Despite the widespread belief that South Asian migration to the UK began after WWII, there is evidence of a considerable South Asian presence dating from the 17th century that has been documented by historian, Rozina Visram (2002).
The early settlers from South Asia included a range of transitory and permanent migrants, and were a diverse group from different regions of South Asia. Some of them survived on the margins of British society, lived (and died) as destitutes but others were very wealthy. South Asian migrants over the centuries included servants, such as nursemaids and travelling nannies (known as ayahs) who accompanied British families returning from India, sailors (lascars) who settled in port cities like Glasgow, London, Liverpool and Cardiff, soldiers who fought in the two world wars, members of Indian royal and aristocratic families who came for education purposes and for leisure trips, and professionals like doctors, lawyers and merchants.
Rozina Visram records evidence from the middle of the 18th century that some of the workers that came here stayed because they could not find the means to pay for a passage back to India. Seamen who were recruited from Sylhet (in present-day Bangladesh) and Mirpur (in present-day Pakistan) were often not re-employed on return journeys and so were forced to remain in Britain. Others jumped ship to escape maltreatment and poor working conditions. Similarly, not all of the servants and nannies brought here by wealthy British families returning from India were offered a paid return passage. An unknown number remained in British homes or were destitute. In 1850, 40 'sons of India' were found dead because of cold and hunger in London alone, and in 1857, the missionary Joseph Salter opened the 'Stranger's Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders' in Limehouse, East London.
From about the middle of the 19th century, another category of South Asian migrants began coming to Britain – students from affluent backgrounds, professionals, princes who came on official visits and travellers. Studying in Britain enabled them to gain positions in the colonial administration as civil servants on their return to India. Many of those who studied in Britain went on to lead the Indian struggle for independence. They included Mahatma Gandhi (who led the non-violence movements protesting against British rule in India) who studied here from 1887-90, Mohd. Ali Jinnah (the first Governor-general of Pakistan) and Nehru (the first PM of India after Independence in 1947). Some of the students stayed on in Britain to practice their professions or to campaign for Indian independence in the very heart of the British empire. In 1892, Dadabhai Naoroji was elected as Liberal MP for central Finsbury, the first MP of South Asian origin in the UK.
The numbers of Indians migrating to the UK accelerated in the period between the two world wars. For example over 700 young semi-skilled male workers from India took part in a six month training scheme in October 1940 in Hertfordshire to improve munitions production in India. Upon arrival, they were sent to the Letchworth Training Centre for preliminary training as fitters and machine operators and then for further training in Manchester followed by experience with private employers.
But it was only after WWII that significant numbers of migrants from South Asia began to arrive and settle here.