly houses.

No doubt the crowding of the Jewish population into the towns has led to a general deterioration both moral and physical. The struggle for life is a desperate business for many of them, and scruples diminish in proportion to its severity. The house accommodation is poor and squalid, but there is always light and air and space, and, considering Dvinsk from the purely residential point of view, I personally should prefer it to some streets I could name in towns at home.

To those anxious to see for themselves what a Russian ghetto is like at its worst, I would recommend a visit to Vilna. There are said to be some eighty thousand Jews here--not, by any means, all poor. By far the greater part of the trade, and practically all the shops, are in their hands. But the submerged tenth is submerged indeed.

The ghetto is a seething mass of humanity. Many of the streets and alleys are so narrow that the pavements almost touch. At intervals throughout their length are arched gateways leading into courtyard around which the dens and cellars in which the people live are clustered.

I spent the whole day visiting them. In the corners of the court one would find a wooden trough into which all the refuse of the houses ere thrown. The stench from these receptacles filled the whole air. The stucco walls were blistered and rotting as if infected by the poisonous atmosphere within. Inside, the people were crowded pell mell, regardless of health, age or sex. In one room I found a lunatic in the middle of a family of young children. I was followed as I walked by a crowd of haggard, anxious, careworn people, staring at me with mournful eyes. Some openly begged alms; others had trifles for sale. Many seemed to pass their time in the synagogues, rocking and chanting themselves into oblivion of their miseries. I came across several who had been to Whitechapel, and had been sent back, I suppose, as fit for nothing. One man with a large family wished to make another trial of England, and asked me, of all people, for money to help him to get there.

There are other towns, however, in the Pale where things are better. Pinsk is one of them. Here Jewish skill, labor and enterprise have been combined to good purpose. It is a picturesque place. The streets of wooden houses and cottages are lined with threes; there are a quaint old church and a seminary, and the river banks are full of life and color.

The population is forty thousand, of whom thirty-seven thousand are Jews. This disproportion, as in most of the towns of the Pale, would have resulted in congestion in all employments open to Hebrews had it not been for the energy and enterprise of certain leaders of the community, such as Messrs. Lourie and Halpern, who, by starting factories, have succeeded in profitably utilizing the labors of their coreligionists.


A street in Pinsk

In Mr. Halpern's match factory, for instance, fifteen hundred hands are employed. In all there are eighteen factories in Pinsk, employing between four thousand and five thousand hands. If only similar industries could be started in other centres the great and tragic Jewish question in Russia would be well on the way to be solved. I am certain that the only true and permanent solution will be found on these lines. The idea that Jews will not engage in manual labor has long since been exploded.

Jewish workers log rolling,
Mr. Halpern's match factory, Pinsk


Jewish workers,
Mr. Halpern's match factory, Pinsk

In Pinsk there is plenty of poverty--the poverty which is common to all large towns in every country--but nothing hopeless of abnormal. The five thousand hands in regular employment leaven the mass, and the homes, though humble and very poor, still in several instances show signs of comfort and comparative prosperity.

From Pinsk I made a tour into the interior of the country. I was anxious to see the conditions of things in the small towns and villages. The enterprising Jews have started lines of steamers which ply on the numerous streams that intersect the country and add to the prosperity of the town. On one of them I took a passage.







Jewish grain exporters, Libau


It was a market day, and the river was crowded with primitive boats and dugout canoes laden with many kinds of produce. The Christian peasantry are engaged solely in agriculture; all other employments and handicrafts are conducted by Jews. Their capacity for business and organization is on the whole, I think, a benefit to the peasantry. It is the Jews who find a market for the produce of the land, and every village and townlet in the Pale contains an agent or correspondent of the big exporting firms in Riga, Libau, or Odessa.  It is this elaborate organization which gives rise to the complaint so often heard in Russia that the Jews are the exploiters of the peasantry. I have no doubt that in many instances the moujiks do fall an easy prey to the superior intelligence and astuteness of their Hebrew brethren.

At the same time, it is, I believe, a fact that the general condition of the Russian peasants in the region where Jews are allowed to reside is superior to that which obtains outside the allotted provinces.

It would take too much space to describe all I saw in Poland, Galicia and Rumania, and I must therefore confine myself to a few points. There is one feature common to all, namely, the tendency of the Jews to congregate in the towns. In the fifteen provinces of the Pales they are obliged to do so by law. In Poland and Galicia no such legal obligation exists, yet it is in the towns we find them. In Warsaw alone some three hundred thousand Jews have to make a living, and in Lodz, the Manchester of Eastern Europe, there are nearly one hundred and fifty thousand. In the latter town the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions under which the poor people live are appalling. One tall wooden house which I inspected was packed solid with humanity. I found people living in the apex of the roof between the tiles and the top ceiling. I had to crawl into this noisome receptacle on my hands and knees and to climb a ladder to reach it. The police had interfered. I was told, but the place was occupied again as soon as the backs of the authorities were turned. Such incidents are reproduced in the East End of London. Lodz is a great spinning and weaving centre, and many of the factories are owned by Jews. I was surprised and sorry to find that they employ hardly any Jewish labor. There seems to be a difficulty in connection with the Sabbath and the Sunday, and keeping the machinery idle for two days in the week instead of one. The objection has been overcome in Warsaw, however, where, in Mr. Finekin's lace factory and Mr. Polakiewitz's tobacco works, Jewish and Christian hands are both employed with happy results. These establishments left a very agreeable impression on my mind. Every care is taken of the workpeople, even schools for the children being provided on the premises. The wages are small judged by an English standard, from 6s. to 15s. a week being the average, but living is cheap and the wants of the people few, and they are infinitely better off in every respect than persons of a similar class earning double the money in London or New York.

In Galicia the condition of the Jews seemed to me worse than in Russia or Poland. A fatal apathy and bigotry seemed to have settled upon the majority of the Hebrew race here. They are divided into factions, and engage in incessant quarrels with one another. There are no laws to oppress them, but hey are extremely unpopular with their Christian fellow subjects, and as a class are wanting in those qualities of push, enterprise and desire for education for which their coreligionists elsewhere are so conspicuous.

A considerable portion of the land in Bukovina and Galicia is owned by Jews, who are, moreover, said to hold mortgages on many of the remaining estates. But there are few manufacturers, and a great part of the Jewish population seems to have nothing to do. The housing conditions were not bad--infinitely superior to what I had seen elsewhere, or to what I can see any day in my own constituency in London.

The Rumanian Jews stand head and shoulders above their Galician brethren, and, where not interfered with by the law, do well for themselves. I came across many robust workingmen who presented none of the painful ghetto characteristics. Nearly every house in a Rumanian town is roofed with tin plates, and this industry is exclusively in the hands of the Jews. The work needs agility and involves much exposure. It was curious to see a church being roofed in this way by Jewish workmen who were accompanying their labors by chanting a Hebrew psalm.

The general conclusions I arrived at regarding the houses and life of the Jewish people whom I saw on my journey are that their standard of existence is a much lower one than [one] obtains in this country, their food is less in quantity and poorer in quality--meat, for example, is seldom eaten, and a fowl would never be killed except in case of serious illness or dire necessity. Their wages are lower and their requirements fewer and more simple. In the large towns the housing conditions are deplorable, and sanitation as we understand it is unknown.

Notes about the author William Evans-Gordon (adapted from Wikipedia):

Major Sir William Eden Evans-Gordon (1857 31 October 1913) was a British Conservative Party politician and Member of Parliament (MP). As a soldier he had served on the North-West. He was originally commissioned into the 67th Foot, but later transferred to the Madras Staff Corps and was attached to the Indian Government.

As MP for Stepney Evans-Gordon represented a constituency that saw a lot of immigration during the late 19th century and early 20th century and as a result he became known as one of the most vocal critics at the time, commenting that 'a storm is brewing which, if it is allowed to burst, will have deplorable results'. First elected to Parliament in the 1900 general election, Evans-Gordon had campaigned on a platform of limiting immigration from Eastern Europe, notably that of Jews, many of whom had moved to his constituency. His campaign proved a success as he won the seat by overturning what had previously been a Liberal majority. Once elected he continued his theme of anti-immigrant rhetoric, claiming in 1902 that 'not a day passes but English families are ruthlessly turned out to make room for foreign invaders. The rates are burdened with the education of thousands of foreign children.'

Evans-Gordon, with the support of the British Brothers League with which he co-operated closely, was instrumental in setting up a Royal Commission on immigration to which he was appointed chairman. He had travelled extensively in Eastern Europe and had recorded evidence of Jewish settlements that he presented to the Commission, claiming that the hardships the immigrants had told of were exaggerated. His book on the subject, The Alien Immigrant (1903), which included extensive maps of his travels and reports of his findings, was used as a central piece of evidence in the inquiry. This resulted in the Aliens Act 1905, which placed restrictions on Eastern European immigration.

Evans-Gordon continued to campaign for further anti-immigration legislation, seeking re-election in 1906 with the slogan 'England for the English and Major Gordon for Stepney', borrowing the slogan of the BBL. Despite this Evans-Gordon's anti-Semitism has been questioned as he was a supporter of Zionism and kept up regular correspondence with Chaim Weizmann who would later write of him:

Sir William Evans-Gordon had no particular anti-Jewish prejudices...he was sincerely ready to encourage any settlement of Jews almost anywhere in the British Empire but he failed to see why the ghettoes of London or Leeds should be made into a branch of the ghettoes of Warsaw and Pinsk.

On 1 May 1907 Evans-Gordon resigned from the Commons and retired from politics.



      Introduction adapted from Wikipedia.





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