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1968: It was legal to deny housing or employment based on race
Old 25-06-2019
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1968: It was legal to deny housing or employment based on race

In a 2014 Radio 4 series, Kavita Puri heard the stories of some of the pioneering migrants who arrived in Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s. She heard their first impressions of a country that once ruled them, and learns of the curiosity and kindness with which they were met. Their stories had a personal resonance for Kavita, whose father, Ravi, came to Britain in 1959, and went on to become an award-winning engineer.

Here, Kavita explains why this forgotten period in history is so important…

Q: How many people came to Britain from the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s and 60s, and why?

A: In 1951 there were 43,000 people of Indian and Pakistani descent in Britain, and by 1961 there were 112,000. So you’re talking about a tiny number of people. It was predominantly men who came in the 50s; once they decided to settle here their wives began to come from the 60s.

After 1948 there was an open door immigration policy. Britain looked to its former colonies for people to help reinvigorate the economy by working in the factories and foundries. Speaking to people who came in the 50s, many will say they did the shifts that the indigenous population didn’t want to do.

There was goodwill towards them at that time, because they were needed. But as their number grew, people’s perception changed.

In 1962 the Commonwealth Immigration Act came into force. [This controlled the immigration of all Commonwealth passport holders, except those who held UK passports. Prospective immigrants now needed to apply for a work voucher, graded according to the applicant’s employment prospects.]

There was racism. It was legal to deny housing or employment based on race, nationality or ethnicity until 1968, which is shocking, as it is so recent. But many other people were met with a lot of kindness. And racism was not always overt.

Q: Why is this episode of history so interesting?

A: This is a forgotten period of history, and it’s about a generation that is dying. It’s also an important part of British history, as these pioneers led the way for the three million South Asians who live here today. It’s a story that has not been told. I grew up with stories of Indian people arriving in Britain with just a few pounds, and sewing extra money into their saris. But I didn’t believe they actually had just £3 – I thought it was just a metaphor for ‘they arrived with very little’. If you came from Pakistan you could bring just a few pounds more. But when I did some research, I found out it was true. Obviously, £3 then is not the same as £3 today – it was the equivalent of about £50, which would have covered your board and rent for one week. But that’s just one week.

They had all these imaginings of what Britain would be like, but the reality was often very different.


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