Desi Pubs in the Black Country

As part of South Asian Heritage month, we’re celebrating the triumphs, challenges and contributions of the Black Country’s South Asian community. No space represents this more perfectly than what has become known as the desi pub – something unique to the Black Country, but all its own.

Migrating halfway across the world from India to a booming and busy region like the Black Country in the middle of the 20th century could be, ironically, a remarkably lonely experience. For many, migrating from a Commonwealth was a double-edged sword – you were perhaps freer, safer and more economically stable, but you were also (to varying degrees) not entirely accepted. This was the space that the Black Country’s South Asian community occupied.

After a long day at work at a foundry or factory, it must have been particularly hard to know that there were some pubs that you ‘just weren’t welcome at’. It must have been even worse to know that refusing to serve someone based on their colour was perfectly legal until 1965.

That’s not to say there weren’t pubs that welcomed these new communities, and some pubs became an important part of life of the Punjabi foundrymen of the Black Country. A place to meet ‘brothers’ from their homeland, and sometimes, even a place to drown their sorrows and reminisce about life back home. From these experiences, a Punjabi pub culture all its own began to develop.

And thus something unique to the Black Country emerged: the Desi pub. These were traditional Black Country pubs that were run by South Asian landlords, that served the traditional British pint alongside curries and grills. They were a place where South Asian workers could wind down after work beside their English colleagues, and have become an important part of Black Country culture.

There are now dozens of desi pubs around the Black Country that stand as a testament and a celebration of South Asian community and endurance. These are the kinds of stories we’ll exploring as part of our Forging Ahead capital development project. The Elephant & Castle – a mid-century Black Country pub that we’ll be replicating from the ground up – was a space where different communities, including those that had migrated from South Asia, came together to enjoy a pint.

Picture one: Anoop Grewal (far left) and his friends, 1969, Wolverhampton (courtesy of the Apna Heritage Archive)

Picture two: Avtar Singh Jouhl, 1962