English Voices, Asian Stories

Asian women with children, Fallowfield, Platt Lane, 1983 ref. m22637

In 2005 the Tameside Oral History Project was launched in an effort to record the memories of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people who immigrated to Greater Manchester in the mid-20th century. For many of these migrants, the experience was one of dislocation as they tried to adapt to often very different environments to the places they were originally from. Growing up with the heat and sunshine of India or East Africa, being confronted with British rain, snow, sleet and smog was for many a culture shock as great as the language and culture of their new homes.

Many of the interviews for the project were conducted in the migrants’ home tongues- Urdu, Gujarati, Bengala – but a few were carried out in English, and they provide a unique insight into the lived experiences of those who chose to begin new lives in an unfamiliar land.
When Ramanlal Jivan Mistry came to the UK from Uganda his first impressions of the country were of the cold weather. In this interview he talks about having to adapt to winter snowstorms, and the perils of driving in the smog.


Mistry on English weather (TOHP/1).

Despite facing these difficulties, Mistry resisted the urge to return to India. His children, raised in the UK, were used to the weather and viewed England as their home. To them, visits to India were holidays and not homecomings.

It’s this reason that makes these interviews such a valuable archive of material. For many of those interviewed, their parents spent their whole lives in South Asia or East Africa, while their children have known no other home except the UK. The Tameside migrants represent a transition between generations, individuals who lived both lives and in many instances feel both Asian and British.
Mistry was struck by the differences between housing in the UK and Uganda. Compared to the lines of back-to-back terraced houses in the UK, India and East Africa seemed underdeveloped. These houses were often crowded. Mistry himself recalls sharing a bedroom with three other people on Union Street in Ashton-under-Lyme.

Mistry on UK housing (TOHP/1).

In the early days, according to Mistry, there was greater solidarity between Indians, with families willing to help strangers become established in the UK. As the Asian population of the UK increased this communitarian spirit dissipated but the new populations retained their strong family bonds.

As a young boy, Kantubhai Patel came to the UK in 1963 to re-join his parents, after being left behind in India. Arriving in February with his older brother, he was struck by how cold the weather was.

Patel on arriving in the UK (TOHP/15).
Kanthubhai’s father had come to the UK in 1953, just six months after he was born. Kanthubhai’s grandfather had to borrow money to pay for his sons flight, and so his father had to send his wages back to India to pay off the debt his grandfather had accrued. At this time there was no ready access to Indian food, and with few relatives he was forced to sleep on the floor and subsist on bread and soup.

Only after paying off the debt was Patel’s mother able to join her husband in 1959 after being apart for six years. It wasn’t until 1963, after being looked after by his grandparents, were Kanthubhai and his siblings reunited with their parents, ten years after the family was split up.

Patel on reuniting with his family (TOHP/15).

Sikh family, Hulme, Taylor Street, 1962 (ref. m26517)
Kantubhai’s story is common in the Tameside Oral History collection. Whether it’s the voices of parents who left children behind, or children who were left behind by their parents, the migration of Asians to the UK was a piecemeal affair, with families often being separated for a years at a time. The willingness of the migrants to endure these emotional hardships, low-wage work, cramped housing and unfamiliar food is a testament to the determination of these people to improve the lives of themselves and their families.
For many migrants, the UK represented opportunity and a chance for advancement that wasn’t available in their original homes. At the time, migration from Commonwealth nations to Britain was encouraged by the British government, which sought to plug huge gaps in the labour market after the devastation of the Second World War. The UK needed builders, factory workers, cleaners and nurses, and tens of thousands of Commonwealth citizens answered the call.

Chorlton on Medlock, Hulme, Boundary Street West, 1964 (ref. 25586)

Kishorbhai Desai arrived in the UK in 1964 after being offered a teaching position. In this interview, he discusses how, despite the very different atmospheres of the UK and India, he was overall very comfortable with the change.

Desai on the differences between India and the UK (TOHP/29).
Desai says that in the early days there were no Indian groceries, and that Asian communities had to suffice with cooking for themselves from ingredients brought from a van that came from Preston once a week.

Desai on getting Indian food in the UK (TOHP/29).

Dr Harish Gulati came to the UK to study a master’s degree in fluid mechanics at the University of Manchester. Soon after he was offered a job at General Electric and worked there for many years, earning enough money to live a comfortable life.

Gulati on studying in the UK (TOHP/32).

In this interview, Dr Harish Gulati discusses eating both English and Indian food, and how living in a new culture caused him to adapt some of his traditional beliefs about beef.

Gulati on adapting to English food (TOHP/32).

Another wave of Asian migrants would arrive in the UK in the 1970s, after Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled Ugandan-Asians from the country. Many came to the UK, although by this time attitudes towards migration among some sections of the white British population had begun to sour, causing the government to tighten its controls on immigration.

However, as the testimonies of many of those interviewed for the Tameside Oral History project can attest to, many of the migrants found themselves largely accepted by their new environment, and at the time the interviews were conducted many of them viewed the UK as their home.

As memories of this period of history begin to fade, it is important to ensure that these stories of hardship and determination are preserved, both for British people of Asian descent to celebrate their parents and grandparents, but also for the UK as a whole, to remind us of a time when we were seen as a place worth enduring hardship for.

Isaac Hart, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.

You can listen to the Tameside Oral History Project interviews at Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre.

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