Images of arrival

Archive photographs dating back to the 1950s detail the journeys and tell the personal stories of Muslim communities in the UK

Remona Aly

Ghulam Haidar and Jack Wade, 1957. Photographs courtesy of Everyday Muslim Archive

It was a grainy black and white photograph of her father, sharply dressed in a suit and tie, smiling as pigeons flapped around him in London’s Trafalgar Square, that planted an idea in Sadiya Ahmed’s mind.

“It was like I was seeing him for the first time, not as my father, but as a young man in his 20s with hopes and aspirations in his eyes,” she recalled.

Knowing that stories of migration and newly forged identities are generally passed on orally, rather than being formally documented, Ahmed decided to establish a central archive of Muslim life in Britain primarily since the 1950s. 

The Everyday Muslim Archive was created in 2013 in conjunction with the Bishopsgate Institute, an archive and library in Liverpool Street in east London. Ahmed launched the website, initially hosting old photographs of her parents along with images from her first archive project featuring post war migration of South Asians to London.

Over the past decade, Ahmed and a team of volunteers have interviewed hundreds of British Muslims about their varied experiences, which include settling in rural communities and searching for places to buy halal meat.

The Everyday Muslim Archive now hosts three digital archive collections, including an overview of Britain’s first purpose-built mosque and a history of London’s Black Muslim community. The site also offers a podcast and tailored educational packs for schools.

The photographs and oral histories offer a rich exploration of British Muslim life. Most importantly, they give those sharing their experiences ownership of their own stories. 

Highlights include photographs of university-educated women who became seamstresses to support their families; engineers such as Ghulam Haidar from Pakistan, who led the construction of the Thames Barrier; and white British converts like Major John Farmer, who became a campaigning voice for British Muslims.

According to Ahmed, archives such as this one “give the British Muslim experience shape, context and texture” and create “tangible connections between our heritage, our struggles and our representation in wider society.”

She is now working on a “digital map” consisting of user-created content that will link researchers to communities and museum documents to old family photograph albums.  

While the digital map is almost ready to launch, it requires funding from the heritage sector as well as Muslim communities to become sustainable. “We have to invest in our own histories, otherwise there is a danger of losing them. There is a danger of losing who we are,” she said. 

The Everyday Muslim Archive has also received some recognition, winning best new community archive in 2015 at the Community Archive Awards. The collection has also been cited in several academic theses.

For Ahmed, the archive is not only a public service but a deeply personal undertaking. She recalls a particularly moving interview with a husband and wife from an affluent family in Pakistan, who moved to a squalid box room in east London in the 1960s. Far from encountering a promised land, they were met with poor living conditions, smog and isolation. 

“It can be heartbreaking to hear these tales, but it’s all part of our journey. If we don’t know our stories, we can’t celebrate, understand or learn from them,” she said.

For Ahmed, the presence of Muslims in Britain isn’t to be viewed from the margins, but centrally contextualised within British history. 

“I never intended the project to be a Muslim-only archive,” she said. “I have always wanted it to be housed in our local and national archives. Because this is part of our shared British history. These stories belong to everyone.”

​​Here are ten images of British Muslim life from the archive:

1. The wedding of Major John Farmer and Ruby Sheppard, Woking, Surrey, 1950

Major John Farmer and Ruby Sheppard  nikah at Shah Jahan Mosque UK / Everyday Muslim Archive
The nikah, or Islamic wedding ceremony, of Major John Farmer and Ruby Sheppard at Shah Jahan Mosque, the UK’s first purpose-built mosque. Farmer was a convert and a leading voice in British Islam, who first came into contact with Muslims during a deployment to the Middle East in the first world war.

2. Halal butcher, Walthamstow, London, 1955

Mohammed Fazal Choudary halal butcher / Everyday Muslim Archive
In 1950s Britain, it was almost impossible for Muslims to find supplies of halal meat. Mohammed Fazal Choudary, originally from Pakistan, owned a spice shop in Walthamstow, east London, which also served as the area’s first halal butcher. Amid the coriander and fenugreek being grown in the back garden were live chickens that would be slaughtered in the basement of the shop and sold to customers.

3. Ghulam Haidar and Jack Wade, 1957

Ghulam Haidar and Jack Wade / / Everyday Muslim Archive
Ghulam Haidar arrived in the UK from Pakistan in 1953 after being headhunted by Burmah Oil company. He led many major projects, including being the lead engineer on the Thames Barrier. This photograph shows him with Jack Wade, a retired Burmah employee, who spent 10 days teaching Haidar “how to be English”, including lessons on how to dress and use a knife and fork. When Haidar told Jack he did not eat bacon, Jack said: “Boy, you stick to boiled eggs.”

4. A letter from home, 1960s

Aga Rais Mirza / / Everyday Muslim Archive
Aga Rais Mirza came to the UK from India in 1960 at the age of 22 and became a printer. He was also a passionate photographer who documented his everyday experiences in London to send to his family in Jaipur. In this image, his housemate reads a letter from home. As few as one in ten homes in Britain owned a telephone in the early 1960s and airmail letters offered a vital link, carrying news of daily life, births and deaths.

5. The interracial family, 1960s

Hassan Mahamdallie / Everyday Muslim Archive
Hassan Mahamdallie, who was born to an Indian Muslim father from Trinidad and a white British mother, grew up in 1960s suburban London, in what he described as a “very hostile environment”. His mother, Maureen, was disowned by her family and friends after marrying a non-white man. Mahamdallie recalls seeing the Conservative MP Enoch Powell on TV, and vividly remembers when the National Front vandalised the family’s garage door to mark out their mixed-race household.

6. First female Muslim factory owner, 1960s

Jamila Qureshi / Everyday Muslim Archive
Delhi-born Jamila Qureshi came to London in the late 1960s. She first worked at a factory on Princelet Street, just off Brick Lane in east London. Qureshi was soon known for her skills as a seamstress and opened Jazz Company as a small business from her home. Qureshi, her husband, and five children later moved to Bishopsgate, relocating to a three-storey building, which provided accommodation, a cutting room and a sewing room. In the early 1970s, she purchased a nearby textile factory, becoming one of the first female Muslim factory owners in the country.  

7. Tinsel, money and grooms, 1970s

Tinsel, money and grooms / Everyday Muslim Archive
Instead of flowers, grooms in some parts of India and Pakistan often wore garlands of tinsel festooned with rupees. This wedding custom migrated to the UK and was often seen at functions in the 1970s and 80s, but with sterling notes. The ready-made garlands would be sourced from areas with significant South Asian communities, including Birmingham, Southall and Bradford, or sent from Pakistan and India.

8. A tale of two families, 1979 

Wasilat Daniju / Everyday Muslim Archive
Wasilat Daniju was born in 1979 in London to Nigerian parents. At three months old, she was fostered by a white English family in Kent, alongside her three brothers and sisters. At the time, it was common practice for West African couples arriving in England to have their children live with white foster families while they worked and studied, so that they could later provide them with a better life. During the week, Daniju lived with her foster family, then at weekends she stayed with her birth parents. Daniju’s foster mother respected her Muslim faith and ensured that she and her siblings prayed on time and woke up for pre-dawn meals during Ramadan. 

9. TV and nostalgia, 1970s and 80s

Nusrat Syed / Everyday Muslim Archive
Nusrat Syed arrived in the UK from India with her husband in 1967. A few years later, they sent photographs to relatives of themselves posing proudly in their home, next to a brand new television. By the 1980s, TV had become an important way for British South Asians to access films and songs from the motherland, thanks to the advent of home video and shows such as Channel 4’s Movie Mahal, which showcased songs from classic Indian cinema.

10. Picnic with a Datsun

Picnic with a Datsun / Everyday Muslim Archive
The Datsun Cherry was launched in the early 1970s and quickly became the affordable car of choice for a significant number of South Asian families. Many spent weekends exploring the countryside, packing essential picnic supplies, including thermoses of hot tea, keema, potato curry and chapatis. 

To find out more about the Everyday Muslim Archive, visit www.everydaymuslim.org

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