Saturday, April 7, 2012

The British Enter America Through Ellis Island

by Vincent Parrillo

Most people do not think of British immigrants in connection with Ellis Island. In fact, most historical photographs of the place depict southern, central, and eastern Europeans, easily recognizable in their kerchiefs, folk costumes, or dark-haired, dark-complexioned countenances. In fact, in my own public television (PBS) documentary, Ellis Island: Gateway to America, I utilized many of those same images.

However, many British immigrants also went through Ellis Island. For example, in the 1890s— the period in which my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate, begins its tale of the people and events occurring there—nearly 329,000 emigrants left the United Kingdom for the United States. Some were first- and second-class passengers and therefore processed on board ship and not at Ellis Island. Most, though, were the lower and working classes traveling in steerage, and their first steps on American soil were on the Island. (Included in my novel, for example, is the true incident of the deportation of a Scottish family.)


Earlier, between 1870 and 1889, about 1.3 million British immigrants arrived. Ellis Island did not exist then, so they were processed at a state-run immigration station called Castle Garden, which previously had been a concert hall, and still stands in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. That impressive number was lessened somewhat by the hundreds of thousands of British subjects who left, disenchanted with what they had found in America. Perhaps, as Charles Dickens complained after his visit in 1842, they found Americans too rude, arrogant, anti-intellectual, prone to be violent, and hypocritical. His was a harsh judgment, indeed, but it didn’t stop other Brits from coming. Between 1900 and 1929, another 1.2 million British migrated to the United States. Again, most were first processed at Ellis Island to gain clearance for entry.

Just because they were British didn’t ensure these immigrants would breeze through Ellis Island. For example, among my weekly blogs that relate true immigrant stories is the firsthand account of a Scottish teenager arriving in 1921 with her family and the hunger and other tribulations they experienced there. A more recent blog gives the account of an English minister, whose 1911 detention on Ellis Island so disgusted him that he testified before a congressional committee on the abysmal conditions he encountered. If you’re interested, you can read these and other immigrant tales here.

Ellis Island was also a transit stop for several notorious or otherwise prominent British subjects. In 1903, anarchist John Turner was detained at Ellis Island and then deported to England because of his political opinions. Her political views kept English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst detained on the Island in 1913 and then ordered deported by a Board of Special Inquiry on the grounds of “moral turpitude.” A public outcry prompted President Woodrow Wilson to reverse that decision two days later. Sir Auckland Geddes, British ambassador to the United States, inspected Ellis Island in 1922, and his report criticized its lack of cleanliness, inefficiency in handling appeals, smells, and wire cages. The controversial report strained relations between the two countries for a while.


Among some of the well-known British immigrants arriving in the Port of New York (although not all went through Ellis Island) were writer Rudyard Kipling (1892), comedian Henny Youngman (1906), comedian Bob Hope (1908), comedian Stan Laurel (1912), conductor Leopold Stokowski (1912), actor Cary Grant (1920), actor Leslie Howard (1921), and author Joseph Conrad (1923).

Born in London to an English-born cabinet maker of Polish heritage and an Irish-born mother, Stokowski presented what an Ellis Island inspector thought was a good opportunity. He told the future conductor that his name was “foreign” and he would give him a new name. “Thank you very much,” said Stokowski, but my name is Stokowski.” His voice rising more and more, he added, “It was my father’s name, and his father’s before him, and it will stay my name!” The inspector, accustomed to intimidating immigrants by his presence, was taken aback and quickly withdrew the offer.

Other prominent British expatriates who settled in the United States include model and actress Mischa Barton, musician Peter Frampton, labor leader Samuel Gompers, movie director Sir Alfred Hitchcock, actor Anthony Hopkins, actor Peter Lawford, and preservationist John Muir.

On average, about 17,000 British immigrants continue to arrive annually in the United States. These not-so-famous arrivals—mostly known only to their family, friends, and co-workers— settle in many states, but Southern California, particularly the Santa Monica region, has become the permanent home of several hundred thousand first-generation British Americans, who maintain their pubs and traditions among the surfers and rollerbladers.


Vincent N. Parrillo, Professor and Graduate Director
Department of Sociology, William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ 07470

Additional Resource

16 comments:

  1. Thank you Vincent, that was a great post. I visited NY in 2000 and we went to Ellis Island. It was fascinating, and I thought much more interesting thatn the Statue of Liberty. I was a bit amazed that there were lots of school children on our boat, but they didn't stop off at Ellis Island - only at the Statue.
    I particularly remember being amazed at how many English people emmigrated - compared to the Irish in particular. Yet over here in the UK were are used to hearing about "Irish Americans", but never "English Americans". Yet I believe more English passed through Ellis Island than Irish (if my memory serves me correctly).
    There is a lovely English Folk song called "Sweet England" (one of the latest versions is sung by Jim Moray). It tells of how someone emigrated to America, but found it not what they thought, and longs to come home.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Jenna. You are right about the numbers. Even today, the UK ranks fourth (behind Mexico, Germany, and Italy) as a leading supplier of immigrants to the US (Ireland is fifth with 600,000 less). I will definitely check out "Sweet England," as I love songs that capture immigrant longings. You might be interested in viewing my Ellis Island documentary (http://www.njvid.net/showvideo.php?pid=njcore:16573).

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    2. How is the UK only fourth? There are more Britons in America than Germans or Italians!

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    3. Good question, John. My statement was according to the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics, that gave the ranking for cumulative numbers since records were kept. If we focus only on present-day and use the annual American Community Survey of the Census Bureau of the numbers today claiming their ancestry, than the ranking is German, African American, Irish, Mexican, English, non-ethnic American, Italian, Polish, French and Scottish.

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  2. Excellent post! My paternal grandparents emigrated through Ellis Island from Greece in the 1910s . . . .


    K. P. Vorenberg

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    1. Glad you liked it! I see you are in Las Cruces. Just came back from Puerto Vallarta--lovely country. Given your Greek heritage, you might like this two-part story on my blog that gives weekly true immigrant stories (http://vincentparrillo.posterous.com/immigrant-story-8a-jordans-journey).

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  3. What a superb post! Thank you, Vincent. I think the major Irish immigration that most of us have in mind preceded Ellis Island, happening in the mid-nineteenth century during and recently after The Famine. Interesting to know of the song "Sweet England", its Irish equivalent, "I'll take you home, Kathleen," brings tears to even the eyes of non-Irish.

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    1. I appreciate your comments, Katherine. Yes, Irish immigration mostly pre-dates Ellis Island, with processing through its predecessor, Castle Garden. English emigration was also strong then, with 2.3 million UK newcomers arriving between 1860 and 1890. Somehow, those large numbers often get overlooked when the immigrant saga is told. My mother's side is Irish, and "Kathleen" as well as "Danny Boy," sung at the weekly parties when I was a child, always produced wet eyes in the room among my aunts and uncles.

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    2. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsApril 9, 2012 at 10:09 PM

      I was in Halifax Nova Scotia this summer and saw the equivalent of Ellis Island at Pier 21. There also was a Pier 23 which is no longer there were my grandparents would have arrived from England. Both Paternal and Maternal... There was indeed a huge influx of folks from the U.K. to Canada also. Pier 21 has a museum now that is very comprehensive and informative. Pier 23 burned down.

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  4. Sounds interesting. I hope to see this museum when I visit Halifax in the near future (hopefully).

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  5. Excellent! I love the pictures, so much history behind them. Do you know the name of the author of the second picture? (the one of the ship packed with immigrants). What year was that taken? I've seen it many times, but never says that information, it always says "Immigrants at Ellis Island".

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    1. Hi, Mari, This picture of passengers on the S.S. Patricia was taken in December 1906 by Edwin Levick (1869-1929).

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  6. Hi, Mari. This photo of passengers on the S.S. Patricia was taken in December 1906 by Edwin Levick (1869-1929).

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  7. This was very interesting about English immigrants at Ellis. We don't here much if anything about English immigration to America. Always about the Irish, Italians and Germans and lesser extent Greeks or Polish. But hey what about the Scandinavians for that matter or French and Spainards who came though of course the French and Spainards did not come in high numbers. But the English immigrants seem to be overlooked and English Americans in general. After all it was the English who gave America it's beginning foundations of government and most indelibly the language. It is still called English no matter how Americanized. But thanks for story.

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  8. Thanks for the article it was interesting. We here very little if anything at all about British immigrants to America. We here more about the Irish,Italians and Germans and maybe Polish and Greeks than anyone else. We here next to nothing about the Scandinavians. And the French or Spainards whose numbers of course were much smaller compared to others. But the English whov did come in big numbers always seem to be overlooked and not commented on. And English Americans in general are always overlooked. After all it was the English who gave America it's foundations of government and most of the colonist who rebelled against England were of English/British descent. And the language we speak is still called English no matter how Americanized. But thanks again for an enlightening story.

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  9. This was very interesting about English immigrants at Ellis. We don't here much if anything about English immigration to America. Always about the Irish, Italians and Germans and lesser extent Greeks or Polish. But hey what about the Scandinavians for that matter or French and Spainards who came though of course the French and Spainards did not come in high numbers. But the English immigrants seem to be overlooked and English Americans in general. After all it was the English who gave America it's beginning foundations of government and most indelibly the language. It is still called English no matter how Americanized. But thanks for story.

    ReplyDelete