Projects & Activities

The Swadhinata Trust's launch event for Tower Hamlets 2000 Other Peoples' Houses was a multimedia club night created for and with young people. Click on 'Party' to see what a success it was.

Incorporated into the night were the collaborative performances created by young people working with Asian Dub Foundation Education, poet Joyoti Grech and visual jockey Coco. Click on 'Workshops' for more.

The performances, which reflected the young Bengali participants' hopes, fears and aspirations about growing up in Britain today, amalgamated spoken word with visuals and live sound. To see examples of the poems please go to the poem page.

At present Swadhinata Trust is busy preparing the next edition of its magazine 'Bengali Info'. If you are interested in contributing, please click on 'Magazine' in the menu panel.

There are plans for further events and activities click on 'Plans' to find out more.

Tower Hamlets Bengali Heritage Trail

The Bengali Heritage Trail around Tower Hamlets will unlock the history of Britain’s first Bengali settlers, seamen known as Lascars, and will connect key landmarks such as the docks and buildings associated with the seamen who served on British naval and merchant ships from the 17th century onwards. The trail will be described in a booklet made available and online and at a special exhibition and seminar.

The research project will explore the history of the Lascars who were recruited in India to work for the East India Company. The trail will take in the sites of East India House and Calcutta House, East India Dock in Blackwall, and Seaman’s Lodgings. It will also include buildings resulting from the settlement of the Bengali Community, including the Brick Lane Mosque and the Kobi Nazrul Centre; and memorials such as the Altab Ali Arch and the Shahid Minar monument.

The project will offer unique opportunity for young people to research, document and celebrate Bengali history and heritage by producing the heritage trail. The young people involved with this project will learn about their community’s heritage, acquire skills in research, photography, uploading website, publication and furthermore will pass on this knowledge to other young people.

The project will work in consultation with Tower Hamlets Local History Library, London Metropolitan University and the Bishopsgate Institute.

The project started in November 2008 and will be completed in August 2010.

Sponsored  by

Volunteers training provided by

Tower Hamlets Bengali Heritage Photo Gallery

Bengalis in London’s East End

Bengalis in London's East End

Bengalis in London’s East End

The exhibition ‘Bengalis in London’s East End’

The Bengali Heritage Trail around Tower Hamlets unlocks the history of Britain’s first Bengali settlers, seamen known as Lascars, and connects key landmarks such as the docks and buildings associated with the seamen who served on British naval and merchant ships from the 17th century onwards. The exhibition is linked to a book titled ‘Bengalis in London’s East End’.

‘The Lascars were recruited in India to work for the East India Company. The trail covers the sites of East India House, Calcutta House, East India Dock in Blackwall, and the Seaman’s Lodgings. It also includes buildings resulting from the settlement of the Bengali Community, including the Brick Lane Mosque and the Kobi Nazrul Centre; and memorials such as the Altab Ali Arch and the Shahid Minar monument.

Exhibition Panel (PDF)


It is commonly believed that the Bengali presence in the UK is something relatively new, at its earliest, from the years following the Second World War.

In fact, this is very far from the case. The connection goes back over 400 years, right to the beginnings of British involvement in India. Much of what we know of this history comes from the India Office Records.

Books, periodicals and photographic collections add to this wealth of information, as do the personal papers of both British officials and Indian personalities of the time.

Exhibition Panel (PDF)

Settlements of sailors

Although some early Bengali migrants to Britain were servants, most were sailors recruited in India to work on merchant ships. The majority of Bengali seamen came from Sylhet, but others came from Chittagong and Noakhali. Their presence was noticed as early as 1765, when an Indian visitor to Britain wrote, ‘The English were not unacquainted with [men from] Chatgaon (present day Chittagong) and Juhangeernuggur (Jahangir Nagar present-day Dhaka).

Over the years, the community grew slowly, and by the beginning of the 20th century, groups of seamen and ex-soldiers, including a number of Bengalis, had settled near the docks of East End of London, Cable St and the Shadwell area. They joined the small number of Asian professionals mainly doctors, businessmen and lawyers who had established themselves in Britain from the middle of the 19th century.

Exhibition Panel (PDF)

Settlements in the 1950s

Among the settlers who arrived in the East End in the 1950s was Syed Abdul Kadir, who now lives in Poplar. He served in the Pakistan Navy from 1950 for twenty two years before retiring as a marine engineer in 1972. He came to the UK in 1953 to attend the Queen’s coronation at Westminster Abbey as guard of honour of the Pakistan Naval ship, PNS Zulfiquar. During Pakistan’s war with India in 1965 he was in active service. During Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971 he escaped West Pakistan to fight with Bengali freedom fighters.

Sea Captain Shiv Banerjee came to the UK in 1967, arriving at Tilbury Docks, as a cadet with the India Steamship Company. He then sailed around different parts of the world as an Officer in the Merchant Navy. In 1975 he studied at the School of Navigation which is now the London Metropolitan University site at Tower Gateway. The pictures also show his Master’s Certificate and Seaman’s Identity Card part of which is in Bengali. In the early days he lived at Beacon House, Dock Street – then, a seaman’s hostel.

Exhibition Panel (PDF)

Bengali politics in London’s East End

The earliest Bengali political activism in London’s East End can be traced to the first Bengali settlers – the seafarers (lascars) recruited in British India to work for the East India Company. The needs of this early community were at least partially met by the earliest charitable organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Asian Sailors in 1857. The more recent history of the Bengali community and political activism in London’s East End is very much a story of the community taking matters into its own hands.

This started with localised welfare politics, and was later characterised by support for Bangladesh’s national independence movement. The second generation of Bengali community activists moved into anti-racist politics, campaigning round community issues such as housing and education, political mobilisation in mainstream politics and the global politics of the anti-war movement.

Exhibition Panel (PDF)


Kolkata (Calcutta) was founded by Job Charnock, an English sailor, who settled in a Bengali village 240km up the river Hooghly in 1687. It soon became an East India Company trading post and fort, and grew into a great port city, from where the Bengali seamen mostly sailed. They were the forebears of today’s East End Bengali community.

At first The East India Company shipped thousandsof tonnes of tea to Britain from China. In 1824, Robert and Charles Bruce, two brothers from Scotland, discovered wild tea growing in Assam. However, it was not immediately recognised as such: the curator of the Botanical Gardens, a medical doctor called Nathan Wolff thought it was another member of the Camellia family. It was not until 1835 that he accepted it was tea.

In 1840, a tea garden was established in Chittagong. By 1855, wild tea plants were also discovered at Chandkhani Hills of Sylhet in Bangladesh. The first commercial tea garden in Bangladesh was, however, established in 1857 at Malnicherra Tea Estate, two miles away from Sylhet town.

Exhibition Panel (PDF)

The community now

Why the East End?

Immigrants settled in the East End of London, close to the Brick Lane – Banglatown area, because living costs there were relatively cheap, while job prospects made the area particularly attractive.

The first big wave of immigration was from France in the late 1500s, with the French Huguenot Protestants fleeing persecution. (The word ‘refugee’ entered the English language at this time.) Both as a result of prosperity and poverty (when imports from India among other places shrank demand for their textiles), they moved to other parts of the UK. However they were followed by other waves of immigrants: the Irish escaping during the great ‘potato famine’ of the 1840s, the Jews from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.


‘Banglatown’ is now the official name for Brick Lane and the surrounding area. This happened in 1997, after a campaign among local community activists aimed at getting recognition for the largest Bengali settlement in the UK. In 2001, the electoral ward of Spitalfields was renamed as Spitalfields and Banglatown Ward.

Exhibition Panel (PDF)

Shahid Minar (Martyr’s Monument)

Shahid Minar (Martyr’s Monument) is in Altab Ali Park. It is an abstract work of art – a white structure representing a mother protecting her children in front of a rising crimson sun erected in 1999. This is a locally-made replica of a larger memorial in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which commemorates the ‘Language Martyrs’ shot dead by the Pakistani Police on the 21st February, 1952 during a protest against the imposition of Urdu as Pakistan’s state language.

In February 1999, the United Nations declared February 21 World Mother Language Day. At midnight on the 20th February (Shahid Dibosh) the martyrs of the Language Movement are remembered in a solemn ceremony in the Park, and the Bengali community comes to lay wreaths. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, a journalist and freeman of Tower Hamlets, wrote a Martyr’s Day song, Amar bhaier rokte rangano Ekushe February.

Exhibition Panel (PDF )

The rise of South Asian music

The rise of South Asian music started in the 1970s when Biddu, Steve Coe and Sheila Chandra rose to prominence. However, it was not until the late 1980s that British Asian youth first started to create a new musical genre by combining dance music with the music of their parents’ generation.

The youth were growing up in an environment of racial violence and political struggle for self-identity while drawing strength from street culture and their Asian roots. They took pride in their music as they could claim it as their own neither white nor music imported from the Indian sub-continent. The artists who emerged from this period became some of the most successful Asian artists in Britain. They included the Asian Dub Foundation, Joi, State of Bengal and Osmani Soundz amongst others.

Exhibition Panel (PDF )


Heritage Lottery Fund for providing funds.

Bishopsgate Institute for providing part funding, research and logistics support.


ppre and the London Metropolitan University for providing training, supervision and general support throughout.


And finally thanking all of our volunteers, agencies and individuals whose photographs we have used and those who helped us throughout the project:


Abdul Quayum Khalique (Jamal), Taj Stores

Abdul Shahid, Swadhinata Trust

Abu Taher, Shanghati Literary Society

Ashraf Mahmud Neswar, Manager, Kobi Nazrul Centre

Alice Bigelow, Arts & Community consultant

Andy Simons, Modern British Collections/Social History, The British Library

Auste Mickunaite, Permissions, The British Library

Claire Renard, Grants Assistant, London Team, Heritage Lottery Fund.

Abul Azad, Surma Project Worker, Toynbee Hall

Amanda Sebestyen, writer & activist

Alice Sielle, Belief in Bow, St Barnabas Church

Bilkis Begum Mosoddik, Swadhinata Trust

Brian Oakaby, GLA

Cath Richardson, Grants Assistant, London Team, Heritage Lottery Fund.

Christopher Lloyd, Local Studies Officer, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Chris Rawlings, Picture Library, The British Library

Clive Polden, Cinema Theatre Association Archive

David Parry, Acquisitions Curator, Photograph Archive, Imperial War Museum

Dr. Tom Wareham FRSA, Curator of Maritime and Community Histories, Museum of London Docklands

Dr. Jennifer Howes, Curator, Prints Drawings & Photographs, Asia Pacific & Africa Collections, The British Library

David Bell, Image Sales & Licensing, Imperial War Museum

Dilip Roy, General Secretary, Hindu Temple in Rhondda Grove.

Edgar Aromin, Admin Assistant – Photograph Archive, Image Sales Licensing, Imperial War Museum

Elizabeth Pinel, Schools and Community Learning Manager, Bishopsgate Institute

Emma Butterfield, Picture Librarian, Rights & Images, National Portrait Gallery

Ed Weech, Deputy Library Manager, Bishopsgate Institute

Emma Dakin, Library Assistant, Bishopsgate Institute

Erica Davies, Ragged School Museum

Faruque Ahmed, Author & researcher

Felix Gott, Grants Assistant, Heritage Lottery Fund – London Team

Fiona Cormack, Library and Archive Assistant, Museum of London

Georgie Wemyss, author of White Memories, White Belonging: Competing Colonial Anniversaries in ‘Postcolonial’ East London

Graham Fisher, Chief Executive, Toynbee Hall

Hasnat Chowdhury, Walworth Community & Enforcement, London Borough of Southwark

Ian Kikuchi, Assistant Curator, Film and Video Archive, Imperial War Museum

Jamie Owen, Picture Library Manager. Royal Geographical Society with IBG

Jamil Iqbal, Swadhinata Trust

James Swapan Peris, Bengali Christian Fellowship

Jan Pimblett, Principal Interpretation Officer, London Metropolitan Archives

Jeremy Smith, Assistant Librarian, London Metropolitan Archives

Julia Rose, Grants Officer, Heritage Lottery Fund – London team

Julie Begum, Swadhinata Trust

Jo Parker, Archivist, Waltham Forest Archives

Joan Casey, Trinity House

Ken Russell, photographer

K R Choudhury, relative of Indian Labour leader Aftab Ali

Kajal Sarker, Bengali Christian Fellowship

Kate Maconachy, Getty images

Kois Miah, Photographer

Lynn Harris, Trinity House

Malcolm Barr-Hamilton, Borough Archivist, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Martin Mintz, Picture Library Assistant, The British Library

Mohiuddin Siddique, Eyeculture

Maureen Roberts, Interpretation Officer, City of London: London Metropolitan Archives

Michael H. Fisher, Danforth Professor of History, Oberlin College

M A Rauf, author of Londoner Smriti

Matthew Pegler, Director, Altyerre

Mrinal Sarkar, Sanaton Association

Mohammed Osman Gani, Brick Lane Trust

Mogol Shomraht, Deshi Movement

Nighat Taimuri, Development Officer, Heritage Lottery Fund.

Nikki Braunton, Picture Library Researcher, Retail and Licensing, Museum of London

Nick Robins, author of The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational

Nurul Islam, author of Probashir Kotha

Peter Ashan, Learning and Outreach Officer, Waltham Forest Council’s Museum, Gallery and Archives Service.

Prof Muhammad Nurul Huque, East End Community School

Rory Lalwan, Senior Archives Assistant, City of Westminster Archives Centre

Rozina Visram, author of Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947

Sajjad Miah, Brick Lane Mosque

Sean Carey, Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.

Siân Mogridge, Archivist, Hackney Archives

Sister Christine Croft

Shiv Banerjee, retired sea captain

Shofique Miah, Mitali Housing Association

Shompa Lahiri, Centre for the Study of Migration at Queen Mary

Suzanne Bardgett, Head of Department of Holocaust and Genocide History, Imperial War Museum

Syed Abdul Kadir, retired marine engineer

Stefan Dickers, Library and Archives Manager, Bishopsgate Institute

Stephanie Dacres, Administration Manager, Bishopsgate Institute

Uchchall Salique, Dishari Shilpi Ghosti

Vandana Patel, Project Co-ordinator, Royal Geographical Society with IBG

Yvonne Oliver, Image Sales & Licensing, Imperial War Museum

Uday Shankar Das, Cultural activist


Every attempt has been made by the Swadhinata Trust to secure the appropriate permissions for materials reproduced in this exhibition.

If there has been any oversight, we will be happy to rectify the situation and a written submission should be made to the Trust.


Text prepared and edited by Ansar Ahmed Ullah, John Eversley & Yasmin Uddin.


Panels designed & printed by Fairkey.


Exhibition Panel (PDF )


Download the Bengalis in London’s East End Book (PDF )

Download the Bengalis in London’s East End Book Cover (PDF)

Bengalis in London’s East End exhibition available for loan

The Swadhinata Trust is delighted to present the touring panel exhibition ‘Bengalis in London’s East End’ which comprises of 10 panels mobile exhibition unlocks the history of Britain’s first Bengali settlers, seamen known as Lascars, and connects key landmarks and buildings associated with the Bengali community in East London. In addition to the exhibition an accompanying book is available, and on request seminar around the local Bengali history can be organised.

The exhibition focuses on a wide range of themes of Bengali community including: Beginnings, Settlements of sailors, Settlements in the 1950s, Settlements in the 1950s and The community now – Banglatown.

For further information and bookings please contact:

Ansar Ahmed Ullah
Swadhinata Trust
International Centre for Community Development
Faculty of Social Sciences & Humanities
London Metropolitan University
166/220 Holloway Road
N7 8DB
United Kingdom

Oral History Project

Tales of three generations of Bengalis in the UK: Bengali Oral History Project

September 2005 – August 2006

There are approximately 500,000 Bengalis currently living in the UK. Not much history of those Bengalis who settled in the UK currently exists (except two books written by Caroline Adams & Yousuf Chowdhury). Many of the first settlers are now elderly (sadly some have already passed away) and their memories and experiences are being lost as their testimonies have not been recorded and preserved. Many young Bengalis do not know the history of their elders and cannot easily access information related to Bengali community. The project aims to preserve the memories and experiences of the elders before this loss.

The project will offer unique opportunity to Bengali young people to research, document and celebrate Bengali heritage & history by recording the experience of three generation Bengalis in the UK. Interviews (interviews will be translated into Bengali or vice versa) will be recorded on audio (and if possible on video), materials (including photographs) will be used for exhibition, publication (including learning packs for schools) and website. Original material will be held with the Swadhinata Trust (for its proposed Bengali Resource Centre) and CRONEM but copies will be deposited in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and other institutions Swadhinata Trust works with in partnership.

See the short film which includes extracts of the video interviews.

Hope Against Hate Audio Interview

The Oral History Project Interviews


Interviewee profiles and interviews from the three strands of the Oral History Project

The interviews carried out as part of this project have been written up and are reproduced in full here


Main Preface to the interviews

by Prof John Eade , Executive Director CRONEM, University of Surrey and Ansar Ahmed Ullah Swadhinata Trust Nirmul Committee

Strand 1:

Dialogue between first and third generation on the history of Bangladesh and the 1971 war of independence
– An Introduction to Strand 1

Interviewee profiles and full transcripts

Strand 2:

Dialogue between second and third generation on welfare and community involvement in the UK, from the 1970s-80s
– An Introduction to Strand 2

Interviewee profiles and full transcripts

Strand 3:

Popular culture – between tradition and innovation – Across three generations, mainly focussing on traditional and more recent British Bengali musical heritage
– An Introduction to Strand 3

Interviewee profiles and full transcripts

Oral History Project Media Coverage


Oral History Project in the media

Below is some of the press coverage the Swadhinata Trust’s Oral History Project has received.

Bangla Post page from Bangla Post 5th May 2006 (JPEG image – opens in new window)

Notin Din page from Notin Din 5th May 2006 (JPEG image – opens in new window)

Surma page from Surma (JPEG image – opens in new window)

East End Life Bridging the gap – page from East End Life (External web page – opens in new window)

East End Life – Bangla section page from East End Life – Bangla section, 5th May 2006 (JPEG image – opens in new window)

Times Higher Education News page from Times Higher Education News (pdf document – opens in new window)

Stratford and Newham Express page from Newham and Stratford Express Online (opens in new window)

Stratford and Newham Express – Education pack launch page from Newham and Stratford Express (pdf document – opens in new window)

Mayor of London Lottery puts Asian heritage on London map (pdf file – opens in new window) The Mayor of London’s ‘India Now’ season

BBC Archives Discovering London’s Asian Music

Bangla Mirror Bangla Mirror review 30-01-2009

Faces in Westminster  Faces in Westminster

Other Oral History Projects


Below are links to other Oral History Projects

Voice of East Bank

►D.C. Everest Area Schools ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM

►The Immigrants Project – An Oral History Project that tells the stories of people from all over the world who came to settle in Reading.

►Kala Tara An Oral History of the Asian Youth Movements in Britain.

►Kings Cross Voices A London Borough of Camden project which seeks to record people’s memories and unique life experiences of the King’s Cross area.

►Oral histories of Bengalis who experienced Pak army atrocities in 1971 Evidence of Participants & Eye witness accounts.

Roots and Routes – Congolose diaspora in multicultural Britain by David Garbin and Wa Gamoka Pambu

B-ONE EKH BENGALI – An intergenerational community oral history project in which young people from the Elephant and Castle area learned interviewing and recording skills and collected the stories of older people in their communities. It provided an opportunity for young and older people to make their mark and record their community’s history together.

Everyday Muslim – a five-year project to create a central archive of Muslim lives, arts, education and cultures from across the UK.

► The award-winning Child Migrant Stories is a space to explore the experiences of child migrants both today and in the past. It brings together the voices and experiences of those who migrated under the age of 18 to the UK from 1930 to the present day. The initiative uses images, sound, text and short films developed in collaboration with former child migrants, some of whom are artists, musicians, and filmmakers on this page.

Partnership Working

Swadhinata Trust is proud to have a partnership working relationship with:




Writing British Asian Cities (PDF 57.3KB)


Community Interview

The Pickle Project


Brick Lane is home to our social enterprise, the Pickle Project. By immersing people in an area with real culture, history and interesting people, we are able to provide unique learning opportunities for companies that want to develop, entertain and inspire people. As well as broadening people’s minds through events and training, the Pickle Project aims to make a real difference to people’s lives through the unique activity of creating a new food brand in one day to sell for the benefit of others. In addition to supporting the local community in Tower Hamlets, we’ve also been raising money to support projects far away in Bangladesh, South Africa and Kenya.

If you would like to know more details about the Pickle Project event watch the film at or see the attached summary.

Pickle Project by Altyerre June 2010 (PDF 1.29MB)

Altyerre Pickle Project: Unilever Event 2nd March 2010 creative learning & development for 80 Unilever staff. Swadhinata Trust was one of the partners with Carnivale Bar, Sheraz restaurant and Sparks Studio.

Available video

The Pickle Project – Altyerre – inspiring people.pdf

One Tower Hamlets for All


Fundamentalism and the ‘faith industry’ in Tower Hamlets

Minority communities residing in the UK have had many labels imposed on them since their arrival in large numbers in the 1960s and ’70s. In recent years there has been a focus on faith, so those once identified as ‘Asians’ are now described in religious terms. This shift has led to the emergence of a ‘faith industry’ comparable to the ‘race industry’ of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in Tower Hamlets the multiple policies and groups associated with this have done little to challenge fundamentalism. Read the article

The project plan is to increase engagement with faith institutions via a number of events held across six months from Oct 2010 – Feb 2011 with the objective of:

  • Enhanced working relationship with Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish and secular organisations
  • Increased engagement of young people and members of other faith communities with the Muslim community and to build links with Brick Lane Mosque and other faith institutions
  • Positive engagement between faith communities and Brick Lane Mosque
  • Increased outward facing role for Brick Lane Mosque and wider promotion within the community
  • Increased engagement of young people and members of all faith communities working together to challenge extremism
  • To provide an alternative to young people drawn by extremist groups and to inform young people of similarities and universal message of all religions of serving humanity