Greater Whitechapel

Abdul Shukar Khalisdar's childhood memories on Scott Street
Contributed by Survey of London on Dec. 2, 2017

Abdul Shukar Khalisdar, local businessman and community activist, was a child when he came from Bangladesh with his family to a flat on a building on this site in 1982. He describes life growing up in Whitechapel & Spitalfields through the 1980s and 1990s.

I was born in Sylhet in Bangladesh in 1978, [my] family moved to the UK in 1982. I was around 4 years old.

They moved [off]…Brady Street..Codrington House, which no longer exists. It was quite an old dilapidated [Council] building. The conditions were quite squalid. We lived on the third floor Flat Number 19…One part had three stories, the other part had four stories…in total, there's about 44 flats…maybe '50s or '60s built. It was really really in poor central heating, no double glazing. Although double glazing came in the late '80s, early '90s but by then, they had taken the decision to pull the building down and we were moved. In..January 1991 we moved to a block of flats in Spitalfields.

My primary school and everything was literally opposite my block of flats. My very early childhood memories [are of] growing up in Britain, I don't remember anything about Bangladesh. I was at three/four years old when we came here. My earliest memories [are of] growing up …in Whitechapel in that area…

Lots of memories, some good, some bad. We also faced, which is very typical I suppose of someone growing up in the '70s and '80s in Britain, racism. It was a big issue because [we were] the first wave of Bangladeshi migrant families coming over…

My grandfather used to work on a Naval merchant ship, for the British navy..he docked in Liverpool. My grandfather was able to come to the UK regularly on what was called the "Seaman's Voucher". That paved the way, or rather that secured the passage for my uncles, and my father to come to the UK. They were entitled automatically because when they were recruiting you automatically have this right to first refusal.. I think somewhere, somehow, that was the basis of which my family history in the UK began.

…Shortly after they all settled, [my grandfather] went back to Bangladesh and that was it, he passed away he was buried in Bangladesh. He never came back to the UK. He settled the children here, but the idea was always, from conversations I've had with my father and one of my uncles in particular, they never quite pictured the second and the third generation settling down.

They had the same vision as their father, which was eventually, we'll go back. My eldest uncle went back, got married and all the other siblings followed suit but none of them thought of or even considered bringing the family over..[until] the late '70s after the war in Bangladesh with Pakistan…It was a very dangerous situation..

[In Codrington House) there were 10 of us, seven brothers, three sisters. Four of us were born in Bangladesh. The rest of the family was born in the UK. All the typical multiple depravation issues that you can think of, we were subjected to that…Overcrowded home, poor schooling. The state of Tower Hamlets..was really not what it is now. [Now] it’s performing local authority now has been for many years, it's a beacon council…Not only did we grow one of the ten most worst deprived wards in the whole of England and Wales…We grew up in a very poor, very deprived environment… in a three bedroomed flat.

Then we moved to a five bedroomed flat. The council did eventually move us into a building called McGlashon House, it still exists..It felt new.. different straight away in terms of aspirations, just moving into the flat just changed my whole own vision or views of life…I just felt, "This is progress." Therefore, I want to build on that progress…

…[My father] used to work in a factory..further down towards Commercial road. He also worked in Alie Street..[and] for a short while..he used to work in a factory on Greatorex Street. One of my part-time jobs I still remember was as a cotton cleaner. I used to clean cotton on jackets that were finished.. Just before you put the plastic coat over it or plastic sleeve and say it's finished somebody would go around and snip it with a snip knife…To clean the cotton basically. Do the finishing stages.

…[In 1991] my elder brother had just finished his G.C.S.Es and he went to college. He was working part-time. I was still of school age but I was working part-time. I wasn't really depending on my father for pocket money....Economically things were improving [for us] so straight away two of us were not a burden on our father.

That gave him a bit of rest, and also we weren't just looking after ourselves.. my elder brother, from his part-time earnings, he was also contributing. By the time my youngest brother was maybe 12, 13 the family did not understand poverty anymore or the younger ones didn't see poverty… Four- five of us [siblings] that migrated to the UK, to this day we've an additional drive compared to the rest of our siblings.

We all went to University, we worked very hard, I went in as a mature student because my older brother made it to Uni before me and he had a choice either he gets a job and allows me to go to Uni and that would have been his sacrifice and so he and I sat down and we actually made a decision look, "You go to Uni there's no guarantee I will make it," because back then educational attainment was not as good as is now especially for British Bangladeshis.

He was the first of our generation to make it to University, in fact, he was the first in our entire family to make it to University…in England. He studied law at Colchester University. He lived in the halls for a while and then he moved out that helped two things straight away, he allowed me to have my own bedroom, but also.. it added pressure on me to keep things together and contribute financially to the family. It brought out an early maturity in me.

I used to work in a restaurant..on Brick Lane.. in the evenings, every evening and I'd work six days a week.. during my G.C.S.Es. The fact that my brother made it to Uni straight away told me well [that was] the only way forward…Education was something that my parents did put into us at an early age the value of education, good education. For example, my father used to despite all the difficulties we used to have private tutors teachings us Bangla. I could read and write Bangla but not everyone in my family can and that's purely through no state support it was funded privately by my father and also Arabic education there's more for religious reasons but again there was that.

Education was an integral part of growing up and despite all the difficulties the lack of space even the financial difficulties but we understood education is the key and that was told to us again and again, it was drawn into us I would say by my mother and my father, and my mother would often tell us, you know your father works really hard so that you can go to school, so that you can learn Bangla, so that you can read and write Bangla but also Arabic.

We understood look the whole purpose of my father's struggle was to get us educated and when my brother made it to University I knew then that I have no option but to make it to Uni as well. Whether I go through the conventional means or whether I go in later on as a mature student but it's something that I will have to do. In some respect my older brother was the gatekeeper in that because he made it, we knew we have to achieve more, more than him because he had to go through a lot more to achieve what he really did.

[My older brother would] share stories with us and he'd share the things that he's learnt. And I was argumentative by nature, I'd always find a way of arguing with him but through those arguments I would go away a lot more wiser and a lot more learned and sometimes I'd argue just to wind him up but he was very eloquent, a sort of orator. He'd hold his arguments really well and I could see it was the university and the teaching and the education that brought that out in him but also his vocabulary.

His vocabulary was already very extensive, he's four years my senior and I used to quietly make notes of big words like all the big words at the time I used to, but he'd use this big words and I was so embarrassed to ask him what it meant, but I'd always make a note of it mentally and then I'd come back later on during peace period with him and I'd ask him what did you mean by that. Straight away I knew that hang on a minute. There's life, there’s more to life than Tower Hamlets because up until that point we were really like sardines, and sardines would live in Tower Hamlets from one council estate to another.

…I took a different path completely so once [my elder brother] was doing all of that I finished my GCSE's and left with C's and D's which was enough really to get me into A levels but with a bit of struggle, but I had a lot of distractions because obviously I was working full time then. [I had the] responsibility of watching over my younger siblings, and I had a lot of them don't forget. I had four, five younger siblings… My brothers were a handful and I always had to keep an eye on them and it was very easy to get into fights, scuffles and street crime even.

….[Eventually I found] work [via an apprenticeship].. as a central government [administrator] and that’s where I studied [part-time], I did a degree in law at Westminster University.. and then I studied for my masters in urban regeneration. I've always had an interest in community development purely because of [my] background, and what I've experienced and what I've witnessed and I do genuinely consider myself one of the fortunate few. I was able to break away from the shackles of deprivation, really, coupled with racism and all the other issues that were prevalent to a British the '80s and '90s.

[After graduating] I was working for Lambeth Council as a policy advisor and I also had a small consultancy role for the ODPM, office of the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, deputy prime minister at the time. Advising them on their tackling social disadvantages… You can see how my own experiences of life and my professional qualifications all played a part in the role that I was performing at the time.

..I did that for two years, and in 1996 I decided to pack and own it and do my own things. I wasn't sure at the time what I was going to do but for about three months I was just brainstorming, looking at ideas and options… in 2002 we moved out of Tower Hamlets.'

Abdul Shukar Khalisdar was interviewed by Shahed Saleem on 10.06.16