South Asians and British culture

Sweet seller
©Tim Smith

How South Asians contributed to the making of Britain between 1870 and 1950 is thoroughly documented in an online database developed by The Open University.

The Making Britain website charts the activities and achievements of the writers, artists, campaigners, politicians and business people who settled here. It examines the contribution they made to British culture, institutions and identity.


Moving People Changing Places

Multicultural poetry team at the BBC’s Bush House, 1940

A monthly radio magazine programme, Voice, broadcast modern poetry to English-speaking India in the BBC’s Eastern Service. The picture shows some of those involved. Seated from left to right are Venu Chitale, a member of the BBC Indian Section; M. J. Tambimuttu, a Tamil from Ceylon and London editor of Poetry; T. S. Eliot, a British poet; Una Marson, BBC West Indian Programme Organiser; Mulk Raj Anand, an Indian novelist; Christopher Pemberton, a member of BBC staff, and Narayana Menon, an Indian writer. From left to right standing are George Orwell, author and producer of Voice; Nancy Parratt, secretary to George Orwell, and William Empson, a British poet and critic.

BBC Voice Team
BBC Voice team

South Asians making Britain

The establishment of early trading settlements in India and of the British East India Company in 1600 marked the beginning of a longstanding political and cultural relationship between Britain and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal).  Large parts of the region were annexed by the British by the mid-19th century, and the British Empire administered its people until the independence and partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.  The United Kingdom and the countries of the Indian sub-continent retain a close relationship as members of the Commonwealth.

In addition to those who moved from Britain to India as administrators and traders in the 19th century, there were many students, intellectuals, politicians, soldiers, seamen (lascars) and servants (including nannies or ayahs) who made the journey in the other direction.  Their migration is recounted by Rozina Visram in her book, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History.

The neighbourhood around London docks was settled by male lascars from ports in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. Having deserted their ships, some settled and married local women, while others continued to work the seas between Britain and the sub-continent.  Some of the British Bangladeshis living in Tower Hamlets today have their origins in this sea-faring community.

By 1932 there were about 7,000 South Asians settled in the UK, but the number grew considerably after the Second World War when semi-skilled and unskilled men from Pakistan and India came in search of employment.  They readily found work in the factories and foundries of the West Midlands, the North of England and London.  By 1961, this largely male population had grown to about 100,000.  Many women and children came to join them in the run up to restrictive new legislation (the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act).  The settlement of families changed the nature of South Asian communities.  New shops, cultural and religious organisations, and local services emerged.  Urban landscapes began to change, particularly in Leicester, Birmingham, Bradford and parts of London.  The 1960s and early 1970s also saw the arrival of Indian ‘twice migrants’ from East Africa, who came as a result of policies which prioritised native Africans in the newly independent countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.  

The 2001 UK census showed 3.9% of the population to be ‘Asian’ or ‘British Asian’ (just over 2.3 million people).  This included first, second and third generation settlers.  Some have retained strong links with families and places in South Asia, and think of themselves primarily as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Indians living in Britain.  For most, however, their first allegiance is to the UK.  They were born here.  Their families live locally.  They have a firm sense of being British, though they may identify themselves as ‘British Asian’, ‘British Muslim’ or ‘British Bangladeshi’.  Acknowledging historical heritage or religion as part of their identity is important for many people.

Striking women

Grunwick strikersGate Gourmet rally

South Asians have continued to contribute in important ways to British culture and public life.  This is shown in research on women's roles in two well known labour disputes, at Grunwick in the 1970s and thirty years later at Gate Gourmet.
“In the hot summer of August 1976 a walk out by a small number of South Asian workers at the Grunwick photo–processing laboratories at Brent, North London sparked off an industrial dispute that was to last for two years. The initial complaints concerned poor conditions, compulsory over–time and a heavy–handed management. The strike escalated into a demand by the strikers (Gujarati women who had initially migrated from India to East Africa and then to the UK) for the right to join a trade union, and was supported (after ten months on strike) by mass secondary picketing by a range of trade unions, anti–racist organisations and feminist groups. Although it was ultimately lost, this strike has become constructed as an iconic moment in the history of the labour movement: the moment when the trade unions recognised the rights of women and minority workers as equal to those of white working class men.”
Chandrikaben Patel, a Grunwick striker, was interviewed about her memories in 2007:
“...because of us, the people who stayed in Grunwick got a much better deal. When the factory moved, the van used to come to their home and pick them up. Can you imagine that?! And they get pension today! And we get nothing. That was because of us, because of our struggle.”

Read more about women's role  in the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes here.