‘One group of Sikhs who kept their
turbans were a group called Bhartedas (sic)’.
(The Irish Raj, 1997, p.174)
Much of the early Bhat Sikh Community at the Maharajah Bhupinder Singh Dharamsala, London, c.1953
Much of the early Bhat Sikh Community at the
Maharajah Bhupinder Singh Dharamsala, London, c.1953
The Bhat Sikhs are the pioneer Sikh community to migrate to Britain. Whilst most men from other Sikh communities were finding a foothold in Britain in the early 1950‘s, the Bhats had already established themselves as a settled community all over Britain in port towns and cities.

Bhat Sikhs first started coming from the Punjab to Great Britain in the 1920s. Among the first were Hakum Singh Rathore and his sons in 1926, who settled in Glasgow. They would come in small groups of about half a dozen men.

The first place of call was always the Maharajah Bhupinder Singh Dharamsala, later known as the Shepherds Bush Gurdwara at 79 Sinclair Road. From here the batches of Bhats would seek Indian lodging houses. Most of which were in the East End of London, the most popular ones at Shenfiled Street and Artillery Passage. The majority of the Bhats would come annually and stay for about six months, in which time they would make enough money and return to their families for the remainder of the year.
A Sikh Pedlars Certificate, Manchester, 1949
The Bhat Sikhs took over the British pedling trade, which was formerly in the hands of the Jewish Community. Pedling consisted of selling door to door from village to village by foot, from a large hand held suitcase. Items from clothing apparel, such as ties and handkerchiefs, to household goods, such as dish cloths to curtains, were offered. As a brown skinned salesman with a turban and beard the typical Bhat had to look smart to impress their white customers, most of whom who had never seen a dark skinned person, never mind a turbaned one. Therefore they would always dress smartly, tying their beards, wearing a tailored suit, tie, and a smart overcoat if the weather required it.

Many Sikhs, who came to England in this period, were firstly introduced to the barber’s shop, to fit into British life or the more excusable reason of being unable to find a job. However, The Bhats were known for keeping strict with their Sikh faith, so cutting hair and doing away with their turbans and beards was rare. Sikhi was very close to the heart of the early Bhats, and for this reason the majority kept their turbans and uncut hair, no matter what hardship they encountered.

Most of these Bhat Sikhs had settled primarily in London, as the suppliers for the pedling trade were all in the East End. The main suppliers were at Artillery Passage, who would give the Sikh pedlars credit, and even mail order supplies to which ever location the pedlars were working in. The Bhats would ply their trade all over Britain, reaching the rural areas of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The pedlars would just message their orders to their suppliers in London and the supplier would parcel their orders to their nearest post office for collection The trade was so profitable, it was adopted by Sikhs from other communities, also Muslims and Hindus alike, who saw the this an excellent way of earning a living.
Gyani Harnam Singh Koumi and family, London, 1939
By the late 1930’s, the Bhats were coming in significant numbers, paving the way for the first mass migration of Sikhs to Britain, and many of them started bringing over their families. One of the earliest known families was that of Harnam Singh Koumi, who brought his wife and children over in 1938. His children still recall their arrival by plane where by a step ladder was placed up against the aeroplane at London Airport and the smaller children were flung out where the stewards on the ground would catch them.

During the late 1930’s the extensive Bhat Sikh community led to the need of a society to solidify their presence in Britain and establishing a common ground and policy making for social issues. At the instigation of Gyani Rattan Singh Shad, on the 6th June 1939 the first ever meeting was held in London’s East End at 8 Golding Street, at the house of his brother Harnam Singh Koumi. The Sabha enjoyed the patronage of pioneers such as Babu Jiwan Singh Pal, Gehna Singh Chauhan, Vir Singh, Deru Singh, Sant Singh Pardesi, Mool Singh Nirman (Daska Kot), Giani Pritam Singh (Daska), Jhanda Singh Patel and Harnam Singh Talib. For a full list of members present on this initial meeting. Click Here

After prolonged deliberation it was unanimously resolved to set up an organisation and invite all known Bhat Sikhs to attend. On the 15 August 1939, a General Meeting was held at Harnam Singh Koumi’s house, where Bhat Sikhs from London, Birmingham, Crewe, Ipswich, Chatham, Brighton and Swindon attended and the ‘Changa Bhatra Naujwan Sabha UK’ was formed. Golding Street was conveniently made the head office of the Sabha, as everyone came to London, weekly, to stock up on their pedling and domestic supplies. For a full list of attendees at this historic meeting. Click Here
Post-war Britain
The partition of the Punjab, gave the Bhat Sikh Community a greater reason to migrate to Britain, as many had already visited England and had their feet firmly established here. By the late 1940’s and 1950 the Bhats were settled in all the major town and cities in Britain, including Cardiff, Bristol, Ipswich, Peterborough, Doncaster, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Middlesborough, Southampton, Portsmouth and Manchester.
The Rangilla Family, Liverpool, 1952
By the 1960’s and 1970‘s, whilst most communities were newly arriving, the Bhat community was the most established and oldest Sikh community in Britain. As the community became more established and wealthy, many left the pedling trade to set up their own businesses, be it grocery, property or the clothing trade. Whilst many still kept pedling on a part time basis, others totally abandoned it due to the long hours, and hard grafting and travel. Like all Sikhs in Britain, the Bhat Sikhs have also excelled in business and in professions, and the new generations have chosen a more academic route in their field or profession.

The pedling trade among the British Bhat Sikhs is now almost extinct, as there is no market for selling goods and merchandise door to door in this day and age. Some modern day pedlars who visit Britain on short stay visas have resorted to fortune telling and making collections in the names of organizations, but their authenticity can only be judged individually, but this kind of activity is in fact giving the early Bhat community’s efforts and position in society a negative outlook.