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SIKH’S AND SANKEYS IN TELFORD


Kuldip Singh Sahota (re- cently elected borough council leader) takes up the story: It was GKN Sankey in Hadley in the ‘60s & ‘70s that brought the Sikh com- munity to Telford. Most of them moved from the Black Country after working in the foundries. Foundry work was hot, dusty and backbreak- ing. So it wasn’t practical to work in a foundry and wear the traditional Sikh beard and turban. When they ar- rived in this country, one of the first ports of call was the barber: “If you want a job to earn some money and return home within 5-10 years, you’d better shave your beard and take your turban off; you can always put it back on again when you return home” was the conventional wisdom meted out by the seasoned Sikhs already here. Most followed this advice, but a very few refused.


Amongst the foundries employing Sikhs in the Black Country were Qualcast and John Harper and Steward Lloyds steel works. It was said every foundry was sur- rounded by many pubs. The


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Introduction by George Evans: Partly stimulated by an appeal I made some months ago for memories of what it is like to be an immigrant here, Kuldip Sahota, the local councillor has written some excellent stories. I think it’s important that we should understand what it feels like to come to live here.


system ran like this: Ten min- utes before lunch hour, the landlord would start pulling pints and line them up on the bar like soldiers, so as not to make any of the workers wait. As soon as the foundry hooter sounded, the workers would storm out of there like rabbits from a trap, and enter the pub. Their faces were un- recognisable because they were covered with soot and dust. They would hit


their


part of the counter, pick up their pint, examine it for a second or two like John Mills in “Ice Cold in Alex”, then downed it in one go. They would then let out a deep and intractable mortal sigh of relief as if they had been freed from “Dante’s Inferno”, and then pay the landlord for two pints and walk over to their respective table with a second pint in their hand and begin to open their chapatti


pouch. Thus the tradition of drinking beer began for the Sikhs in the West Midlands. The Sikhs from the south of England (often Heathrow Airport workers) would com- plain when they came to visit their friends or relatives in the Midlands that their belly would be filled with beer. So of all the Telford em- in


ployers ‘50s, ‘60s and


‘70s, Sankey’s in Hadley was by far the greatest mag- net for Sikhs from the West Midlands and further afield. Other lesser magnets were Russell’s


Rubber factory,


Trench, Glynwed foundry in Ketley and John Maddock’s foundry, Oakengates. But Sankey stood out amongst these others like the Wrekin on the Shropshire plain. It employed some 7000 people in those days, so there were comings and goings all the time. But the main reason


> Kuldip Singh Sahota


for getting a job there was the wage. It paid up to 30% or 40% more than some of the other employers I men- tioned. So the ambition of every Sikh who didn’t work at Sankey was to get a job there.


The wheel shop, because it manufactured wheels of all sizes, had disproportionately high numbers of Sikhs work- ing in it and the reason for this was again, it was heavy work coupled with noise and dust. The wheel shop was known as “The Mad House” by those who work in it. So you could say Sikhs felt at home there after experience of the foundries. Due to the unbeareability of the nature of the work, some tender souls would leave after a few days or weeks but majority of the Sikhs, once there, stuck it out. My father worked there for ten years until he died from a sudden heart attack in 1976.


Of course there were oth- er departments there as well such as the Press shops, Assembly Lines etc. But it was the wheel shop that everybody wanted to avoid going into. “You’re lucky”, my father told me once, “be- cause you don’t know what heavy work is” (for I worked in the Steel Furniture De-


partment where most of the employees were female and the work was light). I tended to agree with my father! Not all Sikhs who worked at Sankey lived in Telford, then. Quite a lot travelled from Wolverhampton


in


worker’s vans or private cars. But as time went on, they felt financially secured and at ease with their adopted country and realised this is where their and their chil- dren’s future lay, they de- cided to purchase their first home in Telford and called their families over from Pun- jab. Until the ‘60s, most of the Sikhs in UK lived alone whilst their young families grew up in Punjab. They were mostly in their 30 and 40s, spoke very little English and drank heavily. I would say half of that generation has passed away now and those who are still with us are in their eighties and fight- ing diabetes and coronaries disease.


My father took the above course. After working in West Midlands foundries for ten years, he started work at Sankey in 1966 with my ma- ternal uncle and purchased his first home in Ketley and called his family over. I start- ed to work in Sankey in 1969 after two and a half years of


schooling at Hadley.


My schooling at Hadley was an interesting introduc- tion to British culture. My form teacher was a Scottish gentleman, Mr. Simmons. I assume he was Scottish be- cause he spoke with a crisp Scottish accent. Whenever I failed to carry out his instruc- tions and I would stand there looking at him bemused, he would say “Laddie, am I speaking the Queen’s Eng- lish?” Whatever English he was speaking, I obviously couldn’t understand him. So a week later I found myself in Mr. Brian Halford’s class, a kind of nuclear option for students who could speak no English at all. Mr. Halford specialised in teaching English to foreign students like me who had re- cently arrived from the Indian Sub-Continent. I attended his class two to three hours a day. We did some writing but mostly it was singing of nursery rhymes in English that remains most vividly in my memory.


“No, no, no” he would say when we sang “How now brown cow?” with our lips tight and moving very little. “This way” he would then open his bearded mouth like an Italian opera singer, ges- ticulating with both hands,


dave.gregory@ppmedia.co.uk


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