Tower Hamlets and the History of Bangladeshi Immigrants / Ilma Amin

Alia Romagnoli

Alia Romagnoli

Bangladeshis are no strangers to immigration. Be it for financial reasons or to seek asylum, London seems to be the landing place of choice for a new wave of migrants. 

A specific area of resettlement seems to be the Borough of Tower Hamlets. The borough has an extensive history of migration from all over the world including Huguenots in the 18th century and Jews in the 19th century. During the civil war in 1971, many Bangladeshis immigrated to the UK, primarily from the Sylhet region. The borough now has the highest concentration of Bangladeshis, with one-third of the residents being Bengalis.

Many immigrants move to the UK to make money to send to their families. For some families, this money is their only source to finance their living. These Bangladeshis have established businesses and have forged careers as Uber drivers. Moreover, it is highly common for successful British-Bangladeshi businessmen to give back to their native land, creating informal economic ties between the two countries. Sylhet, a city in northeastern Bangladesh, is a good example of showing how infrastructure is fuelled by funds received from the UK; houses and even shopping centres have been built from such funds. Furthermore, the finances from British expatriates has led to businesses such as restaurants and hotels inspired by the themes of London, such as the notable example of London Fried Chicken.  

Alia Romagnoli

Alia Romagnoli

As mentioned previously, Bangladeshi residents compose the largest single migrant group in Tower Hamlets, but they have also arrived from one of the poorest countries to London's poorest borough. It is estimated that around 44% of Tower Hamlets are in income poverty – a term that is defined as those living below 60 per cent of the UK household income, after housing costs. People from ethnic minorities are however, 64 percent more likely to live in poverty.

Like most inner London boroughs, Tower Hamlets also suffers from a lethal concoction of housing crisis, high childcare costs and lower maternal employment. Less than 30 percent of homes in the borough are deemed affordable, and therefore has led to overcrowding, affecting one in six households, is particularly acute due to large family sizes and high rents.

But nonetheless, Bangladeshis have made their mark in London hosting famous curry houses, grocery stores and fashion boutiques catering to South East Asians. It is estimated that there are 9000 restaurants in the UK that are Bengali owned with a vast majority that can be found in Brick Lane. The restaurant business alone contributes £2 billion to the economy. Brick Lane and the high road in Whitechapel provide an example of the thriving Bangladeshi owned businesses that not only offer local goods imported from Bangladesh, but a sense of community and reinforcement of identity to those who feel far away from home. 

A replica of the Shaheed Minar War Memorial has been erected in the heart of Tower Hamlets thus reinforcing the Bangladeshi identity. The memorial marks the Bangladesh national liberation struggle from the 1971 Civil War. The marked a significant time for the nation known as East Pakistan back then where they freed themselves of being ruled by West Pakistan (now known as Pakistan). But for the Bangladeshi community of Tower Hamlets, the memorial also serves as a recognition of their continuity with the homeland.

The thriving streets of Tower Hamlets offer a fascinating insight into the British Bengali experience as shaped by the community’s significant contribution to contemporary UK culture, from food, to politics and architecture.

Words by Ilma Amin, Editor for the Culture of Asia

Photography by Alia Romagnoli