How migrant workforce was a ‘lifeline’ for the West Riding’s post-war economy

This week’s Reporter series article on Asian nostalgia looks at the first two post-war migrations into the Heavy Woollen District.

By Waseem Riaz
Saturday, 11th September 2021, 12:00 pm
Colonel Bhadur Balu Singh
Colonel Bhadur Balu Singh

The migration story in this feature mostly covers men on the Pakistani communities’ side, who were former soldiers from the old British-Indian Army.

The post-war era was a time when British industry slowly began to recover from the Second World War’s devastating effects.

The men who had fought in this war - English and Indian - had been demobilised - and sent back home to England, or back to the Sub-Continent. But they had not been forgotten by the British establishment.

Subedar (Warrant Officer) Mohammad Ismail

For those “Asians” who had served in it, the British-Indian Army had become an important part of their cultural heritage and way of life.

The men had not given up the discipline and values they had adopted as soldiers of the British-Indian Army, even after getting demobilised.

Military titles like Hawaldar (Sergeant), Subedar (Warrant Officer) and Jamadar (Platoon Officer) were still proudly being used by most of these Pakistani men long after the war had ended - alongside their first names.

The discipline and obedience these former soldiers had shown was also fondly remembered by the British.

The same Pakistani men were encouraged during the 1950s to come over and to settle in Britain because of a sudden labour shortage, especially in the north. Other ethnic groups came from the Gujarat province of India.

The small numbers who arrived from the Sub-Continent were former British-Indian Army veterans who by this period of the 1950s had now aged into their late-30s. No women came with them.

There was a feeling their “stay” in England was only going to be a short one - if not for a few months, then perhaps just a few years - before they would be ordered to return back home to India or to Pakistan. So there seemed to be no point “bringing along the wives”.

This migration was the first phase. The men now had an opportunity to show their old army-instilled discipline as they began work in the local textile mills, in the foundries, in the engineering and chemical works, as well as in public transport driving buses.

The migrant workforce proved itself to be a lifeline for the West Riding’s economy.

But the local factories and textile mills got desperate for even more workers as the new decade of the Sixties dawned.

Harold Wilson’s newly elected Labour government was eager to fulfil its promise of forging a new Britain “in the white heat of the technological revolution”. But the “revolution” needed a large workforce to help fill the empty vacancies in Britain’s factories.

There were plenty of jobs throughout the 1960s in the mills of Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Batley, and Heckmondwike. Some of the migrant workers were to fondly remember this period as an era when it was very easy to change up to three different jobs in one day!

The labour shortage was so severe that job vacancies were available anywhere and everywhere - and employers were desperate to recruit anyone and everyone.

It was a time in British society when anybody could easily walk into a factory to start work immediately. Such an upbeat economic situation then led to a second wave of new arrivals coming into our local area.

The background to this second phase of Pakistani migrants arriving into the Heavy Woollen District, and to other parts in West Yorkshire, as well as to industrial locations in Lancashire and the Midlands, was a huge demographic change taking place in Kashmir during the 1960s.

The then-President of Pakistan, Field-Marshal General Mohammad Ayub Khan, had begun a vast public works programme - the construction of two big hydro-electric dams. These were the giant Mangla Dam and Tarbela Dam schemes, in the Pakistani administered “Azad” Kashmir area.

Entire village communities were uprooted as soon as building work started on the two dams, and a rural way of life going back for centuries came to an end.

As an army officer trained at Sandhurst, President Ayub Khan was clearly aware many of the men from these villages had served as soldiers in the Second World War. The ex-servicemen, along with their families, needed to be resettled and given jobs.

Because of Ayub Khan’s good close relationship with the Queen, he was able to persuade Her Majesty, as well as the then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, to accept these former loyal soldiers of the empire into Britain. The men could fill in the serious labour shortages faced by many British factories at that time.

So, the second wave of migrant workers had started to come to places like Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Halifax, as well as to Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Batley and Heckmondwike.

For the next decade, their lives were set around long twelve hour rotating shifts in the mills, which changed from day to night, and then back again from night to daytime hours.

This work pattern turned into a weekly routine from Monday to Friday. The weekends were their only two days off work.

The early few years of the 1970s decade also saw the first women arrive. The influx of Indian and Pakistani migrant workers who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s came to be known as the “first generation”. Their arrival helped kick-start the local economy.

Their reward for helping to get the economy back on its feet was to be given permanent Naturalisation Certificates - confirming British citizenship. Gaining British citizenship was also a well-earned reward for having given their services in the Second World War.

Besides their dedicated work ethic, the men were very law-abiding and showed a strong sense of respect for authority.

They always turned up to work on time, “clocked off” on time, paid all their national insurance and tax contributions, went home, cooked their own food, paid the general rates, gas and electricity bills promptly, and were very friendly towards their next door English-speaking neighbours.

Like the old wartime English generation, these men also had a very strong community spirit, often sitting together in groups of ten or more - in the same living room - during their weekends off work.

This first generation, the Hawaldars, Subedars and Jamadars, were a visible presence (but without their Army uniforms) as they walked on our streets in Dewsbury, Batley and Heckmondwike throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

A small number lived to see the 50th anniversary of VE Day and VJ Day commemorations held in 1995. Otherwise the vast majority have now sadly passed away.