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The Sikhs In Britain - Reviewed By : Prof. Hardev Singh Virk


Jun 1, 2004
The Sikhs in Britain
(150 Years of Photographs)

Author : Peter Bance

Publisher : Sutton Publishing Ltd., UK, 2007
(Pages 192, Price: £ 18.99, Hard Bound)

Reviewed by : Prof. Hardev Singh Virk, E-mail : virkhs@yahoo.com

Peter Bance (nee Bhupinder Singh) is a young Sikh historian (31 years of age), author of a celebrated book “The Duleep Singhs” reviewed by me in The Sikh Review. The author is a keen collector of Sikh antiques. The present volume is the fascinating photographic history of the Sikhs and their contribution to British society from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The author tells the story of the Sikhs from the first arrival in Britain to modern times illustrated by over 200 photographs drawn from private collections and museums.

The book under review is divided into 9 chapters. In the introduction, the author traces a brief history of Sikhism and Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. According to author, “The first Sikh in Britain, Maharaja Duleep Singh, made a symbolic impact on British society when he arrived in 1854. Looked upon as an adopted son by Queen Victoria, his children became the Queen’s godchildren. Since then Sikhs have continued to make an impact, from a tartan Lord Sikh in a Scottish castle, a veteran record-breaking marathon runner(Fauza Singh) to an aspiring international cricket star(Monty Panesar), for more than 150 years Sikhs have been one of the most successful migrant races to settle in Britain.”

According to author (p.16) : “There were four significant periods of Sikh migration to Britain. The first was between the world wars, consisting of enterprising businessman, students and pedlars. The second was after Indian independence in 1947 when significant numbers of young labourers came to fill the gap in the labour market from Punjab. The third phase saw the greatest number of Sikhs arrive via chain migration and from former British Colonies. The fourth was predominately from East Africa, after expulsion from Uganda in the 1970s. By 2001 over, 3,36,000 Sikhs had made Britain their home.”

Chapter 1 covers the period from 1854 to 1900 and traces the history of Maharaja Duleep Singh and his family. It vividly describes the roles played by Maharani Jind Kaur, Sardar Aroor Singh and Sardar Thakur Singh Sandhawalia in bringing back Duleep Singh into the Sikh fold. He appointed Thakur Singh, Prime Minister-in-exicle, to regain his lost empire but the British were too tactful to allow his conspiracy to succeed. My review of ‘Maharaja’s Box’ by Christy Cambell describes the adventures of Maharaja Duleep Singh alongwith his frustrations. It is heartening to note that Sardar Balwant Singh Grewal was the first commoner Sikh student who reached London in 1894 to study law at Lincoln’s Inn. Since Balwant Singh, a total of eleven members of Grewal family became practising lawyers educated in Britain. Some of the photographs show Sikh officers at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrated in London during 1887. We also see Bhai Ram Singh, a Ramgaria Sikh from Amritsar, who was invited to design the Durbar Room at Osborne House for Queen Victoria. Bhai Ram Singh reinvented modern Sikh architecture, of which one of the best examples is the Khalsa College, Amritsar.

Chapter 2 describes the visits of members of the royalty, particularly of the ruling houses of Patiala, Kapurthala, Nabha and Jind. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala made several visits to Britain on his way to USA and Europe. Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala was the most famous of all Indian Maharajas to grace Britain with his presence. The famous ‘Patiala Necklace’, one of the most expensive pieces of jewellery ever made, was created for him by the house of Cartier in 1928. Besides his passions for beautiful women and sparkling gems, Maharaja’s addiction to the prestigious Rolls-Royce Motor car practically kept the firm in business. In his garage at Moti Bagh, Patiala, the Maharaja had 44 Rolls-Royces, all specially built for him. During his 1911 visit, the Maharaja was approached by Khalsa Jatha Members to set up a Gurdwara in London. He donated 1000 £ on the spot and performed the opening ceremony of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh Dharamsala at 79 Sinclair Road, London. This became the nucleus of first Gurdwara in Britain.

Chapter 3 is devoted to the exploits of Sikh troops of the British Indian Army who fought for the British and their Allies during First and Second world wars. The photographs show Princess Sophia Duleep Singh nursing wounded Indian soldiers at a convalescent camp in 1917. Sikh soldiers from Punjab wrote back memories of grand daughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sikh soldiers were always fighting in front rows as Vanguard and the British army in the Second Line of defence. As a consequence, thousands of Sikh soldiers were killed or maimed in action. Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala visited his forces in action to inspire them in the capacity of Major-General of British Indian army. The two memorable photographs of this chapter represent Hardit Singh Malik CIE, OBE, ICS in London (1918) and Squadran Leader Mohinder Singh Pujji of the RAF, London (1940). Both of them fought against the Germans and won laurels during first and second world wars, respectively.

Chapter 4 is devoted to early Sikh pedlars who migrated to Britain during 1930s. They filled the vacuum created by the migration of Jewish pedlars from Europe to USA. Sikh pedlars mostly belonged to Bhatra sect who maintained their Sikh identity intact even under adverse circumstances. Lodging houses were set up in East End of London to accommodate pedlars and other new migrants from India. The most exciting photographs appears at page 74 of the book, where Shaheed Udham Singh is shown being escorted from Caxton Hall by Scotland yard police after he shot dead Sir Michael O’ Dwyer on 13 March, 1940.

Chapter 5 relates to the migration of Indian labour after 1947. The British market needed labour and immigration laws were liberal, so many families from Punjab (doaba area) sought refuge in Britain. Photograph at page 89 shows Master Tara Singh in a Manchester Gurdwara. He went to raise funds and canvass support for forth coming SGPC election in Punjab. Master Akali Dal won a thumping majority by winning by 126 of the 130 seats in the election and Congress sponsored party was routed. By 1946, there were 20 Indian restaurants in London and in 1947, Gurbachan Singh’s Punjab Restaurant was founded. It is still being run by one of his grand sons. The chapter describes the working Sikhs plight and their movement to Southall after the East End, London. At present, Southall is the hub of activity of Sikh Diaspora in London and you will miss a chance to locate a white man in this locality.

The author records Narinder Singh Kapany, father of fibre optics in the world, working in his research laboratory at Imperial College of Science and Technology, London. Another photograph on page 93 shows the couple (Narinder and Satinder) after the wedding ceremony solemonised in London according to the Sikh rites in 1954. There are some other photographs of Sikh marriages in this chapter.

Chapter 6 narrates the heroic deeds of Sikh struggle. The right to wear turban at the workplace was denied to Sikhs in Britain. Sundar Singh Sagar spearheaded the struggle for wearing turban on the Manchester buses while on duty as a driver or a conductor. Ultimately, the Sikhs won their battles in almost all big cities. As a consequence, the Sikhs were allowed to wear their turbans while on duty in Buses, Trains and even police force. The chapter includes a photograph depicting the weapons of Guru Gobind Singh displayed at India House, London, before these were brought to India as relics of Tenth Guru.

Chapter 7 gives the history of Sikh Gurdwaras in Britain. The author gives full credit to Sant Teja Singh, who was instrumental in setting up first Sikh Gurdwara (Maharaja Bhupinder Singh Dharamsala) in London. As a young student, Teja Singh became a role model for other Sikh students in Cambridge to keep the Sikh identity intact. He was acting as a Sikh missionary while losing some precious years at Cambridge. Teja Singh founded the Khalsa Jatha British Isles in Cambridge during 1908, paving the way for establishment of first Sikh Gurdwara in London. Ramgarhia Sikhs from East Africa formed the Ramgarhia Sabha Southall in the 1960s and built its own Gurdwara. Gurdwaras were built in all big and small cities of Britain to cater to the needs of growing Sikh sangats. London has nearly one dozen Gurdwaras at present.

The last two chapters describe the impact of Sikhs on the social and cultural life of the Britain. Turbaned Sikhs began riding motorbikes after winning Turban – Helmet case in favour of Turban. The Sikhs started participating in local and national politics. The Sikh musical bands put Punjabi music on international map. Author has given some space to the proponents of Khalistan movement in England, showing Dr. Jagjit Singh addressing crowds at London’s Hyde Park in 1984. With UK Sikh population of about 3,50,000, Sikhs have diversified into every field and industry in Britain. Thus, the Sikhs have proved themselves a worthy and successful community in Britain. All those achievements are depicted by photographs by the learned author. The Sikhs have come of age in Britain and find a niche in all walks of life. The last photograph shows Monty Panesar, the star cricketer of England, a role model for Sikh youth of Britain.

The author deserves appreciation of Sikhs all over the globe for bringing out a pictorial biography of the Sikhs in Britain. Some of the observations made by the author are remarkable. For example, the photograph on page 121 shows a mixed gathering of English men and Sikhs in the Gurdwara during 1930s. Due to lack of preaching about Sikhism, we have only the presence of Sikh sangat in our Gurdwaras now. On page 121 & 122, Sikh Bibis are shown acting as priest in Gurdwara. The only other example I witnessed was in Rangoon Gurdwara of Myanmar. Our SGPC has to learn a lesson to give equal rights to Sikh women in the Gurdwara services at all levels. During Second World War when ration system was introduced in Britain, Sikh Gurdwara in Birmingham was serving langar for 3 days per week to the needy.

I must point out to some serious mistakes that have crept into the text. On page 12 (caption of the top photo), it is wrongly mentioned that Golden Temple was built by the fifth guru, Guru Angad when it should be Guru Arjan Dev. In Chapter 3 (p.45, 4th para), I guess battle of Britanny (France) is written as battle of Britain. In chapter 5 (p. 78, 3rd line from top), it should be border of West (not East) Pakistan, running through Punjab.


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Aman ji

Great review. Of value to people who want to know as much as possible about the modern history of Sikhs. You also set a great standard for complete coverage and respect for facts.

Thanks so much. I will definitely read this book.

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