The best books on the lives of migrants and refugees in twentieth-century Britain

Who am I?

I’m a historian and writer and worked in universities all my life. I love writing and everything about it—pencils, pens, notebooks, keyboards, Word—not to mention words. I started writing the histories of migrants and refugees in twentieth-century Britain (and their entanglement with the history of the British Empire) in the 1980s and then kept going. When I studied history at university, migrants and refugees were never mentioned. They still weren’t on historians’ radar much when I started writing about them. Here I’ve picked stories that are not widely known and histories that show how paying attention to migrants and refugees changes ideas about what British history is and who made it. 


I wrote...

Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain

By Wendy Webster,

Book cover of Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain

What is my book about?

At some point I started to notice that many people arrived in Britain during the Second World War from all over the world. It gradually dawned on me that the scale of movements to Britain was unprecedented. Wartime Britain was multinational, multiracial, and multilingual. Multinational efforts often get short shrift in mainstream national histories and media, but their history changes ideas about the wartime home front and the ‘people’s war’. This is an absorbing history—often compelling and moving, sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic, occasionally funny. I tell it as far as possible through the voices of the nurses, refugees, exiles, broadcasters, filmmakers, and actors, troops and war workers who came to Britain. Mixing It was named as a best book of the year by History Today.

The books I picked & why

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Black Teacher

By Beryl Gilroy, Bernardine Evaristo,

Book cover of Black Teacher

Why this book?

I still remember discovering Beryl Gilroy‘s book—it’s one of the very rare memoirs by Black women about living in England in the 1950s and 1960s. There were many single women who migrated to Britain in what was called—much later—the Windrush generation. Most of Gilroy’s memoir is about teaching in London schools, but although she’d done teacher training in Guyana she was rejected by many schools before she got her first teaching job. Her perspective on teaching in an East End London school reverses racial stereotypes. She describes it as an encounter with dirt, disease, backwardness, and ignorance, and all of it pretty uncivilised—just the same conditions that are attributed to her in racist taunts and slurs. She has some low moments but takes much of this in her stride. The memoir bears witness to the appalling racism she experiences but is entertaining and exhilarating.

Black Teacher

By Beryl Gilroy, Bernardine Evaristo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Teacher as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The rediscovered classic: an unforgettable memoir by a trailblazing black woman in post-war London, introduced by Bernardine Evaristo ('I dare anyone to read it and not come away shocked, moved and entertained')
Benjamin Zephaniah: 'A must-read. Her life makes you laugh. Her life makes you cry. Get to know her.'
Jacqueline Wilson: 'A superb but shocking memoir ... Imaginative, resilient and inspiring.'
Christie Watson: 'A beautiful memoir of one woman's strength and dignity against the odds.'
Steve McQueen: 'Gilroy blazed a path that empowered generations of Black British educators.'
David Lammy: 'This empowering tale of courage, resistance, and triumph is…


Striking Back: A Jewish Commando's War Against the Nazis

By Peter Masters,

Book cover of Striking Back: A Jewish Commando's War Against the Nazis

Why this book?

I chose this memoir because it tells the compelling story of Germans and Austrians who joined the British forces to strike back against Nazi Germany—a story that is missing from most histories. First, they had to undergo many metamorphoses—a main theme of this memoir. Peter Masters—originally a member of a respectable Jewish family in Vienna—escapes to Britain and is a refugee from Nazi oppression, but in 1940 the British government identify him as an enemy alien and intern him. For his fourth metamorphosis he becomes a soldier in the British army, but the British government bans Austrians and Germans from bearing arms. After this ban is lifted there is a final metamorphosis when he joins a British commando unit. He writes, "The antithesis of 'lambs to the slaughter,' we fought and many of us died... Those who died preferred their fate to being gassed and cremated by the Nazi brute."

Striking Back: A Jewish Commando's War Against the Nazis

By Peter Masters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Striking Back as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The amazing, true story of a member of a secret World War II British commando unit, 3 Troop, 10 Commando.


Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain

By Jordanna Bailkin,

Book cover of Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain

Why this book?

The history of refugees in twentieth-century Britain is hardly known. A map at the beginning of Unsettled reveals how many places in Britain feature in this history, all given the title ‘refugee camp’. Accommodation was in tents or in facilities that were repurposed including workhouses, holiday camps, wartime barracks, internment camps, air bases, and prisoner-of-war camps. Unsettled tells the story of life in these camps and is also about the impact of refugees and camps on local communities and the contexts in which refugees and local populations encountered each other. A striking finding is that homeless Britons sometimes lived in the camps alongside refugees. Unsettled is an unsettling read—it challenges the widespread forgettings of refugee camps in Britain and records a time before the state had the power to detain asylum seekers and deprive them of the right to work. 

Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain

By Jordanna Bailkin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Unsettled as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Today, no one really thinks of Britain as a land of camps. Camps seem to happen 'elsewhere', from Greece, to Palestine, to the global South. Yet over the course of the twentieth century, dozens of British refugee camps housed hundreds of thousands of Belgians, Jews, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians, and Vietnamese. Refugee camps in Britain were never only for refugees. Refugees shared a space with Britons who had been displaced by war and
poverty, as well as thousands of civil servants and a fractious mix of volunteers. Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain explores how…


A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime

By Mary Morris,

Book cover of A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime

Why this book?

I chose Mary Morris’s diary because her writing is so engaging. She wrote in June 1940, "We are not allowed to go out with patients, or even speak to them on matters other than their treatment, Pierre is charming. I shall go out with him." In 1944 when she was nursing in Normandy she wrote, "A badly wounded cockney says 'thanks mate' to Hans as he gives him his tea and fixes his pillow. Why are they all so tolerant of each other inside this canvas tent, and killing each other outside?" Through her entries we meet all kinds of people, just like she did. The diary is also part of the history of Irish people in Britain. In the twentieth century the majority of Irish migrants were women, most of them young and single like Mary who was 18 when she arrived to train as a nurse—and was told off for spending too much time talking to patients.

A Very Private Diary: A Nurse in Wartime

By Mary Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Very Private Diary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The newly discovered diary of a wartime nurse - a fascinating, dramatic and unique insight into the experiences of a young nurse in the Second World War. Mary Mulry was eighteen years old when she arrived in London from Ireland to begin training as a nurse. The year was 1939. She had hoped for an adventure and a new start; she could not have predicted what the next seven years would bring. In this extraordinary diary Mary recorded in intimate detail her experiences as a nurse on the Home Front and later working on the frontline in Europe. In London,…


Ten Pound Poms: Australia's Invisible Migrants

By A. James Hammerton, Alistair Thomson,

Book cover of Ten Pound Poms: Australia's Invisible Migrants

Why this book?

This may seem an odd choice, but many British who migrated to Australia subsequently returned to Britain and some, nicknamed ‘boomerang migrants,’ had lives of to and fro between Australia and Britain. I’ve chosen it because the experiences of migrants who don’t settle but either return or migrate onwards are often missing from histories. In Ten Pound Poms, the voices of people who returned or boomeranged are prominent, talking about intense homesickness, but also about a kind of reverse homesickness since the place they return to doesn’t match the way they imagined it while they were away and has changed during their absence. The book reminds us that people’s attachment to particular places and landscapes and soundscapes can be powerful, and that migration often involves complex feelings of belonging and unbelonging.

Ten Pound Poms: Australia's Invisible Migrants

By A. James Hammerton, Alistair Thomson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ten Pound Poms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than a million Britons emigrated to Australia between the 1940s and 1970s. They were the famous 'ten pound Poms' and this is their story. Illuminated by the fascinating testimony of migrant life histories, this is the first substantial history of their experience and fills a gaping hole in the literature of emigration.

The authors, both leading figures in the fields of oral history and migration studies, draw upon a rich life history archive of letters, diaries, personal photographs and hundreds of oral history interviews with former migrants, including those who settled in Australia and those who returned to Britain.…


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