Bengalis had been present in Britain as early as the 19th century. The earliest records of arrivals from the region that is now known as Bangladesh (was British India) are of Sylheti cooks in London during 1873, in the employment of the East India Company, who travelled to the UK as lascars on ships to work in restaurants. Some ancestors of British Bangladeshis went to the UK before World War I. Author Caroline Adams records that in 1925 a lost Bengali man was searching for other Bengali settlers in London. These first few arrivals started the process of "chain migration" mainly from one region of Bangladesh, Sylhet, which led to substantial numbers of people migrating from rural areas of the region, creating links between relatives in Britain and the region. They mainly immigrated to the United Kingdom to find work, achieve a better standard of living, and to escape conflict. During the pre-state years, the 1950s and 1960s, Bengali men immigrated to London in search of employment. Most settled in Tower Hamlets, particularly around Spitalfields and Brick Lane. In 1971, Bangladesh (until then known as "East Pakistan") fought for its independence from Pakistan in what was known as the Bangladesh Liberation War. In the region of Sylhet, this led some people to join the Mukti Bahini, or Liberation Army.
In the 1970s, changes in immigration laws encouraged a new wave of Bangladeshis to come to the UK and settle. Job opportunities were initially limited to low paid sectors, with unskilled and semi-skilled work in small factories and the textile trade being common. When the "Indian' restaurant" concept became popular, some Sylhetis started to open cafes. From these small beginnings a network of Bangladeshi restaurants, shops and other small businesses became established in Brick Lane and surrounding areas. The influence of Bangladeshi culture and diversity began to develop across the East London boroughs.
The early immigrants lived and worked mainly in cramped basements and attics within the Tower Hamlets area. The men were often illiterate, poorly educated, and spoke little English, so they could not interact well with the English-speaking population and could not enter higher education. Some became targets for businessmen, who sold their properties to Sylhetis, even though they had no legal claim to the buildings.
Large numbers of Bangladeshis settled and established themselves in Brick Lane
By the late 1970s, the Brick Lane area had become predominantly Bengali, replacing the former Jewish community which had declined. Jews migrated to outlying suburbs of London, as they integrated with the majority British population. Jewish bakeries were turned into curry houses, jewellery shops became sari stores, and synagogues became dress factories. The synagogue at the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane became the Jamme Masjid or 'Great London Mosque', which continues to serve the Bangladeshi community to this day. This building represents the history of successive communities of immigrants in this part of London. It was built in 1743 as a French Protestant church; in 1819 it became a Methodist chapel, and in 1898 was designated as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. It was finally sold, to become the Jamme Masjid.
The period also however saw a rise in the number of attacks on Bangladeshis in the area, in a reprise of the racial tensions of the 1930s, when Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts had marched against the Jewish communities. In nearby Bethnal Green the anti-immigrant National Front became active, distributing leaflets on the streets and holding meetings. White youths known as "skinheads" appeared in the Brick Lane area, vandalising property and reportedly spitting on Bengali children and assaulting women. Bengali children were allowed out of school early; women walked to work in groups to shield them from potential violence. Parents began to impose curfews on their children, for their own safety; flats were protected against racially motivated arson by the installation of fire-proof letterboxes.
Protest march by Bangladeshis to Downing Street
with murdered Altab Ali's coffin, 1978
On 4 May 1978, Altab Ali, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi clothing worker, was murdered by three teenage boys as he walked home from work in a racially motivated attack. The murder took place near the corner of Adler Street and Whitechapel Road, by St Mary's Churchyard. This murder mobilised the Bangladeshi community in Britain. Demonstrations were held in the area of Brick Lane against the National Front, and groups such as the Bangladesh Youth Movement were formed. On 14 May, over 7,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, took part in a demonstration against racial violence, marching behind Altab Ali's coffin to Hyde Park. Some youths formed local gangs and carried out reprisal attacks on their skinhead opponents (see Youth gangs).
The name Altab Ali became associated with a movement of resistance against racist attacks, and remains linked with this struggle for human rights. His murder was the trigger for the first significant political organisation against racism by local Bangladeshis. The identification and association of British Bangladeshis with Tower Hamlets owes much to this campaign. A park has been named after Altab Ali at the street where he was murdered. In 1993, racial violence was incited by the anti-immigration British National Party (BNP); several Bangladeshi students were severely injured, but the BNP's attempted inroads were stopped after demonstrations of Bangladeshi resolve.
In 1988, a "friendship link" between the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire and the municipality of Sylhet was created by the district council under the presidency of Muhammad Gulzar Hussain of Bangladesh Welfare Association, St Albans. BWA St Albans were able to name a road in Sylhet municipality (now Sylhet City Corporation) called St Albans Road. This link between the two cities was established when the council supported housing project in the city as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless initiative. It was also created because Sylhet is the area of origin for the largest ethnic minority group in St Albans. In April 2001, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets council officially renamed the 'Spitalfields' electoral ward Spitalfields and Banglatown. Surrounding streets were redecorated, with lamp posts painted in green and red, the colours of the Bangladeshi flag. By this stage the majority living in the ward were of Bangladeshi origin—nearly 60% of the population.