“In Bangladesh there was one war, here there was another war – and we won this place, we claimed it.” – Husnara
“Where we are today, it’s not been given – we had to demand and fight for it.” – Gedu
In December 2020, a two-year-old boy, Awaab Ishak, died as a result of a severe respiratory condition in Rochdale, on the outskirts of Manchester. The coroner’s report found that the cause of his death was “prolonged exposure” to mould in his home. His parents, both recent migrants from Sudan, had complained about the mould to the local housing association in 2017. They were told to simply “paint over it”. In response to the coroner’s findings, Awaab’s parents released the following statement:
We cannot tell you how many health professionals we have cried in front of and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing staff we have pleaded to, expressing our concerns at the conditions ourselves and Awaab have been living in. We shouted as loud as we could. But despite making all those efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem.
Shabna Begum’s From Sylhet to Spitalfields, a devastating, extraordinary book on the lives of Bengali squatters in East London in the 1970s, is a chilling reminder of how migrants in the United Kingdom were – and continue to be – treated by local authorities and the wider state machinery. The list of examples of the UK government’s inhumane treatment of migrants is endless. That being said, the recent “Rwanda plan” of diverting asylum seekers to the small African state instead of allowing them to stay in the United Kingdom, or the push to house asylum seekers in the Bibby Stockholm barge anchored off England’s southern coast, are particularly pertinent symbols of government contempt for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Set within a transnational “social field”, the book elegantly traverses migrants’ memories of the lush and spacious Bengali baris (homesteads) they left behind and the stark realities they encountered in a dilapidated squat in London’s historic East End – a hub for migrants from all over the world for centuries prior. This is a story of how Bangladeshi migrants arrived, how they settled and how they survived. It is told from the perspectives of migrants, including Begum’s own parents – themselves “accidental squatters” in their early years of settlement, who went on to be exploited, humiliated and made homeless by criminal gangs and state officials, all the while caring for their two infant daughters (one of whom was a newly-born Shabna Begum).
This deeply personal story is interwoven at the outset of every chapter, and supplemented by rigorous original archival research as well as the rich oral histories of multiple generations of Bengali migrants. The book focuses on Bengalis who continue to live in, passed through, or remain otherwise connected to Spitalfields through their generational forebears. Spitalfields, a neighbourhood in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, is the “heartland” of the British Bengali community, but more than that it is a place where many battles for belonging and justice were fought and won, mostly in the shadows, undetected or ignored by the wider society. The legacy of the early Bengali settlers and their collective struggle for survival still pervades its narrow streets and darkened alleys. From Sylhet to Spitalfields immortalises it.
As a scholarly work, the book’s most significant contribution is its illumination of Bengali migrants’ role in London’s squatters’ movement, previously the voluntarist realm of bohemian counter-culturalists (mostly white and middle-class). It turns attention to the subaltern necessity of acquiring abandoned urban homes, and the pragmatic tactics used to accomplish this goal. Begum’s interventions are centred on the racialised reasons for squatting, rather than treating the movement as only a radical critique of housing distribution.
Existing documentation of the period contains fleeting images of and opaque references to Bengali squatters, but there is little elaboration on their presence or, indeed, on who they were. Begum writes, “Bengali migrant squatters are therefore only peripherally visible; they appear as an exotic Other that add curiosity and intrigue to an extraordinary collection of images, but through the images alone we are unable to know anything else about them.” The book fills in this omission by providing complex postcolonial context to its powerful oral testimonies, including especially the hitherto erased voices of Bengali women. The result is a compelling social history narrated from the margins, which makes important intellectual interventions on collective agency and the political efficacy of “direct action”.
Over the seas
The letter below is an apt entry point into the racialised politics of housing that dominated the borough in the preceding decade. It was submitted to the Tower Hamlets Housing and Management Committee in March 1983 by 33 of 73 tenants on a housing estate in Bethnal Green, all of them white:
We the families are rather disturbed about the Asian families applying for the empty flats in Digby Estate. There is already enough trouble between the Asian and the Whites, and we don’t see why we should have to put up with anymore. We have our families to think of: and here is our petition about it:
From the Tenants of Digby Estate.
If you are making it into problem flats then you should offer the tenants of Digby Estate other flats to live in. We, the tenants would like to make it plain that we do not want any more Asians on the Digby Estate.
There has been more than enough trouble between the Asians and the White families. There has been gangs fights with knives and choppers and we are afraid for our children and the women on the Estate.
It is not good enough when a White girl aged 14 years cannot go up to her flat without an Asian boy stopping her for a kiss on the stairs. Our children are afraid of the Asians. We have had to call our caretaker, Mr. A Dunn out many times because of the trouble between the Asians and the Whites.
All we want to do is to live in peace on the Estate with our own kind and colour and for our children to have a safe place to play in.
The book locates the genesis of Bengali migration to the East End in the late colonial period. The riverine region of Sylhet, in present-day Bangladesh, provided male seagoing labour, or lascars, to the engine rooms of transcontinental merchant ships departing from Calcutta to various parts of the British Empire, including its metropole. Lascars’ personal stories have been documented with incredible detail and pathos by Caroline Adams, a community worker in the East End during the 1970s and 1980s, in her book Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers: Life Stories of Pioneer Sylheti Settlers in Britain (1987). Adams traces what the sociologist Paul Gilroy describes as “roots and routes”, in this case those of Sylheti seamen in the interwar period, shedding light on the meandering fortunes of young men embarking from a remote part of Bengal and eventually “jumping ship” while docked in London.
The story of Spitalfields – both past and present – sits at the nexus of unyielding global capital, a colluding political class and the timeless precarity of disenfranchised communities.
These absconders then sought welfare support and employment information at Spitalfields’ Sylheti-owned Shah Jalol Café, named after a fourteenth-century Sylheti saint, himself a wandering journeyman from the Arabian peninsula. The initial experiences of these pioneer settlers were broadly positive. They were welcomed as “sons of the empire”, and many took advantage of the freedom of movement afforded to British subjects. Moreover, employment at the time was plentiful, especially in the northern industrial centres of the country. And so, early settlers encouraged their kin in Sylhet to join them in the post-Second World War rebuilding boom, and many followed.
The majority of the men viewed themselves as sojourners, and dreamt of one day returning to Sylhet with their future fortunes, as noted by the sociologist Muhammad Anwar in his study The Myth of Return (1979). This dream, however, was shattered by a double-dip recession in the 1950s and 1960s. The British manufacturing industry waned and, consequently, unemployment became endemic. Migrants were thus compelled to find alternative income streams to continue sending remittances to their kin.
At the same time, positive attitudes towards Commonwealth migrants were shifting. Many sections of society – from trade unions to politicians from both sides of the House and also ordinary members of the public – began viewing them as a social “problem”. They were widely blamed for societal ills and the state of the economy. Reflecting this anti-immigration mood, the government hastily passed a raft of legislation that permanently curtailed immigration from the old colonies. By 1971, only the wives and children of resident migrants were permitted entry into Britain. Most migrant fortunes were yet to be made at this point. Thus, faced either permanently returning to Sylhet or bringing their families over, many opted for the latter.
The decline of northern industry prompted many Sylheti men to return to the community’s heartland in Spitalfields. Work was still available in the old Jewish-owned sweatshops that remained operational here. The area’s now famed “Indian” restaurants – owned and staffed by Sylhetis – also began to burgeon in this period. Today the UK’s curry industry is a billion-pound empire, but its origins lie in the entrepreneurial pivot made by Sylhetis in the wake of mass unemployment in the 1970s.
As wives and children began to arrive, the cheap and all-male old lodging houses were no longer suitable accommodation. Most could not afford to buy their own homes due to low wages and the burden of sending regular remittances. Naturally, they turned to the state in the hope of acquiring social housing. However, the majority were disappointed due to unreasonable bureaucratic rules and the biased discretion of housing officers. Begum writes:
Firstly, an applicant to the housing waiting list had to prove a five-year residency in the Greater London Area and fifty-two weeks’ continuous residency in Tower Hamlets to even get onto the waiting list. Once they were in the waiting list, a range of institutional and local estate manager racism conspired to make allocations grossly unfair.
Many who had moved recently did not meet the basic residency requirements. This generated great anxiety, especially as many also feared further immigration controls in a febrile political atmosphere. Some even speculated about the possibility of new restrictions on family reunification. Even those already resident in Tower Hamlets were penalised for returning to Bangladesh to assist their families in the passage to Britain – which included attending mandatory entry-clearance interviews at the British High Commission in Dhaka, as I discovered in my own research. Many returned to physically accompany their families on the journey, which was necessary given that so many men’s wives had never so much as left rural Bangladesh.
Spitalfields, is the ‘heartland’ of the British Bengali community, but more than that it is a place where many battles for belonging and justice were fought and won, mostly in the shadows, undetected or ignored by the wider society.
Even if an applicant could prove continuous residency, there was the further barrier of racist housing officers who prioritised “native” white residents in the allocation of homes. Begum presents testimony from Abdul Kadir, a migrant who grappled with this system firsthand:
And that’s when it was being said that lots of people were squatting. There was a man called Terry in this area, I asked him and he said, “I can get you in a building”, he got lots of our people in. Terry said, “Greenleaf House. I’m emptying a building”, I think there was a one-room, two-room flat, on the second floor in Greenleaf House. We went, but even there it wasn’t adequate. He changed the locks and changed the door, and we went in with all our stuff, and then the police came. They came quickly, the police said, “You’ve entered here, you know this is council property and you shouldn’t be here”. I said – and I know how to speak English at this time – I said, “I know this is a council flat, but I haven’t got anywhere to go and this is empty”. They said, “You can’t stay”. I said “Well, when I can’t, I can’t, but where else have I got to stay?” And in that quick time, with so much speed, I had already thrown a couple of mattresses on the floor. The police argued with me, they said “You can’t stay here, it’s against the law, you have to get out”, and I just said, “Where else can I go?”
The activist Terry Fitzpatrick, a builder by trade, moved to London from Liverpool in 1974 to join friends squatting in the East End. He is widely considered a key member of the Tower Hamlets Squatters Union. Fitzpatrick provided assistance to dozens of Bengali families in the 1970s by changing the locks on properties and providing useful advice. As word of squatting got around in the community, newly arrived families were able to secure accommodation in this way while they waited on the housing list.
While the men worked in sweatshops and restaurants, newly arrived women worked as seamstresses from home. They became economic migrants in their own right. Just as it still is with working women today, their work was both paid and unpaid. In addition to part-time paid work, Bengali women looked after their children and maintained their squats, even defending them against hostile housing officers and unruly white youth. As one woman recounts to Begum: “I was courageous, I said, ‘I won’t leave!’ I wasn’t scared – how are you going to live if you aren’t courageous? They weren’t giving it to you!”
Living in a squat meant that families could eventually prove they had lived in the borough for fifty-two consecutive weeks. But while squatter homes provided basic shelter, they were hardly suitable for families. Most were barely habitable, with leaking roofs, damp infestation and faulty gas and electricity lines. Husnara, another women migrant, recalls:
We used to use paraffin heaters, using paraffin – that’s how we lived. What choice did we have? There was no electricity – and it was smelly, the whole house. So much work and suffering. I stayed here for six months burning candles. I had to stay like that, and I’d go and cook elsewhere – there was no gas either – I had to go out to cook. There were a few houses on Romford Road, some people I knew with gas and electricity, so I used to go and cook there. I would go in the morning and cook and come back, I’d buy candles and water bottles on the way home. But when you were out, there was always danger. There were skinheads. We all had to fight – even us – we would, when they attacked. I would grab a rod and go out. And quietly, when the police came, we put the rod discreetly under the car. We had so much trouble!
Fitzpatrick’s activities soon came to the attention of the Race Today collective, a Black Power grass-roots organisation based in Brixton in South London – an area with a large post-war Afro-Caribbean community. The group drew its name from a bi-monthly, and at times monthly, journal documenting the plight of Britain’s black and Asian population, and organised a network of grassroots intellectuals and community activists. It played a pivotal role in the Bengali squatters’ movement. Race Today’s central message was that the children of immigrants were British, and therefore entitled to rights. It began to regularly report on the housing crisis and provided legal advice to squatters. Its members also offered practical assistance with moving furniture into squats and reconnecting severed gas and electricity lines.
This sustained activity attracted public scrutiny and added pressure on local authorities to house Bengali families. Some homes were eventually offered, but they tended to be in majority-white estates (like the Digby Estate above), and Bengali families became victims of everyday harassment from neighbours. When they called the police, their pleas were received with indifference and neglect – and “on many occasions, the police actively participated in racist violence.”
In addition to part-time paid work, Bengali women looked after their children and maintained their squats, even defending them against hostile housing officers and unruly white youth.
The book recounts a particular incident in 1976 when a Bengali family was greeted by a hostile “reception committee” set up by the white tenants of an estate. Men and women carrying iron rods were shouting, “We don’t want no Pakis here.” The family’s flat was graffitied with “No Pakis here. Vote NF” – the acronym of the far-right National Front. On another occasion, as the book describes in grim detail, a Bengali family was moved into a predominantly white estate in Bethnal Green, where the NF was active. One evening, a group of NF activists started throwing bricks at their windows while the whole family was inside. The family managed to phone the police with help from their African neighbours, but no culprits were reprimanded. The next day the family moved out of the flat and returned to squatting.
Here to stay
The creation of Bangladesh, after a devastating war in 1971 to break free of Pakistan, coincided with the migrants’ entrenchment in the East End. The event – a remarkable chapter in the history of the twentieth century, when a largely civilian population took on military might and won – played a formative role in the political consciousness of young Bengalis, instilling a militant defiance against perceived forces of oppression. This reinforced the multi-nodal, transnational essence of the diaspora – its sense of being “here” and “there” at the same time. In 1986, Jubo Barta (Youth Voice), a journal published by the Federation of Bangladeshi Youth Organisations, said in its Victory Day issue:
The people of Bangladesh, men, women, peasants, workers and students, all united for victory against oppressive forces. Today, the Bengalis in Britain can learn a lot from the struggles of their brothers and sisters. We need a united front against all oppressive elements in British Society. Once unity is achieved, we will win over all opposition and Victory will be ours as it was in ’71. Joi Bangla! (Victory to Bangladesh)
A key theme in From Sylhet to Spitalfields is intergenerational renewal. The early settlers’ “myth of return” translated into little interest in local politics. They spent most of their time working and remitting money back to Sylhet without planning for a future in Britain. In contrast, their children – schooled and raised in Britain – considered East London their permanent home, and were “here to stay”. The resulting intergenerational tension manifested in many ways, not least in divergent political visions.
The early settlers preferred a non-confrontational, procedural approach to politics. Their children demanded direct action against the pervasive racism and poverty in their lives. For them, the example of the Race Today collective was instrumental in realising these goals. It provided intellectual and practical impetus for radical action on housing, leading to the establishment of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) in 1976 as a coherent campaigning vehicle for housing Bengali families. Its demands were two-fold: Bengali families should be allocated good-quality housing, not homes rejected by white residents; and squatters’ rights to access gas and electricity must be defended. Race Today networks also opened up avenues for cross-diaspora national mobilisation, allowing young Bengalis to forge solidarities with other black and Asian youth across the country.
Living with racism and poverty was not unique to East London Bengalis. It was a reality for most post-war migrant populations in Britain at the time (and continues to be so). In her book Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (2013), Anandi Ramamurthy charts how the Black Power movement and global anti-imperialist struggles galvanised Britain’s post-war migrant youth in the 1970s and 1980s, inspiring them to organise among themselves and strive for social justice in Britain. They worked in solidarity, attending each other’s rallies, demonstrations and vigils in huge numbers all around the country. These campaigns were further bolstered by the support of wider anti-fascist and anti-racism organisations, which regularly planned their own rallies and unity events, such as the Rock Against Racism music festival. In Tower Hamlets, a constellation of neighbourhood Bengali youth organisations eventually came together under the banner of the Federation of Bangladeshi Youth Organisations.
The watershed moment for these youth movements arrived when Altab Ali, a 25-year-old Bengali textile worker, was murdered by racist white teenagers while returning home from work in 1978. In response, the British Bangladeshi community rallied. Thousands of Bengalis from up and down the country marched behind Ali’s coffin from Whitechapel to London’s Hyde Park and gathered in Downing Street where they handed in a petition to the prime minister’s office calling for action against racist attacks.
Especially striking about the protest was the number of young, second-generation Bengali men that joined it. Unlike their parents, they were socialised in the UK. When racists attacked their neighbourhoods, the youth were the main resistance they faced. The police failed to protect them, and more victims of racism were arrested than perpetrators. Racist hate crimes that were reported to the police were not investigated.
Margaret Thatcher, who was the opposition leader at the time, opined on national television in 1978 that she was “afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” The impact of such words from prominent politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell was felt by migrant communities up and down the country. “Paki-bashing” became the mainstay of racist thugs’ ideas of recreation and leisure. According to a study from the time, this term was invented on Tower Hamlet’s Collingwood Estate. It was clear from the testimony of one of Ali’s murderers, a 16-year-old, that the attack was just a regular sporting activity. He claimed that there was no particular reason at all for the attack: “if we saw a Paki we used to have a go at them. We would ask for money and beat them up. I’ve beaten up Pakis on at least five occasions.”
From Sylhet to Spitalfields recounts the story of Chunu, a key member of the Bengali youth movement and a BHAG activist. He migrated with his mother and siblings in 1969, when he was eleven. Initially, the family settled in the Midland city of Birmingham, where his father worked in a car factory. After Chunu’s father was made redundant, the family moved to Spitalfields and applied for housing, just like hundreds of others in this period. They lived in Chunu’s uncle’s one-bedroom flat while they waited, but were only offered homes in areas with reputations for racist violence. Chunu recalls:
We were there quite some time because I remember dad made an application and the place they offered after a few years it was like Poplar, places that dad did not want to go. The reason was there was a lot of racism, a lot of abuse, and you were picked on. So there was – there were certain places that he was like, “that’s a no go area”. Nobody wanted to go to Bethnal Green. Nobody wanted to go to Poplar. Nobody wanted to go to Wapping. It was basically – the choice was made that there are more Bengalis in E1 so don’t go out of E1. It was because he thought we were a lot safer … All you heard in those days was … someone got beaten up because he lives in Poplar. Or, someone got beaten up because he lives in Bethnal Green, or that the whole block is all white and there is just one Bengali family. It was ongoing every single day, every single week, it was endless. Some friends I had, they would go to work, and their place was broken into during the day. They started carrying all their valuables with them to work, but that wasn’t safe from them either. That’s just how it was.
Chunu’s activism alongside other BHAG members and their Race Today allies managed to exert enough pressure on local authorities for them to eventually yield. Consequently, Bengali squatters began to be moved out of squats and into “safe” but sub-standard estates by the late 1970s.
This was generally viewed as a victory within the Bengali community, since it meant an end to squatting and all the shame, or shorom, that came with it. However, the sense of success was not shared by some members of the Race Today collective, who argued that the concessions were too meagre and such piecemeal “pork-barrel” handouts did nothing for the wider black working class movement in addressing structural discrimination. This created a tension between the lofty ideological goals of Race Today and the pragmatic tactics of the Bengali community. The latter squatted simply to secure better accommodation than what was offered in the outlying white estates. Moreover, they did this in the hope that something better and more permanent might be both literally and metaphorically around the corner. As far as they were concerned, once homes were secured, there was no need for further struggle.
The early settlers preferred a non-confrontational, procedural approach to politics. Their children demanded direct action against the pervasive racism and poverty in their lives.
The differences led to the end of the relationship between BHAG and Race Today. Some of BHAG’s youth activists went on to become involved in mainstream local politics, as the Labour Party realised their potential as electoral assets. They became councillors and eventual leaders of the council. By the late 1980s and 1990s, new state multiculturalist policies in response to urban race riots, themselves a retaliation to police brutality against migrant youth in various post-war ethnic enclaves across the country, created funding pots for competing ethnic minority groups – a throwback to the old “Divide and Rule” policy in colonial times. The policies were designed to fragment previous race and class solidarities, and the direct-action militancy that was symptomatic of it. No longer effective in their campaigning, Race Today published its final edition in 1988.
Today, the Bengali community is the most powerful electoral bloc in the borough of Tower Hamlets, the result of mainstream political patronage and targeted government funding. Despite this, a shortage of affordable homes and endemic overcrowding remain central issues for its beleaguered Bengali executive mayor, Lutfur Rahman. The spectre of economic austerity in the wake of the financial crises and global pandemic of recent times looms large. The frequency of racist attacks in the streets may have significantly decreased since the 1970s, but the racism pervasive and embedded within the institutions of the state show no signs of abating. Racial inequality in Britain is as glaring now as it was when Race Today was founded in 1969.
A history of resistance
From Sylhet to Spitalfields ends on an ambivalent note. It follows the campaign to “Save Brick Lane” from corporate encroachment and gentrification. The Old Truman Brewery, situated on Brick Lane in the heart of Spitalfields, has been closed since 1989. Recently, there have been proposals to redevelop this multi-acre site into commercial offices and a retail centre, and to build up a “night-time economy”. The local community is torn over the idea.
On one side, there is a broad coalition of white middle-class heritage conservationists, Bengali academics, politicos, community organisations and transient students gathered under the “Save Brick Lane” banner. On the other, there are middle-class Bengali businessmen and their ancillary networks seeking an opportunity to expand their clientele. Most, however, are situated somewhere in the middle, more concerned with just “getting on with their lives”.
Race Today networks opened up avenues for cross-diaspora national mobilisation, allowing young Bengalis to forge solidarities with other black and Asian youth across the country.
The picture is blurred by the effects of the “Right to Buy” scheme, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. The policy allows council tenants to buy their homes at a heavily discounted rate. Since its introduction, thousands of working-class families have become upwardly mobile homeowners and petty landlords. Many Bengalis in the East End have taken full advantage, pooling multi-generational income to buy their council homes. The fallout from this is the irrevocable shrinking of the social-housing stock in a perennially overcrowded borough. Some Bengali households have cashed in and moved to the suburbs, following the lead of the Jewish community before them. Others have remained but have found the inflated price of living in an increasingly gentrified area stifling, despite their new homeowner status. Others still remain unable to buy their council homes and worry about their children being priced out of the area.
“Save Brick Lane” has succeeded in frustrating the process of planned transformation, and negotiations continue. However, most residents are resigned to the inevitable corporate land-grab, leaving their futures in the borough uncertain once again.
And so we come full circle.
The story of Spitalfields – both past and present – sits at the nexus of unyielding global capital, a colluding political class and the timeless precarity of disenfranchised communities. In the bleak yet prescient parting words of Begum: “the 1970s Bengali squatters’ movement is not a glimpse into a remote past – the challenges of the hostile environment policy, the potential for austerity 2.0, and the complexities of the intersections between race and class are as pronounced now as they were half a century ago.”