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Julie Begum, Someone Still Evolving

February 18, 2024
by the gentle author


I am delighted to announce that JULIE BEGUM is giving an illustrated lecture in which she explores her own East End roots and outlines the long history of the presence of Bengali people on this side of London. IMAGES OF THE BENGALI EAST END is at 7pm on Tuesday 5th March at the Hanbury Hall at part of the Spitalfields series.


Click here to book your ticket


Portrait of Julie Begum by Sarah Ainslie


In the course of my work, I often discover that the people I meet are connected to others I have interviewed. This is especially true of Julie Begum, a woman of magnanimous spirit and moral courage who is widely respected for her involvement in many diverse threads of culture and community in the East End. When I asked Julie how I should describe her, she replied ‘As someone who is still evolving.’

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I met Julie in the cafe on the top of the Idea Store in Whitechapel where a wall of glass affords magnificent views down onto the market and eastwards towards Spitalfields. Here at the heart of the East London, with all the different currents of life flowing around us, proved the ideal location for Julie to speak to us of her life and experiences in the surrounding streets.

“I was born in Mile End Hospital, Stepney, in 1968 and I grew up on the Digby Estate in Globe Town, but before that my parents lived in one room in a flat belonging to my uncle on the Chicksand Estate in Spitalfields. I have my mum and dad and two brothers, and Globe Town is my manor.

My dad came to London in 1962 as part of the voucher system to attract immigrants from Commonwealth countries. His father died when my dad was ten and he went to work in a rickshaw workshop in Sylhet. He was the second son of a large family and the eldest brother chose not to come, so the family funded my dad to go overseas to earn money and send it back. He did that for a long time and he paid for his siblings’ education. He worked as a machinist in the East End rag trade in Jewish and Turkish factories, whatever he could find. It was a dying trade then.

When immigration laws changed and it was more difficult to come and go, he decided that if he was going to stay here he would get married. So he went back to Sylhet and married my mum who was the eldest daughter in her family. She took care of her brothers and sisters at home, she did not go to school. She went once and saw a child getting beaten and decided she was not going to go back. She is a non-literate person and my dad did not even finish primary school. They were not the most educated people.

My mother was only a teenager when she arrived in London and then she had me and my two brothers. For both my parents, coming here was not something they had not anticipated in their lives but they did it because it was expected of them by their families. They made a home for themselves here but it was quite a hostile environment. There were other migrants – not just Bengalis, Irish, Caribbean and from other parts of the the world – and they clung to those relationships. They were all sorts and they were all in it together. I remember my mum used to leave me with her Irish neighbour when she needed to go off and do things. It was informal and friendly in the early days.

We lived on a mostly white council estate with a few black families and just a couple of other Bengalis. The atmosphere in Globe Town was quite nasty at the time. We were careful about not hanging about in public and going to school could be a challenge. If we were with adults, we would be safe. We had a neighbour, Pauline, who worked in the school and sometimes she took us and, if my mum could go, we would be fine.

If there was an incident, we would leg it. We had to go past this dry-cleaner’s shop that had an alsation and they would set dogs on us, on the way there and back, as a way of scaring us. That sort of thing happened on a daily basis, hostility in the street. There was quite a lot of ‘paki-bashing’ going on, not just for children but for adults as well. People were being assaulted and they would go out in groups for security if they could. Sometimes you just had to get on with life and face it. We continued to play outside.

We had a very nasty family on the estate of known troublemakers who were always in trouble with the police and were known racists. I remember when my dad got arrested after Philip the son made me eat some dog shit because he thought that was what we ate. I went running home to my parents and my dad came out and challenged him. Then Philip’s dad came out and they got into an altercation. And the police arrested my dad for getting in a fight. I remember having to go to a phone box to get hold of someone to come and see my dad in the police cell in Bethnal Green. I was seven, eight or nine at the time. Things like that did not happen all the time but it created an atmosphere. You realised that the world was not a friendly place. Yet we also had neighbours who were very kind and supportive, and I was sad to leave the estate because it was where I grew up.

What I have drawn from those experiences is I want the world to be a better place and I am really pleased that those things don’t really happen any more in the same way. It has made me aware of social justice and the need for a fairer society, which is regardless of peoples’ backgrounds. My family were very keen to lead a certain kind of life, to be acknowledged and taken seriously, and not to be judged for what people think you might be.

My parents did not talk much about anything. As children, we did not know why they had come to this country or anything about what had happened to their families in Bangladesh. We did not know there had been a war there.

Globe School was really lovely. I loved it. It’s why I wanted to become a teacher. We had some really good teachers there, inspirational in lots of ways. Morpeth School, where I went next, was the opposite – it was more like being in a prison. There was lots of fighting in the corridors, a pupil took an overdose in the toilets and teachers were being assaulted by the kids. I became part of it, it was very nasty bullying environment. I adapted to being in a difficult place. I did not acknowledge my brothers in the playground because you did not want anyone to know who you were. We pretended we did not know each other. It was a horrible place.

That was the East End at that time. The boys came out of school and went to prison and the girls ended up having babies. There was no expectation of anybody, whether black, white or brown. School was merely a containment space for lots of young people.

Quite early on, I knew I did not want to get married or have children, so I realised I needed to earn a living. I thought, ‘What can I do that I can earn a living by? Maybe I can get a job doing something?’ I did not have a clue but I realised I needed to get some qualifications because I did not get any at Morpeth School, so I went to a sixth form centre to get some. After that, I did some A Levels and I decided it was time to think about getting a job. I was walking down the Holloway Rd with a friend and we saw an advert for a teaching training course in the window of the North London Polytechnic so I went in to have a look and ended up signing up for a B Ed and spent four years there.

I think my parents would been really happy if I had simply got married and had kids. They did not expect me to do very much. They did not understand my need to do something else, but my father would listen to a reasoned argument. We were brought up to reason. When the news was on we might not agree on the issues but we were encouraged to argue why. So I was able to persuade my father that getting an education would be something worthwhile and he agreed.

He had very particular ideas about life and what people should do. He said ‘If you live in my house, you live by my rules,’ and I accepted that until I realised, ‘I can’t live by your rules, so I am leaving’  and that was what I did. It wasn’t pleasant, it created quite a rift yet I respected his standards. I was eighteen.

I was lucky, I had good friends and I was introduced me to someone who lived in a shared women’s house that was short-life housing in Turner’s Rd, Bow. The place was falling apart but there was a spare room, so I moved in. There were women from different backgrounds, all sorts. It was eclectic. I ended up being the housing officer for that house because all my friends ended up living there too. If there was a spare room and a friend needed somewhere to live, and as long as they paid the rent, it was fine. We had a really nice time and it became quite normal for me as I had grown up in a family household. At home, we always had somebody staying over. In Bengali culture, people are not possessive about where they sleep, having your own bedroom or your own things.

During my last teaching practice, I was at a school where I saw a lot of racial discrimination and inequality. What disheartened me the most was it was coming from the head teacher who was African-Asian. The black and white staff were not working together and there was a bad attitude towards the kids. It made me think, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher if this is the case.’ So I nearly gave up, but my lecturer at North London Polytechnic, who was one of the few black women there, she gave me a good talking-to. She convinced me to finish the course. ‘Even if you don’t want to teach,’ she said, ‘you need to finish.’ That was good on her part and I did qualify but I didn’t end up teaching in a primary school as I had planned. I re-qualified to teach adults in further education. At least adults know their own minds and, teaching them, there is a sense of equality whereas I saw things were being done to children.

I taught in Tower Hamlets College and met some amazing people. I think it is really important to teach skills that people can use to improve their lives and have a good life. But after a few years, they were enforcing new terms and conditions, and I realised I did’t want to spend the rest of my life as a teacher. I was still in my twenties so I thought, ‘I’ll try to have an adventure.’ So I interviewed for Voluntary Service Overseas and I was posted to the Orange Free State in South Africa but it wasn’t possible under segregation because I was Asian. Then I was offered Pakistan, also not ideal for a person of Bengali heritage considering our recent history.

Instead they sent me to Nepal in the foothills of the Himalayas, as remote as you can be from East London. My job was to train teachers in the villages to interact with their pupils not just teach by rote. It made me very aware that I did not know very much about these people and I wanted to learn about them for a year first. I was completely clueless and I needed to learn what it was like to be hungry, be cold and without family or friends – to test myself. It taught me to take life more seriously and appreciate it better.

I hated it when I came back. I walked into a supermarket and walked out again because I couldn’t bear it. It was so stark, coming from a place where there was only six items in a shop. We have so much stuff that we do not need. I do not enjoy being a consumer of material culture.

After that I worked with Praxis Community Projects, for refugees and asylum seekers in Bethnal Green as a basic skills co-ordinator, teaching English and IT, whatever they needed to survive here. It was tough work because of the hostility those people face and I had to leave when the funding ran out. So eventually I joined the Museum of Childhood and then the Geffrye Museum, collecting oral histories of the experience of growing up in the East End. It is quite a rarified world, museums and galleries.

In 2000, I started Swadhinata Trust with Ansar Ahmed Ullah, and a few other like-minded people, to provide answers for young Bengali people who were wondering about their identities and history. When I was growing up there was nowhere to find out about why my parents came here.

My mother has been diagnosed with dementia and now I am preparing myself and my family for old age and what that it is going to mean for us. I volunteer for the Youth Offending Team working with young people and supporting families dealing with the situation where a member of their family has committed a crime, after they have gone to court, pleaded guilty, shown remorse and want to make good. They need to show they are going to learn from the experience, by making better choices and making amends.

I think I was lucky when I was a child that, even though things were being done to me that weren’t very pleasant, I had positive people around me, parents and teachers, who made me realise that there are other ways of living.”

Julie cooking at home (Photo by Sarah Ainslie)

Julie in Brick Lane at the time of the anti-fascist marches (Photo by Phil Maxwell)

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    February 18, 2024

    I read this and what strikes me is your bravery Juliet.
    I am truly sorry you suffered so much from racism in your life and the situation is still bad in England and many other countries .
    It was special having you read poetry at the event we attended and kindly aided by the Gentle Author .
    I hope one day we can have more .
    Best wishes,


  2. Deborah Geary permalink
    February 18, 2024

    Thank you for this …. What an inspirational woman.

  3. February 18, 2024

    What an amazing lady Julie is! Thank you Sarah and the GA for a very interesting read. I was obviously interested that Julie trained as a teacher and then to teach adults. It’s one of those jobs that can take as much out of you as you put in definitely.
    Sadly I won’t be able to make this talk as I’ll have work commitments but I am disappointed because I am sure it will be fascinating.

  4. February 18, 2024

    What a brave and intelligent woman. We shouyld all keep evolving. Thank you.

  5. barbara holliman permalink
    February 18, 2024

    What a lovely courageous story and thank you Julie for being you.

    We certainly need more brilliant souls like you … keep evolving… I am sure you will

  6. Frances Donnelly permalink
    February 18, 2024

    What a truly wonderful and courageous, inspirational woman. The gentle author used the word ‘magnanimous’ to describe her and it is so justly applied.

  7. Clare permalink
    February 18, 2024

    A hard story to read, but such generosity and bravery. I was feeling sorry for myself this morning, but I now feel inspired, and confident that there are some amazing people in the world. Thank you Julie.

  8. Kate Bacon permalink
    February 18, 2024

    Thank you for sharing your story Julie, you are an inspiration.

  9. Martin Lightfoot permalink
    February 18, 2024

    I found that such an interesting and thought provoking story. What a lottery being born is. We have no choice of our parents, where we will be born , or what colour our skin will be!
    I try to imagine how I would have coped as a child growing as Julie has ,and how she has achieved so much.
    And that meal looks delicious

  10. February 18, 2024

    I have known Julie for decades but did not know all of this ….. lovely to read and thank you.
    How little we know sometimes of people we admire… but how great to see where Julie’s resilience, energy, compassion and commitment come from. It was such a pleasure to meet her Mum too.

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 18, 2024

    What a brave, very brave young woman. I am in awe!

  12. Karen Wesley permalink
    February 18, 2024

    An a amazing lady – good to read about someone that doesn’t give up. I came to England with my Dad from Ireland in 1949 – my Mum came later with my baby brother after our house was sold. I remember thinking I was on holiday and would return to Belfast and see my friends and my Granda – but it was a long time before that happened.

  13. Cheryl permalink
    February 18, 2024

    Echoing many of the other comments, I agree she is an amazing woman and with an inspiring story. Just what I needed to hear this morning amid news of all the trouble in the world. I have to believe there is more that unites us than divides us, and her story helps prove that is true. Thank you!

  14. February 18, 2024

    It has been my absolute privilege to know Julie for over two decades. Whoever has come across her has also been touched by her kindness and generosity. At the same time she will never hesitate to stand for what she believes to be right and just.

  15. Sue permalink
    February 19, 2024

    Thank you for sharing your story Julie. Truly inspirational.

  16. Barbara Sarkar permalink
    February 19, 2024

    Thank you! I love your life story. Hopefully I am also still evolving at the age of 82. No doubt you will continue to give encouragement and support to others in whatever capacity. It means a lot and makes a difference, it really does!

  17. Bill permalink
    February 20, 2024

    An amazing story about courage, wisdom and benevolence in the face of adversity. Thank you.

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