Bradford is renowned as being a cosmopolitan District that’s home to many communities with origins in different parts of the world. Less well known is that its closest links with places overseas are with very specific, often rural, localities rather than capital cities or entire countries. This phenomenon can be described as “translocalism”, and these two-way relationships are maintained by an on-going exchange of people, resources, information, ideas and identities. For example, around two-thirds of local British Caribbean people can trace their roots to precise neighbourhoods on the island of Dominica, and over 90% of Bradford’s Asian communities come from very particular regions of the sub-continent: Mirpur and other areas along the Grand Trunk Road in Pakistan, parts of Gujarat and Punjab States in India, and the Sylhet District of Bangladesh.
Bradford’s translocal relationships go back to the days when it was the fastest growing town of the late Industrial Revolution, with a huge workforce drawn from Queens County, Sligo and Mayo in rural Ireland. Bradford had opened its first textile mill in 1799 and a century later it had become the woollen textiles capital of the world, with 338 mills and a vast range of supporting industries that had evolved to build, equip and sustain textile manufacturing. Canals, roads and railways carried raw materials in and took finished goods out. They also formed part of a communications system that also transported people and made Bradford the famous centre of a network spanning the globe.
Local industries attracted workers from far and wide and unique combinations of global and personal circumstances have defined how, and from where, pioneers of migration from particular areas made their journeys to Bradford. These settlers would then encourage friends and family to join them, creating a process of chain migration that led to the development of communities, which have become part of the fabric of Bradford. Indeed, groups of migrants have often settled in particular areas of the District, creating their own patchwork of translocal neighbourhoods.
We will be exploring Bradford’s unique translocal networks as part of the Bradford’s National Museum Project, investigating how the weaving together of local and international stories could enhance a ‘national museum’. My own work has also been shaped by translocalism: my photography has helped make visible Bradford’s translocal connections, and this journey has, in turn, led me to travel and form my own networks across the globe.
I came to live in Bradford during the 1980s, another migrant who had heard about Bradford and its opportunities for making a living. After a nomadic childhood spent living on four continents, and as a newly graduated photography student looking for somewhere interesting to live that wasn’t London, I was attracted by its reputation as a cosmopolitan city with communities drawn from all over the world. I didn’t arrive seeking a job in textiles or another related industry but I was curious about those people who had done so.
My first visit to Bradford was as an aspiring photojournalist, when I came to City Hall in May 1985 to photograph one of Bradford’s most famous migrant sons, Mohammed Ajeeb, as he was installed as Britain’s first Asian Lord Mayor. I also found out about the innovative oral history work of the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit (BHRU), part of the Museums and Libraries service that was recording the lives of local textile workers, many of them members of Bradford’s European, Caribbean and Asian communities. In 1986 I was employed to establish BHRU’s photography department, and we went on to produce many exhibitions and publications reflecting the lives of local people.
As iconic textiles firms such as Salt’s, Drummond’s and Lister’s closed down our BHRU team interviewed and photographed a generation who recalled what Bradford once was, and who had witnessed a fall from world dominance that was as rapid as its rise. Many of these people (and BHRU staff) were born locally, with some tracing their heritage back to early migrant groups, particularly the Irish who came from the 1830s onwards. Others were members of communities who arrived here after 1945, from places that included Poland, Ukraine, Italy, the Caribbean and the Asian subcontinent.
Nowadays the use of photography and oral history to record community histories is commonplace, back then it was groundbreaking. BHRU never claimed to be creating a definitive history but its archives now provide glimpses of a period of extraordinary change, and although Bradford’s textile industry has virtually disappeared the cosmopolitan communities that were once its life-blood remain living here.
I’m still based in Bradford too, and exploring stories of migration remains a recurring theme for me. I’m fascinated by individual life stories that often depend on chance and circumstance, but are also shaped by the broad sweep of world affairs. The international networks created via trade (in tea as well as textiles), the British Empire, the First and Second World Wars, the Partition of British India and the expansion/break-up of the Soviet Union are a few examples how global events have had a profound effect on Bradford and modern-day Britain.
The ambition of much of my work is to weave together the historical narrative with personal stories, whilst exploring connections between Bradford, Britain and the rest of the world. Photography, oral history and film-making are great tools for this, and act as my passport. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many remarkable people who have shared their stories and those of their communities, both here and overseas. Conversations begun in Bradford have continued in eastern Europe; on islands across the Caribbean; in west Africa, east Africa, and in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
My own most recent “translocal” journey took me to Sylhet, a district in northern Bangladesh from which around 90% of the Bradford/British Bangladeshi community originate. Sylhet was once part of Assam, the first tea growing region in British India. The resulting exhibition, River of Tea, reveals the story of how the British love of tea led to Sylheti sailors first coming to Britain, and explores how the early tea trade led to strong links being built between modern-day Bangladesh and Britain.
All photographs and text © Tim Smith April 2018.