Small Island Read 2007 masthead
Downloads Libraries Registration Form Acknowledgements Abolition 200
What's On
Small Island
The Transatlantic Slave Trade
The Windrush Generation
Other Arrivals
Leaving Britain
News and Press
Reader Contributions

Leaving Britain
Since the seventeenth century it is estimated that over 17 million people have left Britain to settle elsewhere in the world. For much of the post-World War Two period, the number of people leaving was similar to that of people arriving. Since the 1990s the balance has shifted so that more people enter than leave the country, but this imbalance is partly offset by the fact that some of those leaving are former immigrants returning to their original homes or moving on to other countries.

Recent figures (2006) showed that in 2004, 222,600 more migrants came to Britain than left but of these 50 per cent intended to stay less than two years. The net outflow of British citizens reached a new high of 235,000 that year, many of these being among the growing number of retired people buying homes abroad.

In an article in the Financial Times in August 2006, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah of the Institute of Public Policy Research, wrote:

Our borders are being overwhelmed by migration on an unprecedented scale. Many of these migrants are failing to integrate with their host communities. Some do not even bother learning the local language. Local services are struggling to cope with the influx. Worse still, the UK government seems to know little about the scale or impact of this migration.

While these may be well-rehearsed descriptions of immigration into the UK, they may better describe what happens when Britons move abroad. Emigration from the UK is rocketing but few people seem to be considering the demographic or economic implications.

Mass emigration from Britain began around 1600 with the settling of colonies in America and the Caribbean, and the establishment of trading interests in the East. The majority of the early migrants were merchants, planters, servants, engineers, field hands, artisans and administrators. As overseas communities became established, teachers, doctors and church ministers joined them. From 1615, criminals sentenced to death received a pardon if they agreed to be transported to the colonies – a practice which ended in the mid-nineteenth century. Thousands of children were also sent overseas under charitable schemes such as the Poor Law Union.

By the mid-seventeenth century, more people were leaving Britain than arriving, the most popular destination being the West Indies. At that time, the ‘Ulster plantation’ of six counties in Northern Ireland was governed as a crown colony and by the end of the century around 70,000 Welsh and English and 150,000 Scottish settlers had made their home there.

British emigrants were depicted in the press and popular culture as gallant torchbearers, in contrast to the people arriving in Britain who were considered society’s dregs. Author David Miles describes the situation as follows: ‘if British emigration (with the exception of prisoners and the Catholic Irish) was seen as heroic, immigrants were often regarded as pathetic or parasitical.’

The 1803 Passenger Act, ostensibly aimed at raising standards on emigrant ships, was really designed to put the cost of emigration beyond the pockets of poor people in response to complaints by Highland landlords that they were losing too many tenants. However, by the mid-century, free and assisted passages were being offered to people with particular skills and trades in recruitment drives that encouraged emigration to parts of the Empire, particularly Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.

Post-World War Two emigration schemes included the incentive of a £10 fare to Australia. Around a million ‘Ten Pound Poms’ left Britain at this time, with another million people moving to Canada. The emigrants were leaving behind a life of austerity, food rationing and housing shortages for the promise of prosperity in a country that shared the mother tongue of English and a foundation in British culture. These emigrants were leaving Britain just as the Caribbean immigrants, looking for their own new land, were arriving.

See the BBC’s Immigration and Emigration website for a clickable map that provides information on migration to and from the regions of the UK.

  Emigrating to Australia, 1949 (Science and Society/NMPFT Daily Herald Archive).

Emigrating to Australia, 1949 (Science and Society/NMPFT Daily Herald Archive).