England of my father, aka 'the coloured influx'

September 12, 2003

Archive virgin Sara Wajid was touched, appalled, thrilled and angered when working on Moving Here, a free website that contains 200 years of UK immigrant history.

As a child, parents and primary school teachers gave me completely different answers to the question "Why are we here?" I preferred my dad's answer because it extended me some dignity: England needed doctors. But as a child, I needed a multicoloured explanation, a bit more ammunition to bolster my internal resources and answer the "Paki go home" playground taunts. A poster of the proud Asian suffragettes marching in 1912 might have helped. Or one of cricket star Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, who came to England in 1888 to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, and became the first Indian to play cricket at county level. Or copies of the historic letters between Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten negotiating the terms of Indian independence.

All of these items can be downloaded from a website that pools material from 30 museums and archives on the Caribbean, South Asian, Irish and Jewish presence in England since 1800. The material has been digitally scanned and uploaded onto a searchable online database that is free to the general public. When it is finished, it will hold more than 150,000 items, including: ships' passenger lists, central government files, photographic collections, maps, paintings, audio recordings of interviews, music, diaries, film clips, military records, internees indexes and duplicate passports. The aim of the Moving Here project is to increase awareness and use of archives in the four ethnic-minority communities.

Technically, this material was already available to the public: the kind of public who already know what archives are, have the time and motivation to use sophisticated indexes, travel to the archives, order original files and pore over them in security-patrolled reading rooms such as the ones at the National Archives. This public knows which questions to ask and how to massage idiosyncratic collections of dense files. This public does not include many black and Asian teenagers or even students.

The Moving Here site has catapulted a large amount of carefully curated primary source material about race relations in England over the past 200 years directly into the public domain. Most initiatives that widen access to some kind of reference material using the web, such as university libraries, simply make available lists of the material held in the real-world library. Moving Here allows users to download the items themselves. This includes entire books. If you search for the SS Windrush passenger list, you will get an index entry detailing the date and basic facts, but you will also be able to download the original Windrush passenger list and examine, print, email or save it.

Sarah Tyacke, the chief executive of the National Archives, explains:

"Moving Here is a step forward because for the first time all this material has been digitised so that you can see it in your living room. Archives are moving away from their dusty and musty image by making these documents available at the click of a mouse."

For anyone interested in the future of archives or in e-access generally, this project represents a quiet revolution delivered by dedicated backroom archivists and curators across England. But race is not a quiet issue.

Although much of the material featured is uplifting and celebrates the achievements of the communities, some of it is shocking, making the Moving Here project a bold move for the heritage sector.

As an editor on the site over the past year, I was pleased by the scope and quality of the material at my disposal, but as a British Pakistani, I was by turns touched, appalled, thrilled and angered by it. I was an archive virgin when I began working on the site and did not know what kind of material it might hold, so I am fairly typical of the target audience. If my own visceral reactions to the material are anything to go by, the response of the Jewish, Caribbean, South Asian and Irish users to the material will be strong.

The local archives, such as Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, contributed photographs and interviews that most closely echoed my experience of growing up in 1970s England: Asian weddings in provincial town halls, shalwar kameez worn with cardigans, Eid celebrations in swirly carpeted houses. These fun portraits were not what I had expected to find in archives.

There were plenty of other surprises. Among Ministry of Information files I found a series of beautiful photographs of 1950s Pakistan taken by Cecil Beaton, including ones of my home town, Bahawalpur. I felt an immediate resonance with the body language and facial expressions in the photographs; these were like pictures of my parents in family albums. Ethnic minorities rarely see themselves or their history reflected in any meaningful way in the halls of power. To do so causes a small but profound shift.

At the other end of the spectrum are the National Archives, which hold records of central government and the law courts dating back to the 11th century. These materials offer a different kind of ammunition. The file descriptions alone grate. Take: "HO213/ 308 This file contains reports on black seamen in British ports and the 'social problems' associated with them. The file itemises vice, sexually transmitted diseases and mixed race children as the principal dangers. (1935)."

Or: "HO344/117 Working party to report on the social and economic problems arising from the growing influx into the UK of coloured workers from Commonwealth countries (1955-56)." I know that this file, which pre-dates the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, reflects policies of the time. But my gut response is: "My father worked tirelessly in the National Health Service for 30 years and in Whitehall he's referred to as an 'influx'."

Although strictly observed data protection laws mean sensitive files or those containing a lot of personal information are closed, I was surprised by the information that is accessible, such as some police files. HO344/ 151 contains replies to a Home Office questionnaire about race relations that was sent to police forces nationwide. The replies, dating from 1958, give an insight into contemporary attitudes in the police.

The sheer weight of government documentation from this period demonstrates the level of scrutiny that my parents' generation of postwar Commonwealth immigrants were under.

Seeing yourself or your parents repeatedly characterised as a problem and a burden in official state documents is a consciousness-raising experience, particularly if, like me, you are generally unfamiliar with cabinet minutes and civil-service jargon. Intellectually, I know that individuals and groups generally register in central government or legal paperwork only when they are regarded as problematic. Otherwise, they just do not appear.

Still, I found the existence of files titled "Marriages of Englishwomen with Moslems/Hindus etc" really creepy.

But complex counter-narratives exist even in the National Archives sources, such as a 1967 report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research that highlights the positive contribution of migrants and argues that they were less likely than the rest of society to claim benefits.

Stuart Hall's 1965 report The Young Englanders is another eloquent counterpoint. He writes: "Our cities are full of young coloured citizens of Britain trying to tip-toe through society."

Whether you find the items empowering or provocative, you can reclaim them for yourself by publishing your own commentary directly on the site along with your own material. Having sifted through just a fraction of the Moving Here collection over the past year, I feel more intimately acquainted with Englishness and more confident of my place within it as a British Asian.

Sara Wajid was narrative coordinator on Moving Here. Details: www.movinghere.org.uk

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