How to look for records of... Immigration
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide will prove useful if you are looking for:
- information on how to find records of foreigners who came to live in Britain from the 13th century onwards
- information on the various government departments that recorded the arrival and existence of foreigners in Britain and the nature of the records which these departments created
2. Essential information
Searching for information about immigrants can be difficult. Many of the records at The National Archives are incomplete and some record series may only cover certain periods or types of immigrant.
The following definitions will aid an understanding of the records:
An alien is a person present in a country who is not a citizen of that country.
The denizen was neither a citizen nor an alien but someone whose status was comparable to permanent residency today. The last known denization was granted in 1873. Denization was gradually and eventually completely replaced by the process of naturalisation.
Naturalisation is the acquisition of citizenship by a person who was not a citizen of that country when he or she was born.
3. Early Chancery records
The earliest references to immigrants in England are in records of Chancery and the Exchequer. In records of Chancery there are documents relating to:
Both cover the period Hen III to Hen VIII (1207-1547).
4. Records of the Exchequer
Records of the Exchequer include various documents and records relevant to immigration from 1229 to 1830:
- 1229 to 1483: E 106, King’s Remembrancer: extents of alien priories, aliens etc, which covers the period Edw I to Edw IV. The series includes documents relating to possessions of laymen who were foreign subjects and accounts of fines imposed on alien clergy
- 1523 to 1561: E 179, Exchequer subsidy rolls, including names of foreigners living in the city and suburbs of London and details of the taxes levied on them
- 1207 to 1830: E 101, Exchequer accounts various, including accounts of transactions involving foreign merchants living in London. These records extend over a long period, from Hen III to Charles I – see PRO Lists and Indexes, No. XXXV, pp 103-107
5. State papers
The following state papers domestic include returns of strangers in London and elsewhere from 1232 to 1603, as well as other references to aliens:
- 1547-1553: SP 10 – Edward VI
- 1553-1558: SP 11 – Mary I
- 1558-1603: SP 12 – Elizabeth I
- 1547-1624: SP 13 – Elizabeth I: large documents
- 1603-1640: SP 14 – James I
- 1547-1625: SP 15 – addenda
- 1232-1665: SP 16 – Charles I
- 1649-1660: SP 18 – interregnum
- 1649-1688: SP 29 and SP 30 – Charles II
From 1560 onwards the state papers domestic contain names of Huguenots from France and Walloons from the Low Countries who emigrated as a result of Spanish persecution.
Some lists of the people mentioned in the above records also appear in the printed Calendar of state papers, domestic, Edw VI to James I (1537-1625), Vols I to V, which each have indexes and can be searched using State Papers Online (institutional subscription required – access is free on the public computers at The National Archives) and British History Online.
You may be able to find names in the indexes to the printed calendars of SP 14-16, 18, 29 and 30.
Lists of names from these records can also be found in REG Kirk, Returns of aliens in London, 1523-1603, as well as:
- names of members of French and Dutch churches in London in 1561 and 1562
- returns of aliens in London in 1571
- lists of refugees settled at Norwich, Colchester, Rye, Sandwich, Canterbury and other parts of England
Short lists of names can also be found in JS Burn, The history of the French, Walloon, Dutch and other foreign Protestant refugees settled in England from the reign of Henry VIII to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Lists of denizations of refugees escaping from the persecution of Huguenots in France, 1681 to 1688, are available in William A Shaw (ed), Letters of denization and acts of naturalization for aliens in England and Ireland, 1603-1700.
6. Parliament or patent rolls
Immigration records can be found in:
- Parliament rolls (C 65) – these contain records of many acts of naturalisation over a long period from c.1400
- patent rolls (C 66-67) – these contain records of grants of denizations by letters patent c.1400-1844
7. Treasury in-letters
Treasury in-letters (T 1) contain references to refugees and other foreign people who received annuities, pensions and other payments for their support, or in return for services rendered to the Crown. These can be traced in the indexes to printed volumes of the Calendar of Treasury papers, which covers the period 1556 to 1745.
8. Non-parochial registers
The non-parochial registers (RG 4, 1567-1858, and RG 8, 1646-1970) received from the General Register Office include:
- records formerly kept in the French, Dutch, German and Swiss churches in London and elsewhere
- registers of births and baptisms, marriages and burials for various periods between 1567 and 1857
These registers can be searched online at BMDregisters, for a fee.
9. Embarkation lists and other records of early 18th century Palatine settlers
Embarkation lists of Palatine subjects shipped from Holland to England in 1709 are contained in a bundle of Treasury in-letters in T 1/119. Although these people were originally seeking a new life in the New World, many stayed in England. Other references to Palatines can be found in:
Lists of names traced in these series have been printed in WA Knittle, Early eighteenth century Palatine emigration; LD MacWethy, The book of names especially relating to the early Palatines and the first settlers in the Mohawk Valley; and in New York genealogical and biographical records, XL and XLI.
10. Denization, alien arrival and naturalisation records
For information about denization and naturalisation see our research guide to records of Naturalisation, registration and British citizenship.
10.1 Certificates and lists of alien arrivals
HO 2 contains original certificates of arrival of individual aliens in England and Scotland, arranged under the ports of arrival. These certificates include:
- date of arrival
- last country visited
- signature and other details
Early certificates appear to have been destroyed. However, some records survive for the following dates:
- 1810-1811: FO 83/21-22 – aliens arriving in English ports
- July-November 1826: CUST 102/393-395 – accounts of aliens arriving in the port of London
- October 1826-August 1837: CUST 102/396 – accounts of aliens arriving in the port of Gravesend
All the certificates of alien arrivals referred to above are available to download and can be searched by name of alien, date and port of arrival, and country/place of origin on ancestry.co.uk.
HO 3 consists of returns of alien passengers made by masters of ships under section 2 of the Aliens Act of 1836. The lists survive for the period July 1836 to December 1869 but none survive from January 1861 to December 1866. The returns and papers in HO 3 are available to download and can be searched by name of alien, date and port of arrival and country/place of origin on ancestry.co.uk.
Earlier records relating to the arrival of aliens and aliens’ accounts are in local, county archives, normally among Quarter Session papers. For example, certificates of arrival of aliens issued at the port of Hull from 1793 to 1815 are held by Hull History Centre. These particular ones have also been digitised.
10.2 Entry books
Earlier certificates under the Aliens Act, 1826, have not survived, but several indexes to certificates under both acts, covering 1826-1849, are in HO 5/25-32.
HO 5 contains entry books of out-letters relating to aliens and naturalisations, and registers of applications for denization. They also include indexes to the certificates of arrivals in series HO 2. The entry books in HO 5 are available to download and browse on ancestry.co.uk.
11. Records of French Immigration – The National Archives emigres
Letters and papers concerning French émigrés, 1789 to 1814, can be found in:
- HO 69, Home Office records in the series of Bouillon papers
- PC 1, Privy Council unbound papers
- FO 95, Foreign Office miscellanea, series I
- WO 1, War Office in-letters
A descriptive note about all these letters and papers, and a full list of them in typescript, is available in the Open Reading Room. There are also names in registers and on pension lists in Treasury records of the French Refugees Relief Committee (T 93) for the period 1792 to 1828. These are described in PRO lists and indexes, no. XLVI (1922).
12. Passenger lists
Passenger lists from record series BT 26 (1878-1960) and BT 27 (1890-1960) are available online. For more information see our research guidance on passengers.
13. Aliens registration cards
Owing to the sensitive nature of these cards, they are closed during the lifetime of the individuals concerned or until they can be assumed to be deceased. See section 16 for information about how to request restricted records under the Freedom of Information Act.
14. Internment records
You can search by first and last name for British internment records from the First and Second World Wars on findmypast.co.uk (£).
Some of these records are of people who were interned but others are of people who were exempted from internment.
The records include the Aliens Department internees index (1939-1947) which give details of mostly Germans, Austrians and Italians and their spouses who were interned or considered for internment by tribunals during the Second World War. The original records were grouped by nationality and then in alphabetical order, held in record series HO 396.
The internment tribunal cards from HO 396 contain personal details on the front and sometimes information about the individual’s case on the reverse. Access to records of individuals who were interned is partially restricted, with only the front of the internment card open to access without restriction. You can request the opening of restricted records under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by filling out our Freedom of Information enquiry form or by writing to our Records Enquiry Service at The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. Cards for aliens who were considered for internment but were not actually interned, also held in HO 396, are open without restriction.
Most of the cards in HO 396 were originally issued in September 1939 when the first round of decisions on internment were made. They were reused for later tribunals that took place in the early 1940s when larger numbers of resident aliens were interned following panic in Britain about the course the war was taking. Those interned included Jewish refugees who had escaped Nazi persecution.
The image of the card below shows that although the person in question was exempted from internment in 1939, a decision was then made in 1940 to intern the individual, whose release was then authorised in 1941:
15. Records of the London Reception Centre at the Royal Patriotic Schools
This collection details the development of policy for the screening of internees at the Royal Patriotic School (RPS) between January 1941 and June 1945. The London Reception Centre was established to process aliens arriving in the UK, to gather intelligence from them on conditions in occupied Europe, and to screen arrivals for possible enemy agents. The screening centre for men was located at Trinity Road, Wandsworth, and at nearby Nightingale Lane for women.
The files include:
- interrogations of civilians arriving in the UK from abroad (KV 2)
- correspondence and minutes of meetings of the sub-committee of the Home Defence (Security) Executive set up to run the London Reception Centre at the RPS (KV 4)
- lists of categories of people to be processed by the RPS (KV 4/339)
- reports of inspection visits to the school (KV 4)
- a list of the administrative staff at RPS in May 1941 at serial 68B (KV 4/240)
- a detailed note on the history of RPS at serial 211A (KV 4/342)
- a report from March 1941 at serial 49A (KV 2/339) which summarises the Security Service view of the schools and their importance
The files contain only passing references to individual cases, with a few exceptions.
16. Records in other archives
Other archives with records about foreigners settling in the UK:
- the London Metropolitan Archives
- the Bodleian Library, Oxford
- Cambridge University Library
- the Huguenot Society of London
- Lambeth Palace Library, London
- The National Archives of Ireland
17. Further reading
The following publications are available in the The National Archives’ library. Where there is a link the publication is available to buy in The National Archives’ bookshop:
JS Burn, The history of the French, Walloon, Dutch and other foreign Protestant refugees settled in England from the reign of Henry VIII to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (London, 1846)
Calendar of Treasury papers, 1557-1696 (PRO)
Calendar of Treasury papers, 1729- (PRO)
Peter Wilson Coldham, English adventurers and emigrants, 1609-1660: abstracts of examinations in the High Court of Admiralty with reference to colonial America (Baltimore, 1984)
Ian D Colvin, The Germans in England: 1066-1598 (London, 1971)
Guy Grannum, Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Gerhard Hirschfeld, Exile in Great Britain: refugees from Hitler’s Germany (Leamington Spa, 1984)
Roger Kershaw, Migration records: a guide for family historians (Kew, 2009)
Roger Kershaw and Mark Pearsall, Family history on the move: where your ancestors went and why (Kew, 2006)
Roger Kershaw and Mark Pearsall, Immigrants and aliens: a guide to sources on UK immigration and citizenship (TNA Readers Guide XXV, 2004)
REG Kirk and Ernest F Kirk (eds), Returns of aliens dwelling in the city and suburbs of London from the reign of Henry VIII to that of James I (Aberdeen, 1900-1908)
WA Knittle, Early eighteenth century Palatine emigration (Philadelphia, 1937)
Shompa Lahiri, Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian encounters, race and identity, 1880-1930 (London, 2000)
List and Index Society, General Register Office list of non-parochial registers and records in the custody of the Registrar-General of births, deaths and marriages (List and Index Society, XXXXII, 1969)
LD MacWethy, The book of names especially relating to the early Palatines and the first settlers in the Mohawk Valley (New York, 1933)
New York Genealogical and Biographical Records, XL and XLI (New York, 1909 and 1910)
Public Record Office, List of various accounts and documents connected therewith formerly preserved in the Exchequer and now in the Public Record Office: bundles 1-603 [Henry III to George III] (London, 1912)
Dhooleka S Raj, Where are you from: middle class migrants in the modern world (London, 2003)
William A Shaw (ed), Letters of denization and acts of naturalization for aliens in England and Ireland, 1603-1700 (Lymington, 1911)
Lucio Sponza, Italian immigrants in nineteenth century Britain: realities and images (Leicester, 1988)
Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds), The Irish in Britain 1815-1939 (London, 1989)
Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley (eds), The Irish in the Victorian city (Beckenham, 1985)
Michael Tepper (ed), New World immigrants: a consolidation of ship passenger lists and associated data from periodical literature (Baltimore, 1979)