No, this isn't India House on Aldwych - completed in 1930 and from 1947 the Indian government's High Commission in London. This is a smaller, older, more anonymous building on Cromwell Avenue in north London, in that limbo land between Archway and Highgate.
The building bears a rather generously worded GLC blue plaque for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He was a founding ideologue of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism and is something of an intellectual hero to the more cerebral supporters of Narendra Modi's BJP.
Savarkar was and remains a deeply controversial figure. He was tried as a co-conspirator in the Gandhi murder trial and was acquitted. In the photo below of the accused, he's the older man with glasses on the front row. To his right as we are looking at the photo is Nathuram Godse who fired the shots that killed Gandhi and who was executed for his murder in November 1949.
Savarkar had another brush with the law - again alleged complicity in a political assassination - during his sojourn on Cromwell Avenue forty years earlier. We'll get to that in a moment. But this building was much more than Savarkar's temporary home.
65 Cromwell Avenue became, in 1905, a hostel for Indian students in London, taking the name India House. It was more than simply a place to live. There was a political purpose to India House. It was intended to be a nurturing place for a new and more assertive generation of Indian nationalists. It certainly was where Indian revolutionaries of different hues got to meet and organise. Ironically, perhaps, Gandhi visited here while in London in 1906.
India House was opened on 1 July 1905 by H.M. Hyndman, a veteran socialist (and founder in the 1880s of the SDF) with a longstanding interest in India. Also present at the opening ceremony were Dadabhai Naoroji, who a decade earlier had been the first Indian elected to the House of Commons, a radical Liberal and constitutional nationalist, and two much more revolutionary-minded women activists, Charlotte Despard, suffragist and Irish republican, and Madame Cama, a Paris-based Parsee who was at the centre of the web of militant Indian nationalists and socialists in Europe.
The founder of India House was Shyamji Krishna Varma, a scholar and barrister who founded the India Home Rule Society. He published the curiously named Indian Sociologist - and fled London for Paris in 1907 after some of his more intemperate remarks and articles attracted official attention. The journal continued to appear - the maverick anarchist Guy Aldred took over as publisher and was sentenced at the Old Bailey to twelve months hard labour for his troubles.
India House provided a base for an array of political activists of different hues. The communist and anarchist M.P.T. Acharya was among those associated with the building on Cromwell Avenue. So too was Madan Lal Dhingra, who came to London from Punjab to study mechanical engineering at University College.
On 1 July 1909, Dhingra fired seven shots at Sir William Curzon Wyllie, the political aide-de-camp of the British government's Secretary of State for India (at that time John Morley), on the steps of the Imperial Institute in London. Wyllie was killed, as was a Parsee doctor, Cawas Lalcaca, who sought to come to his aid. It was one of the most renowned political assassinations in London of agents of British rule in India - the most notorious being Udham Singh's killing of Sir Michael O'Dwyer more than thirty years later.
Dhingra was tried at the Old Bailey and, within seven weeks of the killing, was hanged in the grounds of Pentonville jail. A memorial tablet for Wyllie stands in the crypt of St Paul's cathedral.
There were suggestions that Savarkar had supplied Dhingra with the gun used in the killing and he certainly declined to criticise the assassination. Savarkar was eventually arrested and it was decided that he should stand trial in India.
While on board ship moored near Marseilles, Savarkar escaped - which doesn't say much for the competence of the Imperial authorities. When he eventually turned up in Bombay he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent ten years in the cellular jail on the Andaman islands and many subsequent years in prison and internment.
By the time Savarkar was released in 1937, he had written his commanding work, Hindutva: what is a Hindu? He became the head of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha and died in Bombay in 1966.
And what of India House? Well, after Wyllie's assassination the hostel was closed and the property sold. 65 Cromwell Avenue reverted to being an ordinary suburban home - but what a back story it has!
The plaque to Savarkar was unveiled by the Labour left-winger Fenner Brockway in 1985 - a staunch opponent of Empire and advocate of colonial freedom.
Ten years ago came a remarkable footnote to the India House story. A full-size replica of 65 Cromwell Avenue was built in the town of Mandvi in Gujarat, the birthplace of Shyamji Krishna Varma, as a memorial to the man who established the students' hostel. A little bit of Highgate in western India!
What an astonishing photograph! It appears in George Sims' Living London, published in three volumes from 1901. The Ayahs' Home at that time was on King Edward's Road, close to the southern end of Mare Street.
Ayahs are Indian nannies - hundreds came over with British colonial-era families returning from India, and quite a few ended up abandoned, or homeless as they sought new employment. An ayahs' home seems to have been set up in Aldgate from the 1820s or a little later. The home had moved to a large house at 26 King Edward's Road by 1891, when it came under the management of the London City Mission.
This photo of the exterior of the Ayahs' Home appeared in the London City Mission magazine in 1900. The mission of course was trying to save souls as well as help the distressed - and clearly seeking to reassure its donors that this was a well-run enterprise.
The building still stands - none of the signage survives, but otherwise it is much as it was when ayahs sought refuge here a century and more ago. I went down to King Edward's Road today - this is what No. 26 looks like:
The First World War made it all but impossible for ayahs to return home. And during or more probably just after the war, the home moved one-hundred yards or so to slightly bigger and more modern premises at 4 King Edward's Road. And that building too is still standing - again with none of the old signage, but with the porch and rudiments of the exterior design little changed, and perhaps even the same railings:
Its not clear when the Ayahs' Home closed - perhaps in the mid-1920s, though one imagines that the problem of stranded ayahs may well have persisted into the 1950s. Perhaps as the Indian population in the UK grew, ayahs were able to seek help from within the community.
You can find out more about the Ayahs' Home at the following sites and in an article by Suzanne Conway in a volume entitled Children, Childhood and Youth in the British World. And thanks to the Geffrye Museum in Dalston - it was a mention of the Ayah's Home in their current exhibition 'Swept under the Carpet?: Servants in London Households, 1600-2000' which put me on this track.
Denmark Street - that enticing and endangered link between St Giles High Street and Charing Cross Road - is much more than simply London's faded Tin Pan Alley, the once legendary home of music publishers and recording studios. It's the most substantial surviving remnant of old St Giles, one of the more notorious of the rookeries of mid-Victorian London. The wonderful early eighteenth century St Giles-in-the-Fields is yards away, and the area around was a stronghold of artisan radicalism 150 years ago. Denmark Street still has a handful of marvellous late seventeenth century buildings - and is still choc-a-bloc with guitar shops and music businesses which give it a wonderfully louche air.
It was also the spot where one of South Asia's most influential literary movements, the leftist Indian Progressive Writers' Association, was founded. The venue was the basement of the Nanking restaurant - and the date, according to the scholar Carlo Coppola, was probably the evening of Saturday, 24 November, 1934.
I've long wondered where exactly the Nanking restaurant was - whether it was a precursor of the Giaconda, the dining rooms where music magnates lunched (and now an up-market burger bar). With the help of a 1940 street directory in Holborn Library, I've cracked it. The Nanking was at number 4 (the street hasn't been renumbered), on the south side, and towards the St Giles High Street end. It was next to a labour exchange (that's now a Fernandez and Wells coffee shop).
After the Nanking, no. 4 became the Regent Sounds Studios, where the Rolling Stones put together their first album back in 1964 and where Black Sabbath, Elton John, the Kinks and Jimi Hendrix also recorded. So - quite a shrine to the golden age of British rock. There's more about the street's musical heritage here.
The main business in no. 4 today is Regent Sounds, not studios but a guitar shop specialising in Fender and Gretsch. And the basement - the spot where the IPWA met - is a bar and live music venue, the Alley Cat.
In the early thirties, Denmark Street was buzzing with Chinese and Japanese restaurants and businesses. The China Rhyming blog uncovered a description from the Queenslander newspaper (not quite sure why they were showing such interest, but I am glad they did) in 1932. Here it is:
“….enter Denmark Street, which is now almost wholly given over to Chinese and Japanese restaurants and emporia. Undoubtedly the most amusing of these places is The Nanking, presided over by Mr. Fung Saw. Mr. Fung is some thing of a politician, and to his restaurant come many of the more youthful of the budding Parliamentarians. These, together with composers and song writers, their publishers and film artists, comprise the chief of Mr. Fung’s clientele. The hall of feasting is reached by long, steep steps, which lead to an exceptionally large, light, and lofty basement. There is another and a mere prosaic entrance through a hall door on the ground floor, but somehow no one ever seems to notice it, and so we descend the more picturesque steps. Inside, the decorations are reminiscent of a Chinese junk, and the walls are decorated in vermilion and in greens and yellows, which only a Chinese artist is able to use to Oriental perfection. On the opposite side of the road are two Japanese restaurants, and just round the corner we can enter the banqueting hall of Wah Yeng, who contents himself with catering, to the exclusion of everything else. Mr. Yeng explained that he had a largo back room, which he reserved for Chinese business men, but as Chinese merchants do not so often come to London the hall at the back is usually thrown open to all.”
By 1940, there were only a couple of Chinese and Japanese restaurants on Denmark Street - though the East Asian aspect was reinforced by a number of Japanese shops and businesses.
But the directory demonstrates that by the outbreak of the Second World War, Denmark Street was already established as the centre of the music publishing industry - there were eighteen music related businesses in this single, short street as well as a handful of movie enterprises.
In his reminiscences, Sajjad Zaheer gave an account of the Association's first meeting: 'A Chinese restaurant owner of London was very considerate towards us and used to offer the back room of his restaurant free of charge. This small, unventilated cellar could accommodate forty to fifty people with difficulty. Our regualr meeting was held there.' (Zaheer wrote a novella about Indian student life in and around Bloomsbury, A Night in London - here's an excellent account if it and the context in which it was written.)
According to the novelist and founder member Mulk Raj Anand, it was at a monthly meeting of the Association at the Nanking restaurant in the followng year, 1935.that its manifesto was adopted. It opens with these stirring words:
Radical changes are taking place in Indian society. Fixed ideas and old beliefs, social and political institutions are being challenged. Out of the present turmoil and conflict, a new society is arising. The spirit of reaction, however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong itself.
It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist the spirit of progress in the country.
And a closing thought: Denmark Street sports a blue plaque celebrating Tin Pan Alley. Shouldn't there be one for the Indian Progressive Writers' Association too, perhaps on the outside of the Alley Cat?
This charming yet deeply tragic memorial tablet is on the walls of St Anne's, Highgate - the church where John Betjeman was baptised. You can only imagine the excitement amid which Doris Tanner, newly married, headed out to India. Within a year she was dead. Aged just 23. It's not clear where in India she was buried.
Her husband was an 'A.S.P. India', by which I take it that he was an Assistant Superintendent in the Indian Police Force. Jocelyn Tanner outlived his wife by almost sixty years, dying in 1973. He appears to have made his career in the Indian Police and was awarded the King's Police Medal. He married again, and his new wife, Aileen, lived until 1983. They are buried in the same grave at Haughley in Suffolk.
It's strange the things you spot at summer parties. Sir Rick Trainor (he taught me almost forty years ago) yesterday evening hosted his last summer party as Principal of King's College, London - he heads off over the summer to be the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford.
The party was in the hidden away grounds of King's Maughan Library on Chancery Lane - and it's there that I came across these remarkable panels designed (it seems) by Walter Crane.
Crane was an influential artist and book illustrator - and a pioneering socialist ... indeed his designs featured on the membership cards, in the masthead designs, everywhere, in the socialist movement of the 1880s. He was a close ally of William Morris in particular.
These panels were designed for St Dunstan's House, a publisher's office, when it was built on Fetter Lane in 1886 (when Crane was most actively involved in the socialist movement). His authorship of the design seems to be less than absolutely certain. The building has been demolioshed - and the panels moved to King's property nearby, where they have been incorporated into what you might call a feature, though one sadly rather hidden away alongside the bicycle racks.
What's are these designs all about? Well the company based at St Dunstan's House published maps and novels including Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. There's no particular reason to believe that these panels were their commission - thought it would sort of make sense. There's a bit more detail here.
In the northern half of Regent's Park, not far from that venerated open-air cafe 'The Honest Sausage', stands this wonderful Gothic style monument. A watering hole, in its most literal meaning. And as you can see, enormously in demand on a wonderfully sunny bank holiday weekend.
What I hadn't appreciated until now is the India - indeed the Parsee - connection.
The fountain was built in 1869 by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association (not many charitable endeavours encompass both human and animal welfare quite so magnificently), inuagurated by a member of the royal family, and paid for by a wealthy Bombay (now Mumbai) based Parsee industrialist.
Parsees - Zoroastrians by religion, a community numbering only in the tens of thousands - have had, and continue to have, an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. They have played a role in Indian industry and commerce akin to that of the Quakers in Britain a couple of centuries ago. Their role in politics, in India at least, has been less evident - though both M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and Indira Gandhi married Parsees. But quite remarkably in Britain, the first three Asian MPs were all Parsees - Dadabhai Naoroji ('Mr Narrow Majority'), elected Liberal MP for Central Finsbury in 1892, Sir M.M. Bhownagree a Conservative representing (unlikely as it seems) a seat in the East End of London, and Sharpurji Saklatvala, a communist who represented Battersea in Parliament in the 1920s.
The plaque on the drinking fountain in Regent's Park omits to mention the full name of its Parsee benefactor, and what a marvellous name it is - Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney. Here's his Wikipedia entry. As you can see, the plaque records that Sir Cowasjee provided the funds for the fountain 'as a token of gratitude to the people of England for the protection enjoyed by him and his Parsee fellow countrymen under the British rule in India.' This was barely a decade after the 1857 Rebellion/Mutiny - decsribed by some as India's First War of Independence - so quite a bold statement.
Above the plaque is what appears to be a likeness of the benefactor - judge for yourself how well it captured his features:
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