Birmingham

» Introductions: The Nishkam Civic Centre

Session One: Historical Patterns and Processes

Chair: Richard Gale (Sociology, University of Birmingham)
Panel: John Rex (Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Warwick / Birmingham??) & Malcolm Dick (Education, University of Birmingham)

1.1       Richard Gale introduced John Rex underlining his huge contribution to both theory and empirical studies in Sociology, the latter grounded in Birmingham-based studies of immigration and race relations in areas such as Sparkbrook and Handsworth at key moments in post-war restructuring. He had challenged the dominant Chicago school model of the city in terms of concentric rings comprising a central business district, a zone of transition, commuter zone, etc. John explained how in work with Robert Moore (Race, Community and Conflict: A Study of Sparkbrook, 1967) and then later with Sally Tomlinson (Colonial Immigrants in a British City: A Class Analysis, 1979), Birmingham was revealed as essentially different to the Chicago model not least because of greater public intervention in the housing sector. In a zone of transition such as Sparkbrook – dominated by the Irish and the Pakistanis - the city council had organised slum clearance. In Sparkbrook to the south Rex and Moore investigated the importance of housing classes but also ethnicity while with Tomlinson in Handsworth to the north– which was characterised more by Jamaicans and Sikhs – Rex had developed the idea of educational classes. See also Race, Colonialism and the City (1973) and Abbas & Reeves (ed) Immigrants and Race Relations: Social Theory and John Rex (2007).

1.2       John also explained that in the 1960s Birmingham was being run by Alderman Watton Liaison who had appointed an Officer for Coloured People and saw early race relations as part of the continuing struggle against the Mau Mau. In fact, he appointed someone to the position who had run the police force in Palestine. But of course Asians had the vote and increasingly (Sikh) representation on the city council. The Sikhs were successful because many had been politically active in the Punjab and they built on that capital. John raised the question of to what extent such activists thought of themselves as Asians or working class highlighting the role of key Indian Workers Association (IWA) players such as Mr Tojahal in the Labour movement. John concluded by reflecting on how later the city council had come under the control of Sir Dick Knowles, an expert in labour politics sent to help Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, and how he was  no racist and some very fine people However, Birmingham was no longer a white city controlling an immigrant population. Rather, the Asian vote had become very important in areas that had also developed their own distinctive character e.g. Sikhs along Soho Road and Pakistanis in Sparkbrook.

1.3       Discussion: Richard Gale again underlined how John Rex had corrected the Chicago functionalist model by combining Weberian / Marxist perspectives on conflict in terms of class and ethnicity. John reiterated that local immigrant politics in the 1960s had been dominated by the Sikhs who were the most politically literate – they came from families that had always been in politics. Shailaja Fennell asked about how communities had actually ‘visualised’ politics and John replied that in Handsworth the black population had not turned against the Asians. Sean McLoughlin asked John to tease out the distinctiveness of Birmingham compared, say, to another city such as Bradford. John was critical of the Ouseley report suggesting that segregation was not wholly bad. Despite population density, he felt that Asians had a long tradition of identifying strongly as citizens. For example, Mohammed Ajeeb, the first Asian mayor, had been known as an important Labour person. In contrast, John felt that Birmingham was slightly different, with the Muslim Liaison Committee co-opting anyone who would like to come along (cf work of Jorgen Nielsen in Gerholm and Lithman (1987) New Islamic Presence in Western Europe or Daniele Joly (199*) Britannia’s Crescent. The attitude had been permissive rather than mandatory. On Leicester, John mentioned the work of Gurharpal Singh.

1.4       Malcolm Dick, author of Birmingham: A History of the City and its People (2005), spoke about Birmingham as a city of migration attracting the Welsh, Irish, Jewish and other before South Asians. It is also a city that is changing still with new communities of Somalis in Sparkbrook and Small Heath while in Handsworth Kurds, Vietnamese and others are settling. However, Malcolm’s presentation focused on South Asians in twentieth century Birmingham until the 1970s. He spoke about the variety of evidence available to historians including company records, biographies and novels. Yet, despite recent projects such as Millennium Oral Histories (2000-2002) it was sociologists, geographers and others who had led the way whereas historians had been much slower to explore the South Asian presence. There was still much that could be done, for example, in terms of nineteenth and early twentieth century records which show visits to factories, schools and other institutions in the West Midlands by Indian nobility. Malcolm also reflected on the celebrated case of Birmingham solicitor, George Edjali, son of a Parsi who became an Anglican vicar, and was later caught up in a famous legal case involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story has been retold in a recent novel by Julian Barnes, Alfred and George (2005). More recent historical evidence of interest included three Sikhs who refused to remove their turbans to put on gasmasks during the Second World War. Next, Malcolm traced the growth of the South Asian population of Birmingham post 1945 - 1k in1951; 3k in 1961. He also commented that these figures were probably also underestimated. Migrants worked in the metal bashing industry and once the colour bar had been lifted (with campaigning of the IWA) in transport too. Finally, the presentation concluded with biographies of three men who had unusually contributed themselves to their communities’ archives of oral history by writing short accounts and preserving documents.

1.5       Discussion: Pippa Virdee asked why sociologists had been so much quicker than historians to write about British-Asian cities. Malcolm replied that sociologists and social geographers respond of course to the here and now. Historians, in contrast, have been very slow indeed to chart the experience of any ethnic minorities although to some extent the longer established Jewish (and Irish?) communities are different. Social and women’s history are actually quite recent interventions and local history has been dominated by the great men, industry, etc. From the point of view of majority writings, minorities have been left rather invisible. While some in communities have written the self most people have been preoccupied with the challenges of day to day living. It has only perhaps been since minorities have become politically visible that city councils began to chart their experiences of migration and settlement. In the 1980s it began with the Greater London Council and continued later in places like Birmingham with resource packs of communities produced in education. However, Malcolm felt that until recently the materials produced in Birmingham had not been that good. The best was on the Italians.

1.6       John Zavos asked about the role of universities. Malcolm lamented the demise of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies associated with Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and others. He also mentioned Ian Grosvenor’s (Education, Birmingham) many collaborative projects and the University of Central England’s ‘Birmingham After 1945’ film archive (online?) as well as the city council’s Connecting Histories project. Ananya Kabir asked about the nature of historical evidence, enquiring about other ‘texts’ such as graveyards, mosques, etc. Andy Green from Connecting Histories spoke about how projects such as the IWA archive had tried to create an open platform for less privileged voices and those anonymous networks of activities around religion and culture that had so influenced the life of communities in the city but don’t always have the power to come publicly into representation. Finally, Aki Nawaz asked for more information about Malcolm’s remarks regarding an Asian MP for Birmingham in the nineteenth century. A member of the Labour Party and successful local GP who had established nurseries and healthcare centres, he had been elected for a white constituency. 

» Session Two: Working Relations and Urban Change: Reflections on Oral History

» Session Three: Politics In and Beyond the Local State

» Session Four: Urban Aesthetics: Sites and Sounds of the City