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Joginder Singh, Shoe Maker

November 6, 2013
by the gentle author

Observe these two handsome portraits of Joginder Singh taken in Bethnal Green in January 1968 and note his contrasted demeanour and clothing. In one, he wears western garb and is accompanied by the accoutrements of the modern business man, a telephone and an umbrella, while in the other he wears traditional clothing and is accompanied by a bamboo screen, a plant and a decorative table with a book. These pictures speak eloquently of the different worlds that Joginder inhabited simultaneously, as a Sikh living in Princelet St.

Nearly thirty years after Joginder’s death, his son Suresh spoke to me recently about his father’s life. In spite of the poor living conditions that his family endured in Princelet St and the racism he suffered, Suresh recalls the experience of growing up there affectionately and the family photographs which accompany this interview confirm his fond memories of a happy childhood in a crowded house in Spitalfields.

“My dad came to this country in 1949 from Nangal Kalan Hashiarpur in the Punjab. He came to Princelet St in Spitalfields and we’ve lived there ever since. He couldn’t read or write. He was a shoe shine at Liverpool St Station for twenty-one years and then he became labourer until he dropped dead in 1986 at fifty-six. My dad was tall and strong and, when they lined them all up in the village, it was decided he should be the one to go to Britain. They all said to dad, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ and he was one of the first over. All the men came first, so mum didn’t came over until 1952. My dad came by plane but she came by boat from Bombay and it took six months. She couldn’t read or write either.

My dad was a Pacificist, so he didn’t want to go in the army like my uncles who were in the Bombay Engineers. He was of the old school, he was influenced by the Naxolites, Trotskyites who came in to the Punjab from Communist China, and my dad used to hide them in the field. He didn’t like the religion or the materialism of Sikhism.

He was a shoe maker. He knew how to kill a cow, strip the hide, dry it and make shoes. He was of the lowest caste, an untouchable – because the cow was a sacred creature. He came to Spitalfields with just a satchel with shoe polish in it. When dad got here, he wore a turban and couldn’t get a job. So he went to a friend in Glasgow who said, ‘I’ll tell you how to get a job.’ He took off my dad’s turban and shaved his head, and my dad came straight back to Spitalfields and got a job at once.

My dad was not selfish, he was good to everybody. He brought lots of people over, nephews and cousins, and he’d pick people up in the street and bring them home. The Environment Health tried to close our house down because we had fifty people living in it. The Council said, ‘We’ll close this place, it’s full of bedbugs and fleas and you piss in a bucket. How can you live like this? It’s a slum.’ I was born in Mile End Hospital and I had TB at the age of ten because of the number of people that lived in our house. It’s a four storey house and, eventually, he bought it for two grand and I still live there today.

A lot of my friends at school were in the National Front but they thought I was OK because I spoke Cockney. In 1972, the National Front sold their newspapers in Brick Lane and, in 1977, when punk happened I became the first Pakistani Punk, so I attracted  a lot of racist attention. I played drums for Spiz Energy on their single ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ that made it to number sixty in the Rough Trade vinyl chart. I was so bullied at Daneford School, I got a lot of ‘Paki-bashing’ abuse. I wasn’t terribly macho, I was a quiet boy who was interested in architecture and I went on to study it at University College London. Then I became a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and now I am principal of a school in Southwark that teaches NEETs.

Eddie Stride, Rector of Christ Church was my best mate. I remember Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard, Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Longford all popping in to the Rectory at 2 Fournier St. My elder sister Tejwant married Eddie Stride’s son Derek and she was disowned by my family for seven years.

Other Sikhs moved out to Ilford, East Ham and Southall, but my father wanted to stay here in Spitalfields, he didn’t want to go. They said to him, ‘How can you live among Muslims and Jews?’ and he said, ‘At least they don’t gossip!’ I don’t know why my dad stayed in Spitalfields. He lived next to the synagogue and the church – Spitalfields was multicultural and I think that’s what he loved.

We still go to the Punjab every year, dad bought so much land over there, he lived in a slum here so he could send every penny back to buy fields and farms in the Punjab.”

Joginder’s photographs of his trip home to the Punjab in 1972

Joginder’s brothers were in the Bombay Engineers

In Princelet St, 1972 - “Sometimes my father got the urge to dress up and be a Sikh”

Giano, Suresh and Tejwant, 1963

Joginder with nephews Gurmit and Narincer and family members, 1972

Suresh, Tejwant and friends, 1968

Suresh and his cousin Sarwan Singh, 1968

Tejwant, 1970

Giano and Bhakisa in the yard in Princelet St

Suresh and Naresh, 1968

Tejwant and Suresh, 1968

Suresh, 1972

Christ Church Youth Club football team with Naresh Singh, in the front on the right

Naresh Singh (in blue) on a Christ Church Youth Club summer trip, 1970

Christmas 1979, Bhakisa, Tejwant and Bilber

Chinnee Kaulder

Chinnee Kaulder & Joginder Singh, 1968

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    November 6, 2013

    Fantastic story. You should be proud of your parents and what they did for you. I hope your children appreciate what went on. Guard over your roots.
    I hope you will write your memories.

    Karkur Israel

  2. November 6, 2013

    What a great story, an interesting and impressive man, great set of photographs.
    And I loved Spiz Energy, Spiz Oil, all the other Spizes. Nice to meet you.
    Good for you with the NEETs, bet you’re a grand teacher.

  3. Neville Turner permalink
    November 6, 2013

    A very interesting family coverage and some great photos nice to see the name on your parents
    portraits the name of the photograher Griffiths who seemed to photograph almost every family
    on the east and west side of Bethnal Green.The Rector of Christchurch Eddie Stride was indeed
    a true religious man of the people one of the best.Thank you Suresh for your family story.

  4. November 6, 2013

    Since discovering that my great x 6 grandfather lived in Spitalfields, attended Christ Church and died in the parish workhouse, I feel that I have also discovered a new spiritual home that I must one day visit.

    As such, many of the people featured in these stories have become kindred spirits and I am often finding many coincidences in the tales. For example…

    Suresh, your life is every bit as interesting as your father’s. The first Pakistani Punk! Wow, what an accolade. And did you know that the single “Where’s Captain Kirk?” also made it onto an album called “Burning Ambitions (A History of Punk)? (Cherry Red Records, D Red 3) The track is on side three, between the Boomtown Rats and The Ruts, so you’re in good company.

    I have the vinyl here in front of me. I used to play that track on public radio in the 1980s so it was heard far away in Australia. It’s a great track and a fantastic album. To be selected as one of 38 tracks on a compilation also featuring the Buzzcocks, The Fall, Wire, Dead Kennedys, Stranglers, X-Ray Spex, Gen X and Sham 69 is a great achievement. Congratulations and thanks for sharing your story.

    Paul-o
    Port Adelaide

  5. Peter Hoffmann permalink
    November 6, 2013

    Thank you-a very interesting and enjoyable vignette-would be worth a further revisit at a future date to hear a little more of Joginder and his family’s story.

  6. November 6, 2013

    Wonderful! What a noble family they look – and what fine figures of men! I wonder if the brothers who stayed behind then got the land in the Punjab to farm?
    P

  7. November 6, 2013

    Brilliant portrait of a very resourceful man. It shows how much multi-culturalism has contributed to enriching British life.

  8. Paul Kelly permalink
    November 6, 2013

    Suresh should write a book of Joginder’s life and his own ; it’s an intriguing story , especially the bit when Suresh joins the punk band “Spiz Energy”. How nice of his father to put so many people up in his abode. Suresh , write the book!!!

  9. Jeannette permalink
    November 6, 2013

    a beautiful story, the untouchable shoe shine man who bought farms, was a pacifist and loved gossip-free multi culti, and filled his house with strangers. thank you so much.

  10. November 6, 2013

    This man should be considered as a hero of this England, someone whose life is an example to understand and honour. Thank you for telling his story.

  11. November 6, 2013

    These are people who build the backbone of any community, and show true neighbourhood spirit. The world needs more people like them! Valerie

  12. Su at the Seaside permalink
    November 6, 2013

    Just a fascinating recollection. I’ve really appreciated reading this. I am so impressed by your Dad’s determination to work, to the extent of dispensing with his turban. Hopefully the country has become more tolerant, but there is a lot to be learned from this. Thankyou

  13. Barbara permalink
    November 6, 2013

    What an incredible story. I too would like to know more about the family especially Tejwant.

  14. Cherub permalink
    November 9, 2013

    What a lovely story, I hope we will perhaps hear some more. One of my best friends here in Scotland is a Sikh, they truly are princes among men and really kind to all. My husband used to work near Southall and misses all of his Sikh workmates and their families.

  15. Bilber permalink
    December 3, 2013

    Days pass me by in this land of my birth
    But I know of the fate that brought me here
    As you fled your land for me
    You left your home for me
    For a future
    To be educated, liberated
    and of service to others.

    Extract from ‘Father’s Bracelet’. B Kaur
    +Big Thanks& Love to Suresh my brother

  16. Ian Timpany permalink
    January 19, 2014

    This is a fascinating picture of a fascinating man who embodies a part of the history of the East End and Shoreditch which is completely new to me. So much struggle would have sunk an ordinary man. Joginder Singh seems to have soared above it. Thanks for giving us this glimpse into the man and his family.

  17. Pippa Owens permalink
    January 31, 2014

    What a good read. You’ve had some experiences for sure! Long may the heritage continue.

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