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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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 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.
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.
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.