UCL's Law Department is staging exhibitions to mark the centenary of the legislation which allowed women to qualify as barristers and solicitors. So they are commemorating women of distinction linked to law at UCL. And Sheela's aunt, Dorothy 'Dorf' Bonarjee, was the first woman to be awarded a law degree at UCL way back in 1917.
Dorf studied first at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth - where she achieved the remarkable feat for an Indian woman student (albeit brought up largely in Dulwich) of winning the bardic chair at the college Eisteddfod. She was a published poet - and Sheela still has manuscript and printed copies of many of her verses.
She went on to UCL - again accompanied by her brother, Bertie (Sheela's father) - where she made an indelible mark once more. Here's what the panel about Dorf at the dinner (and there will also be an exhibition at UCL's Bentinck House) proclaimed:
Dorothy Bonarjee - UCL Laws LLB 1917
The first woman to achieve an internal law degree from UCL
Dorothy Bonarjee was the first woman to achieve an internal law degree from UCL Faculty of Laws (1917). This achievement is particularly notable because the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates, was not ratified until 1919. This means that while she was pursuing her studies, women could not formally enter the legal profession. Additionally, other leading universities did not, at that time, admit women to degrees.
Dorf's father was a lawyer but she never practised in the profession - indeed she eloped with a French artist, Paul Surtel, perhaps to avoid the prospect of returning to India. She lived for the rest of her life in southern France. Sheela knew Dorf well, and indeed regarded her as something of a role model.
I've blogged before about Dorothy Bonarjee - indeed it was after the team at UCL googled her to try to find out more about her that they made contact with me. The dinner invitation ensued. And there's more about Dorf to come!
Priests and congregation at the annual mass at the Armenian church in Chennai, February 2019. Mike Stephan, a prominent member of the Armenian comunity, is on the left and next to him the Jesudian family. The priests are the Very Rev. Fr. Movses Sargsyan, Pastor of the Armenians in India and Rev. Fr. Artsrun
Here's the script for a piece I wrote and recorded for 'From Our Own Correspondent' on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. The introduction reads: In India there are still a few communities, much diminished in size, whose roots lie in the trading links which came with Empire. Andrew Whitehead has come across one such group in the southern city of Chennai which, for the first time in centuries, is growing in numbers again:
I didn't expect to see a baby in his mother's arms among the congregation. India's Armenian community - once conspicuous in commerce, though always modest in number - has been fading away for many decades. In Chennai, they are barely clinging on.
The city's serene eighteenth-century Armenian church holds just one service a year. It's the oldest church in what was once called Black Town - the place that became home for those not allowed to live in the British fort at the heart of what was then Madras. The place was one of Asia's commanding ports in that earlier era of globalisation and Empire. And the Armenian traders had money - that's reflected in the stylish design of this pocket-sized church, its large grounds, striking plaster cherubs and their bugles, and a separate tower complete with church bells cast in Whitechapel in London’s East End.
Two priests from Kolkata came over for the annual mass - a two-hour flight away, where the Armenian congregation can reach the heady heights of a hundred or more worshippers, at least at Christmas time. The clerics brought with them to Chennai the incense, ornate clerical headgear, capes and crucifix which are such essential parts of Orthodox worship. Even counting well-wishers and the curious - and I suppose I fit both descriptions - the number attending just touched double figures.
So the young family made up I guess a quarter of the congregation. The baby's name is Suren. His father, Kapilan, is an architect – Chennai-born and, he insists, 100% Tamil; his mother Ashkhen, with red hair and pale complexion, describes herself as Armenian through-and-through.
As is often the case with marriages across the frosted boundaries of race, religion, language and nation, there is a heart-warming measure of coincidence in this love story. Kapilan was so often told when a postgraduate student in Canada that his surname, Jesudian, sounded Armenian that his interest in the country was aroused; Ashkhen performed so well in Hindi lessons when she was at school in Armenia that she won a study trip to India, and on her return took on a role promoting links between the two countries.
When Kapilan arrived in Armenia as a tourist, Ashkhen showed him round. "He asked me if Armenia is safe" - she recounts, with feigned shock and amusement. "He's from India - and he asks if my country is safe!" When she was, in turn, invited to Chennai she was wary - "don't think I'm coming there to get married", she insisted. But a day before her return home, they got engaged. A white wedding followed, held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Ashkhen found her first year in Chennai tough. She was hit by South India's ferocious heat and humidity. She missed her family, her language, her food, her favourite kind of coffee. Her husband is a Christian but the services at his Protestant church in Chennai didn't sound - or smell - anything like the orthodox worship she had grown up with.
Over time, she came through and adapted. She started teaching Russian and - with admirable entrepreneurial flair - worked as a business coach, offering Indian businesses advice on branding and on commercial etiquette when dealing with the Russian-speaking world.
That’s just one story. But there are more. Hundreds of Indian students now attend medical schools in Armenia. Ashkhen reckons that sixty or more Armenian women have married trainee doctors and accompanied them back to India. Suren is not the only youngster in Chennai with an Armenian Mum and an Indian Dad.
Not all the young Armenians in India cleave to the church as a marker of their identity – but they do network, and Ashkhen is now the regional coordinator of the India-Armenia friendship group. She’s worried about her son growing up in a culture where inter-racial marriages are still rare, and where anyone with a fair skin is likely to be seen and treated as an outsider. Chennai is no longer the cosmopolitan city it once was - but Ashkhen is determined to – as she put it – make herself comfortable there.
So for the first time in a couple of centuries, the Armenian community in India is growing. "If you want to find the bad things about India, you will", Ashkhen counsels her friends – and her clients. "If you want to find the opportunities for business, you can. There’re plenty."
Then she checks herself - looks at her husband - and declares with a laugh in her voice: "I sound just like one of those Armenian traders who came here back in the 1780s, don't I?"
It's difficult to disagree.
Even the most humdrum of street furniture sometimes warrants closer inspection. Take this lamp post on Great James Street on the north side of Theobalds Road. It bears the mark of one of London's lost localities, St Giles.
The Crossrail-bedevilled junction of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road is known formally as St Giles Circus, though most would refer to the spot as Centre Point or simply as Tottenham Court Road tube.
The area takes its name from the wonderful eighteenth century Flitcroft-designed church of St Giles-in-the-Fields, itself simply the latest in a series of churches on this spot in a chain going back perhaps a thousand years. The church's website has a good account of the history of the building and of the area.
St Giles was known in the mid-nineteenth century as a rookery, an area of cramped and insanitary housing. It was also the home of skilled artisan trades and a hotbed of the radicalism associated with such occupations. Inside the church there's a blue plaque for a prominent radical George Odger, moved here when the nearby house on which it was initially installed was demolished.
The church and the adjoining (and warmly recommended) Angel Inn are about the only buildings of any antiquity on what remains of St Giles High Street, now sadly reduced to little more than a stub of the road it once was. I am surprised that St Giles ever had a Board of Works, and even more surprised that its remit extended to Great James Street, perhaps half-a-mile away and (I am fairly sure) in the parish of St Andrew's, Holborn.
Great James Street would, from 1900, have been part of the Borough of Holborn, which in turn became part of the London Borough of Camden in the mid-1960s. But it's so nice that this street souvenir of St Giles survives.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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