4000 Miles to Home: Mill Life

May 16, 2015 Bradford Civic Society

4000 Miles to Home: Mill Life

Like the workers being watched in this photo, the new Punjabi arrivals would also have informally clubbed together and also been wary of how they would be measured in their work. New worker appointments through recommendations, and a recognition of the work ethic, meant that the mills and the machinery became familiar quickly.

Part IV: Mill Life 

Introduced by Gurj Kang

“The scenes here from Troydale depict the environments and tasks those working in Yorkshire’s mills were faced with.  For many of the early migrant workers, the environment would have been largely white, and detail behind the tasks difficult to learn unless there was support from the managers.  For these migrants, the uptake of them in the mills was part of the drive to increase production for demand.

The structure of the Woollen Mill, its machinery and the management structure, and instructions in a new language would all have been a seismic shift to many who were from rural farming backgrounds and equally for those who were more qualified, but could find no other work.

The new environment would have been particularly new to many of the arrivals, as would the working practice, and the noise and conditions, but the number of those employed showed not only the need for the labour but their adaptability to these challenges. To those who were younger, this was all intertwined with their desire to grow, explore and also rebel.

“For the Punjabis where their home region was largely agricultural, many of the residents were pragmatic and self-sufficient in their work ethic which helped them to adapt easily to a range of tasks within mills and foundries, including those who were far more qualified, but for the inability to secure other work became manual labourers.  The work ethic established them as a natural labour force and enabled them to secure jobs for other Punjabi immigrants as they arrived.

“In terms of their rights, it is important to note and understand that many of these workers were employed in a time when there was no protection of people on the grounds of race or ethnicity.  Yorkshire, more than other regions in the UK, welcomed and integrated the workers based on their productivity and the firm’s needs. The rise of the Indian Workers Association and other informal unions is covered in the following section, but they also proved pivotal in providing information, encouragement and a collective identity to this new wave of labour that was helping to propel Bradford and its Industry.

Authority in the workplace, would have been the same as authority outside and respected as such. The concept of hierarchy, and control was familiar to many as Punjabi Joint family systems meant there was a clear head of the household, and many also had links, even if indirectly, with the military.

“The introduction of a Race Relations Act on 9 March 1965 by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration was successful in pushing for the ‘equal treatment for Commonwealth immigrants once in Britain’, with a need to penalise against incitement to racial hatred through amendments to section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936.

“A further amendment to this bill was made in 1968 making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins and this bill created the Community Relations Commission (CRC).  The bill in 1976 covered Education, Employment and Training.  But for my Father and the arrivals in the 1960s, they would have had no legal protection against being expelled from a workplace due to their race, or ethnic belief, but they still managed to foster good relations.

“These pictures were taken at Troydale and the mills and also at Textile manufacture exhibitions which were of particular interest to my Father, who then pursued a degree in Textile Technology, at Bradford University and then went on to pursue a career as a Technologist at local Yorkshire firms such as Interface, SGS and the International Wool Secretariat, in Ilkley. 

“Both my paternal Grandparents, and my Mother went on to work in Textiles throughout Bradford, and Guiseley, and chose to do so as those companies and the Industry at large saw economic retractions.  For many families, like mine, the Wool Industry and the heritage of Bradford was the pull for secure work, but the preservation of skills, a trade and an overwhelming passion for quality.”

For many, like my Father, the textile trade was not simply a job, but a career, and within Bradford the focus on the skills, craftsmanship and the technology presented a progressive future.


Next time: we explore the traditions and culture captured on camera within the Punjabi community.