Surat Alley

Location

179 High Street Poplar
London, E14 0BH
United Kingdom
42° 57' 59.922" N, 81° 14' 15.0468" W
Other names: 

Surat Ali

1
Date of birth: 
18 May 1905
City of birth: 
Cuttack, Orissa
Country of birth: 
India
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

1935-46?

2
About: 

Surat Alley was a trade unionist and political activist who campaigned tirelessly for the rights of Indians – and particularly Indian seamen – in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. India Office surveillance files record the details of his passport, thus shedding light on his date and place of birth, but beyond this, little is known of his early life in India. Indeed, even his affiliations are disputed, with some describing him as a Bengali and former seamen and others doubting that he was a Muslim. It is likely that he arrived in Britain some time in the early or mid 1930s, and it is known that he married a white woman called Sarah (Sally) Reder, with whom he lived first in London’s East End and later in Glasgow.

While Alley was involved in an extraordinary range of activities and organizations, his struggle for equality for Indian seamen was perhaps his greatest political contribution when in Britain. He held a number of posts in different organizations all of which aimed for the betterment of the pay and employment conditions of lascars. He was Secretary of the Colonial Seamen’s Association, formed in 1935 by black, South Asian and Chinese seamen in reaction to the British Shipping (Assistance) Act. He was also the London representative of Aftab Ali’s All-India Seamen’s Federation. In this latter role, he gave much assistance to lascars striking against their unequal treatment at the beginning of the Second World War. He organized meetings and rallies, distributed leaflets, and listened to the seamen’s grievances. When Aftab Ali called off the strikes, having reached an agreement with the authorities, Alley cooperated with this decision but continued to campaign for the release of lascars from prison and their subsequent re-employment, lobbying the Home Secretary and calling on the TUC for support. Alley gained a reputation among government officials as an agitator and trouble-maker, in spite of their partial reliance on him to negotiate with lascars.

In the early 1940s, Alley wrote pamphlets and issued memos on the appalling conditions of Indian seamen’s hostels in Britain, their lack of compensation and pay when injured during the war, and the insufficiency of their wages. In 1941 he sent his memo titled 'Indian Seamen in the Merchant Navy' to the Shipping Federation, the Indian High Commissioner, the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Labour and National Service, urging their intervention. But the authorities repeatedly stonewalled him, claiming intervention could only come from India. In September 1943, when the All-India Seamen’s Federation was starting to disintegrate, Alley launched the All-India Seamen’s Centre, which was soon merged with Aftab Ali’s India-based India Seamen’s Union. The inaugural meeting, held at British Council House, Liverpool, was attended by ninety seamen and other South Asians, as well as spokesmen from the National Union of Seamen, the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and several other organizations. By 1944 the AISC had branches in London, Glasgow and Liverpool. Alley worked hard for the organization, disseminating information in Urdu and Bengali as well as English, and urging seamen to join in order to better protect their rights and interests. His years of activism did see some small successes, although these were generally credited by the authorities to the ship-owners rather than to Alley himself.

Surat Alley’s political interests extended beyond the concerns of lascars. He was Honorary Secretary of the Hindustani Social Club, an organization committed to the social welfare of working-class Indians in Britain as well as to raising their consciousness of the struggle for Indian independence. In this capacity, he helped to organize a charity performance by Ram Gopal and his troupe at the Vaudeville Theatre in December 1939. Alley was also general secretary of the Oriental Film Artistes’ Union. He was involved with Swaraj House, and in 1943 he helped to set up the Federation of Indian Associations in Great Britain which brought together the middle-class members of Swaraj House with the working-class members of the Indian Workers’ Association. Surveillance reports suggest he was an associate of the revolutionary Udham Singh. Shortly after Singh’s arrest in 1940, Alley’s lodgings were searched. Not just confining himself to Indian organizations, Alley was also an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, helping them to gain access to the Indian working classes, and worked as an ARP warden in the Second World War.

Connections: 

Aftab Ali, Ayub Ali, Mulk Raj Anand, Jyoti Basu, Tarapada Basu, Amiya Nath Bose, Ben Bradley, Reginald Bridgeman, Michael Carritt, B. B. Ray Chaudhuri, D. N. Dutt, May Dutt, Ram Gopal, Abdul Hamid, Kundal Lal Jalie, M. A. Jalil, Chris Jones (led Colonial Seamen’s Association), Balram Kaura, Abdulla Khan, Akbar Ali Khan, N. Datta Majumdar, V. K. Krishna Menon, Narayana Menon, Tahsil Miah, S. P. Mitra, R. S. Nimbkar, Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi, Sarah Reder (wife), V. S. Sastrya, Pulin Behari Seal, Said Amir Shah, John Kartar Singh, Iqbal Singh, Udham Singh, Sasadhar Sinha, D. J. Vaidya, C. B. Vakil.

All-India Seamen’s Centre, Bengal Indian Restaurant, Communist Party of Great Britain, International Transport Workers’ Federation, London Majlis, National Union of Seamen, Trades Union Council.

Involved in events: 

British Shipping (Assistance) Act, 1935 (campaigned against)

Indian Workers’ Conference, United Ladies Tailors’ Union Hall, Whitechapel, July 1939 (organizer)

India League conference, Central Hall, Glasgow, September 1941 (gave speech on conditions of lascars)

Joint Maritime Commission of the International Labour Organization, London, June 1942 (presented Indian seamen’s case)

International Seafarers’ Conference, London, 13-14 December 1943

Empire Day meeting organized by CPGB, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London, 24 May 1940 (gave speech)

3
Secondary works: 

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002)

4
Example: 

Note Misc. No. 17/I.P.I, L/PJ/12/384, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras, pp. 113-14

Content: 

This is a surveillance file on the Communist Party of Great Britain. The extract is taken from an IPI report on ‘Indian Communist Activities in London’, dated 29 July 1940.

Extract: 

Surat Ali in recent months has continued his activities on behalf of Indian seamen and his Oriental Film Artistes’ Union, but is very seriously hampered in both respects by war conditions. Over the UDHAM SINGH case he has established many contacts with the Sikh community in England. He now attends on CARRITT for instructions and pay and appears to have been promoted to more difficult country in his Party activities; for instance, he was sent by CARRITT to speak at the opening of the ‘INDIA EXHIBITION’ when this moved from Cambridge to Oxford (incidentally it was very poorly attended there). He addressed the FEDIND in April, spoke at an Empire Day meeting, and one or two other major Party fixtures. Latterly he has been advised to do no open Party work lest he be arrested, and to burn his papers and remove his Communist books to safe addresses. He has been specially zealous in endeavouring to work up Poplar Communist activities to the same level already reached by Stepney, and by way of encouragement was recently made Propaganda Secretary for Poplar. He is also a regular attendant at meetings of the Colonial Committee of the CPGB.

Relevance: 

This passage emphasizes the range of political activities and organizations that Surat Alley was involved with in Britain. From actors, to students, to the Sikh supporters of the revolutionary Udham Singh, Alley interacted with a wide range of Indians, advising them of their rights and aiding them in their various campaigns for justice. The passage is also suggestive of the way that a figure like Alley bridged Indian and British organizations, working on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain in their struggle for equality – and probably encouraging Indians to join the Party – but also establishing and developing Indian groups to cater for their particular needs. This further implies a productive interaction and exchange between Britons and South Asians within the political sphere.

Archive source: 

L/E/9/976, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/PJ/12/384, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/PJ/12/630, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/PJ/12/646, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

MT 9/3150, National Archives, Kew

MT 9/3657, National Archives, Kew