Changes in Attitudes to Immigrants in Britain, 1841-1921

Changes in Attitudes to Immigrants in Britain, 1841-1921

From Foreigner to Alien

By Ben Braber

Anthem Studies in British History

This book reviews changes in attitudes to immigrants in Britain and the language used to put these feelings into words between 1841 and 1921.

Paperback, 130 Pages


May 2022

£25.00, $40.00

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About This Book

This book reviews changes in attitudes to immigrants in Britain and the language that was used to put these feelings into words between 1841 and 1921. Using a historical and linguistic method for an analysis of so far for this purpose relatively unused primary sources, this book offers novel findings. It has found that changes in the meaning and use of the word ‘alien’ in Britain coincided during the period between 1841 and 1921 with the expression of changing attitudes to immigrants in this country and the modification of the British variant of the English language. When people in Britain in these years used the term ‘an alien’, they meant, most likely, a foreigner, stranger, refugee or immigrant. In 1841 an alien denoted a foreigner or a stranger, notably a person residing or working in a country who did not have the nationality or citizenship of that country. However, by 1921 an alien mainly signified an immigrant in Britain – a term, which as this book shows, had in the course of the years since 1841 acquired very negative connotations.

This book concludes that by 1921, in contemporary minds the word alien aroused utter hostility. Alien had first become a byname for immigrants, and then it was turned into a term of abuse, a badge of dishonour and a mark of danger – a comprehensively negative label that could be attached at will or unconsciously at any time to any group of immigrants.


“This is a meticulously researched study which says something genuinely new about migrants and their perception in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. It adds to our knowledge of immigration during an important era in the evolution of multiracial Britain, which historians and public opinion have tended to ignore.” — Panikos Panayi, Professor of European History and Head of History, De Montfort University

“An interesting analysis of how ‘alien’ gradually replaced other equivalent terms in British political discourse from the 1870s until the aftermath of World War I – a symptom in a rising tide of xenophobia.” — Emmanuel Comte, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs)

Ben Braber's book is not intended as an end itself, but rather as a means of encouraging others to explore the processes of immigration and settlement through the interrogation of linguistic evolution. He has succeeded in this goal—Anne J. Kershen, Queen Mary University of London; pp 779 to 781; The Journal of British Studies

The book highlights how corpus linguistic methods (that is, computer-aided analyses of large collections of text) can uncover regular patterns of usage in historical texts. What is especially striking is how some of the discourses prevalent in nineteenth-century outlets find echoes in contemporary press coverage of immigration. […] The book does well to weave together a compelling narrative regarding the role the British press played in pushing pro/anti-migrant positions during a period of significant cultural and economic upheaval. […] For historians of British (im)migration, this book will undoubtedly be of value, particularly because of how well it sets out the cultural context against which alien emerges as a political identity category.—Midland History

Author Information

Ben Braber is a historian who specialises in integration of immigrants and their descendants into western European societies during the modern era.


Anthem Studies in British History

Table of Contents

List of figures and tables; Preface, Introduction; Chapter 1. The meanings of alien; Chapter 2. Quantitative analysis of the use of alien; Chapter 3. Qualitative analysis of the use of alien; Conclusion; Index.


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