PortCities London

Bengali-speaking community in the Port of London

Bengalis in the East End

Origins of the East End Bengali community

A general view of the P&O Steam navigation Company’s premises.
View full size imageA general view of the P&O Steam Navigation Company’s premises. © NMM

Calcutta became the Indian terminus of the P&O line in 1842 and Bengali Lascars started arriving in London on the P&O mail and passenger ships.

There is evidence of a Muslim Bengali community in the East End before 1850. This consisted mainly of Lascars who had either been abandoned in the port or had voluntarily left their ships. 

Shipping on the Hooghly River at Calcutta.
View full size imageShipping on the Hooghly River at Calcutta. © NMM

Few single Asian women arrived in England. However, at least one woman described as a 'dark girl of Indian Portuguese class' kept a lodge with the help of two or three English friends.

The first Bengali British

Many Bengali Lascars and destitute servants found it difficult to gain employment in England and became musicians playing Indian drums, tambourines and sitars in the streets of the East End. Some eventually entered into relationships with local English women and a generation of Bengali-British children was born.

Perhaps the most famous child of Bengali-British parentage was Albert Mahomet. He was born in 1858 at Sophia Street in Bow, East London, to an English mother and an ex-seaman from Calcutta. Mahomet grew up in a world of crime and poverty that claimed many of his siblings. Eventually, he moved to the city of Wells and became a respected Methodist preacher and photographer. 

Lascars in the Merchant Navy

Port of Calcutta.
View full size imagePort of Calcutta. © NMM
In 1856, Calcutta became the headquarters of the British India Steam Navigation Company (BINSC). This greatly increased the employment of Bengali Lascars in the British Merchant Navy.

By 1873 there is mention of a lodge run by an Englishwoman called 'Calcutta' Louisa and another run by 'Lascar' Sally, for Indian Lascars at the riverside of the High Street at Wapping.

Port of Calcutta.
View full size imagePort of Calcutta. © NMM

'Lascar' Sally’s real name was Sarah Graham. These English women lived with their Indian partners and often even spoke Bengali or Hindi.

Bengalis in late 19th-century London

The SS 'Almora'
View full size imageThe SS Almora. © NMM
On census day 1881 there were Bengali seamen at the recently opened Albert Docks of East Ham on a number of ships:

  • the SS Almora, of the BISNC
  • the SS North
  • two foreign vessels, the SS Mauora and the Bhundara.  

Not all Bengalis in 19th-century London were part of the East End working class. There were Bengali students of medicine at London University, and numerous members of Bengali aristocracy.

One Hindu Bengali from Calcutta by the name of Lal Mohan Ghose (1849-1909) was educated as a barrister in London. He stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate at Deptford in 1885 and 1886. 

Early 20th-century experiences

In the interwar depression years there were a number of Sylheti seamen in London, selling cheap articles. At least one ex-sailor Sylheti, Ayub Ali, arrived in London and established a restaurant at 76 Commercial Street in Whitechapel. Another Sylheti ex-sailor, Syed Tofussil Ally, opened the British Indian Sailors' Home and seaman's outfitting shop at 32-3 Victoria Dock Road, in Canning Town.

Despite the poor wages and risks, many Bengali men joined the British Merchant Navy in the Second World War. The reasons for this were the shortage of British men available for service with the merchant fleet (due to the demands of the Royal Navy) and the outbreak of famine in Bengal.

The Blitz forced Syed Ally to move out of the docks and he eventually ended up in Glasgow. In 1943, Ayub Ali and Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi established the Indian Seaman’s Welfare League at 66, Christian Street. The membership of this organization was largely Sylheti.