History explainer: migration stories

Migration is when people move from one place to live in another. This video uses portraits to tell the stories of some of the people who have migrated to Britain throughout history. We discover their stories and the impact they have made. We consider some of the reasons why people migrate, and how migration shapes our everyday lives.


  • Migration stories

    Migration is when people move from one place to live in another.

    People from all over the world have been migrating to new places for thousands of years, and still do today.

    The National Portrait Gallery’s Collection includes the stories of many people who have migrated to Britain throughout history.

    People migrate for all sorts of reasons.

    John Blanke migrated to Britain over 500 years ago and became a royal trumpeter for King Henry VIII.

    He may have come to Britain with King Henry VIII’s wife, Katherine of Aragon.

    Trumpeters played an important role in court ceremony, as they announced the arrival of the king.

    Sometimes people migrate because they’re looking for new opportunities, a new job or to study.

    Like Harold Moody, who migrated to Britain from Jamaica in 1904 to study medicine.

    He became a doctor and lived in London for the rest of his life.

    He was known for being a particularly kind doctor, helping children in poor families.

    He was also known for fighting racism.

    Sadly, there are times when people are forced to migrate and become refugees, escaping danger from war, violence or climate disaster.

    Like Judith Kerr, who was Jewish and escaped Nazi Germany with her family in the 1930s when she was a little girl.

    After the Second World War, she carried on living in Britain and wrote many children’s books, including When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

    Malala Yousafzai bravely campaigned for girls to have the right to go to school in her home country of Pakistan.

    She came to Britain after she was shot and seriously wounded by people who didn’t agree with this.

    Since then, she’s become an important leader in the campaign for girls’ education around the world.

    Many people who migrate to Britain bring their culture, traditions and skills with them, like the artist Angelica Kauffman, who was born in Switzerland and moved to Britain in 1766.

    She became a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1768.

    Or like Sake Dean Mahomed.

    He was born in India and moved to Britain in 1807.

    He opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain, as well as ‘Mahomed’s Baths’, which became well-known for a special Indian head massage treatment called ‘champi’, and this is where the word ‘shampoo’ comes from.

    Sometimes people migrate to live closer to friends or family members.

    Like Bill Morris, who moved to Britain at the age of 16 to join his mother as part of the ‘Windrush generation’.

    He became a trade union leader who campaigned for workers’ rights.

    People migrating to Britain have not always been treated well. Many of them have experienced racism.

    Claudia Jones migrated to Britain as part of the ‘Windrush generation’ in the 1950s.

    She was a journalist and activist who, along with many others, fought against racism and for equal rights in Britain.

    She is also remembered as the ‘mother of the Notting Hill Carnival’, a celebration of Caribbean culture bringing different people together to this day.

    We can see the effects of migration in all parts of our everyday lives.

    From the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, the books we read, the science we study, the sports we cheer, the music we listen to, and much, much more, making Britain the culturally diverse country it is today.

    Explore the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection and discover more stories of migration!

Learning objectives

  1. Understand what migration is.
  1. Consider reasons for migration.
  1. Assess some of the impacts of migration.

Watch and discuss

  1. Think about the different stories you have heard. What impact do you think migration had on their lives?
  1. Can you think of any other well-known people who have migrated to Britain? Choose someone, research their story and create a portrait of them.