Pioneers of the west – the growth of St Albans’ Asian community

When I first moved here way back in 2014, I wanted to find out more about the new area the family and I would be living in. So I turned to the ever-faithful Google search and tapped in “Asian community in St Albans”.

Low and behold I was told the following: there were eight Indian restaurants, a few east Asian restaurants like a noodle bar, and the St Albans Curry Club.

I was quids in for takeaway but what of the Asian community, did it not exist? Did I make a mistake and move my family to become the “only Asians in the village”? Fast forward seven years, and I think I was wrong.

South Asian migrants have been establishing roots in England for a couple of centuries now, mainly in and around port cities like Liverpool and London. Some came as loyal servants to the British Empire, but since the 1960s mainly young men were lured by the calling of the British government in search of streets paved with gold, only to find work in manual low-paid labouring jobs.

Young men from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan headed to England to pave a way for a new life for their young families, and some found their way to the picturesque city of St Albans, these were the new pioneers of the west, the early economic migrants.

But what was the draw for Bangladeshis to settle in St Albans? What does it take for someone to leave a sunny, hot, palm tree-laden country, where if you wanted a mango you just shimmy up the nearest tree, grab a mango, sit on the banks of a shady river and watch the world pass by?

It was 1963 and fresh faced 18-year-old, Aklis Miah (name changed) received a letter from his father – who had been in London since 1955 – instructing him to finally join him in Blighty, to pave the way for the younger siblings and his mother to live in England.

On a cold frost-bitten November, after a 14 hour flight, he stood at the door of his new home.

“It was cold, and all I could think is the trees have no leaves,” said Aklis, as the notion of autumn does not exist in some parts of the world. He remembers most of the Bangladeshis that moved to St Albans came to work in the Old Rubber Factory on London Road.

“I came over to work, and help my family build a better life. It was hard work, long days but it paid well.”

Herts Advertiser: Coral Press at 99 Hatfield Road. Hatfield Road developed a large Asian community in the 1960s and '70s.Coral Press at 99 Hatfield Road. Hatfield Road developed a large Asian community in the 1960s and ’70s. (Image: Andrew Freeman ([email protected]))

As the years rolled by the families grew and started to become more established and connected communities in areas like Sopwell, Dellfied and Hatfield.

Most of the host community welcomed them with open arms, supporting and helping families to settle, but others fought back, with racism and conflict typical in the ’70s: “Skinheads and racists made aspects of day to day life uneasy, families did not feel safe,” added Aklis.

But there was a common thread that kept people together: the love of Indian food.

Over time, around the UK Bangladeshis started establishing their own businesses, and the boom of Indian restaurants started. St Albans’ first Indian restaurant, the Kohinoor on George Street, opened in the mid to late ’70s and added a new dimension to the historic city. Since then there have been a boom in restaurants catering for all taste buds from Turkish cuisine to Pakistani and everything in between.

Another new development for the city was the growth in retailers to feed the demand from the Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslim community.

The Asian Grocery Gtore on Hatfield road was opened around 1980, a small family-run store that stills provides local Muslims with halal meat and Asian groceries. Today there are four shops providing groceries from the Middle East, Subcontinent and North Africa and all are based on Hatfield Road.

The Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian community has continually evolved and is constantly redefining itself. The early pioneers of the community may have hard endured hardship, but they endured to call St Albans a home ready for the next generation, who grew up in the 1980s. In the next column we find out what it was like growing up as a child of the 80s with immigrant parents.

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