Voucher Migration (1960s)

Map of Commonwealth countriesIn 1962 the British government passed the first Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which was aimed at limiting the numbers of migrants into Britain from Commonwealth countries, including India and East and West Pakistan. This Act restricted migration to three categories:

Ambulance outside Bedford A&Ea) people who had a specific job to do in Britain;

b) people who had special skills or qualifications to do jobs that couldn't be filled in the UK (such as doctors and nurses to staff the National Health Service);

c) other unskilled workers (with priority given to people who had served in the British forces in World War II).

The number of 'Category C' vouchers was set every year, and the number decreased each year. However, 'voucher migration' became a key way in which Bengalis came to Britain, while others were brought by relatives and friends based in the UK to work in the developing restaurant business or factories. Between 1961 and 1981 the numbers increased from an estimated 6,000 Bengalis/Bangladeshis to 65,000, according to the Census, while others place the figures as high as 200,000, with 35,000 living in East London alone.

A lake in Jaggonathpur'Chain migration' became common at this time - existing migrants working to bring over friends and relatives and providing a source of contact for new arrivals. This has led to the very specific regional nature of migration from Bengal (with the majority of migrants to Britain coming from Sylhet), and has also led to settlement in very specific areas within the UK because people have followed kinship networks. For example, in Tower Hamlets, many families are from Beani-Bazar (a sub-district of Sylhet) Jaggonathpur and Biswanath, while Oldham is made up of families from Biswanath and Habiganj.

As with Mohammed Shamuz Miah in Oldham, the migrants arriving at this time were mainly men, who came to work in the industrial centres of the Midlands and North of England, or in the clothing and leather factories of East London. Many came to join older relatives who had arrived just after the War, often fathers or uncles. In some cases, these older relatives returned to Bangladesh, leaving the next generation of migrants to take up the burden of supporting their families back home. The 'voucher' migrants often moved around the country for work and returned home to Bangladesh for long periods, finding new jobs when they returned.

Haji Mizanur Rahman (Oldham)

Survivors of HMS Ledbury, 1942Haji Mizanur Rahman's father had worked in the British Navy during World War II and had taken British citizenship. He had been living and working in London for 12 years and then in Manchester for another 10 years before Mizanur arrived. Mizanur came to Britain to join his father and older brother in Oldham in 1965, and was sponsored for a job in the local factory where his brother worked. His father returned home to Bangladesh in 1966, where he died in 1985. After his father's death, Mizanur brought his family to join him in Britain. At the time of our interview, Mizanur was 68. He told us:

I lived in Oldham. My factory was in a different town. It took half an hour on the bus. It was a place for factories, but not for living. Very few people lived there. I was also afraid of the racists. We would be attacked at any time. There were other limitations too – we would have to come to Oldham to buy halal items.

Abdul Jabbar (Oldham)

When we interviewed him, Abdul Jabbar was 75 years old and retired. He came to Britain in 1962, sponsored to work in a restaurant by a family member in Northampton. He quickly moved on from this job to live with relatives in Halifax and then to Burnley, settling finally in Oldham. Abdul worked in a small clothing factory. He described his first experience of getting the job:

Street in OldhamI came to Oldham because many people from my village lived in Oldham. But the job opportunities weren't very good. I remember, I arrived in Oldham on 27 May 1963. On that same day, I started looking for a job along with another man from my village. We went to a possible employer. His daughter opened the door, then a man came. He said, 'What do you want?' 'Can you give me any job?' I replied in English. I knew English, because I had learned it in Bangladesh. Then he told me to come in. 'Only you,' he said and I went inside. He showed me a machine – it was a circular knitting machine. Cloth is made with this machine. 'Can you work this?' he asked me. I replied, 'I can'. Then he said, 'You can start today if you like.' I said, 'OK'. I went back to my house and put on work trousers and in the afternoon, I went to work.

He reflected:

To tell the truth, I came here to earn money. At that time, nobody thought of living here permanently. We thought that after earning some money, we would go back to Bangladesh. But when we brought our families, the reality was different. We can't go back alone, leaving our families behind.

Nurunnobi Miah (Bradford)

Nurunnobi Miah arrived in Britain in 1963 on a voucher visa. He told us:

At the end of 1963 many people were coming to this country. They needed workers. Sylhetis were coming. Some of them had been to foreign countries many times before, particularly as seamen. Some of our relatives also went to the UK. They encouraged me to come: 'If you want to come, you can come, we are here'… There was an educated man in our village and, with his help, I filled out the form. I just signed it and sent it off. I didn't believe that it would work. After three or four months, I got a letter from Dhaka saying, 'Your application has been granted.' After a few more days, they told me to collect the voucher and get a passport. I got a passport. Then I sent a telegram to my brother.

He went first to a relative in East London and then travelled to Bradford to stay with his brother.

Cotton gins in useI didn't find any work at first. Then, after four weeks, my brother got a job for me in his factory. I had been a student in Bangladesh, I didn't work. Now I had a hard job. I was 16. The work was very odd. It was in the cotton industry; they had a cutting machine. I worked from 6.30am. A huge amount of dust would be created. Although I worked in the daytime, because of the dust cloud my face would be like a ghost's… I worked in this job for six months. Sometimes I would cry because of the work... I worked for 31 years. I wanted a good post, so they made me a supervisor. Then work in the mills was being squeezed and they offered redundancy, so in 1993 I took retirement. I didn't get another job.

He reflected further:

In the early days in Bradford there were many Bengalis. Although the people were single, there were many of them because this place was good for employment. There were industries, factories. There were cotton industries. There was a demand for workers… Now all these have gone. Now Asian people are in the restaurant business. Many curry houses, fashionable curry houses, have taken their place.

Ferdous Ara Begum (Colchester)

Ferdous Ara Begum arrived in Britain in 1965, one of very few Bengali women who migrated at that time. She came to join her husband Mahbubul Alam, who had migrated earlier in 1957 and opened a restaurant in Colchester in Essex. She told us:

Colchester town centreMy husband came to Bangladesh and within one week we were married. I came here three months later, in 1965. I was very upset. I had left my father and uncles - they are five brothers; I left a big family in Bangladesh… When I came to this country, Yah Allah!, the conditions were bad. It was silent; there was no one, there were no Bengalis in Colchester. On top of that, I couldn't speak English. Although I could understand it, I couldn't pronounce it like them.

Now in her 60s and a respected social worker, Ferdous Ara Begum remembered her loneliness at this earlier time, in a strange country:

At that time, I would not even speak with the restaurant workers, or their relatives, or my debor [brother in law]… I couldn't speak to them because of my shyness. I felt so shy. When I stayed home alone, I felt that if the wall of the room would speak to me, then I would speak back to it. I thought I was forgetting Bangla. There was no telephone… I could not call Bangladesh. If I booked a call to Bangladesh from the telephone in the restaurant, it would take three or four days to get through... Sometimes I would hear a sound and go to the windows; I'd see a young lady walking down the street with high heels making a 'tok, tok' sound, marching like an army. And I would think: she looks like my aunt or one of my close relatives. I would see the similarity. I would stare at her until she was out of sight.

Boshir Ahmed (Tower Hamlets)

Boshir Ahmed, aged 63, came to London in 1963. He told us:

I came to England with a voucher visa. Lots of people came to England for a reduced rate [there were special rates offered for the sea journey]. I was 18.

He applied with his uncle from Bangladesh:

When he was in Bangladesh and processed his application to go to England, he also processed my application. Then within six months, we got a voucher. We then went to the British High Commission to get visas. There were many people from our district living in England.

Boshir worked first in Darlington, Lancashire:

Preston city centreI joined a cotton mill where they finished off the clothes. I worked there for some days and then I got a better job in the sugar mills in Preston, Lancashire. I worked shifts – there were three shifts, 6.00am to 2.00pm, 2.00pm to 10.00pm and 10.00pm to 6.00am.  The company ran around the clock. It was the best mill in England and luckily I got a job there.
As with many migrants from this period, Boshir went back to Bangladesh for long periods and moved often between jobs across England. After returning to Bangladesh for several years, Boshir came back and began work again:

I was in Burnley for some days, and then I moved to Birmingham. I worked for British Steel. Then I joined a spare parts company where I worked on an assembly line. I earned a good salary there. Then I went back home… When I returned to England in 1975, I joined an engineering company; after that I joined Ford Motor Company. Basically, my movement depended on the opportunities available. If I thought I could earn more in Birmingham, for example, I went there.

Birmingham skylineHis memories of Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s are mixed: on the one hand, he remembers:

Birmingham was booming. There was more industry and more jobs. All the facilities of a big city were there. I was young and had good friends.

But, he also recalls:

In the '60s and '70s Bengalis faced problems with the skinheads. They would beat up Bengalis… At that time it was difficult to perform our religious duties. There was no mosque. We had to hire a place in the town hall to say prayers. Nowadays it is easy.

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