Inhumanity towards migrants is nothing new

In 1819 Parliament passed the Irish and Scotch Vagrant Act (59 Geo III, c.12) as a reaction to complaints from parishes in England that they were being swamped by impoverished migrants.  It was meant to make it easier to pass (to expel) paupers from a place where they had arrived or attempted to settle and back to their place of birth (or last settlement). Settlement law was complicated but in essence you were only entitled to poor relief in the parish where you were born, or where you had settled (through work, marriage or by paying rent or rates).


Migrants from Scotland and Ireland traveled to England (in particular to London) for the prospect of a better life and the hope of work. Such movement increased at times of economic hardship so when the Irish potato harvest failed in 1821 and famine gripped the country in the following year thousands made the journey across the Irish Sea.* This placed extra pressure on local resources and in particular on the poor rates so it is not surprising that English ratepayers complained bitterly about the effect on their pockets, especially as the country had recently come out of a long period of hardship caused by the wars with Napoleon’s French Empire.

England was a tense place in the early decades of the nineteenth century. There were agricultural and industrial disputes in reaction to the introduction of new technologies; political turmoil focused on the right to vote; and conspiracies that threatened the monarchy and government.

So all in all we might be forgiven for assuming that a law that served to kick a few thousand desperate Scots and Irish out of the kingdom and off of the rates would be universally welcome (with the exception of the poor migrants, of course). But this example from the press in 1824 reveals that despite all the trouble they seemed to cause not everyone was anti-migrant in the 1820s.

In July Mary McCarthy appeared at  Southwark town hall to make her complaint to the sitting magistrate, Alderman J. J. Smith. She told him that the Overseers of St Olave’s had stopped her money. ‘Some time ago’ the same magistrate had directed the parish to pay her 1s a day in poor relief. On that occasion the officers had brought her to him so that he would enact the terms of the Irish and Scotch Vagrant Act , and send her back to Ireland. Instead he had decided that to do so would have been cruel and inhuman so he refused their request and ordered her to be relieved by the parish. This they had done, reluctantly, until now.

Mary was old. At 77 years of age and ‘tottering upon the very verge of the grave’ the magistrate felt it was his responsibility to apply the act with his discretion something the overseers cleared disagreed with. He told the Beadle who appeared on behalf of the parish that to send her back to Ireland at her age, to ‘a country  she had been separated from for years, and where she probably had no living soul that knew her’, would be an ‘act of the greatest inhumanity’.

Instead he advised the Beadle that the magistrates of Union Hall had equal jurisdiction to him so the overseers could apply there if they so chose. However, he added that it would not reflect well on a ‘respectable’ parish if they decided to follow that route. The Beadle promised to convey his decision to the officers of the parish and he and Mary left.

It shows us that negative and positive attitudes to migrants and refugees have existed for centuries and there is little new in contemporary rhetoric. Sadly it also suggests, to me at at least, that our presence of being a ‘Christian’ nation is stretched to the limit at the very moments when we should be holding out a helping hand to our neighbours within and without of the borders of our islands.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 3, 1824]


* Arthur Redford (ed), Labour Migration in England, 1800-50, p.110

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