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Tramping artisans who marched thousands of miles a year are proof that Britain was built by migrants

The Emigrant’s Last Sight of Home – a painting by Richard Redgrave, 1858. Tate., CC BY-NC-ND

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” – so said British prime minister Theresa May in a speech which captured the tone of the Conservative government’s long-running campaign to crack down on immigration. From creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, to ramping up visa restrictions and pursuing a Brexit deal to end freedom of movement between the UK and Europe, the Conservative government has made strenuous efforts to prevent immigration to the UK.

Read more: Hostile environment: the UK government's draconian immigration policy explained

What’s perhaps more surprising is that the opposition felt compelled to say something similar: the Labour party’s manifesto declares it would honour the EU referendum result and end freedom of movement, replacing it instead with “fair immigration rules”, as yet not clearly defined.

Both parties’ stances contain a grain of irony. The Conservatives – seen in the past as supporting businesses that make money from international labour – now seeking to tighten the borders. Labour – a party descended from unions set up to support worldwide movement of labour – now showing little sense of solidarity with international or EU workers.

But as a professor researching labour history and media communication, I find the greatest irony is that migration helped forge the very social, cultural and economic infrastructures that Britain now seeks to wall off from the rest of the world.

A brief history of British migration

Between 1815 and 1930, an estimated 11m Britons left for North America, Australasia and South Africa. During the same period, 7m Irish shipped out to the US and the British dominions. Migration on this massive scale contributed to imperial and labour diasporas – economic migrants shifting across international borders during a period of great change.

At the same time, between 1840 and 1911 around 4.5m people moved from the countryside to British cities such as London, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, Birmingham and Newcastle to take up work and learn new skills. With this came the need to help those without jobs.

Until the Trade Union Act of 1871, UK trade unions were prevented from organising for political purposes. Instead, workmen banded together as mutual self-help societies. They provided funds for illness and death duties, set up regional support networks and offered members financial support during periods of unemployment.

From the early 1800s onwards, UK labour unions built sophisticated structures to support the movement of people locally, regionally and globally. The general workings were similar: societies issued members with travelling documents indicating their good standing, as well as information on union contacts strung along a circuit of towns.

A typographical union travelling document, from 1871. David Finkelstein, CC BY-NC

Travellers presented themselves to such representatives (available in the evening usually in a pub or meeting space), where they would be issued with an official note for lodgings, offered food and drink and paid a small sum for distances tramped (between a half-penny or a penny per mile). If work was forthcoming, they would be directed to relevant employers; if not, they continued onwards.

In such ways, tramping artisans would often cover huge distances over a course of many months. In one extreme case from 1848, a tramping typographer marched over 1,800 miles, leaving London to take in the delights of Southampton, Bristol, Glasgow, Stirling and 21 different Irish towns, before returning to his old haunts a year later.

A global network

International movement was part of that mix. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, union-sponsored emigration grants offset travel costs of union members, enabling them to circulate along transnational routes as part of the British Empire’s colonial expansion in places such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

The Scottish Typographical Association, for example, operated a structured emigration scheme for its members. Between 1903 and 1912 it paid out over £1,626 in emigration grants – worth £625,000 in modern currency. Travel subsidies usually averaged between £5 to £10 per member (worth £500 to £1,000 in modern currency), depending on how long they had been a member of the union. This was quite substantial during a period when you could enjoy a pint of bitter in your local pub for a penny, travel from Birmingham to London for 20p, and the average earnings in 1908 were £70 a year.

Governments and civilians in British settlements were often complicit in subjugating, suppressing and destroying indigenous cultures in pursuit of colonial expansion. The ongoing impacts of colonialism in these places are many and complex. Yet migration played its part in shaping those regions in ways that have since defined their national identities, bringing trade skills and knowledge.

Read more: How Britain's colonial legacy still affects LGBT politics around the world

Migrants supported by union schemes started businesses that were central to shaping the economies of emerging communities and towns, such as Lawrence in New Zealand, Ballarat in Australia and Kimberley in South Africa. They parlayed and passed on their knowledge and expertise to others they encountered on their travels.

The unions that emerged in the 19th century developed complex information and support networks to respond to the need for trade worker movement. They were used to support those who could not find long-term work, and to create global knowledge and skills exchange systems.

British people should recognise that the working world today has been greatly shaped by a freedom of movement that was once encouraged and supported. The flotsam and jetsam of the past, also despised as citizens of nowhere, often became civic leaders thanks to union links and support, offering generosity of communal spirit and embrace of potential worth. It’s best not to forget such lessons, in today’s turbulent times.

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