William Evans-Gordon, the youngest son of Major-General Charles Evans-Gordon and his wife, Catherine Rose Evans-Gordon, was born on 8th August 1857 in Chatham, Kent. He was educated at Cheltenham College and at the Sandhurst Royal Military College. He entered the British Army in July 1876 and after joining the 67th foot regiment in January 1877 was posted to India and the following year he was made a captain in the Madras staff corps. (1)
During his service, he acted as aide-de-camp to the he Governor of Madras, M. E. Grant Duff, as a boundary settlement officer, and accompanied the viceroy, Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin, as an interpreter on several tours. He undertook various roles within the foreign department of the government of India, and from 1888 to 1892 was assistant secretary. Evans-Gordon married Julia Charlotte Sophia, Marchioness of Tweeddale on 2nd February, 1892 and retired from the army in May 1897. (2)
Evans-Gordon, a member of the Conservative Party, was active in London politics. Frederick Wootton Isaacson, the MP for Stepney, died in February, 1898, and Evans-Gordon was selected as his replacement. In the by-election held on 9th March, he received 2,472, votes, but was beaten by the trade union leader and Liberal Party candidate, William C. Steadman. (3)
During the campaign in the 1900 General Election Evans-Gordon attempted to make Jewish immigration a major political issue. He also attacked Jews for their involvement in the Boer War. According to Claire Hirschfield the election was "characterised by a series of public admonishments against Jews, charges that candidates deployed largely in response to Jews' activities and putative influence in South Africa". (4)
Evans-Gordon won the seat with a 12.4% swing against his Liberal candidate. Soon afterwards Evans-Gordon began an anti-alien campaign. David Cesarani, the author of The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo-Jewry, 1841–1991 (1994) pointed out that the racist election campaign had "brought into the House of Commons a cadre of Tory MPs representing East End constituencies who were committed in restricting immigration." (5)
Evans-Gordon was joined by other Conservative MPs in East London including Samuel Forde Ridley (Bethnal Green South West), Claude Hay (Hoxton), Walter Guthrie (Bow and Bromley), Spencer Charrington (Mile End) and Thomas Dewar (Tower Hamlets, St George) in an anti-alien campaign. Two Jewish MPs, Harry Samuel (Limehouse) and Benjamin Cohen (Islington East) also called for restrictions on immigration. Evans-Gordon argued against "the settlement of large aggregations of Hebrews in a Christian land". In another article he argued that "east of Aldgate one walks into a foreign town" and the development of a separate community, "a solid and permanently distinct block - a race apart, as it were, in an enduring island of extraneous thought and custom". (6)
According to his biographer, Marc Brodie, Evans-Gordon "was instrumental in the establishment of" the British Brothers' League (BBL), "a purportedly working-class anti-immigration body". (7) Evans-Gordon and other Tory MPs in the area galvanised the poorer local populace into angry street marches calling for an end to Jewish immigration. It was stated that the government "would not have this country made the dumping ground for the scum of Europe" and complained that England should be "the heart of the Empire not the dustbin of Austria and Russia". (8)
William Stanley Shaw was elected President of the organisation. He later recalled "that the first manifesto of the British Brothers' League was issued in February, 1901, but we did not commence enrolling members until May, 1901." In the first year Shaw claimed that BBL had "between ten and twelve thousand members, of which some fifteen hundred had paid the sixpence subscription." (9)
Mancherjee Bhownagree, the Tory MP for Bethnal Green North-East, who had been born in India but had moved to London in 1882, also gave his support to the anti-immigrant campaign and endorsed "any action which might stop this undesirable addition to our population". Most members were "mostly local factory workers and unemployed, convinced by BBL propaganda that their precarious work situation, low pay, overcrowded housing and poor sanitation was caused by immigration. The BBL marched through impoverished East End districts, voicing working class concerns, but wealthier elements ran the organisation from its Gracechurch Street offices nestled comfortably within the City." (10)
The leaders of the British Brothers' League convinced many local workers that the influx of migrants willing to work long hours for low pay undermined their struggle for better conditions. Instead of unionising migrants, the BBL called for restriction of entry. The Liberal MP, Henry Norman of Wolverhampton South, also joined the campaign and advised other nations to "disinfect their own sewage". As a result of their campaign the BBL were able to present a petition to Parliament with 45,000 signatures, mostly collected in east London, calling for immigration control." (11)
Holding "Britain for the British" banners and Union Jacks, the British Brothers' League took part in intimidating marches through the East End. The Jewish Chronicle observed derisively that "there appears to be very little British and nothing brotherly in the new league. (12)
Church leaders also joined the campaign against Jews (also referred to as Aliens). In 1902, the Bishop of Stepney, Cosmo Gordon Lang (later the Archbishop of Canterbury) had accused Jewish immigrants of only speaking three English words - "Board of Guardians". Lang went on to say: "I recognize the vigour and intelligence among the aliens but the fact remains that they are swamping whole areas once populated by English people and our churches are continually being left like islands in a sea of aliens." (13)
William Stanley Shaw, the original president of the British Brothers' League resigned in April 1902, and was replaced by Howard Vincent, the Conservative Party MP for Sheffield Central. He claimed that right-wing politicians had turned it into an anti-Semitic organisation. He pointed out in a letter to the East London Observer three months later that the "first condition that I made on starting the movement was the word 'Jew' should never be mentioned and that as far as possible the agitation should be kept clear of racial and religious animosity". He added that other members of the BBL were trying to make people believe that "alien" means "Jew" whereas he insisted it meant "foreigner". According to Shaw "religion had nothing to do with it". (14)
In a letter to the newspaper in September he explained his decision to resign in more detail. He criticised those Tory MPs who were exploiting the subject of immigration and questioned the reasons why "those noble personages who suddenly develop a burning interest in the troubles and perplexities of the masses." Shaw argued that the BBL had "started with the object of benefiting British workers" but had recently become "the pray of outside politicians". He went on to point out that "British workers should remember that this alien influx has been going on for twenty years, to a greater or lesser extent. It is no new discovery. The fault, too lies not with the immigrants in coming here, but with the British Government in allowing them to come. Do not blame the wrong people." (15)
William Evans-Gordon was now the main figure in the British Brothers' League, an organisation that now had 12,000 members. Evans-Gordon toured eastern Europe to study the Jewish immigration question, and wrote of his journey in his book The Alien Immigrant, published in 1903. It has been described as an "exhaustively researched and well-received treatise focused on the social political, and economic effects of the mass emigration of Eastern Europeans into Britain." (16) Evans-Gordon concluded his study with the words: "it is a fact that the settlement of large aggregations of Hebrews in a Christian land has never been successful". (17)
Members of the recently formed Labour Party and Jewish trade unionists formed the Aliens Defence League to counteract the British Brothers' League. Evans-Gordon responded by forming a committee of MPs pledged to vote for restriction (the parliamentary pauper immigration committee) and this played an important part in forcing the government to establish a royal commission on alien immigration in 1902. As a member of the commission, Evans-Gordon was "the individual who dominated the whole investigation". Many of the witnesses called by the commission were organized by the BBL. (18)
The commission's report was presented in August 1903 and recommended a range of measures to restrict immigration. It argued that: "Immigrants arrived impoverished, destitute and dirty; practised insanitary habits; spread infectious diseases; were a burden on the rates; dispossessed native dwellers; caused native tradesmen to suffer a loss of trade; worked for rates below the 'native workman'; included criminals, prostitutes and anarchists; formed a compact non-assimilating community, that didn't intermarry; and interfered with the observance of Christian Sunday." (19)
After the publication of this report the government, under pressure from right-wing elements in the Conservative Party, and reactionary newspapers such as the Daily Mail, to do something about immigration controls. Eventually, Arthur Balfour, the prime minister, agreed to introduce an Aliens Act. Aside from anti-semitic sentiments, the act was also driven by the economic and social unrest in the East End of London where most immigrants settled. According to the government, the undercutting of British labour was therefore a central driving force to the passing of the legislation. (20)
In a leading article on 11th December, 1903, The Jewish Chronicle protested that the proposed Alien Act really had nothing to do with the Jews, but was a protectionist measure intended to appease the working classes at a time of unemployment and so help to retain the seats of Conservative MPs. (21) In the next few weeks the newspaper published several articles showing that immigration was declining and pressure on the housing market was easing. (22)
The first attempt to pass the Alien Act in 1904 ended in failure. Howard Vincent, the president of the British Brothers League, complained that members of the Labour Party and the left-wing of the Liberal Party had blocked the measure: "To kill the bill by talk was the avowed object of the Radical obstructionists, and, thanks to them, Stepney and Whitechapel, Hoxton and Tower Hamlets, Poplar and Limehouse, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, must continue for a while to suffer the evils of unrestricted alien immigration, driving the working-classes from employment and from home, and the townspeople into bankruptcy." However, Vincent claimed that Balfour had assured William Evans-Gordon that he intended to try again to get the measure passed: ""From every point of view I think a measure dealing with the subject is of great importance, and no time shall be lost in making an effort, and I think a more successful effort, to grapple with its difficulties." (23)
When the Alien Bill was introduced again in 1905 Arthur Balfour claimed that the measure would save money for the country. "Why should we admit into this country people likely to become a public charge? Many countries which exclude immigrants have no Poor Laws they have not those great charities of which we justly boast. The immigrant comes in at his own peril and perishes if he cannot find a living. That is not the case here. From the famous statute of Elizabeth we have taken on ourselves the obligation of supporting every man, woman, and child in this country and saving them from starvation. Is the statute of Elizabeth to have European extension? Are we to be bound to support every man, woman, and child incapable of supporting themselves who choose to come to our shores? That argument seems to me to be preposterous. When it is remembered that some of these persons are a most undesirable element in the population, and are not likely to produce the healthy children... but are afflicted with disease either of mind or of body, which makes them intrinsically undesirable citizens, surely the fact that they are likely to become a public charge is a double reason for keeping them out of the country." (24)
William Evans-Gordon made a major speech on the proposed legislation: "I would remind the House that year by year some 1,500,000 of human beings of every age, sex, and religion, the healthy and hopeful, the diseased and hopeless, good, bad, and indifferent, are on the move from the South and East of Europe pressing towards the West. The explosive forces which cause this great movement are in the main misgovernment and oppression. But other influences are at work. The enormous number of these people who have gone before make a drawing force to the people who are left behind, and this great travelling mass of humanity has produced among the shipping companies, and people connected with railways and other transport, a fierce competition. Every single person who can be induced to travel is another ticket sold. All these forces add naturally to the number of people who are on the move. This immigration is not by any means wholly Jewish. The Jewish emigrants do form a very large part of the whole, and in their case it may be said to take the form almost of a national migration. There are 5,500,000 Jews in the Russian Empire, but we cannot consider all these people to be possible emigrants, though a large number of them must be considered in that light, unless affairs in Eastern Europe undergo a profound modification. As things are, it is the poorest and the least fit of these people who move, and it is the residuum of these again who come to, or are left in this country." (25)
He went on to argue that this was causing considerable problems, such as overcrowding and low wages, for the working-classes living in London. This view was attacked by Charles Trevelyan: "The truth is if it were only an economic question we on this side of the House should regard it as almost too insignificant a matter to oppose, although we think it useless protection, but there are two serious results which we foresee from this legislation. The first is that it diverts the attention of the public from more serious remedies for the deep-seated and terrible evils of overcrowding and sweating in our country. Overcrowding and sweating are national institutions which the aliens find when they come here. They want to be sweated and overcrowded as little as the native-born, but at first landing they are naturally more liable to suffer from the conditions of the towns in which they find themselves. Their overcrowding and sweating is only a part of a system from which our population suffers immensely more than the few aliens who come over here." (26)
Although the word "Jew" was absent from the legislation, Jews formed the vast bulk of the "aliens" category. Speaking during the committee stage of the Alien Bill, Balfour argued that Jews should be prevented from arriving in Britain because they were not "to the advantage of the civilisation of this country... that there should be an immense body of persons who, however patriotic, able and industrious, however much they threw themselves into the national life, they are a people apart and not only had a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow countrymen but only intermarry amongst themselves." (27)
The Liberal Party believed that the Aliens Act was popular with the electorate and decided not to oppose the bill with any great effort. However, a couple of its more left-wing members, Charles Trevelyan and Charles Wentworth Dilke, did argue strongly against the legislation. So did the two Labour MPs, Kier Hardie and Richard Bell. All four Jewish MPs who represented the Conservative Party, including Benjamin Cohen and Harry Samuel, voted for the legislation. Of the four Jewish Liberals, one abstained and three voted against the bill. (28)
As Geoffrey Alderman, the author of Modern British Jewry (1998) has pointed out: "It was not at the Jewish Board of Deputies that the principle of the legislation was condemned, but at the Jewish Working Men's Club, Great Alie Street, Aldgate, and by the Jewish Socialist-Zionist party, Poale Zion... Chief Rabbi Adler was reluctant to condemn it... At the general election of January 1906, in at least one constituency (Leeds Central) Adler's influence was discreetly employed by the Conservative interest." (29)
The Aliens Act was given royal assent in August 1905. With a great deal of justification, William Evans-Gordon was regarded by Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of Israel, as the "father of the Aliens Act". (30) It was the first time the government introduced immigration controls and registration, and gave the Home Secretary overall responsibility for immigration and nationality matters. The government argued that the act was designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through. Alfred Eckhard Zimmern, was one of many who opposed the legislation as being anti-Semitic, commented: "It is true that it does not specify Jews by name and that it is claimed that others besides Jews will be affected by the Act, but that is only a pretence." (31)
In the 1906 General Election Tory MPs attempted to use the subject of immigration to win them votes. David Hope Kyd, the prospective MP for Whitechapel, told the electorate that Stuart Samuel, the sitting member, was pro-alien and it was "no good sending to Parliament a man who stands up... for the foreign Jews" and what was needed was "someone who could speak for the English in Whitechapel." (34) He was not the only Tory to mount a racist campaign as they appealed to "the British working man" to vote against "Pro-Alien Radical Jews" and "push back this intolerable invasion". (32)
The passing of the Aliens Act did not help the Conservative Party in the 1906 General Election. The Liberal Party won 397 seats (48.9%) compared to the Conservative Party's 156 seats (43.4%). The Labour Party, led by Keir Hardie did well, increasing their seats from 2 to 29. In the landslide victory, the prime minister, Arthur Balfour, also lost his seat. Others who failed to get elected included supporters of the British Brothers League such as Samuel Forde Ridley (Bethnal Green South West), Walter Guthrie (Bow and Bromley), Thomas Dewar (Tower Hamlets, St George), Claude Hay (Hoxton), Harry Samuel (Limehouse), Benjamin Cohen (Islington East) and Mancherjee Bhownagree (Bethnal Green North-East). In Whitechapel, its Jewish MP, Stuart Samuel, who campaigned against the legislation, increased his majority over his racist opponent, David Hope Kyd. Margot Asquith wrote: "When the final figures of the Elections were published everyone was stunned, and it certainly looks as if it were the end of the great Tory Party as we have known it." (33)
Despite the large swing against the Tories, Evans-Gordon held his seat by 637 votes. In the House of Commons he became one of the government's main critics. He was especially concerned about their willingness to implement the Aliens Act. He told one large public meeting in Shoreditch that "War has been declared on you by the Liberal Government, the friends of every country but their own". (34)
William Evans-Gordon resigned on the grounds of ill-health in April 1907. After his retirement he continued periodically to write on the immigration question. He died at his home, at 4 Chelsea Embankment, London, on 31st October, 1913. (35)
We have been told that the Aliens Bill is the outcome of a spurious local agitation got up by unscrupulous politicians for electioneering purposes - I do not know, indeed, but that I am numbered among them - and that the Bill of last year was merely "window-dressing" for the purpose of deceiving the public. Regarding the charge of electioneering, I should like to remind hon. Gentlemen opposite that in making it they are not only defaming us, but, at the same time, blackening the character of their own supporters. Hon. Gentlemen opposite say we are on the eve of an election. We have had remarkable testimony of the fact in the East End of London. Every Radical candidate, and two hon. Members of this House who sit for East End constituencies - the very districts affected - have taken the very unusual course of sending a petition to the Leaders of their Party in this House, asking them not to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill. I have been interested to hear from the speakers who have just sat down that they do not intend to listen to that pathetic appeal. They are to divide the House against the Bill.
With regard to the charge of "window-dressing," I think the Bill introduced by the Government provides a complete and irrefutable answer. Have hon. Gentlemen opposite really considered what the problem confronting the country is? I would remind the House that year by year some 1,500,000 of human beings of every age, sex, and religion, the healthy and hopeful, the diseased and hopeless, good, bad, and indifferent, are on the move from the South and East of Europe pressing towards the West. The expulsive forces which cause this great movement are in the main misgovernment and oppression. But other influences are at work. The enormous number of these people who have gone before make a drawing force to the people who are left behind, and this great travelling mass of humanity has produced among the shipping companies, and people connected with railways and other transport, a fierce competition. Every single person who can be induced to travel is another ticket sold. All these forces add naturally to the number of people who are on the move. This immigration is not by any means wholly Jewish. The Jewish emigrants do form a very large part of the whole, and in their case it may be said to take the form almost of a national migration. There are 5,500,000 Jews in the Russian Empire, but we cannot consider all these people to be possible emigrants, though a large number of them must be considered in that light, unless affairs in Eastern Europe undergo a profound modification. As things are, it is the poorest and the least fit of these people who move, and it is the residuum of these again who come to, or are left in this country.
Having realised the magnitude of this movement, the problem for us is what steps we should take, both in the interest of the aliens themselves and of our own population, to regulate and control it. Are we to sit still and do nothing, and without reference to our own great social problems and industrial conditions to receive everybody who chooses to come, without limitation as to number and without stipulation as to character, health, or industrial fitness; or are we to attach reasonable conditions to the hospitality we offer and set up reasonable safeguards against this country being used, as it is now being used, as the refuse heap of the whole of Europe. Hon. Members opposite have no hesitation whatever in leaving things exactly as they are. On the other hand, on these benches we are unanimous in believing that legislation is urgently required. The Party opposite attach great importance to the most favoured nation clause in matters of commerce, but in this matter of immigration they seem to desire that we should remain in the position of the least, favoured of all the nations of the world...
I cannot establish this point better than by quoting a very brief extract from the Report of the Select Committee of 1899. They found that - The better class of emigrants only arrive in transit to other countries (chiefly America), that the poorest class remains here. The Committee went on to say that the distribution of these poor aliens both as regards localities and trades is such that the pressure occasioned is out of all proportion to their numbers. Now let us take the port of Grimsby, which is principally concerned in the transmigration traffic - people going to America, and so forth. These people are allowed to land without any medical examination worthy of the name. No sooner do they arrive at Liverpool than they are subjected to a close medical examination by the officers of our own Board of Trade. With what result? With the remarkable result that the very people who have been allowed to land freely in Grimsby are refused permission to leave this country again because they are physically unfit to proceed to other countries.
Enoch Powell warned of “rivers of blood”. Margaret Thatcher, David Blunkett and Michael Fallon spoke of Britain’s towns being “swamped”. Ukip MEP Diana James claimed that the “floodgates would open”. Britain’s immigration “debate’’, it seems, has long been drowning in metaphors that play on people’s deepest existential fears.
As far back as 1902, Cosmo Lang, bishop of Stepney, east London, accused immigrants of “swamping whole areas once populated by English people”. The local Conservative MP, Major William Evans-Gordon, concurred. Together with neighbouring Conservative MP Samuel Forde-Ridley and Captain Shaw of the Middlesex Regiment, Evans-Gordon forged a populist anti-immigrant movement called the British Brothers’ League (BBL), which launched itself at a 1,000-strong rally in the East End in May 1901.
The Eastern Post and City Chronicle enthusiastically reported BBL activities and demanded that the government end this “foreign flood which has submerged our native population of East London”. Within months the league claimed 6,000 members, mostly local factory workers and unemployed, convinced by BBL propaganda that their precarious work situation, low pay, overcrowded housing and poor sanitation was caused by immigration. The BBL marched through impoverished East End districts, voicing working class concerns, but wealthier elements ran the organisation from its Gracechurch Street offices nestled comfortably within the City.
Captain Shaw boasted of his elite recruits – “Oxford graduates” and “city merchants”, claiming that “medical men, clergymen, authors and journalists” were sympathisers too, along with 40 Tory MPs. Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, donated 10s/6d to the league. The Tory MP for Bethnal Green North-East, Mancherjee Bhownagree, a Bombay-born Parsi, endorsed “any action which might stop this undesirable addition to our population”. Bhownagree’s friendship helped the BBL deflect charges of racism, just as the 21st-century English Defence League promotes anti-Muslim spokespersons from its Sikh membership.
So who were these feared immigrants? Mainly pauperised east European Jews fleeing economic discrimination, religious persecution and, from 1881, pogroms enacted by the mob but encouraged by the tsarist Russian authorities. Non-Jewish Russians and Poles, Italians, Germans and Chinese came to the East End too, as economic migrants.
Britain’s monarch had powers to expel foreigners for the “peace and security of the realm”, but free movement of labour was generally unquestioned until Conservative politicians stoked up the immigration issue in the 1880s and 90s and sections of the media fanned the flames. Today’s scare stories about “Muslim extremists” echo those of the St James Gazette, which warned, in 1887, of “foreign anarchists and nihilists” among Jewish immigrants...
Immigrant Jewish workers unionised themselves and made strenuous efforts to cooperate with existing labour bodies. Influential non-Jewish activists within William Morris’s and Eleanor Marx’s Socialist League supported them, as did tailors’ leader George Macdonald, cabinet makers’ leader Charles Adams, and Herbert Burrows, who helped to form a matchworkers’ union; but other labour activists were ambivalent. Irish dockers and immigrant Jewish tailors collaborated closely during the 1889 strikes, though the dockers’ leader, Ben Tillett, had described Jewish immigrants as the “dregs and scum of the continent” who made overcrowded slums “more foetid, putrid and congested”. He once told Jewish workers candidly: “We will do our duty by you, but we wish you had not come.”