Making Home in Britain

 

Making a permanent home was not without its challenges. Over many years of settlement, Asians engaged in a variety of economic activities, demonstrating their resourcefulness and adaptability. Indian sailors settled in many British ports and continued to work as sailors if they could. Others found different forms of income, setting up cafés, lodging and curry houses. Servants advertised for jobs in newspapers, but these positions were not easy to find and prejudice was not far away. Those unable to find employment lived on their wits, working as hawkers, street musicians, crossing sweepers, and even as beggars.

Asian Tract Seller

A South Asian father and son selling Christian tracts, from London Labour and the London Poor
A South Asian father and son selling Christian tracts, from London Labour and the London Poor

The appalling working conditions of Asian lascar sailors led some to jump ship in Britain. This community of destitute lascars and servants had to find alternative ways of earning a living. Some sold Indian spices, others found odd jobs, worked as street herbalists, or, as shown in the image above, selling Christian tracts. They were the earliest Asian working class settlers in Britain.

A Poor Asian's life

Henry Mayhew, in his work London Labour and the London Poor (1861), recorded the story of a Calcutta-born Asian street musician, pictured below. The man was married to a white English servant and had a six-year-old son. He had originally come to Britain while working for an English military officer, but following the unexpected death of his employer, he began to play the ‘tom-tom’ drum in the street to make a living. He tells Mayhew that he spent his last ten shillings on the drum, but was willing to do anything to earn his ‘daily bread’– even to model for street artists.
 
Mayhew quotes him as follows: ‘I wish very often to return to my own contree, where everyting sheap – living sheap, riche sheap. .. I suffer dis winter more dan ever I did. I have no flannels, no drawer, now waistcoat, and have cold upon my chest….I put up many insult in dis contree. I struck sometime in street. Magistrate punish man gave me blow dat left mark on my chin here. Gentlemen sometime save me from harm. Sometime not. De boys call me black dis or de oder. …I beat tom-tom, and sing song about greatness of God, in my own language. …I sometime get few shilling from two or three picture-men, who draw me…’.

Statement from a street musician in London Labour of the London Poor, 1861, Vol. III, pp. 188-9
Statement from a street musician in London Labour of the London Poor, 1861, Vol. III, pp. 189-9

After World War I a new group of working-class Asians arrived who often worked as pedlars. Many lived in poor areas with run-down housing. With a suitcase full of items of light clothing – shirts, scarves, ties and aprons – they travelled miles in all weather to build up a clientele. Asian pedlars were a familiar sight in many parts of Britain. They brought consumer goods often on credit to areas where shops were few, providing a service on the doorstep. One example is Buttha Mahomed who came to Britain in 1931. From Glasgow he travelled all along the West coast, arriving in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, where he settled and continued to work as a pedlar. His descendants still live on the island.


These early Asian settlers set up clubs and societies, and established places of worship – gurdwaras, mosques and temples. As they became integrated within their local geographical communities, Asians from working-class and middle-class backgrounds, like Sake Dean Mahomed and Shapurji Saklatvala, inter-married. Such mixed-race families were often seen as creating a ‘social’ problem. Although they were officially British citizens, Asians were not always treated as such, and equality proved illusory.

Sake Dean Mahomed

Portrait of Sake Dean Mahomed
Portrait of Sake Dean Mahomed

One enterprising Asian who became a great success in his day was Sake Dean Mahomed. A soldier in the East India Company’s Bengal Regiment, he had first settled in Ireland in 1784, in the service of captain Baker with whom he worked for many years. In 1810, he established the Hindoostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street, London, Britain’s first Indian restaurant run by an Asian. However, this venture failed within two years.

Mahomed's Steam and Vapour Sea Water Medicated Baths in Brighton, 1814
Mahomed's Steam and Vapour Sea Water Medicated Baths in Brighton, 1814

In 1814, Mahomed moved to Brighton, a growing town at the time. Here he set up Mahomed’s Baths, treating patients with muscular ailments with a massage or champi (the origin of the word shampoo) after a steaming bath of Indian aromatic herbs and oils. Mohamed’s cure worked; he became famous, and fashionable people around the country flocked to his baths. Even doctors sent their patients to Mahomed. In 1822, King George IV appointed him his personal shampooing surgeon, an appointment continued by William IV.

Mrs Kent’s poem, praising Sake Dean Mahomed’s methods
Mrs Kent’s poem, praising Sake Dean Mahomed’s methods

In 1822, Mahomed published his medical work, Shampooing or Benefits Resulting from the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath. It featured many glowing testimonies from his patients as the example from Mrs Kent above shows.

Indian cuisine

Advertisement for the Koh-I-Noor Restaurant in the magazine Indian Student
Advertisement for the Koh-I-Noor Restaurant in the magazine Indian Student

Middle class and professional Asians also settled in Britain; others were royalty and rich. There were doctors, merchants and traders. Some set up Indian Restaurants, like Shafi’s in Gerrard Street, Veeraswamy’s in Regent’s Street and the Koh-I-Noor, with branches in Cambridge and London.

Punjabi students ‘At Home’ at Veeraswamy’s Restaurant, 1928
Punjabi students ‘At Home’ at Veeraswamy’s Restaurant, 1928

In 1926 Veeraswamy’s restaurant was among a number of Indian restaurants and cafes established at the higher end of the market. The restaurant became very popular amongst politicians and nobility. E. P. Veeraswamy, descendent of William Palmer and Faiz Bux, ran cookery classes and published an Indian cookbook. Today, curries have become part of Britain’s national cuisine, and Indian restaurants can be found in almost every town.   

E P Veeraswamy’s Indian cookbook, published in 1947
E P Veeraswamy’s Indian cookbook, published in 1947

 

Newspaper advertisement for Bombay Emporium
Newspaper advertisement for Bombay Emporium

As this advert shows, Asian shops catered for a growing demand in spices and condiments. The Bombay Emporium was established on Tottenham Court Road in 1931.