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Duration 00:12:42

Introduction to immigration records

Matt Norman talks to Roger Kershaw about records relating to people that came to England and Wales from other countries to live and work. What records were created when people arrived here? How did people become British citizens? What can you see online? Find out the answers from Roger in this short podcast.

You can also use the research guides on our website to find out about immigration and immigrants, passengers, refugees, naturalisation, registration and British citizenship.

Please note that at the moment The National Archives is closed to visitors until further notice. Advice in the podcast about visiting us and using the facilities in our reading rooms will apply once we re-open.


Matt: Hello, I’m Matt Norman. Welcome to The National Archives. We’re in the map room, in our public reading rooms here in Kew, open to the public. Anyone can come and visit us here. We’re here today to talk about immigration records. And I’m here with Roger Kershaw, one of our migration records specialists. And I’m going to start by asking Roger, when people come to this country, in general, what kinds of records are typically created?

Roger: I guess the best, easiest sense of that are records related to their arrival. So typically, you’d have a passenger list or a manifest of passengers. And that would be compiled. That information would be available on arrival in British ports. So that’s the main record relating to the arrival of individuals. Also, depending on the period, individuals or immigrants would be required to register themselves at a local police station or at local justices of the peace.

Matt: Right. And passenger lists, when do they — what kind of period do passenger lists cover?

Roger: Well, passenger lists in our collection cover from roughly 1890 through to 1960.

Matt: And am I right in thinking that when we talk about passenger lists, we’re specifically talking about passenger ships, lists from ships, as opposed to aeroplanes?

Roger: Yes, definitely lists from ships. And even then we only have passenger lists for ships that started their journey from outside European ports. So, for example, we would have records of passengers who came from America or Canada to the UK. But we wouldn’t have lists of ships that were travelling from, say, Irish ports, French ports, unless that ship had started its journey outside the Mediterranean area.

Matt: Gotcha. And what does a passenger list look like? What typically would you find on a passenger list?

Roger: Again, it depends on the period of time, but certainly, obviously, their full names, either their age or date of birth, their occupation. Then from about the 1930s, you also get an address field. And that address field is an intended address in the UK.

Matt: OK. So someone comes to the UK, hopefully, they’ll be on a passenger list. They arrive here, presumably they go to the address that they intended to go to. You mentioned before that they would have to register with the local police?

Roger: They would. Under the 1914 Register of Aliens Act, they would have to register from that point, and that continued right up to after the 1960s, when the passenger lists end. So these are essentially records that were created by police constabularies across the UK.

Matt: Right. And what do we have here in terms of those police records of recent arrivals?

Roger: Very few records. We do have the records of the Metropolitan Police. So we have registrations of aliens who registered in police offices in the London and the metropolitan area, but there’s a very, very small sample that was selected for permanent preservation. So you’re talking about hundreds. And that’s probably from the hundreds and thousands of migrants who came here. Others, for other police constabularies, may be held locally at either police archives or local archives. But the survival rate is fairly patchy.

Matt: Right. And so then — so someone’s arrived, they may be on a passenger list, if you’re lucky, you may find them on one of these registration lists. What – is there another record that would typically be created after that or are we getting into — is there more variation from that point on?

Roger: A bit of both. There’s a bit of variation during war time. So enemy aliens during the First and during the Second World War, they had to be assessed by internment tribunals to ascertain whether they were a threat to the Allied nations at war. So typically, we’re talking about Austrians and Germans, for example, during the Second World War, and later, Italians. These records do survive pretty well and extensively for the Second World War. And these are records created at the time of the tribunal in 1939, towards the end of 1939.

Matt: And I think I’ve seen a couple of those types of records. Am I right in thinking that they’re quite detailed?

Roger: They’re quite detailed. I mean, funnily enough, they’re called index cards, but as index cards go, they show quite a lot of information. So it’s the name of the individual, date of birth, place of birth, also their occupation, their address, where they were tried — well, not tried, where the tribunal took place, and also the decision that was made by that tribunal. And then there are other records, which may tell you where the individual was interned. And you can follow more records at that point. There’s around about 70,000 records, because it’s estimated that around about 70,000 individuals were initially assessed for internment. But we’re talking about adults or people certainly over the age of 16.

Matt: OK. So typically, if your ancestor or the person you’re interested in arrived during wartime, then there may be a better chance that records were created to record their arrival. Let’s assume that someone arrived several months ago or maybe even several years ago as someone of immigrant status in this country. What other records might be produced?

Roger: I guess the other record is a record related to citizenship. So ultimately, people who settle in this country may decide to become British, but there’s no compulsion for that to happen. And over time, it has been a very costly process, and time consuming. But as I say, there’s no compulsion to do that, but we do have these records, and over time they were known as naturalisation records, denization records, or registration of British citizenship records.

Matt: Right. And what is the difference? Because these records, they come up a lot in the public enquiries that we get here. What is the difference between naturalisation and registration? They’re quite distinct, right?

Roger: They are. Naturalisation will relate to individuals of alien or foreign nationality. So they are non-British, and they are applying to become British. Whereas registrations relate to British people, possibly resident overseas in British dominions, or colonies, or the commonwealth countries. And they have the opportunity, after 1948, because they were British, to register their British nationality. And in registering their British nationality, they would be able to, for example, apply successfully for a British passport. So again, not everybody would register their British nationality, but a significant number did, too.

Matt: Right. And I believe that there’s quite a specific set of years for which we hold these records, is that right?

Roger: We hold these records of registration mainly under the British Nationality Act of ’48. So they covered the period 1949 and subsequent Acts take the records right up to 1986. So it’s around about 40 years’ worth.

Matt:  And then after 1986, where should people go?

Roger: They’re still going to be with central government. So that’s the UK Visa and Immigration Department.

Matt: OK. So what typically would you find on a registration or Naturalisation certificate?

Roger: So certificates or registration documents typically — I mean it varies, again, over time, but you’ll definitely get a name, date of birth, and quite often you’ll get information relating to residence, so addresses that the individuals may have lived at from the point of coming to this country to the point of registering or becoming British.

Matt: Right. So thinking about the main records that we’ve covered – so you’ve got passenger lists, you’ve got police registration records, maybe internment interview records, is that the right way to describe it?

Roger: Tribunal.

Matt: Tribunal records. And then you’ve got Naturalisation and registration records. In terms of thinking about those four record types, their availability, are any of those records online? Do people need to come and visit us here? How does that work?

Roger: OK. In terms of passenger lists, all of those records I described are available online. So Ancestry, for example, hold this collection, and you can search by name. And we reckon there’s probably around about 30 million passengers are going to and from the UK between 1890 and 1960. So you don’t need to come to the archives to access those, but if you did so, obviously we’d make them available through the reading rooms, through the online services we provide here. For the internment records or the tribunal records, again, the vast majority of those initial tribunals, those cards, are also online, and that’s through Find My Past. But it does get a bit complicated in the sense that some of the information of these records where somebody was interned, that record still may be closed. So there’s a process of asking for those records to be reviewed and opened. But the main records should be available to search and download. And then we talk about Naturalisation records. For most certificates, Naturalisation certificates, that were issued for people who were born more than a hundred years ago, most of those you’ll be able to search and download through Ancestry. But for those who were born less than a hundred years ago — and this is because data protection, obviously data protection is very important — those records aren’t online. But you can come to the archives and access them.

Matt: OK. So I think that covers most of the main records that we hold here for immigrants. Of course, once you become settled in this country, and particularly once you become a British citizen, if you do, there are a whole raft of records that might also be created, which have nothing necessarily to do with being an immigrant, but just being someone who lives and works in this country. And those kinds of records will be covered in some of our other webinars that we’ll broadcast. So thank you for listening.