Tales from settlers over the past century

In his latest history feature, Daniel Shannon-Hughes discovers what brought migrants from near and far to Waltham Forest

Sikh Panj Pyare

Sikh Panj Pyare (Five Beloved Ones) with Waltham Forest mayor Denise Huinberg, circa 1993. Credit: Vestry House Museum/Waltham Forest Council

What connects a young woman bombed out in Bow, a Polish law graduate, and two children of Indian descent from East Africa? From another borough; from another country; from another continent; all came to Waltham Forest as migrants.

Migration is a hot topic right now but both the borough and wider country have a long history of immigration. I want to look at why people come to Waltham Forest and their immediate experiences of making a life here as told to the Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop.

According to the 2011 Census, 37 per cent of Waltham Forest residents were born abroad. The largest migrant groups came from Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Jamaica and India.

Although immigration was substantially lower a century earlier, there were still a number of residents born abroad. Both Walthamstow and Leyton feature in the 1911 Census’ top 50 counties and large towns with the highest proportions of foreigners.

At this time migrants came primarily from Europe and Russia. Few foreign-born residents were from Africa, Asia or Latin America. However, several interviews in the workshop’s archive recall Asian doctors practising in Walthamstow.

 

Internal migration from other parts of London and Britain is common today and goes back a long way too. Florence Temple was in her early twenties in 1940 when she came to Waltham Forest as a Blitz refugee: “I had a lovely little flat in Bow, I goes home one day from work and there’s no house at all.”

Florence took to sleeping at Liverpool Street Station. A warden discovered she was homeless: “So he said; ‘I live in Walthamstow, do you know anything about the Warner flats? They’re very very nice. I tell you what, I’ll take you round.'”

Florence moved to a flat in Hawarden Road. There was no glass in the windows and no furniture. Worse, she was separated from her friends: “I used to wheel the pram to Liverpool Street to get the train to Lily’s in Woodford.”

Gradually Florence settled into the area. After her husband returned at the end of the war they raised their children and remained in Waltham Forest until the time the interview was recorded decades later.

 

Bhvana Patel was born in Uganda, her husband Paresh in Kenya. Both moved to London as small children in the 1970s. Many Indians had migrated to East Africa under the British Empire. After independence these Indian communities were pushed out.

Paresh’s aunty sponsored his family to come to the UK and initially they lived with her in Leyton. They arrived in two stages: “First myself, my sister and my mum came. My dad was [in Kenya for] another year and a half. When we all came my father bought a house in Leyton Park Road.”

Bhvana and Paresh met, married and eventually came to run a newsagents in High Road Leyton. Well-established migrants in Waltham Forest, they have since moved to Woodford Green. Though neither speak in the interview about being migrants, observations about their customers show the patterns of immigration to the area.

 

Bhvana remembers: “When we first got this shop [in 1997], we started to see South Africans and Namibians. A lot coming into the area. Then Portuguese and Spanish and Italians and that.” In 2010 Paresh estimated: “50-60 percent of our business is from Eastern Europeans.” They had tried stocking foreign newspapers to cater to their new clientele, most recently a Chinese newspaper for students moving to the area from the Far East.

 

At the age of 25, Polish law graduate Michal Hawrot decided “there was no future in Poland”. When in 2005 an English security firm came to Poland to recruit he saw his opportunity: “I went for the interview, they offered, and within two weeks I moved. They put us on two coaches and brought us to a hostel in Bakers Arms.

“My plan was to study law here. Security work was just the start.”

Like many migrants, Michal had a difficult beginning. He had to fight for the £5 hourly wage he had been promised, was paid late, and lived in cramped conditions. While working up to 60 hours a week, Michal took evening classes for a law masters. His family in Huddersfield got their local bank branch to open an account for him, and when his fiancée, Beata, moved over, “a Polish girl in a [letting] agency in Hoe Street found a room for us”.

It is these connections that help migrants navigate the complexities of building a life in their new home. In 2006 he married Beata and found work as a paralegal. There had been tough experiences since but when the interview was recorded in 2014, Michal and Beata seemed to have settled. They had two young children and shared ownership of a three-bedroom flat in Walthamstow.

 

Michal joked that he felt attachment to the UK “mainly through our mortgage” though went on to say: “After nine years it’s our home, it would be difficult to move back to Poland.”

Three different stories of immigration to the borough at three different points in the past century. Be it from the other side of the marshes or the other side of the world, many of us migrated here or descend from migrants.

Florence, Bhvana, Paresh and Michal’s stories offer just a snapshot of the reasons people have moved to Waltham Forest, creating our diverse community where almost half of residents are from a minority ethnic background.

There are of course countless other stories of why and how migrants come to Waltham Forest: pre- and post-war Jewish migrants; the post-war ‘Windrush’ arrivals from Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan and the Caribbean nations; refugee communities; other EU nationals; and many more.

The workshop’s archive has a small selection of oral history interviews with non-white British residents, however it is an obvious gap in the collection that the workshop is keen to fill. Please contact them if you would like to know more.


The Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop is a volunteer group who have been recording oral histories with local residents for the past 30 years. For information on the workshop’s archive, joining the group, or being interviewed:

Email oh@wforalhistory.org.uk

Visit wforalhistory.org.uk

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