History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


The Tyne Bridge, between Newcastle and Gateshead

The Tyne Bridge, between Newcastle and Gateshead

Crossing occupation borders: migration to the north-east of England

David Renton, University of Johannesburg

The normal habit in writing about migration is to assume that 'we' the hosts are something formal and static; and that 'they' who come are something different. They must 'assimilate' to our ways of being. One of the joys about migration is the chance it gives us to confront this stereotype. We change, we adapt. We look different through a migrant's eyes.

North-east England has been a major centre of migration in two modern periods: first, between 1880 and 1920, the region was a major centre of migration from Scotland and Ireland. David Byrne estimates that as many as 37 per cent of the 1911 population of the north-east was foreign-born, or the children of migrants. Second, since 1997, the region has again been a magnet: this time as a result of the government's dispersal scheme, which broke up refugee communities in London and south-east England and relocated the new arrivals throughout the country. By 2000 there were communities in Newcastle of people who spoke as their first language Farsi, Kurdish, Afghani, Albanian, French, Russian, Czech, Turkish, Somali, Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, Gujerati, Sinhalese, Tamil and Serbo-Croat. Most were recent arrivals.

Migrants joined a changing region. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, people travelled to the north-east in search of high wages. It was a centre for mining and shipbuilding, iron, steel and chemicals. The region was host to some of the country's best paid engineers: only in London were wages higher. After 1945, the north-east still regarded itself as a bastion of industry. There were still more than 20,000 shipbuilding and engineering workers living in Newcastle. As late as 1951, the north-east produced one sixth of the world's merchant shipping fleet. Yet in the twenty years alone between the 1971 census and the 1991 census, the number of industrial jobs in Tyne and Wear County fell from 320,000 to 146,000, a decline of more than half. Male full-time employment fell from 305,000 to 200,000. The prosperity of the 1890s had made way to relative poverty, one hundred years later. In 1997, around one-fifth of all north-east households received a weekly income of less than 100.

Migration has never just been about people crossing international borders: between 1927 and 1938, more than 100,000 people left the north-east as part of a national scheme to relocate people living in poor mining areas. Again, in the 1950s, the population of the region fell by around 70,000, chiefly as a result of people looking for work elsewhere in Britain.

How have migrants fared in the north-east? At times, the reception given to migrant workers has been one of intense hostility. In August 1961, large-scale clashes broke out in Middlesbrough after a sailor, Hassan Said, was caught up in a fight with John Joseph Hunt, an eighteen-year-old apprentice moulder. Hunt was killed and Said was later charged with his murder. The Cannon Street area of Middlesbrough where the fighting took place was a tough, working-class district, a neighbourhood where policemen were always required to work in pairs. One centre of the fighting was the Taj Mahal café, owned by an English woman Mrs Meah, who was married to a Pakistani. The Middlesbrough Magistrate Alfred Peaker told the rioters: 'I have no doubt that this affair started through some individuals visiting public houses and then trying to whip up feeling against some of these coloured people living in the Cannon Street area. The evidence shows that the coloured population were quiet and peaceful and never did anything at all to give any provocation. But they were attacked.' (1)

Many people feared that a similar mood was beginning to take root in the early years of the new millennium: with asylum constantly in the news and unscrupulous parties seeking to stir up anti-asylum racism. In August 2002, an Iranian man, Peyman Bahmani, was murdered in Sunderland. The protests after were sombre affairs: I recall another refugee saying to me 'Of all the cities I've lived in, the way we are treated, Sunderland is the worst.'

But there are also many examples of people living side-by-side without tension. Writing in 1917, T. P. O'Connor MP, an advocate of Irish Home Rule was fulsome in his praise of the welcome that nineteenth-century Newcastle afforded to Irish migrants: 'Of the many asylums to which the Irish fled after the great exodus of the forties, there was none in which, owing to many circumstances, they were able ultimately to find more favourable circumstances than on Tyneside.' Similarly, sixty years later in 1968, a Sunday Express investigation looked at the experience of Yemeni stokers who had settled on South Shields. It was titled: 'We feel welcome here, hinney.'

In most respects, the reception of migrants in the north-east has probably been no different to the reception that people have encountered in other English regions: when the press has been welcoming towards groups of arrivals, generally, popular sentiment has followed. When the press has been hostile, the mood has changed. Many of the most important rules affecting migration to an area, such as laws on working, processes in applying for citizenship, the general attitude of public authorities including the police, are shaped by decisions taken in the capital, not in the region.

The particularity of the north-east lies in the remaining importance of the region's occupational cultures. Even now, when manufacturing is a less important sector, it still employs large numbers of people in the region. If a person arrives in a region, and they are prevented by law from working, then they find themselves in competition for resources with people who are dependent on state benefits: the dynamic is one of escalating tension. By contrast, where people arrive as labour migrants the same processes can be lessened: employees from different backgrounds may find themselves working alongside each other in the same industries. Habits of common understanding are more likely to grow.

Rashid Saraba arrived in the north-east in the late 1960s and went on to work as a bus driver. His best memory of the period is the effort made by trade union activists to welcome migrant workers: 'Most of us would take whatever [our] employer gave [us]. Gradually, however, some of us worked with the local unions in order to get our community better paid and to secure the sort of wages we deserved ... Some of the English disliked us and would say that we were lucky that we were earning so much and that we ought to be grateful to get more money over here than we could possibly earn in Pakistan or India. Other essentially good people used to encourage us.'

In so far as the north-east has been a welcoming region, it has often been the trade unions and other occupational and class organisations that have paved the way. They have shown the best face of the region - and perhaps of Britain too.

  1. Full citations for all quotations in this article can be found in D. Renton, Race and Migration in North East England (Sunderland, forthcoming). Back to (1)

Articles index | Back to top