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A brief introduction to Architecture

A Brief History of Gurdwaras in England

A gurdwara is a place of assembly and worship for Sikhs, meaning 'the residence of the Guru'.

Sikhism originated in the 16th century in the Punjab region of what is modern-day India and Pakistan.

Sikhs in England can be traced as far back as the 19th century. But the Sikh population significantly increased in the 1950s and 60s, when people from Punjab sought work and life abroad following the divisions created by the Indian Independence Act of 1947.

The partitioning of British-ruled India created modern India and Pakistan (West and East, now Pakistan and Bangladesh). The Punjab were divided between these two states, displacing many Sikh communities.

A man stands in front of and to the left of a canopy on a raised platform. Through the canopy, another man is visible in the background.
A worshipper in the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick, Sandwell. © Historic England Archive DP220283.

Some Sikhs in England also trace their origins to East Africa. Their families were often refugees from former British colonies, in particular Kenya and Uganda.

Throughout the 20th century, many Sikhs have settled in areas like London, Birmingham, and West Yorkshire, where industrial work was available.

What is a gurdwara?

A gurdwara is a place of assembly and worship for Sikhs. The word ‘gurdwara’ can be translated as ‘the residence of the Guru’, or ‘the door that leads to the Guru’.

The focal point of every gurdwara is the holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib (known as ‘the Last Guru’, since the line of 10 human gurus ended with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708). It contains songs, poems and other writings from the gurus, as well as from Hindu and Muslim sources.

Interior view of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Bristol.
Interior view showing the Guru Granth Sahib in the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, 301-303 Church Road, Bristol. © Historic England Archive DP035409.

What was the first gurdwara in England?

The first Sikh gurdwara was established in 1911 in a house in Putney, London.

The Khalsa Jatha (the first Sikh society founded in the UK, in 1908) approached Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala during his 1911 visit to London. The Maharaja donated £1,000, and a gurdwara opened in a rented house in Putney for two years.

In 1913, the gurdwara moved to a Georgian terrace on 79 Sinclair Road in Shepherds Bush. It was named the Bhupinder Dharamsala after the Maharaja, who was present at the opening.

Exterior of a white buidling with large central window, dome on top and two sets of steps leading up to it. In front is a parked car and small tree.
The Central Gurdwara (Khalsa Jatha), 58-62 Queensdale Road, London. © Historic England Archive DP312742.

Finally, after more funds were raised, the Jatha purchased a building known as Norland Castle on Queensdale Road in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In 1969 the Jatha moved into the building.

Now known as the Central Gurdwara (Khalsa Jatha), it is the oldest established Sikh place of worship in Europe. The domes were added in the early 1990s, while a further refurbishment programme began in 2000.

More historical gurdwaras in England

There are thought to be over 200 gurdwaras across the UK. The majority have been adapted from buildings with former uses, such as schools, churches and industrial buildings. Some are in listed buildings, with Sikh communities supporting and caring for these important historical places.

Sikh communities have also designed purpose-built gurdwaras, adding to the rich architectural story of England.

Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick, Sandwell

The Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick in Sandwell near Birmingham is one of the biggest gurdwaras in Europe.

Large gurdwara building viewed across a street. Three separate pedestrians walk along the pavement in front.
The Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick, 28-130 High Street, Sandwell. © Historic England Archive DP220280.

It was built in the 1990s and continues to expand with Smethwick’s Sikh community. The centre of worship houses one of the largest congregations in the UK.

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Hear about the capital of English Christianity, the oldest wooden church in England and the importance of community for Sikhs in this episode of our 100 Places podcast, hosted by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb. 

Gurdwara Sahib Woolwich, London

The Gurdwara Sahib Woolwich was built in 1814–16 as a Methodist church. It was converted into a Sikh place of worship in the late 1970s.

Two storey building with pediment,  large round headed windows and central Tuscan porch. Parked cars and passing pedestrians are visible in front.
The Gurdwara Sahib Woolwich, Calderwood Street, Woolwich, London. © Historic England Archive DP150878.

The former Methodist Chapel is the only substantial physical trace left of Woolwich’s once-thriving nonconformist community. It also represents historical connections between the military and the town. Soldiers attended the chapel from its earliest days, and in 1889–90 a Soldiers’ Institute and Sunday School were added.

Popular until after the Second World War, by the 1970s the building was no longer needed as a Methodist church. The trustees applied for permission to demolish the buildings and erect a new church, but it was put up for sale after the chapel was listed in 1973.

Use as a theatre or supermarket was suggested, but the premises were instead acquired by the Sikh community for conversion into a gurdwara. The pews were removed, and a floor across the gallery was inserted to create upper and lower ‘darbar sahibs’ (prayer halls).

The Soldiers’ Institute and Sunday School were adapted for use as a ‘langar’. In this traditional eating hall, everyone (not only worshippers) is welcomed and offered free food and drink.

A wood and brass decorative door, made in Rajasthan, was added to the building’s west entrance, and a porch was added in 2009. A flagpole has been erected for the Sikh flag, the ‘Nishan Sahib‘.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Watford, Hertfordshire

The Sikh Community Centre in Watford was once the town’s first purpose-built courthouse, built around 1858. The magistrates and judges had previously used various buildings, including a local hotel.

Two storey Classical style building with red brick facade.
The Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Watford, Hertfordshire and Sikh Community Centre, 48 King’s Close, Watford. © Historic England Archive DP110243.

The judges had their own entrance around the corner in what was then King Street, with the royal coat of arms over the doorway.

When the Lord Chancellor’s Department no longer required the building, it was converted into a gurdwara by the local Sikh community.

Gurdwara Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, Hunslet, Leeds, West Yorkshire

In 1974, a Jatha (a group of Sikhs) was first formed in Leeds by Sant Baba Puran Singh Ji of Kericho. He was known affectionately as ‘Baba Ji’ and is regarded as one of the most influential Sikh saints of the 20th century.

Red brick former tea factory building with "Ringtons Ltd" sign still visible, mounted on top.
The Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara, Lady Pit Lane, Hunslet, Leeds. © Historic England Archive DP029100.

Between 1974 and 1986, ‘Baba Ji’ preached and practised in many Leeds gurdwaras, contributing tremendously to the Sikh community in Leeds.

The Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara was established in December 1986, when the former Ringtons Tea Factory was purchased and converted.

North Leeds Gurdwara, Potternewton Mansion Park, Leeds, West Yorkshire

Known initially as Harehills Grove, this classical mansion was constructed in the early 19th century for a local wool merchant.

Group portrait photo of three people standing in front of a Classical style stone mansion building.
The North Leeds Gurdwara, Potternewton Mansion Park, Avenue Hill, Leeds, featuring Hugh Robinson, Jugger Singh and Dalgit Singh outside the building. © Historic England Archive DP234223.

It was sold to the Leeds Corporation at the turn of the century. It remained in educational use until 2006, when it was purchased for use as a Sikh gurdwara.

A grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2012 meant the roof could be repaired. More recent funding has seen historic outbuildings brought back into use as a space to teach local children to learn to play traditional Sikh instruments.

Share your knowledge
Do you have more information about any of the gurdwaras mentioned in this article, or do you know about another gurdwara in a historic building? Why not Enrich the List, or let us know in the comments below.

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