This year marks the anniversary of the docking of the merchant ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948. With a passenger list of British Subjects, most notably including 493 Jamaicans, Windrush has, in the intervening 65 years, become a powerfully symbolic image of the beginning of an ethnically plural Britain. Indeed, this symbolism was recently employed to dramatic effect by Danny Boyle in his opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics.

While Windrush remains a powerful image for us today, the historical emphasis on post-war Commonwealth migration to Britain has tended to obscure the significance of smaller-scale migration before the Second World War. Although it is generally acknowledged that ports such as Cardiff, Liverpool, South Shields and, of course, London have had longstanding, but socially isolated, immigrant populations since the 19th century, there remains very little research on inland migration and settlement. Inland cities are generally assumed to have not witnessed any significant settlement before at least 1942 when the needs of the war and post war economy began to act as powerful recruitment agents for Empire and Commonwealth workers.

However my research over the last three years has begun to reveal that South Asian migration to Sheffield began with settlers arriving and building new lives here as early as the end of the First World War. By analysing recently digitised sources of evidence for births, marriages and deaths, together with recording the family memories of pioneers’ descendants, my research will, hopefully, be able to make a significant addition to the history of migration to Britain before Windrush.

So far, I have discovered official records and family stories of migration for at least fifty Indian settlers in Sheffield in the interwar period, most of these originating in the Pashtun (also known as Pathan) areas of the northern Punjab and the North West Frontier Province of what was British India. Official documents record the many marriages of settlers with native, Sheffield-born women and the subsequent births of their children. Given the probability that, naturally, only a proportion of the migrants will have formed lasting relationships and married their partners, it will also be highly likely that there will have been many more Asian workers who stayed in the city for lesser periods, returning to India without being recorded by officialdom.

In the era before mass international travel, working their passage as lascar seamen, stoking the boilers of British merchant ships was the only option for poor migrants, and the vast majority of the settlers continued to shovel coal and coke in the steel mills, foundries and even the collieries of the city. They lived, with their families, in all parts of the city from the Don Valley steel-working areas of Attercliffe, Darnall and Brightside to Highfields, Broomhall and also on the, then, newly built Manor Estate.

I’m now trying to establish whether these pioneering pre-Windrush South Asian migrants and settlers formed a social network enabling further South Asian workers to successfully settle in Sheffield after the Second World War. If I can establish that clear social links through family and social networks were maintained with newly arriving settlers from pre-war to post-war then it would establish that the early pioneers were crucial in encouraging successful post-war migration. Indeed, my research has already concluded that there are a substantial number of British-Pakistanis in Sheffield whose families originate in the same districts as the early pioneers.

Of particular interest to me are the contacts that I have established with some of the descendants of these pioneer families, some of whom have been able to provide some unique insights into the experience of people of colour in Sheffield: the industrial heart of imperial Britain, during the 1920s and 1930s. Their stories add much needed light and shade to the general histories of migration to Britain. These histories have tended to focus on the hot-spots of racism and resistance rather than those areas where migrants were accepted and achieved a degree of integration with the native population – as appears to be the case in Sheffield.

This analysis has, since the early 1980s, made conflict a central issue for the study of migration to Britain, placing much emphasis on the phenomena of racist attacks, race riots and other more-or-less violent anti-immigrant protests. For migration historian Panikos Panayi, there has been ‘an iron girder of racism and xenophobia’ in Britain for the last 200 years and, without doubt, this is a characterisation of British society that many would recognise.[1] However, my research strongly suggests that successful settlement of people of colour did occur within working-class communities without social upheaval and communal strife. It thus remained un-newsworthy and unreported by the media of the time and unnoticed by historians since. The historical record shows that settlement was taking place quietly and without being loudly censured by the press, officialdom or opportunist politicians (unlike in the post-war years) and suggests a more optimistic conclusion that the toleration of ordinary, working people toward the newcomers was indeed present here.

For me, these research findings raise important challenges to the assumptions we make today about the attitudes to ‘race’ and difference among ordinary people in the past. Many of the histories of migration emphasise domestic British racism, heavily implicating the working-class in its widespread application, with them being, apparently, in the thrall of British imperialism.

If, as historians, we take only this viewpoint we risk rejecting evidence that provides important nuance and detail to the study of how imperial ideologies of racism, racial difference and social hierarchy were assimilated domestically by ordinary people. Moreover, if it can be proved that this pattern of quiet toleration, settlement and integration was repeated in other British cities between the wars it may call into question many of our current assumptions about migration history in Britain. What does seem apparent from my research is that the ‘iron girder of racism and xenophobia’ described by Panayi does not appear to have been forged in Sheffield.

Having recently graduated his BA in History at the University of Sheffield, David Holland is continuing this research as part of an MA. The blog is based on David’s research for his dissertation ‘Pioneering South Asian settlement in “pre-Windrush” Sheffield’, for which he won the Crewe Prize 2013 for the best dissertation in British history

Image: Indian elephant at Kelham Island Works during World War I

Tags : Asian immigrationbeginning of immigration in Britainimmigration in SheffieldmigrantsSouth Asian immigrationWindrush
David Holland

The author David Holland


  1. What a lovely piece of research. I was impressed by the way you use data that are often neglected in the study of migration, to shed light on a period that is largely ignored in migration history. We’ll see whether your interpretation stands up to scrutiny in the light of further research, but it is an important line of argument, and it potentially changes the way that we understand the history of migration and racism in the UK. So we need more work on other groups and other cities, on a larger scale, but it is extremely impressive to see work of this significance emerging from an undergraduate thesis.

    You also make me wonder about the impact of WW2 on both migration and racial attitudes, as well as about the classed (and arguably gendered) nature of British responses to migrants of colour. So thanks for a really enjoyable and interesting blog.

  2. Thanks very much for your response John. The research is attempting to combine both official records and oral history sources to build up an argument although it is at a vey early stage. There is no doubt that migration to Sheffield was taking place during this period but the interpretation and meaning ascribed to this phenomenon is something that must be very carefully developed.

    I completely agree that further work is needed for other colonised people from other parts of the British empire, and for other cities. We need to know whether Sheffield was a unique case of inland migration away from the ports and maritime industries, or that it forms part of a larger picture of migration to land-locked British cities. If the Sheffield case is unique it pre-dates the major centres of New Commonwealth settlement such as Bradford or Leicester by twenty or so years.

    A major part of the research is an examination of the networks developed and utilised by the migrants in order for them to reach Britain and survive here. A deeper investigation of the networks of support and communication established in the interwar period might well demonstrate that migration during the post-war era built on these same networks. A key factor in the establishment of the networks appears to have been the involvement of both white British people (most frequently working class) and fellow migrants of the time such as Africans, Russian Jews and Germans, through bonds of friendship, marriage or necessity.

    Again, many thanks for your interest and useful observations!

  3. This is an interesting study. I think immigrant patterns into Sheffield are particularly an interesting place to study. I have been trying to trace an escaped slave in Norton, Sheffield who hit the headlines in the papers because by that time slavery was illegal. He seems to have settled in Sheffield if I have got the right man and married a local girl. The papers generally showed a certain sympathy by the local people who gave him food. It is also obvious looking at the Sheffield Football and Cricket Teams in the 19thc that there were people of colour there in the teams.

    1. Thank you for the interest Joyce. I’d be very interested to find out more about the ‘escaped slave’. I also have some similar information on two or possibly three cases from the 1860s to the 1880s. I’d be grateful if you could leave your details with the History Department and we can discuss this further.

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