In the early summer of 1709 London found itself ringed by shanty towns. 5,000 immigrants were sheltering in the suburbs. In camps appallingly similar to the current Calais 'Jungle', an influx of desperate men, women and children were living in flimsy tents and makeshift huts and more were arriving every day. By October there were between 13,000 and 14,000 newcomers in a capital city whose normal population was 575,000 - 600,000. Londoners found their streets swarming with men and women of an alien race, speaking an unknown tongue, bearing unmistakeable signs of poverty, misery and want and looking to Britain for relief.
They had come from central Europe and had been displaced by war and famine. It all has a familiar ring doesn't it? Normally resilient communities had been shattered by the results of political conflict to which had been added an unprecedented climatic catastrophe - the Great Frost. During the winter of 1708-9 temperatures plummeted. A low of minus 12° was recorded in London. In Paris the temperature fell to 15° below zero. Winter did not loosen its grip until May - too late for the planting of fresh crops. Eye-witness accounts were as heart-rending as today's TV images of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean or clambering aboard container lorries:
The pen almost refuses to do its task when asked to tell of the hundreds of
strong men who, during that memorable winter, lay down to die of cold and
hunger in the once fruitful valley of the Rhine. So intense was the cold that
even the wild animals of the forest and the birds of the air were frozen to
death. Wine was frozen in the casks and bottles. The vineyards were frozen
to the ground and the fruit trees completely destroyed.
Uprooted individuals and families moved westwards into France and Holland. Some wanted to stay there but others were bent on crossing the Channel in pursuit of a brighter future or, indeed, any future at all.
How did the government and people of Britain cope with this unprecedented influx? The country had a long history of absorbing waves of immigrants, such as Huguenots and Jews fleeing persecution, but nothing had ever been seen on this scale. The initial response was sympathy and support. In the spring the House of Commons addressed the problem. Members were told that Queen Anne herself was moved by the plight of these poor people. As a result funds were raised to bring over 5,000 German immigrants. This explains the tented camps in the suburbs. But, by June, the temporary accommodation was bulging at the seams. Twice as many poor strangers were dwelling in the environs of the city as had been bargained for. Shanty towns grew up with the inevitable sights, sounds and smells always attendant upon overcrowded, unsanitary human agglomerations. Inevitably, the mood changed. The government came under pressure to 'do something', to get rid of the 'dirty foreigners'. There were protests, scuffles, and mini-riots. The public reaction - not for the first or last time - was, 'These people must be helped but "not in our backyard"'.
Obviously, the problem demanded an international solution. The government's first response was to instruct the English minister at The Hague, Viscount Townshend, that no more migrants could be accepted until satisfactory permanent provision had been made for those who had already arrived. The poor man might just as well have been instructed to stop the North Sea tides. Any effective action would have to be taken at a higher level. Unfortunately, the Dutch authorities felt the same way about the problem as did their British counterparts. They wanted to see migrants settled somewhere else. A relief fund was organised and in April the burgomasters of Rotterdam authorised the distribution of money to the poverty-stricken Germans - not to relieve their immediate suffering but to help them on their way to England. This policiy simply encouraged more refugees to make the journey. The Rhinelanders kept on coming, and kept on accepting the Dutch handouts. Like the British, the Dutch now took a tougher line. On 12 August they issued a total prohibition on any further influx. Like the British they found their stern veto largely ineffective. Although barges sent to patrol the Waal and the Maas turned back more than a thousand infiltrators, the traffic continued. When the British government protested through diplomatic channels, they received the vague response that the Dutch would 'make their best endeavours' to stem the flow. Again, there is something familiar about this.
It was somewhat hypocritical of the Westminster government to complain about the Dutch attitude. Their fundamental response to the migrants was basically the same - move them on. Funds were raised by government and charitable institutions to arrange passages for the unwelcome guests to those overseas places where few British citizens could be persuaded to go. The West Indies were short of minor officials and craftsmen. There was always room in Ireland for Protestant settlers to help keep the Catholic majority in order, and most of the Rhinelanders were Protestants. Getting immigrants to do jobs that indigenous people don't want to do is nothing new.
Some of the refugees fared better than those sent to the fever-ridden Caribbean or the remoter parts of Ireland. They were assisted by the energetic recruiting activities of Benjamin Furley. This Quaker businessman who had settled in Rotterdam was a friend and associate of George Fox and William Penn, who were working hard to develop Pennsylvania. Land in the colony was available at knock-down prices and Furley offered additional cash inducements for families and individuals willing to make their home on the far side of the Atlantic.
These initiatives still did not entirely solve the problem. On the last day of 1709, the British government issued the following statement:
Inasmuch as during the summer just past a number of poor people arrived
here in England, from different parts of Germany, who have hitherto been
supported by Her Royal Majesty, and have gradually been sent to the West
Indies, and afterwards to Ireland: and whereas more such poor people
have come here since, notice has consequently been sent to Holland and
elsewhere that none such would be passed, much less supported, and that
those who have arrived here since the first of last October were to be sent
back to Germany via Holland at the first opportunity. All such as intend to
come hither are therefore notified to desist from their voyage which would
assuredly result in failure unless it be that they have means of their own
with which to support themselves.
But any turning of the tide that such directives might have succeeded in achieving was only of a temporary nature. What began in 1709 was one of the most significant migrations in Western history. Throughout the ensuing decades over 100,000 men, women and children would leave Germany to become settlers in overseas territories ruled by other nations.
This appalling tale of human misery and the attempts of governments to respond was set against the backdrop of long-running conflict with France (the War of the Spanish Succession). The British Cabinet was more preoccupied with the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough than with the movements of multitudes of ordinary people which were historically more significant. Few national leaders have the vision to distinguish between current issues and long-term, world-changing phenomena. It is difficult to distinguish any people of such intellectual stature among today's European statesmen.
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Derek Wilson, Calamities and Catastrophes - The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History, 2011