Making home article thumbnail featuring print of Sake Dean Mahomed's baths in Brighton

Making home in Britain

Discover how early Asian settlers earned a living and made a home in Britain.

Making a permanent home in Britain 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.

Life as a working class Asian settler in 19th century Britain

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 sold Christian tracts. They were the earliest Asian working class settlers in Britain.

London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1861

London labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew documented a cross section of London society, including Asian tract sellers and street musicians.

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Henry Mayhew, in his work London Labour and the London Poor (1861), recorded the story of a Calcutta-born Asian street musician. 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. … 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…’

London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1861

London labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew documented a cross section of London society, including Asian tract sellers and street musicians.

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After World War One, 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 bought and sold consumer goods – often on credit – to areas where shops were few, providing a service on the doorstep.[1] Buttha Mahomed, for example, came to Britain in 1931 and began work peddling goods to domestic households. From Glasgow he travelled all along the west coast of Scotland, 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, entered inter-racial marriages. Such mixed-race families were often seen as creating a ‘social’ problem. Although they were officially British citizens, equality proved illusory.

Sake Dean Mahomed

One enterprising Asian who became a great success in his day was Sake Dean Mahomed. As 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. By 1810, he had established the Hindoostanee Coffee House at 34 George Street, London, Britain’s first Indian restaurant run by an Asian owner. This venture, however, failed within two years.

The Benefits of Shampooing by Sake Dean Mahomed

Portait of Sake Dean Mahomed

A portrait of Sake Dean Mahomed.

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In 1814, Mahomed moved to Brighton, where 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.

The Benefits of Shampooing by Sake Dean Mahomed

Engraving of Mahomed's Baths in Brighton, from S D Mahomed's 1826 book

Mahomed's Steam and Vapour Sea Water Medicated Baths, where patients were treated for muscular ailments with champi and steaming baths. 

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Capitalising on his success, 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.

The Benefits of Shampooing by Sake Dean Mahomed

Mrs Kent's poem from The Benefits of Shampooing, by Sake Dean Mahomed

A glowing testimony from Mrs Kent with 'warmest thanks in gratitude' for Sake Dean Mahomed and his champi methods.

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Indian cuisine

From the working classes to royalty, Asians from all classes and backgrounds settled and made home in Britain. Among the middle classes and professionals 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.

Advertisement for the Koh-I-Noor restaurant in London

Advertisement for the Koh-I-Noor restuarant in London

An advertisement for the Koh-I-Noor restaurant in London, which served Indian food and catered for private parties.

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In 1926 Veeraswamy’s restaurant was among a number of Indian restaurants and cafés 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.

Photograph of Punjabi students at Veeraswamy's restuarant

Photograph of Punjabi students at Veeraswarmy's restuarant

A group of Punjabi students pose for a photo in Veeraswamy’s restaurant on Regent’s Street in 1928.

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As advertisements from the 20th century reveal, families and individuals founded Asian shops which catered for a growing demand in spices and condiments. The Bombay Emporium – which imported and manufactured a range of ‘Indian groceries & condiments’, from mango chutney to basmati rice – was established on Tottenham Court Road in 1931.

Advertisement for the Bombay Emporium

Advertisement for the Bombay Emporium

The Bombay Emporium – which imported and manufactured a range of groceries & condiments, from mango chutney to basmati rice – accommodated the growing demand for Indian cuisine in Britain.

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Footnotes

[1] Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

This article was first written in 2011. This version was published, with some editorial changes, in July 2017.

  • Susheila Nasta
  • Emeritus Professor of Modern Literature at The Open University and Founding Editor of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing. She has published several books and essays, including Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain (2002), Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk (2004) and Asian Britain: A Photographic History (2013). She was Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded research project ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’ (2007–10) and directed the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’ (2011–12), partnered by the British Library and British Council. In 2011, she was awarded an MBE for services to black and Asian literature. From September 2017, she will join the Department of English and Drama, Queen Mary College, University of London.

  • Dr Florian Stadtler
  • Senior Lecturer in Global Literatures at the University of Exeter. Previously Research Fellow at The Open University, he worked on the AHRC-funded projects ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’ (2007–10) and ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’ (2011–12). He has published articles and essays on South Asian and British Asian history and literature, as well as Indian popular cinema. He edited a special issue of Wasafiri magazine, ‘Britain and India: cross-cultural encounters’ (June 2012) and curated with Susheila Nasta, Asian Britain: A Photographic History (2013). His monograph Fiction Film and Indian Popular Cinema: Salman Rushdie’s Novels and the Cinematic Imagination was published in 2013. He is Reviews Editor of Wasafiri.

  • Rozina Visram
  • A distinguished historian and educationalist. Her major publications include Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700–1947 (Pluto, 1986), reissued by Routledge in 2016, and Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (Pluto, 2002). She has written several books for schools and has contributed to many publications, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She co-authored a pioneering report for the Geffrye Museum on presenting histories in a diverse society and was advisor and researcher to the Museum of London’s Peopling of London exhibition. In 2006 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by The Open University. She was advisor to the ‘Making Britain’ project from 2007 to 2010 and consultant on the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame’. She was also a consultant on the National Archives education project, ‘Indian Soldiers on the Western Front: Loyalty and Dissent’ (July 2016–January 2017). Her essay, ‘History of Asian Presence in Britain from 1600’ in Migrant Britain: Histories from the 17th to the 21st Centuries (Tony Kushner et al., eds.), in honour of Colin Holmes, is forthcoming.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.