Recently Professor Clair Wills discussed her new book, Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Postwar Britain, on the BBC Radio 3 podcast “Free Thinking.” Wills’ new book, just published by Penguin UK, is a portrait of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, viewed through the experiences of both the citizens of empire and the European refugees who fled to Britain during those years.
As host Anne McElvoy points out in her radio interview with Wills, many people remember the so-called “Windrush Generation,” migrants from the Caribbean who arrived in Britain aboard the Empire Windrush, marking the beginning of post-war mass migration. There were, however, many other groups that immigrated to the U.K. during this period.
“Because many of the Caribbean Windrush passengers were highly educated, they wrote about their experiences when they arrived,” Wills notes. “In fact, many came explicitly to London in order to make it as writers.” This was not the case for the majority of Irish or eastern and southern European migrants and refugees, most of whom came to the U.K. on work schemes. The majority of these immigrants were unable to write about their experiences because they were too busy working.
“There are wonderful oral histories of these groups, but oral history comes with its own rules and conventions,” Wills remarks. “Oral histories tend to focus very much on the journeys; the journeys were often very traumatic, but they don’t tell you much about what happens when they arrived in Britain.”
In her book, Wills moves beyond the idea of immigration as primarily a political story to get to the human level underneath: how people fell in love, or how they fiddled their taxes, or why they decorated their houses in a particular way.
By looking at documents such as civil service memos from the Ministry of Labor, which was desperate for workers, and the Home Office, which was wary about letting foreigners in, Wills attempts to uncover immigrants’ stories. Inside the memos, people gave interviews in which they told their stories, which helped Wills piece together small but significant pieces of immigrants’ day-to-day experiences.
Britain’s work schemes intervened in a humanitarian crisis by bringing people out of countries devastated by World War II, though Wills contends this was not done altruistically. She describes Britain’s postwar immigration policies as a “market of bodies”: “The people most in need were the people less likely to be let in: the old, the sick, the needy. You were most likely to get access to Britain if you were a woman who might be likely to have children once you’ve arrived; Britain was looking for white people, for healthy people, and for young people, particularly women between 18 to 30.”
In addition to this “market of bodies,” Wills observes that the U.K.’s selection of immigrants also reveals its religious and classist prejudices. “[They] were keener to get Germans than Italians, notwithstanding the war, and people from the Baltic states rather than the Poles.” Wills suggests this was because there were more Poles from a rural peasant background than there were Balts, and that Poles, Irish and Italians were all less desirable because they were Catholic.
In spite of these fears, Wills acknowledges that the British government did a surprisingly good job of convincing the public that the immigrants who came to the U.K. would be an asset to their respective communities. “Britain was not rich after the war, so there was a huge amount of anxiety about sharing out resources,” Wills explains. “[The British government] wanted to present the refugees as givers, not takers; they persuaded communities to accept immigrants by downplaying that aspect of their lives; these groups were never called ‘displaced persons’ or ‘refugees,’ but rather ‘European Voluntary Workers,’ who were talked about in the press as respectable, hard-working poor.”
Anxieties about refugees and immigration continue to plague the world today. Perhaps Wills’ portrait of postwar immigrants— as consumers and homeowners and voters— can help us reflect on the roles and experiences we share, rather than emphasize our differences.