After the Second World War Britain saw arrivals of folk from all across the globe – many from Commonwealth countries who were intrigued to discover what the ‘mother country’ was like. But it was also a time when some British people decided to leave – to emigrate.
The situation in Britain was dire. For some families, it seemed that everywhere they looked all they could see was hardship. Decent housing was difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve, rationing of basic foodstuffs was still in place, secure employment was often unattainable and with the war debt hanging over the economy it seemed that the situation would be unlikely to change any time soon.
No surprise then that in spring 1948 a Gallup poll indicated that around ’42 per cent of people wanted to emigrate’ (Austerity Britain by David Kynaston). Nevertheless, there was a big gap between wanting to leave and leaving – money being the greatest barrier. Travel would have been by ship and rail – rarely by air. And arrival in another country would be made more difficult if you had nowhere to live and no job to go to.
Despite all the challenges many people chose to leave, with more than two million leaving in the years following the end of the war, leading Winston Churchill to raise a concern that such widespread emigration could hamper post-war recovery. He issued a patriotic appeal on the BBC:
I say to those that wish to leave our country, “Stay here and fight it out.” If we work together with brains and courage, as we did in days not long ago, we can make our country fit for all our people. Do not desert the old land.https://www.migrationmuseum.org/the-last-great-exodus-of-british-migrants/
But there many who were more than tempted to ‘desert’. Such was the interest that Commonwealth countries set up emigration offices across the UK. The most popular destination for post-war British emigrants was Canada, with over half a million emigrating there in the twenty-five years after the war. Other popular destinations included Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia–Nyasaland and the USA.
However, the greater number of British families might have complained about their quality of life, but they were determined to ‘stick it out’. After all, Britain was home – the place where friends and family were on hand to help and support, and where they knew the routine of life, the foods, the shops, the streets, the customs. For the adventurers life in Britain might have seemed like monotony, but for those who enjoyed the familiarity of all that was around them, it was comfort. Perhaps not comfortable – but comforting – and worth hanging onto while they waited for life to improve.
The years that followed did bring improvements for many – more of that in later posts.