Photo exhibition traces Bengali history in the East End

An East End author has lent his knowledge to a fascinating new exhibition tracing the history of the borough’s Bengali community.

Ansar Ahmed Ullah, the co-author of Bengalis In London’s East End, has helped to put together a new photographic exhibition at the Whitechapel Idea Store.

Created along with Mr Ullah’s co-author John Eversley and volunteers from the Swadhinata Trust, who are based in Brick Lane, the exhibition retraces the history of Bengalis in east London, from the first major wave of settlers who arrived in the 1920s and 1930s.

They were seamen, also known as lascars, who were often employed by the East India Dock Company and who sailed on their merchant ships and tended to settle in Wapping and Shadwell.

There were further periods of significant immigration of Bengalis to east London in the second half of the twentieth century.

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Mr Ullah, who settled in east London in 1980 after first moving to Luton from Bangladesh, said: “There was no really significant histories about one of the major communities in east London.

“The Trust would often get queries from researchers and people interested in Bengali history and there was nothing available for them.

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“That’s how we came about this - we thought it would benefit the community.”

His book, which is available in Tower Hamlets’ Idea Stores, also talks about Bengali political and cultural activism and some of the important buildings for the community in Tower Hamlets, including the Brick Lane mosque and St Matthias’ Church in Poplar.

Bengali life in the borough has not always been rosy, but Mr Ullah, who lives in Stepney, believes it has improved considerably over the years.

He said: “The community has had to struggle at different stages with racism.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, all groups had to come together.

“You had white and black people, people in the Anti-Nazi League, working with Bengali youth against the racists.

“In terms of housing, in the 1970s you wouldn’t have wanted to go to E2, E3 or E14, it was just in Brick Lane, but now Bengalis could be anywhere.”

The exhibiton runs on the Idea Store’s fourth floor until February 13.

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