Story: Singh, Phomen

Page 1 - Biography

Singh, Phomen

1869/1870?–1935

Confectioner

This biography was written by W. H. McLeod and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Phuman Singh, known in New Zealand as Phomen, was born in the Punjab, India, probably in 1869 or 1870, the second of three sons of a Sikh peasant farming family. He was the son of Bela Singh, a Jat by caste and Gill by sub-caste, and his wife, Sundar. Phomen was brought up in Chirak, a large village just south of Moga. The family appear to have been relatively poor without being destitute, for in the 1880s his elder brother, Bir, like many other needy Punjabis, travelled to Hong Kong and from there to Australia.

According to family tradition nothing was heard from Bir and towards the end of the 1880s Phomen was sent to find him. In this he was successful, but instead of returning home the two brothers decided to travel on to New Zealand; they are thought to have arrived in 1890 or shortly after. There were already Indians in New Zealand and possibly already Punjabis, but these two were the first identifiable immigrants from the Punjab.

Soon after their arrival the brothers parted company. Bir began working as a travelling herbalist in the Wanganui area and married a Maori woman. Phomen spent time in Auckland learning from a Muslim confectioner how to make sweets. He then moved to Wellington where he worked as a hawker of Indian delicacies, carrying confectionery, curries and chutneys around the streets in a suitcase. While here he met Margaret Ford, from Kent, England, who is said to have been a nurse. Singh moved to Wanganui to establish a confectionery business and on 5 April 1898 the two were married there in the Registrar's Office.

The confectionery business had been bought in partnership with a Muslim known as Charlie Abraham, and traded under the name Abraham, Singh, and Company, Indian Lolly Manufacturers. Some years later Singh bought out Abraham. Two shops were rented in Victoria Avenue, and in the living quarters behind these shops the Singhs raised their family. Another shop, known as Eureka, was rented further down Victoria Avenue and a sweet factory was set up in Wilson Street. In the factory Singh employed another Sikh, Ganda Singh, from the Malwa region of the Punjab, who had arrived in New Zealand about 1899.

About 1915 Phomen Singh moved out of Wanganui with his family and for a brief period owned an orchard in Brunswick valley outside the town. He then spent periods in New Plymouth, Eltham and Marton. In each town he opened a Eureka sweet shop, but none of them prospered. He moved to Palmerston North in 1924 or 1925, where business finally proved stable. Two shops called Eureka were opened, one on The Square and one in Rangitikei Street. The family lived at 16 Andrew Young Street, where English-style confectionery was prepared. A horse-drawn van was used to sell sweets in the surrounding countryside.

After their marriage Phomen Singh had remained a Sikh and Margaret an Anglican, but in their later years both became Theosophists. Shortly before his death Phomen Singh presented his treasured copy of M. A. Macauliffe's six-volume The Sikh religion to the Palmerston North Public Library. He died in Palmerston North on 27 May 1935, aged 65, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter. His body was cremated at Karori, Wellington, two days later.