A History of Migration

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How important is it to understand the history of migration into the UK?

Learning Objectives

  • to discover the scale of the various migration movements into the UK
  • to analyse changes over time in the origins of immigrants
  • to understand their reasons for migrating and how these have changed

Learning Outcomes

  • an appreciation of the long history of migration into this country
  • an understanding of the spatial pattern of immigrant origins
  • deeper knowledge and understanding of the varying reasons why people have chosen to migrate to the UK


Most of the resources used in this session are online and references to useful websites have been incorporated into the text. You may also find further useful material in the Links and Resources section in the Plenary.


When looking at the topic of immigration, there is inevitably a great deal of debate about the concept of 'Britishness' and the extent to which the flow of immigrants into the UK throughout our history has contributed to or diluted the 'Britishness' of the people living in this country. There is no doubt that we are dealing with difficult ideas here and many people believe that there is a need to support the study of this contemporary geographical issue with some knowledge and understanding of the history of immigration. Without this context, any debate about the merits or otherwise of allowing immigrants into the UK becomes a shallow argument relating to the circumstances of the present day and ignores everything that has gone before.

To what extent should we as geographers provide pupils with the historical context to geographical issues such as migration and to what extent should we rely on our colleagues in history or other subjects providing this knowledge and understanding?

The first arrivals

In 1996, the Commission for Racial Equality stated that "everyone who lives in Britain today is either an immigrant or a descendent of an immigrant". Not everyone is happy to agree with that statement. However, you don't have to go back too far in human history to reach the time when the population of Britain was zero! For many thousands of years, almost the whole of Britain was covered by thick ice sheet making it impossible to live in this area. Around about 10,000 BC as the ice began to retreat northwards, the first modern humans, who were hunter-gatherers, arrived in the British isles from mainland Europe. They in turn, had originally moved northwards from southern Europe and Africa. Around about 6,500 BC the melting ice sheets raised sea levels and the English Channel and North Sea were formed - creating the islands known as the British Isles. In spite of the increased difficulty of reaching Britain, waves of migrants continued to arrive over the next few thousand years from all parts of Europe and beyond.

'Journey of Mankind: A peopling of the world' is an interactive map presentation from the Bradshaw Foundationwhich which could be good to use as a starting activity (see screenshot below). It shows just how recently Britain was populated in comparison to other parts of the world.

Increasing diversity

One of the difficulties of studying the movements of people from mainland Europe into Britain is that many of the characteristics of the British people stem from contact with other groups through trade rather than by the invasion of new groups of people. Secondly, it is difficult to estimate the numbers of people migrating into Britain over time - even today, when detailed record keeping is the norm, people regularly dispute published figures! 

Apart from school history texts, there are a number of published online sources that can be used in a geography lesson to look at historical migration. It is important with this topic, as with many others, that pupils are made aware of possible bias in the source of information. There are a number of immigration timelines that could be very helpful resources in this resepct, such as this one from the BBC.

Until about 1000 years ago, most of these migration movements were invasions and people came and went over time, e.g. the Roman invasion and later retreat. During these periods, however, many of the new immigrants intermarried with the indigenous population creating an ever more complex genetic mix. The population of Britain up to this time remained steady at about one million people.

The people with the most mixed genetic makeup live in southeast England, while the least genetically mixed people live in the southwest, west and north of Britain. Why do you think this is? What impact might such an idea have on pupils' views of their own 'Britishness' and of the process of immigration?

Growth of the British Empire

As we move into the period which encompasses the last one thousand years, we can see a steady trickle of more migrants arriving from all over Europe, mainly to escape religious persecution and wars in their own countries - many of these people were the first refugees, seeking safety within our country.

From the early years of the 17th century, the growth of the British Empire (which eventually laid claim to one quarter of the world's territory) began to exert a strong influence on patterns of migration as new migrants began to arrive for the first time from Africa and Asia. Although numbers were relatively small, it signified the start of a movement of people with different ethnic backgrounds to those who had previously come to Britain from mainland Europe. In this sense, British people's perceptions of the migrants and their attitudes towards them were different - not necessarily hostile, but it made people more aware of the new migrants if only because they 'looked different' to the earlier migrants.

The second important difference is that many of the new migrants from Africa and Asia tried to seek out earlier migrants from the same part of the world so that they began to concentrate in various locations around the UK. For example, according to the Commission for Racial Equality website, "By the end of the 19th century, successive waves of Chinese immigrants to London's docklands give rise to the area's new unofficial name, 'Chinatown'. It becomes renowned for its opium dens, Chinese laundries and restaurants."

As we introduce the notion of immigrants from other continents, we come back to the question of what defines 'Britishness' and how this impacts on people's feelings towards immigrants. How you deal with this idea depends on the pupils in your school and the people in your local community. How important do you think the origin of the immigrants is in shaping peoples opinions about immigration?

Post war migration up to the present day

The period following the end of the Second World War is the next significant milestone that requires some investigation, with large numbers of displaced East Europeans and many people from India and the West Indies being encouraged to come to Britain to work and help the post-war economic recovery. The post-war 1951 census records the fact that the Polish-born population of England and Wales was over 162,000 people - so large numbers of Polish people living in Britain is not a new phenomena!

The final piece of this complex jigsaw is UK membership of the European Union. When the UK joined this group in 1973, it had nine members and from those early times, it was accepted that people could move freely to seek work within that group of nine countries, though few did since the economies of the initial group were fairly comparable. Today, the EU has 27 members with a total population of 500 million people - many of the people in the newer member countries have a lower standard of living than that found in the initial nine member countries.

It remains a surprising fact to some people that those who come from EU countries to seek work in the UK are not counted as immigrants. As this unit is being written, the news is full of stories about the controversy over Italian workers coming to the north east of England (perfectly legally). A few of the less sensationalist newspapers carried balancing stories about hundreds of skilled English workers working in Italy on a refinery project. We will return to this part of the story in the next unit when we look at economic migrants.

Once again, the pupils need to look at these more recent influxes of immigrants both in terms of numbers (much larger numbers involved) and in terms of the origin (people coming from a much wider range of countries across the world) so that it provides a context for looking at present day immigration policy.

Pupil Tasks

Pupils can usefully map the source regions or countries of immigrants arriving in Britain. This could be done in a traditional way with paper-based outline maps but can also be done much more quickly on a website such as aneki.com.

Pupils can create a mind map to summarise these movements or make a timeline of their own design. The main benefit lies in them developing an understanding of the scale and frequency of the various migration cycles plus some spatial awareness of the origin of the many migrants - a large wall display can be an effective method of getting this across. Pupils using ICT could add placemarks, routes and annotate details on to a Google Earth overlay.

If you wanted to try small group or paired work, it is possible to divide the class according to the various time periods and get the pupils to report back on their designated period. Pupils could script a podcast which can then be collated in the form of a news report looking back at the history of immigration with reporters telling the story as if they were there at the time.


It is important that pupils are able to demonstrate both a knowledge of previous migration movements into the UK and an understanding of the many reasons why people have come to settle in this country. An appropriate task might be to get the pupils to write a short personal reflection on this session beginning with statements such as:

"Until today, I didn't know that..."

"The most important thing that I have learnt about earlier migrations is..."

Looking Back

Look back over this first session and note down what you see as the main difficulties and benefits of introducing a unit on immigration in this way.

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