A home for Indians studying in London

THE AREA AROUND FITZROY Square was richly supplied with restaurants serving good Indian food during the 1970s, when I was studying physiology and then dentistry at nearby University College London. My Indian friends, all students, introduced me to the delights of the Diwan-i-am, the Diwan-i-khas, and the Agra restaurants around Fitzrovia, all of which served superb food that was far better than that which could be found in most other Indian restaurants both in and out of London. The two Diwans have long gone, but I believe the Agra has been revived. Another place to which my Indian friends took me to enjoy Indian cuisine was the self-service canteen of the Indian YMCA at the north end of Fitzroy Street.

Students from India, formerly British India, have been coming to study in London since the 19th century.  Whereas now people of Indian subcontinental origin are commonly seen in the streets of London, in earlier years there were not so many of them about and their presence aroused both curiosity about them and prejudice against them.  For the Indian students of yesteryear, London, its inhabitants and their habits, must have presented them with puzzling experiences. Mahatma Gandhi arrived in London in October 1888. After a few weeks, he took a room at 20 Barons Court Road. His landlady was an English widow, who had lived in India. Gandhi gave his reasons for choosing to stay in a family:

“It is generally thought desirable to live in families in order to learn the English manners and customs. This may be good for a few months, but to pass three years in a family is not only unnecessary but often tiresome…” (Quoted from “Gandhi in London” by James D Hunt).

However, lodging in an English family had its pitfalls. It was difficult to lead a regular student’s life; Indian food was not served; and most landladies knew nothing of Indians and their ways of life. Gandhi, like many other students from the Indian subcontinent moved into single rooms. In 19th century London, student hostels were a rarity, and those catering to Indian students were non-existent. At Oxford and Cambridge, Indians, like the rest of the students, were housed in college accommodation.  

India House, one of the first (if not the first) hostels in London dedicated to accommodating Indian students was opened at 65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate in 1905, as part of a protest against the unpopular Partition of Bengal and because its founder recognised the lack of places where Indian students in London could find a ‘home away from home’. It was financed by a wealthy barrister and Sanskrit scholar from Kutch (now a part of Gujarat), Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930). As I have described in my book “Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)”, India House soon became a nucleus for anti-British agitation by Indians aiming to free India from British rule. Unlike Gandhi, many of the freedom fighters who met and/or lived in India House, few of them were averse to employing violent methods to oust the British. Soon, it attracted the attention of the British security organizations. Indian students, in general, were regarded with some suspicion by these organizations because there was a fear amongst the British authorities that many of them might have been sympathetic to efforts to liberate India from British rule. There were other official fears such as Indians becoming involved in miscegenation. Things came to a ghastly head in 1909 when Madan Lal Dhingra, who was closely associated with India House, murdered a high-ranking colonial official, who had worked in India. India House was closed soon after this assassination was carried out.

Conspiracies, especially those being hatched in India House, led to the setting up of the Lee-Warner Committee in 1907 “…to Enquire into the Indian Students Problem in the United Kingdom”. One of its recommendations was to set up a hostel for Indian students, who had just arrived in London. Clearly, this was to be under the supervision and ideological control of the India Office and a ‘rival’ to India House in Highgate. It and several other government-approved organizations in London (e.g., the National Indian Association and The Northbrook Club, both established before India House) were designed to provide useful assistance to Indian students, but also to ‘keep an eye’ on them. At this point, I should point out that despite the fears of British officialdom, only a small percentage of students from India were involved in, or even remotely interested in, what was then regarded as ‘sedition’; most of them wanted to better their economic status.

On the 20th of October 1919, Kanakarayan Tiruselvam (‘KT’) Paul (1876-1931), first Indian National General Secretary of the National Council of YMCAs in India and 11 others met in London to explore the idea of establishing a hostel in London for Indian students studying in the city (“YMCA Indian Students Hostel: Triumph of Faith: 1920-2010” by John Varughese).  KT Paul, born in Salem (now in Tamil Nadu), was an Indian Christian leader. In 1920, he published an article critical of the horrendous behaviour of the British in the Punjab (e.g., the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919). However, despite this, he like many other Indians, believed that India’s best hope for the future was by maintaining links with western Christianity and contact with the British (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._T._Paul).  The meeting decided to set up a hostel for 100 students, 75% of whom should be Indian, and for up to 500 non-resident, Indian members. Thus, the Indian YMCA in London came to be born.

The first home of London’s Indian YMCA (‘IYMCA’) was not in Fitzroy Street but in Shakespeare Hut, a now non-existent half-timbered building in Keppel Street near to the University of London Senate House. It was leased to the IYMCA by the Shakespeare Society. During WW1, the so-called hut was used for entertaining troops from New Zealand. In 1924, it was demolished to make way for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (www.ymca.co.uk/about/feature/vintage-photographs-ymca-shakespeare-hut).

In 1923, the IYMCA moved out of the Hut and acquired the freehold of numbers 106-112 Gower Street, which was then fitted out to become a hostel with 40 rooms, a restaurant, a library, and recreation facilities. As had been the case in the short-lived India House in Highgate, the hostel in Gower Street hosted many meetings during which affairs relating to India and its future were held. Unlike those held in Highgate, the meetings were far less militantly revolutionary in Gower Street. Many students came to hear and discuss with a wide variety of prominent Indian leaders. In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi addressed members of the IYMCA in Gower Street. Other still well-known leaders of the Indian independence movement who made appearances at Gower Street included BR Ambedkar, Sarojini Naidu, MA Jinnah, Subhas Chandra Bose, J Nehru, and Pandit Malaviya, to name but a few.

On the 23rd of September 1940, three of the four houses that made up the IYMCA were destroyed by bombing. One student was killed, and five others injured. The hostel moved to temporary premises leased from the University of London at 25 and 26 Woburn Square. The booklet containing the hostel’s history records that in 1946 while inter-communal tensions were frighteningly high in pre-Partition India, the marriage of a Hindu to a Muslim woman was celebrated at the hostel. After Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Henry SL Polak (1882-1959), donated 300 books to the hostel, the nucleus of what was to become its MK Gandhi Library. Polak had been a friend and associate of Gandhi when the Mahatma was in South Africa.

When University College London offered to exchange land, which they owned near Fitzroy Square, for the site of the bombed hostel on Gower Street, the offer was accepted and planning for a new hostel on its present site began. With finances coming from many sources in India and elsewhere, construction began, with Indian High Commissioner VK Krishna Menon laying the foundation stone in 1950. The building designed by Ralph Tubbs (1912-1996) was opened on the 24th of March 1953. Tubbs tried to harmonise his building with the fine architecture in nearby Fitzroy Square. I think he did a good job. Although of a completely different architectural style, it does not clash with the fine buildings designed by Robert Adam, which line two sides of the square.

Since the inauguration of the hostel in Fitzroy Street, it has been visited by many celebrities including Jawaharlal Nehru, Queen Elizabeth II, JRD Tata, Harold Macmillan, Indira Gandhi, the Indian National Cricket Team (1971), Harold Wilson, and Lord Mountbatten. Apart from visits by celebrities, the hostel and its extension (opened 2004) has been home to many students from India and elsewhere. Despite the Christian basis of the YMCA, the hostel caters for people of all religions. In addition to providing accommodation, both long-term and for short stays, the Indian YMCA canteen is open to all, when there are no restrictions imposed by the Government during the covid19 pandemic. It provides something closer to home-cooked food rather than fancy restaurant fare.  

Had the Indian YMCA, or even the short-lived, discredited India House in Highgate, been in existence when Gandhi, a vegetarian, arrived in London in 1888, he would have had no difficulties with finding food to his liking from the start of his sojourn there. I have heard from people who have stayed in the hostel in Fitzroy Street that it is reasonably priced, conveniently located, comfortable but not luxurious. What more could one want?

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