Foreword & Acknowledgement

Foreword

Kamal Uddin Ahmed (Chair of Trustees)

People from the land called Bangladesh, since 1971, have been coming to the UK for more than a century. Most of the early arrivals were from Sylhet and worked on British merchant navy ships. Some arrived, stayed for a few days and weeks and went back working on the ships, while others jumped ship and tried to make a life in the mother country, the home of the British Empire. They were called Lascars.

There are many interesting and incredible stories of the young lascar men who worked for the British merchant navy, some of whom made a life in London and several other port cities in the UK. But this project is not about the story of the lascars. A little background on early migration has been provided as a longer historical context to what the Bangladeshis in East London experienced from the 1960s onwards.

Squatting has a long history in the UK, but as can be seen from the interviews and materials studied for the project, people breaking into empty homes to put a roof over their heads really got going from the late 1960s onward and intensified during the 1970s.

Housing conditions in the East End were very bad, especially in the western end of the Borough of Tower Hamlets, where most of the Bangladeshis lived. Because of extreme racism and racial violence, targeted at the Bangladeshis, most tended to congregate where most of the immigrants lived and worked in the famous East End rag trade. Single Bangladeshi men could not get Council housing, so they mostly lived in very overcrowded, privately rented properties. These properties were in very bad condition.

Due to bomb damage and slum clearance policies, a large amount of publicly owned properties, scattered around Tower Hamlets, were boarded up and designated for redevelopment. However, neither the Greater London Council (GLC) nor the local authority in Tower Hamlets, who owned between them the public sector housing, were able to redevelop such designated buildings and sites. This left many locations and areas blighted and run-down.

Bangladeshi women and children started to join their husbands and fathers in greater numbers as the 1970s progressed, so living in overcrowded, privately rented properties became ever more difficult. Those who managed to get offers of council housing away from the western end of the Borough which was relatively safe, found the racism and racial violence too fearful and intolerable. They either did not want to move to mainly white areas or many of those that did came back quite quickly to the western end of Tower Hamlets.

By then the white squatters were making headlines. Many of whom experienced actual evictions and some successfully resisted attempted evictions in places like Myrdle Street and Parfett Street even as early as 1972. Bangladeshis soon joined them and started to squat, on a larger scale, from around 1975 in Old Montague Street, and Pelham Buildings in 1976, with the help of white squatters and anti-racist activists.

Although I was not a squatter, many of my friends and family members were. I have heard stories of them living in appalling housing conditions and grew up hearing about their struggles for decent housing and the longer-term impact of the coming together of the community in an organised fashion from1976 when the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) was founded. For a long time, people have stopped talking about the story of the Bangladeshi squatters and not much has been written on the topic. As such, this is a very important project, and I hope, although it is a very small initiative, it will be a catalyst for further and deeper work on the topic, to bring out the story in a fuller sense.

This project’s focus is on Bangladeshi Squatters of Myrdle Street, Parfett Street and Fieldgate Mansions (in both Myrdle Street and Romford Street). It also includes a slightly wider immediate area, such as Varden Street and Nelson Street. We will all benefit from recording and learning about, more factually, the housing struggles of the Bangladeshi community and how we came so far. I believe, in relation to the Bangladeshi community in the East End of London, the best is yet to come.

Acknowledgement

Abdul Khalam Ali (Secretary)

The East End Connection’s (EEC) interest in the subject matter emerged from talking to several people and seeing some relevant and interesting materials – progress reports of the St Mary’s Centre and the photographs they kept of activities of the time. The people spoken to, talked about the old days and how it was like struggling for better housing, more facilities, and the fight against racism and discrimination. The reports and images seen contain rich materials that need excavating and interpreting.

After East End Connection (EEC) decided to embark on the project, it contacted and held discussion with several previous squatters, activists and archivists to understand the full potential of such a project. It was decided to develop a small project initially and a number of individuals, groups and institutions agreed to support the initiative.

First, my special thanks go to the ten interviewees: six Bangladeshi squatters and four non-Bangladeshi squatters. In both groups, some of the individuals were also activists. They are (Bangladeshi): Ala Uddin, Helal Uddin Abbas, Kazi Hurmotjan Begum, Kola Miah, Soyful Alom, Sharaf Uddin; (non-Bangladeshi): David Hoffman, Jon Hems, Nora Connolly and Terry Fitzpatrick. I would like to thank them with our deep appreciation for sharing their incredible, insightful and detailed stories of the struggles of the squatters of that period.

Next, the local community volunteers who joined the project helped with carrying out the interviews. They also helped promote the project and contributed towards developing better insights on the subject matter and generating more valuable outcomes. They helped develop a detailed draft for developing a guided walk called Squatters Heritage Walk. They are Ahmed Chowdhury, Cherifa Atoussi, Hayette Atoussi, Kamrul Islam and Rosy Awwal. With respect to the guided walk concept and detailed draft, this was achieved through training provided by Dr Georgie Wemyss. The EEC appreciates this valuable contribution.

The Tower Hamlets Local History Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives possess relevant materials, and they have supported the project. Halima Khanom from the former and Maureen Roberts from the latter made presentations at our project launch on 3 July 2019, providing more details of the squatting movements and the relevant materials that they have in their archives. The project planned to utilise more materials from these archives and work with their officers on the project, however, the Covid-19 Pandemic changed all that. But what help, support and encouragement they have managed to provide have been incredibly valuable to the project.

Further thanks to Dr Canan Salih, Applied Theatre and film artists and academic, for her transcription of most of the interviews and the launch, and for editing this final publication.

Last but not least, it is important to record our thanks and appreciation to Bodrul Alom, one of the founding trustees of EEC, and Shaharul Alom, a trustee, for their unconditional support towards the development of this project and M Ahmedullah for his relentless effort in making the project a real success.

The East End Connection is grateful to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for awarding a grant to finance the project.

Struggles of Bangladeshi Squatters