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Culture and Festivals
The majority of South Asian migration to England has happened since 1950 but as early as 1688 there is evidence of a Bristol man offering a reward of 20 shillings for his runaway 'Indian boy'.
The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act marked a serious shift in the immigration of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to England. Before 1960 such immigration had been small scale equalling less than a third of Caribbean migration and migrants generally had a significant knowledge of the English language or Britain, or both. This group comprised of: seamen, ex-Indian army personnel, university graduates, teachers, doctors and other professionals. The entry of South Asians to England was controlled at source by the Indian and Pakistani governments.
After 1960 immigration increased equalling that from the Caribbean and the profile of the typical immigrant changed. More often than not, South Asian immigrants were now from a rural background and generally unfamiliar with the language and culture of Britain. But one factor remained constant: the importance of the contact or sponsor in Britain. During the rush to beat the perceived impending ban in 1962 the houses of early settlers virtually became reception centres.
The small numbers of South Asian people in Britain before the First World War were socially and geographically scattered. This group included students, lascars and nannies of East India company employees.
Students lived in university towns, especially London, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Bayswater in West London, which was popular with Indian students in the first half of the twentieth century, was known as 'Asia minor'.
Indian lascars deserted and settled near the London docks from the eighteenth century onwards and many became a part of the multi-racial dock communities, cohabiting with and marrying local English women.
In 1858 the Strangers Home was opened in London's West India Dock Road to provide accommodation for lascars and assist them to find employment on ships returning to India.
In the 19th century individual cases of destitute South Asians requesting repatriation back to India appear sporadically in the records of the British Library.
Nannies or ayahs lived with the British families that brought them to England. An institution known as the Ayahs' Home was established in 1897 in Aldgate to accommodate ayahs who were waiting for a return passage to India. By 1932 it has been estimated that approximately 7, 000 South Asians lived in Britain.
Indians were free to enter the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, as they were British subjects. However, passport stop lists were introduced in the 1920s to exclude political activists with a history of anti-British activity in India. stop lists had been introduced in the 1920s to exclude political activists with a history of anti-British activity in India. Concern was also expressed at the presence of lascars who deserted ship and took up residence in Britain. Restrictions were placed on the entry of Indians of 'limited means' from the early 1930s.
The control of passports was directed primarily at Indian pedlers from the Punjab who sought to bring family members to Britain to assist them with their businesses, selling goods door-to-door.
After the introduction of the 1948 British Nationality Act, guaranteeing free right of entry to British subjects and Commonwealth citizens, the numbers of South Asians arriving in Britain increased. Find out more about Where South Asian groups settled in England.
Reasons For Settling in England
Reasons for making the journey to England varied enormously, from political expulsion in the case of Ugandan Asians to career development or even marriage. However, broadly, South Asian migrants in the later half of the twentieth century were motivated by improved economic prospects, even if they anticipated a short stay. Despite attempts to control the number, and type, of South Asians entering Britain, by 1961 over 100, 000 Indian and Pakistani nationals had taken up residence.
South Asian immigrants settling in post-war Britain established themselves, mainly in London, the Midlands and industrial areas in the north, taking up employment in factories and foundries.
Most people who came from India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh were aided by chain migration. The early pioneers who had found accommodation and employment in England then sponsored other men, usually from the same family group or village to join them.
This pattern of chain migration led to large numbers of South Asians settling in particular areas. In the case of one Mirpuri family, approximately 135 family members settled in Britain. Up to 90% of Pakistanis in Bradford and Birmingham come from the area of Mirpur.
Similarly, in Greater London many East African Asians have settled in areas such as Wembley and Harrow while Southall in Ealing is home to a large Punjabi Sikh community. (For more information on the Sikh community the Sikh Cyber Museum may be of interest.) In 1991 Bangladeshis made up 22.9% of the population of Tower Hamlets and 95% of Bangladeshis come from the rural district of Sylhet. Read more about where Asians have settled in England.
Original settlement patterns in Greater London, the West Midlands and Yorkshire have shown limited change over the past half a century. Although there is some evidence of a move to the suburbs by some groups, particularly Indians.
South Asians received a mixed reception in Britain, as the following accounts show. Mohamed Zaman Khan describes a confrontation with a local man:
"When I first arrived the local people generally didn't like us blacks. Once I remember being confronted by a white man telling me 'you blacks are good for nothing. You come over here, take our jobs and we don't like you.' I told him that it was my country too, I had fought for it and if we had been late in getting to the battlefront this country would have been in the hands of the Germans. I told him not to give me any trouble as I had sacrificed a lot for this country. The man apologised at the end saying he didn't know."
Israel Massey who came to Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s remembered his initial shock at the antagonism directed at him:
'When the people started calling us names, it was just a shock ... and we were not used to it.'
Read Ayub Mohmed Adia's account of arriving in Preston in 1961 from Barbodhan, a village in Gujarat.
Mrs Munsiff and Mrs Husain who both settled in Wandsworth, London in the early 1960s were well received by their white neighbours and made English friends. Mrs Husain's shop became the hub of the local english community:
'Living in Balvernie Road and having a shop gave me a very close contact and friendship with everyone ... they came to share their gossip, their sorrows and joys, so I learnt about English society very quickly... it was a friendly atmosphere, we knew the whole street.'
Negative representations of South Asian migrants as a drain on public funds in the mass media were, on rare occasions, challenged. The claim that black and Asian immigrants from the old Commonwealth posed a burden on the state was dismissed by a report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 1967. The author claimed that migrants were less of a burden than the local population, receiving only 80% of welfare benefits, compared to the indigenous white population. It was argued that a majority of immigrants contributed rather than depended on the state.
Early post-war South Asian migrants faced prejudice in finding private rented accommodation and council housing. A survey by Willesden Council of press advertisements for accommodation in the local press showed that 90 per cent of advertisements specifically discriminated against non-Europeans.
Ajit Rai, who came to London in the mid 1950s, had first hand experience of exclusion:
"White people would not rent their houses to us as lodgers, so that it was a very difficult time in that sense." In Southall, London, Rai witnessed a white exodus 'they started moving out when we started moving in'.
As early as 1957, a Home Office document provided evidence of white flight and future segregation, which would come to characterise some northern towns and cities:
'The Nottingham, Wolverhampton and Warwickshire police say that white house-holders in better class districts resent coloured people buying houses in these districts and when this happens, those who can, move.'
This was supported by a 1964 article in the Daily Telegraph in which an Estate Agent in Southall, London had agreed to sell houses owned by Southall Residents Association exclusively to white buyers. In the north of England, Pakistanis sought to overcome these housing problems by buying old houses often in slum areas and letting them out to newcomers. Read more about housing.
"Dad was amazed and heartened by the sight of the British in England, though. He'd never seen the English in poverty, as road sweepers, dustmen, shopkeepers and barmen. He'd never seen an Englishman stuffing bread into his mouth with his fingers... "
For South Asians arriving from the 1950s onwards, a period of adjustment was necessary. For women coming from large extended families, life in Britain could, initially, seem isolated and lonely. Mrs. S. Ahmad: 'Sometimes, I used to cry, I missed my family in the beginning but later, I overcame all these problems.'
For those who did not have access to a bathroom in their houses, the experience of visiting the public baths was strange at first. Israel Massey:
"The public baths used to be near East Ham Town Hall. You had to clean the bath and pay half a crown ... You can get a towel, shampoo and soap there, and you would just go there and have a bath. I didn't know this was part of the culture because we had our own baths (in India)."
Few of the young, male South Asian migrants arriving in the 1950s envisaged permanent settlement. A 1957 police report titled, Working Party to on the social and economic problems arising from the growing influx into the United Kingdom of Coloured workers from Commonwealth countries recorded that Indians and Pakistanis had come to Britain with the object of making sufficient money to enable them to return home after a stay of five to ten years. Most decided to settle, however, as increased immigration restriction and family reunification made re-migration a less realistic option.
As the British Asian community has become increasingly established and grown in size and confidence so Asian amenities and institutions have steadily developed often from fledgling resources established by the early pioneers.
Shops and entertainment venues catering for South Asian religious, cultural and culinary needs have evolved a strong internal economy, particularly in areas of South Asian concentration such as Leicester, Bradford, Birmingham and parts of London, including Wembley, Southall and Tower Hamlets. The range of Asian amenities and entertainment available now include:
The first Sikh Gurdwara was purpose-built in 1967 in Shepherds Bush but had been in existence in a private house since the 1930s at least. Similarly, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan - The Institute for Indian Art and Culture is now a major cultural centre in London, but started life as a few rooms above a shop in 1972 due to the initiative and determination of the founders.
Creators: Dr. Shompa Lahiri
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