£3 in my pocket: the pioneering migrants who came to 1950s Britain from India

They came to work in Britain's factories, foundries and new public services, at a time when the country desperately needed workers from its former colonies to regenerate its postwar economy. Many arrived with no more than £3 in their pocket – the limit set by the Indian authorities...

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In a 2014 Radio 4 series, Kavita Puri heard the stories of some of the pioneering migrants who arrived in Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s. She heard their first impressions of a country that once ruled them, and learns of the curiosity and kindness with which they were met. Their stories had a personal resonance for Kavita, whose father, Ravi, came to Britain in 1959, and went on to become an award-winning engineer.

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Here, Kavita explains why this forgotten period in history is so important…

Q: How many people came to Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 60s, and why?

A: In 1951 there were 43,000 people of Indian and Pakistani descent in Britain, and by 1961 there were 112,000. So you’re talking about a tiny number of people. It was predominantly men who came in the 50s; once they decided to settle here their wives began to come from the 60s.

After 1948 there was an open door immigration policy. Britain looked to its former colonies for people to help reinvigorate the economy by working in the factories and foundries. Speaking to people who came in the 50s, many will say they did the shifts that the indigenous population didn’t want to do.

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There was goodwill towards them at that time, because they were needed. But as their number grew, people’s perception changed.

In 1962 the Commonwealth Immigration Act came into force. [This controlled the immigration of all Commonwealth passport holders, except those who held UK passports. Prospective immigrants now needed to apply for a work voucher, graded according to the applicant’s employment prospects.]

There was racism. It was legal to deny housing or employment based on race, nationality or ethnicity until 1968, which is shocking, as it is so recent. But many other people were met with a lot of kindness. And racism was not always overt.

Q: Why is this episode of history so interesting?

A: This is a forgotten period of history, and it’s about a generation that is dying. It’s also an important part of British history, as these pioneers led the way for the three million South Asians who live here today. It’s a story that has not been told. I grew up with stories of Indian people arriving in Britain with just a few pounds, and sewing extra money into their saris. But I didn’t believe they actually had just £3 – I thought it was just a metaphor for ‘they arrived with very little’. If you came from Pakistan you could bring just a few pounds more. But when I did some research, I found out it was true. Obviously, £3 then is not the same as £3 today – it was the equivalent of about £50, which would have covered your board and rent for one week. But that’s just one week.

They had all these imaginings of what Britain would be like, but the reality was often very different.

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Q: In what way? What were their experiences?

A: Most of the interviewees had been born under the British Raj. They imagined England was full of palaces, and the streets were paved with gold. They were quite shocked when they arrived and found that it was not like that. They were shocked that there was poverty.

Many of the people we interviewed lived in pretty awful housing. One man lived in a four-room house with 28 other men – there were four people to a bed, and they took day and night shifts to sleep in the available beds. But they had no other option but to live there. Many landlords at that time stipulated ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’.

There are many stories of racial abuse, but also others of overwhelming kindness, it depended on where you were in the country.

The gentleman who lived in the house with 28 others told me that when he arrived in Britain in cold November he got on a train and sat next to a British man. When he told him he had just arrived from Pakistan, the man put a travel blanket around him, and when they reached his stop he found him a taxi and paid for him to get to the house.

Q: Did the experience of women differ from men?

A: Many of the women came in the 60s once the men had decided to settle here. They faced different problems from the men. Some were offered jobs only if they would not wear a sari. Others were told to their face they could never be promoted because they were Indian and a woman.

Q: You have a personal connection to this period in history don’t you, because your father came to Britain from India in the 1950s?

A: Yes. He lived with an English landlady, so he experienced no problems in terms of housing.

He had a degree, so he got onto a graduate traineeship for an engineering company in Middlesbrough. He went on to become a prize-winning engineer. He got his PhD, and then became an academic, and a structural engineer.

He would say that this country has given him so much.

Q: Were there any particular highlights for you while recording the programme?

A: The kindness I found quite touching, and it surprised me in a way. But I was also quite shocked at the reality of the colour bar in the 1950s. One man told me he couldn’t even get a sandwich from a cafe, because they wouldn’t serve him. “NO black dogs” was the sign in the window.

All the people we spoke to thought they would go home after a few years. But the reality was it was expensive to buy a ticket home, and they also did not want to be deemed a failure.As growing restrictions began to be imposed on migrants, some were also worried if they went back they may not be able to return.

I think, in their own way, the pioneer men and women all love this country and believe they owe it a lot. But in the early days I think many thought, ‘what have I done?’

But they were just existing day-to-day. Even to think about whether they had made the right decision was a luxury.

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Three Pounds in My Pocket aired on Radio 4 in 2014.