|home | about this site | stories | the gallery | schools | migration histories | tracing your roots | search|
Culture and Festivals
In the 18th century, the first group of South Asians to come to Britain in significant numbers for employment were the servants of East India Company employees. 'Nabobs', as English returnees from India were derisively known, wanted to recreate the opulent lifestyle they had enjoyed in India, back home in Britain. Consequently an Indian servant was a particularly fashionable and visible symbol of wealth and status.
Domestics, however, were sometimes abandoned in Britain or subjected to ill treatment by their employers. The most famous of all Indian servants, Munshi Abdul Karim, was elevated to the post of Indian Secretary and taught Queen Victoria Hindi. Her correspondence and journals show her fondness for Abdul Karim, with whom she sided against the advice of her household staff.
Ayahs acted as nurses and attendants to English families on the long voyages to and from India. 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.
Most ayahs stayed for an average of six to eight weeks in the Home; however, during the First World War difficulty in obtaining passages back to India left some stranded in London. New employers would approach the home, which acted as a hostel and employment agency.
Despite fluctuations, lascars appear to have been the largest group of South Asian workers in imperial Britain. The majority were Muslim, although there were significant Hindu (Suratis) and Catholic Goan minorities.
Lascars came principally from East Bengal (Bangladesh), particularly Chittagong and Sylhet, and were recruited from the port of Calcutta. The port of Bombay recruited seamen from along the Malabar Coast of Western India. The introduction of railways to India enabled recruitment from inland areas such as the Punjab.
Other South Asians came to England to make their fortunes by whatever means at their disposal. Henry Mayhew's survey of London's poor in 1861 recorded South Asian hawkers, street musicians, herbalists and beggars. Troops of Asian entertainers toured British theatres.
A number of South Asians came to Britain to appear in exhibitions and from the 1920s Indian peddlers selling cotton, silk, voile and woollen goods became an increasingly common sight. After the Second World War thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled South Asians came to Britain to take up employment in the textile and steel industries.
In order to bear the costs of mechanisation, textile factories maintained production around the clock. Indian and Pakistani men worked the unpopular night shifts, while the predominately female workforce worked during the day. The result was a racially segregated workforce. In many mills in West Yorkshire 50-80% of workers were South Asian.
Jobs in some traditional, strongly unionised industries, such as printing, were closed to black and Asian workers, as they had been to Jewish refugees at the turn of the century. Discrimination against Asians was commonplace.
The recession in manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s disproportionately hit Asians who were forced to diversify into the service sector. Some South Asian workers who had lost their jobs used their redundancy money, sought help from their families, and in some cases got bank loans, to enable them set up their own Businesses.
A booming restaurant business became a major source of employment for Bangladeshi men. In 1996 it was estimated that 10,000 Indian restaurants employed up to 70,000 employees and Tandoori or Balti houses became a feature on every high street. Read this press release about the Greater London Council ordering four hundred Indian take away meals.
The colonial South Asian migrant population comprised a small number of professionals, including university lecturers, journalists and lawyers. Some individuals, such as Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, the first wireless operator to be sent into occupied France, defy occupational category. Read about Noor Khan's extraordinary life and service during the Second World War.
Probably the largest group of professionals was doctors. Dr B. N. Pajgar had a surgery in Parchmore Road, Thorton Heath, Croydon. The childhood memories of one of his adoring patients, Audrey Doyle, provide a fleeting impression of the flamboyant physician.
He must have been about the only Indian I think in those days, but nobody ever thought him different, it must have been because he was a doctor. He used to drive around in a big Rolls Royce with 6 Alsatians in it. But he was a marvellous doctor
The 1962 Immigration Act introduced an employment voucher scheme to limit the number of unskilled migrants arriving in Britain from the Indian subcontinent. Vouchers were available for skilled migrants , such as teachers and doctors.
Many of the teachers, doctors and nurses, however, who arrived in Britain could not find employment in the professions and discovered that their qualifications were not deemed valid in England. Chandra Vansadia remembered her father's frustration when his Indian degree and postgraduate law qualification were not recognised in Britain.
Mohan Singh Vohra's son, Jaswant, who followed the rest of his family to Nottingham in 1962, was unable to find work despite having a degree in dentistry. Like many other well-qualified immigrants he became a bus conductor. Further training, however, enabled him to qualify as a dentist in Britain. (p.28, 'Roti, kapra or makaan - Bread, cloth or shelter').
The contemporary South Asian community still has a significant presence in the medical profession, constituting nearly 20% of hospital doctors, 16% of General Practitioners and 12% of pharmacists. Despite the existence of well-known individuals such as the solicitor Imran Khan, who acted for Noreen and Neville Lawrence (in the case of Stephen Lawrence), South Asians are still under-represented in the fields of law, teaching, civil service and media.
The earliest evidence of South Asian entrepreneurship is Sake Dean Mahomed, who was known in Georgian Britain as the Shampooing Surgeon. In 1927 the number of Indian firms in Britain was sufficient to result in the creation of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. The inter-war years witnessed the establishment of Indian grocery shops selling spices and Indian foodstuffs. Clearly the British community alone could not have sustained these businesses. The patronage of the settled South Asian community was essential.
In 1974 only 8% of working South Asians were self-employed. However, by 1991 the figure had risen to 25% of Indian workers and 27% of Pakistani men, compared with 18% of the overall working population. Three-quarters of these small businesses started after 1980, and the majority have remained small. Many of these are corner shop businesses, which have contributed to one of the most popular and stereotypical images of South Asians in Britain.
In 1992, it was estimated that approximately 70% of confectionery, tobacco and newsagent shops were owned by South Asians. In order to compete against supermarkets South Asian shopkeepers have had to extend opening hours and provide specialist services to meet local customers' requirements, particularly for the elderly and those without cars.
Some South Asian entrepreneurs have made fortunes. Three hundred of Britain's 15,000 millionaires are South Asian, and the figure is rising. Although dominated by men, there is some evidence of women coming through the ranks, such as Perween Warsi of S &A Foods.
Successful South Asian entrepreneurs include Swaraj Paul of Caparo Industries, Raj Bagri of the London Metal Exchange and Gulam Noon of Noon Products. British South Asian food brands such as Pataks have become household names.
Here to Stay - Bradford's South Asian Communities (Oral histories compiled and edited by Irna Imran, Tim Smith and Donald Hyslop; contemporary photographs by Tim Smith; studio photographs by Tony Walker; introduction by Raminder Singh, 1994, Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, City of Bradford Metropolitan Council, Arts Museums and Libraries)
Roti, kapra or makaan - Bread, cloth and shelter (1998, APNA Arts and EKTA Luncheon Club, Nottingham)
Creators: Dr. Shompa Lahiri
|Growing Up||Culture and Festivals|
|contact us | help | site map||copyright | privacy|