In the footsteps of a great Indian politician

DURING THE FIRST ‘LOCKDOWN’, we spent a lot of time walking within two miles of our home. Despite having lived in Kensington for about 30 years, we wandered along many streets, which we had never visited until after March 2020. One of these many streets, which we ‘discovered’, is Aldridge Road Villas, a few yards south of Westbourne Park Underground station. On our first walk along this road, we met a man, who was repairing or restoring an old model of a Volkswagen parked near his home. Amongst his collection of old restored cars was an old Chevrolet truck, which we admired. We chatted with him and hoping to meet him again, we revisited Aldridge Road Villas several more times, sometimes meeting whilst he was working on one of his vehicles. Because we tended to walk along this road hoping to meet him, we managed to miss something else of great interest to us. It was only recently, that I spotted what we had been walking past without noticing it.

Statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, India

Aldridge Road Villas is probably named after the Aldridge family, who had owned land beside the Harrow Road at Westbourne Park since 1743 or before. The barrister, member of Lincoln’s Inn, John Clater Aldridge (c1737-1795), who became MP for Queensborough between 1780 and 1790 and then for Shoreham between 1790 and 1795, married Henrietta Tomlinson, widow of William Busby and a wealthy landowner, in 1765 (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/aldridge-john-clater-1737-95). Through this marriage, John came into possession of more land around Westbourne as well as some near Bayswater. It is on this land that Aldridge Villas Road was built (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=10787). The oldest houses on the street date from the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. A map surveyed in 1865 shows that the road was already lined with houses by that date.

One former resident of Aldridge Villas Road, at number 1, was the surgeon George Borlase Childs (1816-1888), who was born in Liskeard, Cornwall. A biography (https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/) reveals that he was:

“…connected with the Metropolitan Free Hospital for many years, but is perhaps best remembered as Surgeon-in-Chief to the City of London Police, and to the Great Northern Railway. He took, indeed, a large share in organizing the medical departments of these institutions, displaying on a wider field the characteristic forethought and ingenuity of his work as an operator. The sanitary and physical well-being of the City policeman was one of his prime interests. He devoted much thought and care to the process of selection of members of the force, to their housing and their dress. The last-mentioned is, in fact, his creation, for he introduced the helmet as we now know it, the gaiters, and so forth. He also established the City Police Hospital…”

Celebrated as he should be, it is not Childs who was the best-known resident of the short road near Westbourne Park station. Although he did not live for a long time in the street, the most famous inhabitant of Aldridge Road Villas must be Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (1875-1950). It was the plaque affixed to a five-storey terrace house, number 23, which had avoided our attention the first few times that we walked along the road.  

Like many other Indians living under British rule in India, who became involved in political activity, including Mahatma Gandhi, Shyamji Krishnavarma, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Patel decided to sail to England to study. Vallabhbhai set sail from Bombay in July 1910. On arrival in London, he stayed briefly at the then luxurious Hotel Cecil in the Strand. After that, he stayed in a series of ‘digs’ in different parts of London while he completed his legal training. One of these was for several months at 23 Aldridge Road Villas, the address that appears in his records following his admission to The Middle Temple to become a barrister on the 14th of October 1910 (https://middletemplelibrary.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/famous-middle-templars-3/), the same year as that in which Jawaharlal Nehru joined Inner Temple. Patel was called to the Bar on the 27th of January 1913 (www.telegraphindia.com/india/alma-mater-honours-iron-man/cid/220801). Incidentally, many years later my wife was also called to the Bar at Middle Temple, as had also been the case, many years earlier, for my wife’s great grandfather and his father-in-law.

Patel was hard up as a student in London:

“After his arrival in England, he joined Middle Temple and allegedly studied at least 11 hours a day. Because he was not able to afford books, he used the services of the Middle Temple Library where he spent most of his days.” (https://middletemplelibrary.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/famous-middle-templars-3/).

This shortage of money might well have been the reason that he walked between his digs and the library every day. His biographer, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in “Patel. A life”:

“His twice daily walk between Aldridge Villas Road, Bayswater and the Middle Temple – 4 ¾ miles each way – took him past parks and edifices of great charm or magnificence, including Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace, St James Park, Cleopatra’s Needle and Waterloo Bridge. When he moved digs his walks were as long or longer but not less scenic.”

Gandhi lists Patel’s other London digs as 62 Oxford Terrace, 2 South Hill Park Gardens, 57 Adelaide Road, and 5 Eton Road. With the exception of Oxford Terrace, the other did were near Belsize Park and Swiss Cottage.

Back in India, Patel became involved in the struggle for Indian Independence, joining Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Party. Like many other freedom fighters Patel served several terms in prison. After WW2, he was significantly associated with negotiations with the British regarding transfer of power to the Indians. In 1947, when India became independent, the country consisted of areas that were directly under British rule and well over 800 Princely States that were allowed some independence providing that their rulers did not do anything to challenge the overriding authority of the British Empire. Sardar Patel oversaw and encouraged the rulers of these Princely States to give up their supposed sovereignty and to become part of a new unified India. This was no easy task because some of the larger states, notably Junagarh, Kashmir, and Hyderabad, wished to become part of the recently created Pakistan instead of India. Some considerable persuasion was required to get these places to merge with India. Patel’s achievement at unifying India must surely rival that of Otto Von Bismarck, who unified the myriad German states to become one country by 1871.

The plaque in Aldridge Road Villas is a modest and almost discreet memorial to the great Patel. If you wish to see a more spectacular monument to this remarkable man, you will need to travel to Gujarat in western India, where an enormous statue of him, almost 600 feet high, was completed in 2018. Called ‘The Statue of Unity’, its bronze plates and cladding were cast in the Peoples Republic of China.

Usually, we walk south along Aldridge Road Villas. Until we spotted the plaque commemorating Patel’s residence in the road, we had not realised that we were likely to have been following in the footsteps of one of India’s greatest politicians, which he made when he set out for Middle Temple every morning. And, the idea that one is often walking where famous figures of the past have trod is yet another thing that makes London so wonderful for both residents and visitors alike.

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