This post was written by Michael Townsend, Collections and Metadata Librarian at the Institute of Historical Research Library.

The IHR Library has growing collections on migration history. Recent titles added to the collections include a published edition of interviews from Chinese American families in Wisconsin, essays on memory and immigrant communities in Britain, and the diary of a German immigrant in nineteenth century Brazil. The library, however, has always endeavoured to collect in this area. Within our collections one can find diaries and published correspondence of immigrants, ships lists, works specifically on the historiography and methodology of migrant history, and finding aids such as bibliographies and source guides. Works like these are spread over the library’s collections. However, the library staff have recently produced a new collection guide summarising the various resources you can access within the library.

Image of the Migration History Collections guide

The guide highlights various titles and resources, both physical and online, from the library’s collections, subdivided by primary and secondary works, as well as a list of several UK libraries and archives specifically devoted to migration history.

Digging Deeper

In the guide one will also find several case studies. These list several works specifically about the subject discussed. For example, James Bolton’s work on the lay subsidy rolls of 1440 and 1483–4 is listed as a central source for anyone researching London’s immigrant communities in the late medieval period. Similarly, the library has recently acquired a general anthology of published sources on the 1939 voyage of the St Louis and its failed attempt to let its Jewish passengers disembark in Cuba, the United States and Canada, which is listed in the case study on Jewish migration to North and South America.

The case studies also highlight where relevant source material can also be found within larger works held by the library, or in types of sources that may not necessarily suggest themselves during catalogue searches. One of the case studies, for example, highlights material on the history of the Chinese diaspora from Hong Kong and Singapore. The library currently does not have many titles explicitly about this subject. However, a finding exercise I conducted as part of a training session on Researching Imperial and Commonwealth History did reveal several useful types of sources, especially in the library’s modern British and London collection.

British parliamentary sources, both physical and online, yielded quite a large amount of relevant source material, especially, as one might imagine, on the colonial administration of Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as specific government reports about Chinese maritime workers in the early nineteenth century. Similarly the library’s large collection of published political speeches, diaries and letters is another rich seam of information; on the 12th of June 1908, Winston Churchill made a speech about the growing hostility directed towards Chinese sailors and dock workers living in Britain, while the the diaries of both Alastair Campbell and Chris Patten offer insights into Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. The newspapers and magazines accessible within the library, such as the Times, also chart developments within the Chinese community especially around Limehouse and also the growing tide of Sinophobia which Chinese communities were being subjected to during the nineteenth and early twentieth century not only in Britain, but also Australia, South Africa and the United States.

Within the library’s London collection there are several relevant works revealing the history of the city’s Chinese communities. Large and well-known works of social observation, such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, comprises of the author’s own impressions as well as interviews with residents, including members of the capital’s immigrant communities. Additional material can be found within similar works published in the early twentieth century such as Walter Besant’s East London and Thomas Burke’s Out and about: a note-book of London in war-time. These sources both chart the authors’ impressions of London’s changing population but also reveal their attitudes to this change.

Image showing details of residents of Limehouse Causeway from The Official London Directory for 1934
Detail of residents of Limehouse Causeway from The Official London Directory for 1934

Also within the London collection are several reference works which also yield relevant information. The library, for example, has an extensive run of directories. Within many of the library’s London directories it is possible to note the range of businesses and their owners in a given area. This was useful when looking at areas such as Limehouse, charting the variety of Chinese owned businesses, and their decline in number from the 1920s. London architectural guides are also useful, especially noting, in this instance, the move of the Chinese community out of Limehouse to elsewhere. Harold Clunn, for example, observed the rapid and radical development of Limehouse after the Second World War while various editions of the Pevsner guides (1962, 1973 and 2003) chart the rise of the area around Gerrard Street as a new hub for Chinese owned businesses from the mid-twentieth century.

As part of the IHR’s summer school on the history of London there is currently a small display on the lower ground floor showing a range of additional material you can find in the library about migration history. There are also displays of source material from the library on the themes of the summer school, as well as on resources such as Layers of London, the Bibliography of British and Irish History and British History Online.