Bud Singh’s life is something of a mystery. He was one of many thousands of Sikhs who came to Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Like his fellow countrymen and pioneer Sikh-Australians, he worked as a hawker, selling goods in small country towns. He was much loved by the local community and always made generous donations to the local hospital or charitable organizations.
But what makes Bud Singh’s story unique is that in the early 1900s, he was made a life member on the Board of the Camden Hospital (in New South Wales), and now in the year 2014, the hospital will hold a special ceremony to reinstate a plaque to honour Bud Singh as one of its earliest benefactors.
According to historian Len Kenna, “Although numerous memorials of Sikh and Indian hawkers dot the countryside wherever you go in rural Australia, all of these memorials were erected posthumously. Bud is unique that he was acknowledged by the Yerranderie community during his lifetime -- and so, the upcoming commemoration at Camden hospital will acknowledge all of the other Sikh and Indian hawkers, who contributed heavily to the development of Australia in the early 20th century.
Bud Singh was born in Punjab in 1873 and reached Australia in 1899. He began work as a hawker on foot, who carried his goods in a basket, and soon earned enough to buy a horse cart. He then opened a general store in Yerranderie, invested in the local tin mines and went on to become quite wealthy.
“Bud was very involved in the local community,” says Len Kenna from the Australian Indian Historical Society. “He was a member of the Rifle Club, the Bike Riding Club, the Athletics Club, you name it. He was heavily involved with the Red Cross and was a donor to the Camden Hospital. He was even a judge at a local music competition, which tells you that he participated in everything.”
Len estimates that there were around 30,000 hawkers from the subcontinent (mostly from Punjab, and generally Sikh), working in country-towns around Australia in the early 1900s.
“Conforming to the pillar of Sikh belief to do good deeds and offer your services to the community, 90% of these hawkers donated part of their wages to the local hospital. The wonderful thing about Bud was that he managed to become a life member of the hospital board, and his name was painted alongside the Who’s Who of Yerranderie at that time. That in itself questions the White Australia policy as we know it”.
An account by Jack Stein states this about Bud Singh: “His name is on the plaque of the Camden District Hospital. He gave £100 a year to the hospital. He was a gentleman, an ex-cavalryman in the Indian Army, who lost one eye in an uprising in India.”
Crystal Jordan, also from the Australian Indian Historical Society explains that there is a court trial about when Bud seemed to have lost his eye.
She says, ”Five men attacked Bud in his general store one day, probably because he kept all his cash under the floor-boards. The attack was quite vicious and Bud was taken to the hospital immediately. In the ensuing court case, the attackers were charged with assault and the judge posted an astronomical bail amount of £500. To put this in context, that amount was virtually unpayable back then, since the average wage was around £2 per week in those days.
“But we believe that’s when Bud lost his eye, and not in any war, because he probably wouldn’t have been allowed to enter Australia if he was blind in one eye.”
So even though there’s a photo of Bud Singh in some sort of military uniform, it cannot be attributed to any particular army or regiment since it has no identifying feature – perhaps it was Bud’s way of adding “more spice” to his personal story.
But a very important (and well documented) aspect of Bud Singh’s story is that although he came to Australia at the turn of the 20th century, and established himself as a very wealthy man, he went back to Punjab in 1926 -- never to return.
And maybe, his descendants are alive and well, back in Punjab.
Crystal has found the records from 1926 that indicate that Bud left on a ship called Moldavia from the Woolloomooloo Wharf. The local newspaper states that, “ he was farewelled by many of his turbaned friends.”
Crystal’s research reveals that the authorities actually auctioned this land in 1952 to recover unpaid taxes for the previous 26 years.
There is also a note that states that when this land was auctioned, Bud Singh was deceased by then. Len believes that “Bud fell ill and died in Punjab, or perhaps, died on his way back home”.
But Crystal believes that if his descendants are still living in Punjab, it shouldn’t be hard to identify Bud from the portrait photo she’s found.
“Bud left Australia when he was aged in his early 50s, and he was a very wealthy man, so someone in Punjab should be able to identify him from this picture,” she says hopefully.
“So many Sikh-Australians did exactly what Bud did, and perhaps more. But now that the plaque will be reinstated in his honour at Camden Hosptial, it will be a symbol of acknowledgement of all those other acts of kindness that have since, been forgotten.”