Joginder Singh, Shoe Maker
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
Giano and Bhakisa in the yard in Princelet St
Suresh and Naresh, 1968
Tejwant and Suresh, 1968
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 & Joginder Singh, 1968