1960-1969 | Deportation | Refusing refugees

‘Heartbreak day for the unwanted’ – under new racist regulations

Rab Butler – restrictions ‘not based on colour prejudice alone !’ Photo – Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia.

1 July 1962

Immediately the minute hand passed midnight, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 came into force. Described by Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the opposition, as a ‘cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation,’ the new law required all Commonwealth citizens arriving in the United Kingdom to hold a valid visa, effectively revoking the right of settlement to all those who had lived in Britain’s former colonies.1 The measures had little impact on white colonials and there were no comparable restrictions on the arrivals of unskilled Irish labourers.2 

To the embarrassment of the ruling Conservative Party, when Home Secretary Rab Butler had addressed party members the previous year, he had declared that the restrictions would not be ‘based on colour prejudice alone.’3 In an internal government memo, he was even more forthright, explaining that while it could be presented publicly as a fair-minded response to dealing with immigration, it ‘was intended to, and would in fact, operate on coloured people almost exclusively.’4 On 2 July, the day after the new conditions were imposed, the Daily Mirror reported, under the headline ‘Heartbreak Day for Unwanted Immigrants,’ on fourteen Commonwealth passengers who had landed at London airport without realising that they needed visas. ‘They were,’ explained the report, ‘refused entry to Britain under the new Act which from midnight on Saturday, barred Commonwealth citizens who do not have official recognised jobs to go to. One of the 14, a young man from Aden, dropped to his knees in front of a woman interpreter and pleaded for permission to stay.’ Despite his pleas, he and the other thirteen were all flown back to their countries of origin.5


  1. Gary Younge, ‘The NHS, Windrush and the debt we owe to immigration,’ The Guardian, 22 June 2018 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/22/honour-nhs-built-on-immigration-windrush
  2. James McKay, ‘The Passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, a Case-Study of Backbench Power,’ accessed online at url https://journals.openedition.org/osb/433
  3. Kenneth Leech, Race, Church Publishing, New York, 2005,  p. 54.
  4. ‘Commonwealth Migrants: Memorandum by the Secretary of State for the Home Department,’ 6 October 1961, cited in Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, Little, Brown, London, 2004, p. 283.
  5. ‘Heartbreak Day for the Unwanted,’ The Daily Mirror, 2 July 1962, p. 1.

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