​The Arrival of the Asian Population


After the Second World War displaced people from Eastern Europe were brought over because of labour shortages. British workers took advantage of the situation to move out of noisy and dirty jobs in textiles. They were also reluctant to work the night shifts needed if the new machinery was to pay its way. Mill owners sent recruiters to ex-colonies like India and Pakistan. The Asian workers who came were mainly young men from farming families from the North of the sub-continent. Some came from the area where 250 villages had been flooded to make way for the Mangla Dam. Others had relatives who were in the British army during the War or in the merchant navy as cooks. Until the collapse of manufacturing in the late 1970s nearly all Asians were employed. This was because of their age and sex. They had come to work and save up so they did long hours of over-time and night shifts and lived simply, sharing houses, rather like Liverpudlians in the 1980s on building sites in Germany. At first they spent very little on themselves, sending most of their earnings home. The men were often related or came from nearby villages. Relatives pooled finances to send someone to Britain for a year or two until he had earned a nest egg sufficient to invest in farm improvements, rather like British workers more recently going to Saudi Arabia. After a few years he would return home to be replaced by another brother. This circulation stopped when Immigration control was introduced in 1962 under pressure from British workers though against the wishes of the employers. The closing of the door meant that Asian workers did not like to take the risk of going home and gradually began to send for their wives and children. In the case of Muslims who had married a cousin, this was sometimes many years later since wives often felt comfortable living with in-laws who were aunts and uncles known from childhood. Workers came from Pakistani as well as the Indian Gujerat, and also from Punjab and Bangladesh. Some welcomed the freedom from family ties and the excitement of visiting a new place. Once the women came over the men found their freedoms reduced and of course expenditure went up. Many women did sewing or other work at home. A few Gujerati Asians came later as refugees from ex-British colonies in East Africa. They had British passports and came as whole families. Many of them had an advantage in the job market as they had an urban background and some English schooling from East Africa.
How did Asians find Blackburn in those early years? There were some good experiences but many felt that the locals were unfriendly, even hostile, so they abandoned attempts to mix. Those working on night shifts rarely met English workers in any case. The canteens were closed at night and union meetings were in the day when they were asleep. It was hard for them to learn English. Wives, when they came over, were often nervous of going out, and homesick. In the village neighbours had all been known, here nobody was quite sure how to behave. Even Asian neighbours often spoke different languages or came from an unknown background.
The housing was very different. Terraces of unpainted and unplastered brick were something new. The sight of all the smoking chimneys was a shock at first. In South Asia, houses were mostly single-storey, with rooms around an open courtyard. Here it was a much more indoor style of life. Salma recalls how she missed sitting out in the open with other women, sewing under the shade of a large tree. The houses here were not really big enough for extended families of cousins and aunts. Doing housework alone was a new experience, relished by some women, not by others. Many of the houses they had at that time had no bathrooms or indoor toilets. Asians were not eligible for council houses at first and faced discrimination from estate agents. This led many of them into purchasing cheap old houses. Building societies would not at that time give loans for old properties so purchasers had to take high interest short-term loans that could only be paid back by sub-letting.
Asians had mixed feelings about English life. They valued their earnings and appreciated the educational system. One stall-holder remembers his delight at not having to pay bribes to officials for permits to get on with his trading. Other impressions were less favourable. The lack of family closeness and frequency of drinking alcohol shocked many. Mita recalls arriving from India aged 8 and going to school in the early 1960s. She was very upset when a child asked if her father wore feathers on his head! Luckily her doctor father was able to laugh it off.
Gradually people began to adjust. Women’s religious groups became more common than in the sub-continent. They helped to fill the social gap. Many saw earlier Jewish immigrants as a role model, starting at the bottom, putting up with discrimination and through sticking together, hard work and avoidance of drinking and consumerism, gradually moving up the ladder. Some became more conservative in their attitude to traditions than were relatives back home, feeling they had to hang on desperately to what might disappear. The initial plan, then dream, of going back, began to disappear as children grew up here with British experience and tastes. The next generation of British born were less willing to keep their heads down, expecting to be treated as equals. Disappointment has led some to become born again Muslims or Hindus. The wearing of a headscarf by Muslim women was not common in the early days. Some young women feel that restrictions put on them by their parents have come not from religion but from South Asian village culture. Islam seems to some to offer a less parochial approach with more rights for women.
By Mary Searle-Chatterjee