From the Indus to the Don Valley- Sheffield's earliest Muslim settlers

David Holland is a Wolfson Foundation PhD Scholar in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He is researching the history of Muslim immigrants to Sheffield between the two World Wars. David Holland is currently trying to make contact with any other families of South Asian, or perhaps Yemeni, West Indian or African origin who believe one of their ancestors, perhaps a father, grandfather or great-grandfather travelled to these shores before the end of the Second World War.

As the Messenger reported in 2008, there lie in Burngreave Cemetery three Muslim graves from between the two world wars. Two of these graves are of men – one of Sultan Mohamed (died 1923, a surface worker at Beighton Colliery), the other of Gasalic Amidulla (died 1931,a boiler firer at Brown-Bayley steelworks), both identified as ‘Indian Mohamedan’. The third grave belongs to Souriya Khan, the baby daughter of a South Asian Muslim father Ayaht Khan and his Sheffield-born wife, Hilda.

These graves show that South Asians were living and working in Sheffield well before the period normally associated migration and settlement from the British Empire and its former colonies. The location of the graves was achieved with the help of regular Messenger contributor, Matloub Husayn Ali Khan. Another Muslim grave has been discovered from 1927 – that of Alof Din, another‘Indian Mohamedan'.

Evidence for the presence of at least another 54 men with Muslim names has since been discovered. All were present in Sheffield and Rotherham in the period between the end of the First World War and the end of the Second. Many of these men traveled from villages in around Chhachh in the northern Punjab, and the North West Frontier Province of what was British India (now both in Pakistan). Others migrants may have travelled from Mirpur in Kashmir, Jhelum or from Yemen.

There are official records of the marriages of 31 Muslim settlers with Sheffield-born European women and of the subsequent births of their children (such as Ayaht, Hilda and Souriya). As only a proportion of the men will have married, it is also highly likely that there were many more migrant workers who stayed in the city for shorter periods, but returned to their homelands without being recorded by government officials.

However, as regards the men that did stay here and raised families with their locally-born wives, their descendants are still alive and living in Britain.

In the era before affordable air travel, the men arrived in Britain by working as lascar seamen, shovelling coal in the stokeholds of British merchant steamships. On arrival in British ports (such as London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff and Hull), a number of lascars jumped ship in order to find work at the much better rates of pay available in Britain.

The vast majority of the settlers continued to shovel coal and coke on land but in the steel mills, foundries and even the collieries of the city. Self-employment also appears to have been a desirable option with a small number of the men operating as door to door salesmen of artificial silk garments. One of the settlers went from steel-working to street vendor of toffee and paper kites in Millhouses Park to market trader selling perfume and jewellery in Sheaf Market. In the early 1940s he and his wife opened a draper’s shop on Attercliffe Common (perhaps the first South Asian shop in Yorkshire) – all while working as an illusionist in the pubs and working men’s clubs of the area.

There is also strong evidence to suggest that many settlers continued their religious observance in the city. The Sheffield Star reported in 1957 that Muslim religious festivals had been celebrated in the city since early in the Second World War. Sheffield’s first official mosque was opened in 1946 in a room on the ground floor of a house on Worksop Road in Attercliffe occupied in 1943 by one of the couples.

David Holland is now trying to establish whether these pioneering migrants and settlers formed a network which enabled other men from Pakistan, India, Kashmir and perhaps other parts of the old British Empire to successfully work or settle in Sheffield after the Second World War. He has already managed to make contact with some of the descendants of these pioneer families and some of whom have been able to provide unique insights into the experience of South Asian migrants and settlers in Sheffield during the 1920/s and 1930/s. The networks of kin, marriage and friendship which they established between the world wars may show that the permanent settling in Sheffield by migrants from the colonies of the old British empire predates those of all other inland British cities, including Bradford.

if you have any information on this subject. David Holland can be contacted in confidence at:

David Holland Wolfson Foundation PhD Scholar in Modern History University of Sheffield

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