FEATURE: Going from the army drill and onto the factory shift

A group photo showing Queens Orderly Officers.
A group photo showing Queens Orderly Officers.

Part three of our new, weekly series focusing on Asian nostalgia, following the 70th anniversary milestone for India and Pakistan.

This week’s article looks at the first two post-war migrations into the Heavy Woollen region, during the late-1950s, and then in the early 1960s.

Subedar Mohammad Ismail.

Subedar Mohammad Ismail.

The migration story mostly covers men on the Pakistani communities side - 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 home to the Indian Sub-Continent.

But they had not been forgotten by the British establishment.

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

Even after getting demobilised in 1945, the men did not give up the discipline and values they had adopted as soldiers of the British-Indian Army.

A striking feature from their “army days” was the long moustache.

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

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

During the late-1950s, these same men were encouraged to come and settle in Britain because of a sudden labour shortage especially in the North. Others arrived from the Gujarat province of India.

The vast majority who arrived from the sub-continent were former British-Indian Army veterans who by this period of the 1950s had now aged into their mid-30’s. No women came with them.

There was a feeling their “stay” in the country was only going to be a short one – if not for a few months, then just a few years – before they would return back home to India or Pakistan.

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 got to work in the local mills.

But as the new decade of the sixties dawned, factories and textile mills in the Heavy Woollen District got desperate for even more workers.

After October 1964, Harold Wilson’s newly-elected Labour government was also eager to fulfil its election campaign promise of forging a new Britain “in the white heat of the technological revolution”. But the revolution needed a workforce to fill the empty vacancies available in Britain’s factories

Jobs were plentiful throughout the 1960s in the mills of the Heavy Woollen areas of Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Batley and Heckmondwike.

Some of the migrant workers remembered 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 vacancies were available everywhere – and employers were desperate to recruit anyone and everyone.

It was a time in British society when anyone could walk into a factory to start work immediately!

This situation led to a second wave of new arrivals.

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

The then President of Pakistan, Field-Marshal General Mohammad Ayub Khan had begun a vast public-works programme – the construction of a series of hydro-electric dams.

The most famous were the Mangla dam and Tarbela dam schemes in Azad Kashmir.

To build these dams, entire village communities were uprooted 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 in the Second World War.

The ex-servicemen along with their families needed to be resettled and given jobs.

Thanks to his close relationship with the Queen, he was able to persuade Her Majesty and Harold Wilson to accept these former loyal soldiers of the empire into Britain.

They could fill in the serious labour shortages faced by many British factories.

And so the second wave of migrants had started to come, into Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Halifax, as well as to Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Batley and Heckmondwike.

For the next decade up till the mid-1970s, their lives evolved 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 turned into a weekly routine from Monday to Friday. The weekends were their only two days off work.

The early few years of this 1970s decade also saw the first women arrive.

This 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 to kickstart the local economy.

Their reward - for helping to get the region’s economy back on its feet, as well as for all that their parents had done by fighting on Britain’s side during the Great War - was to be given permanent naturalisation certificates – confirming British citizenship.

It was also a reward for services given in the Second World War.

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

They turned up to work on time, “clocked off” on time, went home, cooked their own food, paid all their national insurance and tax contributions, paid the general rates, gas, and electricity bills promptly, and were very friendly towards their next door English speaking neighbours - despite not being fluent in the language.

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

This first-generation, the ‘Hawaldars, ‘Subedars, and ‘Jamedars, were a visible presence (but without their army uniforms) on our streets throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

A number of them lived to see the fiftieth anniversary VE and VJ Day commemorations in 1995.

But the vast majority have now sadly passed away.

Yet, their children who make up today’s local Muslim families still remember these people with lots of affection and nostalgia for that long lost community spirit which also has sadly gone with them.