Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ellis Island and British Immigrants to the USA

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 at

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.

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