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Parkash Kaur, Shopkeeper

October 5, 2023
by the gentle author


We are in the third week of our month’s crowdfund campaign and I am grateful to the 149 people who have contributed so far, and touched by your messages of encouragement. I am hoping that we can reach the target in the next 9 days.






Sarah Ainslie celebrates the contribution of female labour over the past thirty years in exuberant portraits that capture the passion and struggle of the working life. Drawn from Sarah’s personal archive and her work as Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer, this is a panoramic survey of social change.

“It means so much to me and will be an important recognition of all the women I have photographed over the years for this book to be published by Spitalfields Life Books, a perfect home for it.”

Sarah Ainslie

‘We Punjabi girls are strong.’

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I first met Parkash Kaur in 2015 when we were making portraits of the residents of the Holland Estate next to Petticoat Lane in Spitalfields. It was evident then that Parkash occupied a revered position among the residents as spiritual mother to the entire estate.

Then Suresh Singh, author of A MODEST LIVING, told me that Parkash famously ran a grocers shop at 5 Artillery Passage with her husband Jarnail Singh. So close were these two Sikh families in Spitalfields that Suresh and his wife Jagir know Parkash as Aunty Ji and, in Suresh’s childhood, he knew Jarnail as Uncle Jarnail.

Jarnail came to London in 1951 from Jundalar in the Punjab to seek a better life and his wife Parkash joined him in 1953. They had been married when they were children. By 1958, they had saved enough money to put a deposit on a shop in Artillery Passage and in 1963 they bought it and moved in, opening the first Sikh grocer in East London.

Around 2000, they closed their shop and retired to live fifty yards away in the Holland Estate. Since Jarnail died in 2010, Parkash lives alone but Suresh & Jagir visit her regularly. Sarah Ainslie & I accompanied them recently and we shared a delicious dinner of Jagir’s homemade rotis and yoghurt while Parkash told her story to Suresh, who has translated it from Punjabi for us to read.

“Your father and my husband made a pact of love and they called themselves the ‘rodda’ Sikhs (the ones without turbans). They had this silent love that they kept dear between them and always knew of each other’s joy and pain, sometimes even without talking.

They sat and talked all day long in our shop at 5 Artillery Passage where me and your Uncle worked day and night. I would shut the heavy shutters in the evening and sleep on  the top floor while your Uncle went to do a night shift at the rubber factory in Southall. I walked back the other day to Artillery Passage and I could not even find the door or the number. No one there spoke Hindi or Punjabi any more and I felt a deep loss. It made me very sad.

Our days started at 4am each morning when your Uncle Jarnail would bring boxes of fruit and vegetables from the Spitalfields Market across the road. Big rats would jump out of some of the boxes. I was so scared of the rats, but we had a lovely niece working for us who could catch them by their tails. She would never kill them, but lift the heavy grate from the sewer and send them back. She said they were gods.

Suresh, this was when you were very little. I remember your mother Chinee would always wave and call out ‘Sat Shri Akal’ (blessings to all) to me from far away, if she saw me in Petticoat Lane or in Itchy Park next to the big white church. She was a very observant women who always stuck by your father, Joginder.

I was so happy when your parents invited me and your Uncle Jarnail to your wedding with Jagir in 1984. It was a joyful occasion for Joginder. After his stroke, your father  struggled to walk yet he would always come every day from Princelet St to our shop in Artillery Passage and ask your Uncle Jarnail, ‘Do you think we have enough roti flour?’ For a long time, we were the only shop in East London that sold roti flour and people would come from as far away as Mile End and Plaistow.

Your Uncle Jarnail and Joginder helped each other with money, they never wanted to let each other down. People would say ‘Jarnail is a jatt (a farm owner) but Joginder is a chamar (an untouchable).’ Your uncle would reply, ‘Get out of my shop! We do not believe in castes here. He is my brother.’

All the money earned by Punjabis in East London passed through our shop and we sent it over to the Punjab and exchanged it for rupees, so people could build big houses over there. Once I sat on thousands of pounds in cash all on my own while your Uncle was out, before it was sent to the Punjab. I learnt to be a very good counter of money. In those days, people were naive enough to believe that one day they would all take their families back to the Punjab and live there for ever. But in Joginder’s eyes, he knew the truth.

He was happy to spend time with your Uncle Jarnail in the shop. They often spoke of the assassin Udam Singh who lodged in 15 Artillery Passage in the thirties. He shot Michael O’ Dwyer who ordered the massacre of Sikhs in Amritsar when he was Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab.

When me and your Uncle Jarnail needed a break from the hard work of shopkeeping, dealing with customers who never wanted to pay the asking price and always wanted to barter, we would sit on the wall outside Artillery Passage and eat ice cream from another shop – just to have a change. That was our holiday.

Where are all those people who came to our shop now? All gone. The ones that we helped out, where are they? Not to be seen. But you and Jagir are here with me and you know you are always welcome in my home. I am happy that you and Jagir and look after me. Your Uncle Jarnail died and left me alone but I am strong. We Punjabi girls are strong.”

Portraits by Sarah Ainslie

Parkash Kaur

Jarnail Singh

Jarnail ouside the grocery shop he ran with Parkash at 5 Artillery Passage

Parkash in her flat the Holland Estate (Photograph by Sarah Ainslie)

Jagir Kaur, Parkash Kaur & Suresh Singh (Photograph by Sarah Ainslie)

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Wilma permalink
    October 5, 2023

    I love this. What a wonderful testament to a completely different time. So many great memories. Parkash’s vivid telling of a time of hardship but such determination and survival, loyalty and kindness. I sympathise with her fear of rats but then when someone else removes them she was told they were ‘Gods’. I will try and think of them this way in future! What a beautiful woman.
    Artillery Passage totally changed now. I would have liked to have seen it in the time that she lived and worked there. Better then, perhaps. Real shops. Real people.

  2. Diane permalink
    October 5, 2023

    I used to buy spices there! Grapeshots the wine bar is still trading.

    Lovely story from what seems like ages ago but was not really.

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