This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

Many of our famous institutions and landmarks were formed during the expansion of the British Empire. The Bank of England, the City of London, and the docks of London or Liverpool are all good examples. At its centre lay colonial ambition and the practice of international trade.

The barbaric trans-Atlantic slave trade was an important part of this. Much of the nation's wealth was accumulated directly through these global systems of exploitation. It was then often reinvested in commercial and industrial projects back in England.

Edward Colston Monument in Bristol
The Colston Statue in Bristol is a controversial monument to a prominent local figure who made his wealth from the transatlantic slave trade © Historic England

Extent of empire

England's modern multicultural population owes much to our imperial past. By the end of the First World War in 1918 Britain ruled the world's largest empire. It encompassed all of what is today India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Gate and surrounding wall of Muslim burial ground, Horsell Common, Woking 1917.
The Muslim Burial Ground, Horsell Common, Woking, Surrey, was established in 1917 to inter soldiers of the Indian Army who died in England © Historic England BL23738-006

Large parts of Africa, including Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Somaliland and significant parts of the Caribbean and South America including Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and British Guiana were also under British control. The empire included many other areas too including Yemen, Hong Kong, Malaya, as well as the so-called dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

King's African Rifles at the Royal Show in Norwich, 1957. Black and white photo taken from behind.
King's African Rifles at the Royal Show in Norwich, 1957. Photo by John Gay © Historic England AA094286

Merchant navy recruits

Sailors were recruited to the merchant navy from India, Africa, the Caribbean, Aden and other areas. Many of them established homes in England, often in port cities such as London, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and South Shields. British Subjects, meaning citizens of the Empire, came to Britain for training.

At that time the English system of education with its universities and colleges was the most sought after within the colonial system. Others came to find work and settled in those areas where their compatriots lived or where they could find work such as Manchester and Hull.

The British Nationality Act

1948 was the year of the British Nationality Act which gave all Commonwealth citizens free entry into Britain. In the years that followed many more people came to England to help re-build the country after the Second World War. Many of these people were invited by the government and other organisations with incentives and official recruitment campaigns.

Economic boom of 1950s and 1960s

Those who made the journey played an important role in the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. They often moved to large towns and cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Bradford where there was a demand for workers. The car industry for example, the Post Office, British Railways, London Transport and the National Health Service all relied on migrant workers.

Two men, one white and one black, working together on constructing the M1 Motorway 1958-9. There are other workers and equipment out of focus in the background.
Constructing the M1 Motorway 1958-9 © Historic England Archive jlp01_14_00004

Other migrants came as refugees and asylum seekers, from India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Somaliland and many other countries. Not all had been British colonies, some had other historic links with Britain, such as Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Today people from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia and their families are to be found in most towns and cities throughout England and are engaged in a variety of occupations.

Was this page helpful?