Hillfields, once an industrialized, affluent suburb of Coventry, became a target for aerial bomb strikes in World War II. A vibrant urban centre instantly transformed into the ruinous aftermath of war. Today, the Imagine Hillfields project exhibits the multitude of Hillfields’ manifestations from its development and redevelopment to its present day. The project’s incredible use of photography provides a visual narrative for the people of Hillfields and the unique story of their home.
Mohan Singh Dahaley was sitting in his living room one morning when he received a Facebook message from Jaspal Panesar, a family friend from Hillfields. Jaspal’s family continues to live in England to this day, but Mohan immigrated to Canada approximately 25 years ago. He was overtaken with happiness to hear from Jaspal, but what she said in her message filled his eyes with tears.
Hello, [Mohan]. My name is Jaspal and I’m Pritam and Kuldeep’s [daughter] from Coventry. Recently I saw your message on Facebook thanking friends & family for their kind wishes after your recent stay in hospital. I copied a photo of you and showed my mum, who was really happy to see your face after so many years! A week later I happened to see another photo of not just you but your whole family. I’m not sure if anyone else has told you about it, but I couldn’t resist sending you a copy. Being so far away, I hope this will remind you of a time gone by. I would [love] to hear back from you. Enjoy this photo.
Attached to her message was a picture she saw in the Imagine Hillfields exhibition. The picture shows the evolution of the suburb with a scene of Primrose Hill Road in modern day Hillfields, beautifully superimposed with photo of a Sikh family walking through the same street 50 years earlier.
The picture was an important art piece in the exhibition, the nature of which spoke to the motif of novelty. An analysis of the aged photo, in context, reveals more newness than the modernity to which it is juxtaposed. It conveys the potential of an historical Hillfields: a brand new suburb, to be filled with brand new faces, bringing with them a rich Indian culture. This photo stands alone as a visual testament to why Imagine Hillfields was a compelling undertaking. This Sikh family – a resolute father, a caring mother, and their impressionable children – walking through the new streets of their new home, with an Indian-Pakistani restaurant seen in the backdrop, symbolized the new face of a new beginning for Hillfields and everyone who lived there, including a two and a half year old Mohan holding his father’s hand on the right.
1 Mohan (extreme right) and his family
Who would have thought 50 years later, Mohan would be looking at this incredible moment from his past through his iPhone? Overtaken with emotion and memories of his childhood, he was reminded of his humble upbringing.
Mohan was born in the British colony of Kenya where he and his family were British citizens living in Nairobi. His father was offered to relocate to England in 1962 to rebuild a war torn Coventry. His family was one of five Sikh families living in Hillfields at the time. The Sikh community in Hillfields was small, but strong. During Mohan’s childhood, these families came together to purchase a home on Stony Stanton Road, close to Leicester Causeway, and converted it into a Gurdwara (Sikh temple). Even though the community was close-knit, Mohan recalls the difficulty his parents faced trying to reinvent themselves in a brand new country.
Mohan grew up in a Hillfields vastly different from the idyllic suburbia that existed before the war. He remembers being hospitalized as a young boy after playing in a residential demolition area. These precarious structures were prone to collapse, sometimes on young children like Mohan. During the 60s, winters were bitingly cold and most homes at that time used coal as a source of heat. When families were in need of warm water, they boiled it themselves. To bathe, residents went to the Coronation Road public baths as many of them did not have full bathrooms and toilets were located outside of the house. Mohan’s father, a brilliant craftsman and artisan, constructed his own bathroom for his family.
Upon discovering the Imagine Hillfields exhibition, Mohan managed to contact Jason Scott Tilley, one of the photographers in the exhibition, thinking he was the original photographer. Tilley was amazed that the picture reached as far as Canada, but informed Mohan that the original photographer was John Blakemore, now in his 80s. Blakemore was touched by Mohan’s appreciation of the photo.
2 The Dahaley family, Blind, led by Mohan holding his father’s hand, aged 2½, extreme right, in the Blakemore original from January 1965
Today, the original photo is framed and hung up on the wall of Mohan’s kitchen – the epicentre of an Indian household. Like the art piece in which it was initially discovered, the photo is beautifully embedded in the modern landscape of Mohan’s life in Canada. He, his wife, and his 16 year old daughter go about their days with the picture fixed in their background.
Mohan looks at the picture from time to time, contemplating the difficulties his parents had overcome and the experiences he gained in Hillfields. Mohan is grateful to the organizers of the Imagine Hillfields project and, in particular, John Blakemore for capturing this beautiful moment.