Old photo of port at Calcutta

Places of Change: From Calcutta to London: Sailortowns of Empire

Mon 22nd Jul 2024 | 6pm - 8pm

Join Asif Shakoor (Independent Scholar) and Dr. Manikarnika Dutta (Research Associate) for a guided tour that compares the dockside communities of two of the most important cities in the former British Empire: Calcutta and London.

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Many sailors would have layovers lasting months and months before finding passage back to their homeland, while others would simply be abandoned by shipping companies. This created a community constantly in a state of flux, Canning Town becoming a working-class centre of cosmopolitanism. In this diverse community there existed both friction and friendship, racism and resistance. Poverty was everywhere in this marshy yet increasingly urban, sprawling place.

There were a variety of spaces and institutions which played a key role in this process of community development, including sailor’s lodging houses, clubs, and missions. Their role was complex: they could be places of help and support, places where communities were built. However, they were often also places of control and coercion, where authorities could attempt to dominate this new population.

While most only used these spaces for their temporary stays in the area, many settled in this dynamic and ever-changing community. Some met partners and had children, starting families. By the time of the opening of the King George V dock in 1921, part of the area had become known as Draughtboard Alley due to the racially mixed make-up of the neighbourhood.

This project is a story of change and of people: of how colonialism abroad would go on to change society within Britain, beginning in the dockland communities where the profits of exploitation and racism were unloaded. Places such as The Coloured Men’s Institute, the Lascar’s Club or St. Luke’s Lascar Mission became anchors for those arriving from across the British empire.

We will draw on old and new research to paint a picture of how these places of change functioned, hearing from people who have been on personal and academic journeys of discovery on this topic. We will try to understand the religious and imperial context under which these spaces operated and the lived experience of those who used them. We will also go beyond the walls of these buildings to explore the surrounding area, and how this community changed up until the Second World War.

We will visit sites of the Royal Docks and Newham today to understand how this history is remembered or, more commonly, mis-remembered, or not remembered at all. We will also draw comparisons between the area today and that from a century ago, both seeing huge developments whilst also in a constant state of flux.

We will aim to create a long-form documentary film to be premiered in June 2024, run a paid-traineeship programme, deliver workshops with a local school and run events that explore this fascinating, complex and little-known history.

If you are interested in this project please contact James King (Project Manager).

We are grateful to The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Royal Docks Team for supporting this project.

Old Map
The Royal Docks and surrounding area, 1920. King George V Dock would open the following year to the south of the Royal Albert Dock. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

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