This has come up in another question regarding nationalism, and limiting inheritance based on whether a spouse is a British subject.

My question is - was anyone in the Empire such a subject? Or was this limited to those born in Britain, or born to British citizens overseas.

My view is, British subject includes everyone, at that time, mainly because people in British territories were recognised as British until the fairly recent category of British Overseas Territory person was introduced.

  • 2
    @EvanM - thanks for fixing the typo in the question - but -ise is standard Australian spelling...
    – user13123
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 22:08
  • 1
    Interesting... The more you know.
    – EvanM
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 0:34
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    Of course, quite famously according to Oscar Wilde, not the Queen.
    – Spencer
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 10:56

1 Answer 1


According to the Wikipedia Article on being a British Subject

Before 1949, every person born within the dominions and allegiance of the English and later British Crown was, based on common law, an English and later British subject. To be a subject required only that a person be born in any territory under the sovereignty of the Crown.

Therefore during the Victorian period, anyone born in territories that were part of the British Empire would have been a British subject. So they didn't have to be of British descent.

It does include an important exception;

Within the British Empire, the main class of people who were not British subjects were the rulers of native states formally under the protection of the British Crown, and their peoples. Many such smaller states, especially in India, were for most practical purposes administered by agents of the imperial government, but the sovereignty of all rested in their own local rulers and not in the British Crown, and all such persons are considered to have been born outside the sovereignty and allegiance of the Crown, so were (and, where these persons are still alive, still are) known as British Protected Persons

  • The position was inconsistent towards the beginning of Victoria's reign, with courts often disagreeing with each other, and holding that individuals were or were not subjects according to whatever seemed appropriate to the case at hand. They were not eliding the matter either; there are hundreds of pages dealing with the question. I shall draft an answer that takes in some of the notable cases of the 1840s dealing with this. It is only in 1865 that we get a clear declaration that the Queen considers the indigenous peoples to be under her jurisdiction and protection as British subjects.
    – Calchas
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 23:48
  • I'm utterly confused. When I was growing up in the 50s/60s British nationality depended upon one's father's nationality - if Dad was British, so were you. If Dad was Italian, you weren't British. Am I being a complete dumbo?
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 21:28
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    It's worth bearing in mind that ideas about nationality and citizenship have changed a lot over the last century or so. The British are more flexible in terms of nationality than some - you can have dual nationality based on where you were born and who your parents were. Take Kiefer Sutherland for example, born in London in 1966 to Canadian parents, has both British and Canadian nationality.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 21:50

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