In 2016, Black Country Visual Arts established a digitally-based photography archive with a view to increasing the visibility of UK-based Punjabi migrants in the city of Wolverhampton and the UK.
We named it the Apna Heritage Archive because, in India, “Apna” means “ours”. The archive is to preserve private photographs so that these communities will be reflected in public collections and their stories will be viewed globally. Below, we also explore images from the ‘Punjabi Workers’ and ‘Desi Pubs’ collections.
As of 2021, 15% (approximately 40,000 people) of the residents of the city of Wolverhampton are Punjabi, making it the largest Punjabi community in the United Kingdom outside of London. Through these photos, the public can reflect and respond to the broader history of the Punjabi community in the city of Wolverhampton.
Photos and stories taken from the Apna Heritage Archive.
Indian migrant workers have been present in the United Kingdom’s county of the West Midlands since the 1930s. Many found work in the manufacturing, textile and service sectors across an area known as the Black Country, consisting of the Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
In the early days, the migration mostly consisted of men; however, by the 1960s and over time, Wolverhampton saw more migrant families arrive.
The arrival of Wolverhampton’s Punjabi community in the 1960s saw groups of families living in the city’s most deprived areas. The 60-70s were a tumultuous period for migrants with various anomalies and changes, such as the Race Relations Acts (used to protect them).
The reality was that it was hard for migrants to find good jobs, instead they were seen as factory fodder and many lived with other migrants in shared houses. Many Landlords had the sign outside their homes which read, ‘No Blacks, No Irish and No Dogs’.
Today Heath Town is still the area most migrants move to when arriving in Wolverhampton. This photograph embodies the dignity of the smartly dressed Punjabi family in early 60s Black Country, juxtaposed with the harshness of their new environment. For the most part families like Mr Dass’s were brought up in these tough conditions and the family is what this generation of Punjabi migrants points to as their strength and inspiration.
As an immigrant to Wolverhampton Surjit Sandhu (pictured above) arrived in the UK on 15 August 1965. He remembers spending ten and a half months with tuberculosis at Prestwood Chest Hospital in Kinver. His education and ability to speak English meant he could work as an interpreter for the doctors and nurses at the hospital. When Surjit was released from hospital he went to work as a draughtsman for ten years and then as an engineer for a local foundry.
Ironically, Surjit has the infamous Enoch Powell to thank for being granted residency. Powell famously fought against mass migration along with the MP in nearby Smethwick, Pete Griffiths. His auntie worked as a secretary for Powell and managed to get his residency papers signed by the controversial MP. Looking back today however, Surjit recognises and acknowledges that Enoch Powell was not really in favour of his community.
Discrimination and protest
When this photograph was taken Kanchan Jain was one of very few Indian teachers in Wolverhampton. The Race Relations Act of 1968 was not adhered to by many organisations – Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – and was followed by indirect discrimination in the workplace; Mrs Jain often felt bullied indirectly by her school’s Headteacher and witnessed the dislike of Asian pupils first hand.
She raised her deep concerns about her ill treatment and that of pupils of colour and caused quite a stir amongst Wolverhampton council officials who were worried of a backlash from the large populace of Indians. They offered Mrs Jain a different teaching job in Blakenhall, where she worked happily under a clear conscience until retirement.
In the early 1960s, 6,000 Sikhs protested against a ban that required Sikh bus drivers to take off their turbans and shave their beards to drive double-deckers in the Black Country. The protest was thanks to Tarsem Singh Sandhu who refused to cut his beard and hair as it identified him as Sikh. He won the right to wear it after the case won notoriety across the globe after Tarsem was told he would never get a job wearing the turban. In fact, only few Sikhs in the city of Wolverhampton wore a turban at the time, for fear they would not be able to get a job or keep the one they already had.
This picture was taken much later, showing Mr Juss wearing a turban and a beard to project how confident he was in his Sikh identity. Eventually, however, he too removed his turban and shaved his beard in order to move up the career ladder.
Families and relationships
The photographer of this picture, Mr Sarwan Dass, worked like a street photographer with a lot of intelligence in the way he would take photographs of his own family and of those in the street. His photographs are raw, capturing the vulnerabilities of the first generation of migrants.
In this picture he documented the existence of inter-racial relationships in Wolverhampton, which were very much a matter of taboo both in white and in Indian communities of the time.
This is a rare photograph in the Apna Archive but a very significant one to the story of migration in Wolverhampton as it provides an insight into the demographics and relationships of migrants. Pictured at the family home of Piara and Kartar Hayre is a Jamaican lady, called Myrtle, holding Piara’s son, Jaspinder Hayre.
Piara and Kartar had invited Myrtle to work in their shop and in 1965, Myrtle moved in with the family. She worked there for a few years and would spend time looking after Piara and Kartar’s young children while they worked. In 2006 she migrated back to Jamaica and the family have visited her there over the years.
Punjabi migrants to the UK often sent this kind of picture back to India to show relatives they were prospering in Western nations. These were the kinds of images that say ‘we are settling in ok’ to relatives back home, as many migrants left poorer areas of Punjab to find better opportunities in the UK.
Sometimes their children would be carefully posed in front on material objects including television sets and later VCRs. The aspiration to continue moving to better oneself is very much ingrained in family amongst Punjabi’s life in the UK.
In early 2019, I set out to research an area I felt needed more attention, that of Punjabi workers and their unseen influence and impact across the region.
Gurdev Rai was the first Indian worker to be placed on the racing car tyre plant in Wolverhampton’s most significant factory – the American-owned Goodyear producing good- quality racing car tyres for Grand Prix drivers.
During his time at the factory, Gurdev received personal thank-you notes from Jack Brabham, the Racing Car champion, as well as visits from Formula 2 Champion, Jackie Stewart. Having proved himself as a dedicated professional worker, Gurdev opened the door for his son, Balvinder, to also get a job at the factory, where he worked for 35 years until the factory closed in December 2017.
The life of many South Asian mothers and families remain confined to history as they took their place building up the Black Country in Post-war Britain; Ravinder Kaur Chana is one such individual.
She arrived in the Black Country in December 1971 to join her husband and started her first job in a factory a month later. Her earnings were around £10 per week. Ravinder lived an ad-hoc working life going from one job to the next to make ends meet and raising her young family
After her third child started nursery school, she got a job at Benjamin Parkes & Son Ltd in Tipton, where she made tool boxes in 1989. She spent a few enjoyable years there and made good friends while working at the factory.
Surinder Singh arrived in the UK in 1960 at ten years old, initially living in Sparkhill in Birmingham and then quickly moving on to Wolverhampton. After leaving school he got an apprenticeship with Delta Group based in Aston, Birmingham.
He was posted onto the nearby project now known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ in 1969. He was only 19 years old and remembers being overwhelmed by the scale of the project. He found some comfort working with his uncle and his cousins. They were also the only South Asians working on the now famous bypass. Surinder was employed as part of the ‘concrete gang’ which was mainly manual heavy duty work, spending all day carrying heavy 6ft beams.
Desi pubs are traditional English pubs in the hands of Indian owners. ‘Desi’ is used for the word ‘authentic’ and is from the Indian subcontinent. These pubs are frequented by individuals, families, football fans and in some pubs even Bhangra music lovers.
In 1965, when the first Black barman, Linton Dixon, started pouring pints in the New Talbot Inn, Smethwick, it was such big news it made the local paper. Nowadays the growth of Asian people owning and running local pubs passes without anyone even noticing.
Black Country Visual Arts photographers were commissioned to document ‘Desi’ Black Country pubs ‘The Island Inn’ and ‘The Sportsman’, creating portraits of its owners, staff and the punters. See the full collection.
The local punters around the pubs talk about the decline of the local manufacturing industries. Rowley Regis was a central location for heavy industry due to its iron ore, stone and coal and many of the local men would have worked in the same factories, often on the same machines, as their fathers and grandfathers.
It’s a generation of men who feel slightly out of place in the modern post-Fordist economy, but not so in the pub. People of all backgrounds socialised together in the factories and the pubs.
The Island Inn is the ‘oasis’ pub of West Bromwich and is known historically as a local pub for Punjabi blokes who arrived as economic migrants during the 1950s and 1960s.
The current owner Dal has modernised the pub giving it a clean and professional feel with North Indian dishes that are freshly cooked, creating a happy and lively atmosphere. Today there are around 50 Desi pubs that can be found in the area.
Infamously politicians denounced the arrival of the Punjabi community in the 1960s with racist elections and speeches. None of these things have come to pass. What you will find is that the community of South Asians has integrated incredibly well and live in relative harmony within a multicultural community.
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