Skip to content

Blog Posts

Currently Filtering by Tags: Diaspora


Considering Community Archives: Migration and Family in Postwar Britain

Posted by StephenJackson under Blog | Tags: archives, Diaspora | 0 Comments


Who were the Punjabi migrants who traveled to postwar Britain? When and why did they leave the fertile foothills of the Himalayas for the frosty damp British Isles? In what political, social, and cultural circumstances did they live? How did these Punjabis experience, negotiate, and articulate belonging (and non-belonging) in the former metropole? And how did these politics of belonging change over time? These questions, of what it means to be Punjabi in diaspora, have been for me questions of the heart and family, for I was raised in the suburbs of London (what will always be my home) by two parents born in Punjab. While my journey for the answers to these questions is ongoing, my research thus far has steered me to the wonderfully rich and yet largely marginalized archives of local community newspapers.

The lives of my extended family are intimately bound up in the imperial history of Britain. For the historian, the westward journey of my maternal family from the green fields of Punjab to the black foundries of the Midlands, represents just some of the ways in which imperial webs continued to shape mobility after the formal ends of empire. In attempting to explore what it meant for migrants like my family and others, whose lives were shaped by the great currents of empire and decolonization, to forge a new home in a foreign place, my research met a rather abrupt end in the national archives. The lives I was interested in were invisible, or marginal and scattered at best, within the files and folders at Kew. My own history and this research project, both of which I saw as part of what Bill Schwarz has called "the many inchoate histories of post-colonial Britain," had stalled on an unusually bright day in west London.

A week later, through a family friend and a favor called, I found myself within the office of the editor of the Des Pardes Weekly (home and away) newspaper, a Punjabi language paper published from offices in Southall, west London. The Des Pardes was established in 1965 in Kent by a Punjabi Sikh immigrant, Tarsem Singh Purewal. It is currently the most widely circulated Punjabi language newspaper printed outside India. As such it provides a broad window on to the everyday conversations through which Punjabi speaking migrants have articulated community and belonging on British shores since the mid-60s. When I arrived at the offices in 2011, no researcher had ever requested to explore their archives in full before. The treasure trove of materials, including the back catalogue of the newspaper and unpublished photos and readers' letters, were housed in an unused room on the top floor of the newspaper's offices. A messy combination of folders and piles, the archive had been ignored and abandoned (figures 1 and 2). At the top of the first box I opened lay a picture of my grandfather's older brother sprightly marching in the street (figure 3).

Along with oral histories collected and preserved by numerous heritage projects across London, the Des Pardes archive illuminates in my project diverse social histories of postwar Britain, from the inscribing of communities through the circulation of Punjabi folk songs, to the migrants guide to Christmas television specials. The newspaper includes sections devoted to topics ranging from politics and reader's letters, to poetry and travel. Outside of the pages of the paper, numerous boxes house the traces of family histories like my own. The difficulties of language have concealed such archives to a generation of historians. It may be time for departments to think deeply about the languages in which historians of postwar Britain train. For now, preserving the value of archives like the Des Pardes is a huge task, particularly within an increasingly bleak funding landscape. I hope that posts such as these will help make the archive more visible, and request that other historians working with foreign-language newspapers and other community archives in the UK may reach out to me (in the comments or via email) to share the common trials and triumphs of researching outside of mainstream archival spaces.

Rajbir Purewal Hazelwood is Assistant Professor of History at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She is currently working on her first book which examines Punjabi migrants in postwar London. She can be reached at [email protected]

0 Comments Read full post »