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At 38 Princelet St

September 16, 2018
by Suresh Singh

Spitalfields Life Books will be publishing A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh in October. The book was inspired by the account of Suresh’s father Joginder Singh, which was first published in these pages in 2013. Here is a second instalment and further excerpts will follow over coming weeks.

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the story of his family who have lived in their house in Princelet St for nearly seventy years, longer I believe than any other family in Spitalfields. In the book, chapters of biography are alternated with a series of Sikh recipes by Jagir Kaur, Suresh’s wife.

You can support publication by pre-ordering a copy now, which will be signed by Suresh Singh and sent to you on publication.

Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

Suresh Singh and his wife Jagir in Princelet St this summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

Joginder Singh at 38 Princelet St

Dad came with very little. In 1949, he left his village in the north of India, carrying a small satchel with a tin of shoe polish and not much else. Because he was from the shoemaking caste he thought he could shine peoples’ shoes in London and that was what he did at first.

Somebody told Dad that you could sleep in doorways in Spitalfields and quickly find work there. The porters piled up their barrows and it fell on the floor in abundance, so you could easily collect enough fruit and vegetables for a week. He knew people would leave you alone and you could get by. I think something drew him to Spitalfields.

A man called Mama Nanak came to London before my father. He was a friend of the family and a wheeler-dealer, a dodgy guy. No-one ever said much about him but there is a photograph of him in his suit with a big moustache. He was an enterprising, entrepreneurial man. Eventually, he went to work at Heathrow Airport cleaning toilets and moved to Southall. He brought Sikhs over and said to them, ‘You can stay here.’ He was someone who worked his way around things. He and Dad got hold of a house from a Jewish furrier. In those days, you could just buy the keys.

Our house, it was a slum then. Official records state it was vacant at the time. Dad wanted a big house so that he could welcome his mates and soon there were as many as fifty people living in it. You ask any Punjabi from here to Glasgow who arrived in Spitalfields in the fifties and they will tell you they lived at 38 Princelet Street, even if it was for one night. Some people even walked from Heathrow Airport. They were hot-bedding, with one person getting up to go to work and another climbing into the same bed. It was pretty rough but it was a place where people got on. You could mingle in Spitalfields if you had a big overcoat and a hat, tucking yourself into the area with its smell of bonfires, the brewery, and the fruit and vegetable market.

It was a dark place at night but Dad had a sense of direction even though he could not read or write. He found his way by landmarks. Hawksmoor’s tall spire of Christ Church, with its illuminated clock, dominated the neighbourhood. Even when it was dirty, Christ Church was pretty swag, and Dad liked it. Although there were tramps outside and the bustling Spitaltfields market was across the road, he believed you could elevate yourself out of it.

Our house was in the next street and Liverpool Street station was beyond. On Sundays you could pick up stuff for nothing in the flea markets and Dad got most of our furniture there. In the surrounding streets were Maltese families, Irish families, Hassidic and other Jewish families. It was a mishmash of people and Dad was in his element. Spitalfields pulled him in. The Punjab and the East End of London were two different worlds. I think the docks and the river led him to this place, where you could get by even if you had very little.

Dad found it very difficult to get work because he had a beard and long hair wrapped up in a turban. Some Sikhs shaved their heads. He was told there was a guy in Glasgow who would do it with an accompanying ritual. Dad took the coach to Glasgow to the rough part of the tenement blocks. The guy said to my Dad, ‘This is how you get a job in England.’ He took Dad into the yard and removed his turban and shaved his hair and his beard off. They said that day, ‘Joginder Singh wailed at the top of his voice.’ Dad said, ‘Now my Sikhism is from within.’ He realised that he was in a foreign land but he could keep his faith inside. He made that sacrifice to get a job.

Dad worked in Liverpool Street station and Old Broad Street shining shoes on and off for fifteen years. He did not mind it, although others in the house often asked, ‘Why do you want to do that? You’ve come to England, why do you want to get down on your knees and shine shoes?’ Dad answered, ‘That is a lovely thing to do.’

When he came back from Glasgow, he got a job at once on a building site. People in the house thought, ‘Oh well he shaves, he gets a Wilkinson blade from the market and he keeps himself clean-cut.’ Yet Dad always wore the clothes of a Punjabi Sikh in the house, even if outside he wore proper tailored suits with a nice cut from a good Jewish tailor. These were bought down Brick Lane or in Cheshire Street and probably came off a stiff but they were bespoke. His friends always used to laugh, ‘Joginder Singh, the suits are very beautiful – don’t know how you got them?’ He always kept his shoes polished too, that was very important to him. Even today, I always keep my shoes polished.

I think it is funny but also sad that Dad would do that. Why did he put his pyjamas on and become like a proper Punjabi in the house, but dress in a suit before he went out? I think if he had put a coat over his pyjamas to go out he probably would have got away with it, but he never did. He always valued being in Britain and he worked really hard. I think Spitalfields welcomed him for that.

Dad was always bringing home down-and-outs he met in the street. Often, Dad would invite his vagabond friend Karama but Mum would say, ‘Keep him downstairs,’ because he was infested. So Dad sat him in the yard, shaved his hair off and set it alight, and as they burnt, the fleas would pop like sparklers. I remember Mum being at the end of her tether sometimes because Dad fed these down-and-outs. We still eat the same diet today and, if anybody comes, they eat what we eat. We do not say, ‘We’ve got friends coming, we’ve got to get special food.’ It is what it is, that was how it was and how it is today. It was the same when Mum was here and she passed it on to Jagir, my wife.

Dad became the owner of 38 Princelet Street in 1951, about two years after he arrived in London. I remember the house being full of people, with three gas meters and cookers upstairs and downstairs. My view was of kneecaps and shoes. Mr Ford, the environmental health officer was knocking on the door all the time saying, ‘We’re going to close you down.’ When I was a child we lived on the top floor, which was just an open space with the walls knocked through and the rafters uncovered with two skylights.

Our house was quite broken down and we did not have hot water or central heating. We used to bathe outside in the yard. I remember putting pans on the gas, heating up water. Once it boiled, we tipped it into a bucket and carried it down into the yard then topped it up with cold water. Dad washed in cold water and when he threw it on him, he yelled ‘Wah Hey Guru!’ The joke in the community was that Joginder Singh was a holy man because he kept shouting ‘Wah Hey Guru!’ but really it was the shock of cold water.

Some Sikhs did not want to stay with us, saying, ‘How can you live among Muslims and Jews?’ and he replied, ‘At least they don’t gossip, so you go and I’ll stay here.’ Our house was an open house and for many people it was a safe house – especially when Dad was there.

Joginder Singh in the kitchen at 38 Princelet St – “I think it is funny but also sad that Dad would do that. Why did he put his pyjamas on and become like a proper Punjabi in the house, but dress in a suit before he went out?”

Mama Nanak – “He was an enterprising, entrepreneurial man. Eventually, he went to work at Heathrow Airport cleaning toilets and moved to Southall.”

Joginder Singh


Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20


5 Responses leave one →
  1. September 16, 2018

    An interesting and sensible man. No wonder his son is proud of him.

  2. September 16, 2018

    I love this story so far, well written about a great character. I look forward to another instalment & will very likely buy the book. Thank you Gentle Author for this.

  3. Di Corry permalink
    September 16, 2018

    Why an inspiring story about human endeavour and hard work. Many families on low incomes struggled during those times in the East End, well done Suresh for documenting the story of your fathers’ struggles, and modest lifestyle ….. all the while keeping an ‘open house’ to help others. Quite admirable.

  4. Reader permalink
    September 16, 2018

    It touched my heart.

    No matter how hard I try, I can’t be as accommodating — or as charitable — as Joginder (and similar people I admire).

  5. Ragini permalink
    April 16, 2024

    I am so touched by your story and growing up in Spitalfields all that I read and really wish to share your story as it’s so inspiring.
    Are you still living in Spitalfields? Princelet street has become very historical site

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