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Coming to Liverpool

There is a myth that Liverpool does not have an established South Asian community, unlike other cities in Britain. But historically, Liverpool has been home to Indian people much longer than many other parts of Britain. These settlers have been forgotten.

This collection of photographs are the only record of who they were
and where they came from - the first Indians to settle in Liverpool.

By Indians, we mean Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, as India had not yet been partitioned. They came mainly from the North West of India what is known as the Panjab and Pakistan. They came between 1910 and the 1950s, long before the majority of Indians, who came after 1950.

What made them want to leave their homes to travel to a land so different from their own, and so far away? Each had their own reason for coming, and for many, it was an economic necessity. Life was hard where they lived, and there weren't many opportunities. India at the time was being drained of its wealth by the British, so they used the same infrastructure that exported the wealth of India to England - i.e. the railways and the ships - to travel to Liverpool.

Liverpool, at the time, had a larger-than-life reputation. It was one of the richest cities in the world, due mainly to its dark past association with the slave trade. Words reached the ears of these early settlers of a far-off land with streets paved with gold. For others that came, it was a desire to travel, like the Romany Gypsies before them, who themselves originated from the North West region of India. It was in their blood to travel.

They made their way to the main ports of India - Karachi, Bombay and Calcutta - by train, and then sailed on one of the many ships heading for England, laden with cotton, spices, silver and other riches. The journey took three weeks to three months, often in very overcrowded conditions. And for many it was the first time they had seen the sea, let alone sailed on it.

 

Making a living

The early settlers who arrived in Liverpool were young men and women in their late teens and early 20s. They walked off the ships gangways to find a strange land, very different from their own. Alone, with no friends, family or contacts, often with only a few pounds in their pockets and not speaking the language, they faced the bleak prospect of looking for work and also a place to stay.

The first place many looked for work were the docks themselves. Taking whatever work was available, they worked hard, often doing the jobs nobody else would do. Others simply found it impossible to find work. In the workplace, they often faced hostility, discrimination and racism. The same applied when they
looked for accommodation.

Being proud people, the idea of working for somebody oppressive, for very little pay, made them look at other ways of making a living. Some became street pedlarss and entertainers and others fortune tellers. The work was often harder and they worked longer hours, but at least they were their own bosses. And to this day, many Asians would rather be self-employed than work for anybody.

 

Pedlars and fortune tellers

Mr Harbans Singh Rangeela was one of the men who became a street pedlar. He came to Liverpool with his brother, Ajit Singh. He first tried to find work on
the docks, but was often refused, the excuse being he was too old, because he had a beard, even though he was only 21 years old. They both found that they
were discriminated against for being Sikhs and wearing turbans.In the face of such discrimination many Sikhs shaved their beards and cut their hair.

Being a street pedlarr was a hard life, walking the streets all day long, knocking on doors and carrying their wares was back-breaking. They sold clothes,
toys, kitchen utensils - anything there was a demand for. To be a peddler in those days, one needed a license from the Police. The Police often made things difficult for the men to get a licence unless they were offered bribes.

Mr Bahadur Singh also started out as a pedlar. He came to Liverpool from Lahore, which is now in Pakistan. He was aged 36 in 1929. He first stayed in Toxteth, at 64 Stanhope Street. Not only was he a pedlar, but also a fortune teller. He must have been quite a sight - an Indian man knocking on doors, offering to tell your fortune.

Mr Bahadur Singh was eventually joined in England by his wife, Teka Devi, referred to affectionately Maji, or Mother. She was one of the first Sikh women, if not the first, to settle in Liverpool, and played an important part in establishing an Asian community. Teka Devi was a very religious woman. She helped and supported many of the people who arrived from India. She would put them up in her own home, and feed them, regardless of whether they were Hindu or Muslim. She was seen as a Mother figure by many Indian men who came here in the '40s and '50s. For many men, she took the place of their real mother or sister.

Another street pedlar was Mr Baij Nath Randev. He, like others, found it hard, if not impossible, to find employment. Mr Randev came from the district of Jalandhar, from a village near Phillaur in Panjab. He arrived here in 1936 as a young man in his early 20s and lived at Carlingford Road, Toxteth.

 

Entertainers and workers

Many early settlers realised the only decent work they could get was to work for themselves. They didn't want to do the soul-destroying jobs like cleaning the snow off the streets, which was often the only work they could find. A few tapped into the skills they had learnt back home to become entertainers.

The most famous of these was Mr Rasool Khan, also known by his stage name as the Gilly Gilly Man. He was the person who established the Pakistani theatre. This was a show that travelled all over Britain showing magic tricks from the East - tricks that became synonymous with India. He slowly built up his show, and as his family grew, he involved them too - like his wife, an African woman who he met in Sheffield. Mr Khan originally came from Attock, a village in the North West region of Pakistan. He arrived in Liverpool in 1926 as a young man in his 20s.

Another man to become an entertainer was Mr Bachan Singh. He became a magician and comedian in Liverpool. He performed on stage and on ships, entertaining sailors, and once even on the recommendation of the High Commissioner of India. Mr Singh, also a Panjabi, came from the village of Panshsta. When he arrived in Liverpool he lived at 9 Mulgrave Street in Toxteth. Like others, Mr Singh tried his hand at many things. He was a pedlar, and was also one of the few to find work in a factory, working for Dunlop, in Speke. Like many, he became disillusioned with working for others, because of the harsh treatment
and low pay they received.

Others were never quite comfortable with living in the West, like Mr Seyed Jaffar Shah, who came in the '20s. He was a Pathan, a strong warrior-like people from the North West Frontier in Pakistan. He found it easy to travel but very difficult to settle in a strange land. Like others, he found it hard to find work. But regardless of all the obstacles in his way, his determination got him through.

Others made sure they played as hard as they worked - like Jagjeet Singh and Tulsi Ram Sharma, who were more affectionately known as Chand and Ram - two characters that were famous for having a good time around Liverpool. They took great pride in their appearance. Chand, who was from the Panjab, worked on the docks, as did Ram. Ram was aged 21 in 1934. He came from Simla, a beautiful town in the Himalayas. They both lived in Toxteth and remained good friends for many years.

 

Staying in Liverpool

Many of the early settlers had left their homes to seek their fortune in this land, with streets supposedly paved in gold. They did find great wealth all around them, but getting their hands on some of it was another matter. Even though they worked hard, much harder than many around them, what should have been the fruits of their labour was often out of their reach.

Some became disillusioned with the West. For many, alcohol was the only way out. Being proud people, they didn't want to return home empty-handed. But many were successful. They established businesses, raised families, and played an important role in Liverpool and in Liverpool's black community.

Shah Nawaz
Makhan Singh
Baij Nath Majitha
C L Khanna
Darshan Singh Landay
Balbir Bhandari
Balvant Singh
Salgram Vij
Mir Alam
Harbans Singh Rangeeela
Veer Singh
Kartar Singh
Bahadur Singh
Jagatjeet Singh
Tulsi Ram Sharma
Rasool Khan
Bachan Singh Burman
Lajpat Vij
Teka Devi
Ali Mahommad Sharif
Baboo Bains
Baij Nath Randay
Amar Singh Burman
Man Mohni
Diwan Khan