SOUTHALL LIES NOT far from Heathrow Airport. Despite its architecture being mostly typical of dull London suburbs that developed between the two World Wars, it is far from being a run-of-the mill west London suburb. Recently, in March 2022, we visited Southall after several years since we last went there.
The centre of what was once the tiny village of Southall is about 1.7 miles north of Osterley Park house. The manor of Southall was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 14th century. Separated by countryside from its neighbours, it lay on the road from London to Uxbridge and Oxford. It was only in the 1870s that the village began expanding southwards to the Great Western Railway line. Today, the place has been fully incorporated into London and retains little or nothing of its former rustic nature.
On arriving by train at Southall station, the observant traveller will notice that the station name signs are bilingual; they are in both Latin and Punjabi scripts. Southall is sometimes aptly referred to as ‘Chota Punjab’ (Little Punjab). The three Punjabi brothers, Charan Singh Bilga, Jagar Singh Bilga, and Lave Singh Bilga, began living in Southall in 1938. They were followed by Pritam Singh Sangha, who opened a shop in Southall in 1954, having arrived in the area in 1951. His shop was then the only shop in west London, if not in the whole of the metropolis, purveying Indian provisions. Pritam Singh Sangha in partnership with his friend and business associate, Jarnail Singh Hura (also known as “Ghura”), established the first known business in Southall and Fakir Singh purchased numerous houses which he rented out to his countrymen.”
Vivek Chaudhary, writing in the Guardian in April 2018, recorded:
“By the time my own father arrived in 1960, local authority records show that there were approximately 1,000 Punjabis living in Southall, nearly all men. He would joke that one of the reasons why they settled here was because of its proximity to Heathrow airport, only three miles away, and “if the gooras [whites] ever kicked us out, it would be easy to get on a plane and return home”. It was a light-hearted reference to the uncertainty that was generated by the chronic racism of the time. It was the R Woolf rubber factory in neighbouring Hayes that attracted Punjabis to Southall – the general manager had served with Sikh soldiers during the second world war and was only too happy to recruit them…”
“Punjab was partitioned by the British in 1947; part of it fell within Pakistan with the remainder in India. Punjabis can be Sikh, Hindu or Muslim, and while all three demographics settled in this outpost of west London, it was the Sikhs who came in the largest numbers and gave Southall its distinct identity.”
Chaudhary mentioned that at the time he wrote his article, although at one stage Southall’s population was 70% Punjabi, this has decreased to about 50% and the descendants of many of the original settlers:
“…have prospered and moved to wealthier pastures, replaced by new communities from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia. At its heart, though, this corner of west London remains an indelibly Punjabi town.”
And so, it is. Southall is like the Punjab and other places in India or Pakistan, but with the often-dull English weather and rather pedestrian suburban architecture. The main streets, South Road and the Broadway (Uxbridge Road), are lined with shops, small bazaars consisting of several tiny shops, and eateries. Judging by the profusion of colourful, often glittering, Indian (and Pakistani) style party clothing on sale, one might be excused for thinking that the people of Southall do nothing apart from attending ‘glitzy’ weddings. If you wish to sample shopping as it is in India without leaving the country, then Southall is the place to do it in London. It seemed to my wife and me that the quality of the clothing on sale was high, better than much that is available in India. A Sikh salesman explained that what is on sale in Southall is made in India but unlike what is on sale over there, this is export quality.
One building is worthy of special mention in Southall, apart from the area’s gold-coloured domed Sikh gurdwaras. This is the former Himalaya Palace cinema. Built in 1929, it is unique in Britain in that its façade is in the form of a Chinese Temple. It has a pagoda roof which is flanked by dragons. It used to screen films from India’s Bollywood studios until it closed in 2010. It has now become an indoor market called Palace Shopping Centre. Fortunately, the building is protected by a preservation order and the façade is likely to remain a wonderful landmark in the foreseeable future. Not far away in a less distinguished building is another mall, the Himalaya Shopping Centre. Entering these malls, and the others in Southall, is like stepping into a typical indoor shopping bazaar anywhere in India. The air in these Southall shopping centres has the special fragrantly perfumed odour I associate with India.
Near the former cinema, stands the former Southall Town Hall, which was constructed in 1898. On its wall, there are commemorative three plaques placed by an anti-racism group called Southall Resists 40. They are dedicated to Gurdip Singh Chaggar, who was killed in 1976; Blair Peach who was killed in 1979; and ‘Misty in Roots & People Unite Musicians Cooperative’. Each of the three bears the words “Unity against Racism”.