My review of Lovers & Strangers An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain Clair Wills

lovers and strangers




Clair Wills has written a fascinating and insightful book  about the role of immigrants in Britain between 1940s and 1960s. Popular history and culture frames post war migration  around the images of the West Indian community and the “Windrush generation,” but this is far from the complete story as  Clair reminds us that Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukranians, Italians, Maltese, Cypriots, Indians, Pakistanis and the Irish made up this multi-cultural group. And for me, the daughter of Irish migrants, the book’s  recognition  that the Irish were the biggest group – 40,000 per year in the 1950s- is an important addition to the  history of  immigrants in this country.

She dispels the myth that Britain welcomed them for unselfish reasons. “…in the end, however, the needs of the refugees were neither here nor there besides the needs of the countries offering refuge.”  The newcomers provided the labour needed to rebuild the post war economy; jobs that were often  low paid, unskilled and  manual.

One key fact was that,  until  the passing  of the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962,  over a quarter of the population of the planet – reflecting the reach of  British Empire – had the right to come and  live in Britain as citizens.

Jamaican immigrants are welcomed off empire windrush

Jamaican migrants welcomed on Windrush

Lovers and Strangers is quite different from most mainstream histories of post war Britain because, as  Clair  says; “I have tried to narrate the the history of migrants’ and refugees encounters with Britain through the experience of migrants themselves, and through contemporary accounts of that experience: contemporary interviews, articles and letters in the local and community press;manifestos; short stories;autobiographies;political essays; as well as oral poetry and folk songs ranging from Irish ballads to Trinadadian calypso, Punjabi qisse and bhangra lyrics.” Or not just how the newcomers looked  to the British but how  the British looked to them.

For West Indians coming to Britain, unlike other migrants, they believed they were coming to the Mother Country. Clair quotes writer and Trinidadian George Lamming. “England lay before us, not as a place or a people , but as a promise and an expectation.”

One group that has been largely forgotten in the history of post war immigration is  the displaced people who were victims of the  post war carve up of Europe between the allies.  Over 85,000 came to Britain.  the British, like most of the Allies, were not particularly principled in their dealings with traumatised groups,  including  Ukranians, Yugoslavs, and  Baltic people, allowing in those that they thought would be useful, rather than those in most need of help. . As Clair points out, ”It is uncomfortable to dwell on the assumptions about class and breeding which lay behind the processes by which they were chosen – so Baltic women, ‘of the same racial background to us’ were taken in preference to Jews.” Again it was a story of solving Britain’s labour shortage,  rather than alleviating the refugee problem.

One of the great strengths of the book is this looking in at British society,  but for me one of its big failings, particularly when documenting the lives of the Irish in Britain, is the absence of an anti-imperialist viewpoint.

You cannot talk about the Irish in Britain without talking about the British in Ireland and the fact that Ireland was Britain’s first colony.  For centuries the Irish moved in and out of Britain,  not just to work but to take part in the struggle for the independence of Ireland.

Missing is any reference to the work done by groups such as the Connolly Association, a group of Irish born and second generation people who had  links to the Communist Party.  During this period from the 1940s-60s the Connolly Association almost singlehandedly raised the issue of the discrimination faced by Catholics in the North of Ireland,  as well as that faced by Irish workers in Britain.

irish democrat 1

Though Clair  does mention  the Connolly Association  newspaper The Irish Democrat and  its interviews with Irish nurses and discrimination, she fails to include  the  role  played  by the CA in consistently raising political issues and fostering the Campaign  for Democacy in Ulster in which Manchester MP Paul Rose played a leading role.   Instead of acknowledging this,  Clair  makes reference to activists such as Eamonn McCann and  fringe groups such  Irish Communist Group and Irish Workers Group, who had minimal influence in Britain.  She mentions Brendan and Dominic Behan as playwrights and singers,  but not  their brother Brian’s activity in  leading one of the biggest building workers strike in the 1960s.

Irish writer Donall McAmhlaigh, whom she quotes extensively from his novels and writings about his life as a manual worker, was a member of the Connolly Association and wrote for The Irish Democrat.  I think he would be upset to know that the political nature of his writings had been reduced to social history.



Clair weaves in her own history into the narrative,  and this makes for powerful story telling. In 1948 Clair’s  mother made the journey from Cork to join her older sister to work in a psychiatric hospital.  Irish women have a key role in the story of emigration which I feel  Clair fails to  fully acknowledge. In Across the Water,  Irish Women’s Lives in Britain” (1988) the authors Mary Lennon, Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien documented the fact that at various times over the last century  more Irish women than Irish men have come to live in Britain and that their experiences have been largely ignored.  They firmly locate the Irish and women in a political context,  and specifically  giving space to women who were activists in their trade union and political organisations.

across the water

 Lovers and Strangers is a well written and accessible social  history  book. We get an insider’s view of what living in Britain was like for a very diverse group of newcomers. Post war British society was changed by the new immigrants,   and continues to change in ways that for many of us in 2017  we do not even notice.  And whilst Clair does ensure that her community, the Irish, are given a significant role in the story, it is one that  I feel is not fully given its true historical context.

Brexit is the latest challenge to the notion of what it means to be British. Nowadays it is the thousands of EU citizens who have lived in this country for many years who are having to decide whether to stay or go. And once again the Irish and their descendants are caught up in the real politics of Britain’s  role in the North of Ireland. For many  Irish descendants who never thought about themselves as  Irish are now rushing to get Irish passports to stop themselves being locked out of the EU,  rather than as an assertion of Irish identity.

Unfortunately Lovers & Strangers costs £25. If you can buy it here

About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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2 Responses to My review of Lovers & Strangers An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain Clair Wills

  1. Derby Peoplesh says:

    Thanks – a very interesting review. I will buy the book.Been involved in anti racist campaigning most of my adult lifeand want to learn more.Currently reading Fruit of the Lemon – A Levy.

    From: lipstick socialist To: Sent: Sunday, 27 August 2017, 10:06 Subject: [New post] My review of Lovers & Strangers An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain Clair Wills #yiv6348034528 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv6348034528 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv6348034528 a.yiv6348034528primaryactionlink:link, #yiv6348034528 a.yiv6348034528primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv6348034528 a.yiv6348034528primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv6348034528 a.yiv6348034528primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv6348034528 | lipstick socialist posted: ”   Clair Wills has written a fascinating and insightful book  about the role of immigrants in Britain between 1940s and 1960s. Popular history and culture frames post war migration  around the images of the West Indian community and” | |

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