Post-War Migration (1945-61)
From the end of 1945 a number of former lascars settled in Britain, with others arriving after Partition in 1947. Although it is hard to find clear figures, because Bengalis were counted in with Indians and Pakistanis until after the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, it is estimated in the UK Census that there were around 2,000 Bengalis in Britain in 1951, rising to 6,000 by 1961 and 22,000 by 1971, just before Independence. Many of the early settlers were former seamen who found themselves unemployed when Partition cut Sylhet off from Calcutta, now in India, where the traditional jobs in shipping were based. The Seamen's Union managed to get passports for many of these desperately poor seamen to come to Britain, although the government in West Pakistan limited these numbers. In 1956, 600 passports were given to former seamen followed by 1,000 more paid for by private institutions and 'medical passports'.
Migrants during this period followed the patterns set by earlier settlers, working as pressers or tailors in East London, while others moved to Bradford, Oldham and Birmingham to work in the textile mills or manufacturing industry (such as steelworks or car factories).Most of them didn't plan to stay for ever – this has been called 'The Myth of Return' – and the migrants were mainly young men who left their families, wives and children in Bangladesh, returning frequently and sending money back regularly to be invested in land and property in Bangladesh.
This period has been seen as the 'Golden Age' of migration from the Indian subcontinent to Britain, when immigration controls were still comparatively open. The 1948 Nationality Act confirmed the rights of current and former subjects of the British Empire to live and work in Britain, and it was not until the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act that the numbers of migrants were limited.
Kamal Hossain (Oldham)
My uncle was supposed to come but he wouldn't. So my grandparents chose my father. My father said, 'Yes, I’ll go.' At that time, not many men were brave enough to go to a foreign country. They were afraid of the uncertainty… Father had the courage.
His father travelled to Oldham and worked in the textile factories. He took British citizenship in 1967 and brought his family to the UK in 1970. Because of the lack of a Bengali community at that time, Kamal's mother and siblings returned to Bangladesh in 1971 and came back to the UK in 1986. Kamal said:
There were only two Bengali families in Oldham. People worked in the factories and lived in chaos. There was no family environment. The women faced problems living there. The bath and toilet were outside, not inside the house… The women felt lonely in England.
Abul Khaer (Oldham)
73-year-old Abul Khaer arrived in Britain in 1957 and went to Birmingham. He moved around England, working in factories and restaurants in Birmingham, London and Lancashire, eventually settling in Burnley, where he worked in the Philips electronics factory until he was made redundant. He spoke of the struggles of settling into a strange country:
I came to this country in June 1957. I had no relatives here. I started my journey here without any help at all. I wore the clothes I had from Bangladesh and changed them as I earned money here.
Rafiqul was 75 years old when we interviewed him. He arrived in London in 1958 and worked for many years in a factory in Birmingham. His passport was arranged through a friend and his ticket was bought by his family. He told us:
My mother sold our land and gave me the money. There was no ticket agent in Sylhet. I bought my ticket in Dhaka. First I came to East London. I stayed on the balcony of the mosque. I also went to Birmingham - I went to so many different places. I had friends; they took me to several places. In East London, I stayed in a relative's house. Sometimes, I didn't have any work and I would have to move around to find it.
He remembers too the importance of the small community of Bengali settlers in helping new arrivals:
Our Sylheti people helped each other. We took in workers, they would share our food, whatever they needed… If someone came from Bangladesh, we would give him shelter and try to find him a job.
Rimi's father came as a student, to study Law. After 10 years, he returned to Bangladesh, but was jailed by the Pakistani government because of his political activities. He returned to Britain in the early 1970s and took British citizenship. Rimi told us:
My father came first in 1957… He didnt' stay here because probably he didn’t like the culture or something in this country. At that time there was no Bengali environment… There was no mosque. He would celebrate Eid at home, pray namaz or jumma in his house, there was no other choice… My father did not like it.
Rimi's father lived in East London near the docks and was a clerical worker for British Rail in Kings Cross. He left his wife and family in Bangladesh until the 1990s. Rimi noted:
He wanted us to be Bengali. He had fought in the Liberation War; he was a freedom fighter. So he felt that his children should grow up in Bangladesh, learn Bangla and the Bengali culture and once they were adults, they could go to a foreign country for higher education, but it would be their decision.