UNTIL AIR TRAVEL really ‘took off’, travelling between South Africa and London involved a long sea voyage, either via the Suez Canal or via the Atlantic Ocean. Boats carrying passengers up and down the Atlantic often called in at Funchal in Madeira. Aged three, I travelled with my parents to South Africa by sea. I have seen a photograph of me dressed in a toga made from a sheet from our cabin. I was taking part in a fancy dress party to celebrate crossing the Equator.
Many years before that – in 1906 – a barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, travelled by ship from London to South Africa. He was on his way back to South Africa, having petitioned young Winston Churchill, then Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, against the Black Act – a law promoting racial segregation. Apparently, when his ship docked in Funchal, the future Mahatma received news that his efforts had been successful, but this news turned out to be false.
On the 5th of September 2019, a bust of Gandhi was unveiled on the seafront in Funchal, close to the harbour where liners dock today. The bust, which unusually shows Gandhi without his characteristic round lens spectacles, was sculpted by Ram Vanaji Sutar (born 1925 in Gondur, Maharashtra). Sutar is also the sculptor of the massive Statue of Unity, depicting Sardar Vallabhai Patel in Gujarat. Beneath the bust there is a quotation incorrectly attributed to Gandhi; it was actually said or written by the Dutch American pacifist AJ Muste (1885-1967). The artwork was unveiled by HE Miguel Albuquerque, President of the Regional Government of Madeira and HE Nandini Singla, Ambassador of India to Portugal. It celebrates the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.
I am grateful to our friend Claus for telling us about the bust, which is not easily visible despite its position so near the waterfront: it is partially hidden by plants.
Over the years, I have visited Porbandar where the Mahatma was born; Rajkot where he went to school; Bhavnagar where he went to college; West Kensington where he lodged when studying for the Bar; Mumbai where he attempted to work as a lawyer; and the Gujarat Club in Ahmedabad where he first met Vallabhai Patel, and also set up his ashrams. So seeing him on Funchal has added to my attempts to follow in his footsteps.
MAHATMA GANDHI IS commemorated by a statue in Tavistock Square in London’s Bloomsbury. He is probably the most famous of three Indians with statues in Bloomsbury. Crafted by the sculptor Fredda Brilliant and presented by the Indian High Commission, it was unveiled by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1967.
The next most famous Indian represented by a sculpture in Bloomsbury is a Nobel Prize winner, the celebrated writer and polymath from Kolkata (Calcutta), Rabimdranath Tagore (1861-1941). The memorial depicts Tagore’s head. It was created by the sculptor Shenda Armery, and unveiled by the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, on Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary year in July 2011. The bust stands in Gordon Square, close to University College London, where Tagore studied law briefly. His face looks away from the college towards the southeast. – towards India, his homeland. On one side of the plinth, there are some words written in Bengali script. On another side, there is a translation of this brief text (by Tagore) in English: “Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresher life. This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new. At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in a great joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable. Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass and still thou pourest and still there is room to fill.” This is from Tagore’s collection of poems – “Gitanjali”, translated into English from Bengali by the author in 1913. It was this collection that led to Tagore being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. In 1915, King George V awarded him a knighthood, but following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, he renounced his knighthood to express his horror at the murders that had been perpetrated on innocent Indians by British troops in the Punjab.
Call me ignorant but I had never heard of Thiruvalluvar, whose bust stands in a garden next to the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury. According to a plaque next to the bust, this man was author of “Thirukkural”, which was a classic of Tamil philosophy and ethics. The bust was donated by the Governent of Tamil Nadu in 1996, and unveiled by the then Indian High Commissioner Dr ML Singhvi. Celebrated as he is in Tamil Nadu, little is known about his life. It is possible that he was born or lived in Mylapore (now a district of Chennai) in the south of India. According to Wikipedia: “His work Tirukkuṟaḷ has been dated variously from 300 BCE to about the sixth century CE.” As for his great work “Thirukkural”, the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica remarked: “…Tirukkural (“Sacred Couplets”), considered a masterpiece of human thought, compared in India and abroad to the Bible, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the works of Plato.”
I have described monuments to three notable men from India, but omitted one woman, whose memorial is close to those already described. The WW2 heroine Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944) is commemorated by a bust, which, surprisingly, I have never noticed, in Gordon Square. Sculpted by Karen Newman, it was placed in the square in 2012. This artist also sculpted a bust of Violette Szabo (1921-1945), which is on the embankment of the Thames near Lambeth Palace. Both Noor and Violette worked for the British SOE, and perished in Nazi concentration camps. Once the epicentre of the British Empire, it is not at all surprising that one comes across memorials to notable Indians whilst wandering about in London and other places in the UK.
INDIA BECAME A REPUBLIC on the 26th of January 1948. Every year since then the 26th of January has been a public holiday known as Republic Day. On the 25th of January 2023, we met a senior advocate sitting in the Gujarat Club, which is next door to Ahmedabad’s Civil & Sessions Court. After showing us around the court building, he invited us to join him and his colleagues for the next day’s celebration.
The Republic Day celebrations began in the garden of the Court building at 9 am. A few soldiers, some of them armed with automatic rifles, arranged the flag raising. At 9 o clock, the Indian flag was unfurled by one of the senior judges, wearing a colourful pugree on her head, in front of a large group of senior advocates and some of the court’s staff. Many of the female advocates were attractively dressed in saris decorated with the colours of the Indian flag (green, saffron, and white). One of the ladies told us that 25 of these had been specially ordered from Agra.
When the flag was unfurled at the top of the flagpole, everyone sung the national anthem,”Jana Gana Mana”. Then everyone began taking photographs of one another. After this, we moved en-masse from the court garden to the compound of the Gujarat Club, where Mahatma Gandhi met Vallabhai Patel for the first time.
You can imagine my astonishment when I saw an elderly man who looked just like Mahatma Gandhi, both in physiognomy and in his manner of dressing. Holding a wooden staff and dressed in a white dhoti, sandals, and a shawl, he was a highly credible Gandhi lookalike.
Residing in the USA, this Gandhi impersonator has attended many Indian patriotic ceremonies. To date, he has appeared in 35 in the USA and about 60 in Ahmedabad. His presence was a huge success. Everyone wanted to be photographed alongside him. With his sturdy staff in one hand, he held his mobile phone in the other. Had they been available, I wonder whether the real Mahatma would have been happy to use one.
The lookalike took part in the Club’s flag raising ceremony, giving a short speech. After the ceremony was over, we were invited to join the advocates for a special breakfast in the Club. We were served jelebis, ganthia, kadhi, and shredded raw papaya with whole green chillies.
We were very happy to have been invited to join the advocates in their extremely enjoyable celebration of Republic Day at the Gujarat Club. This occasion increased my already great affection for the lovely city of Ahmedabad.
THE GUJARAT CLUB, the oldest club in Ahmedabad, stands opposite the Ahmed Shah Masjid, the oldest mosque in the city. The club was founded in 1888 by Rao Bahadur Nagarji Desai. With over 1000 members, the much used clubhouse is in an unmodernised condition. Located next to the recently constructed (2020) City Civil and Session’s Court, the Club is a ‘hang-out” and informal meeting place for many senior advocates. In former times, the place was frequented by Ahmedabad’s wealthy Mill owners and high ranking Britishers. It was the first Indian club that admitted Indians as well as Europeans from the moment it was established.
The Club is located close to a house where Sardar Vallabhai Patel (1875-1950) lived. Patel frequented the Club regularly and played bridge there. It was where he first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1916. A tree marks the spot where they chatted.
After having passed the Bar Examination at London’s Middle Temple, where my wife achieved the same thing many years later, Patel came to live in Ahmedabad. The first meeting with Gandhi at the Club marked the start of Patel’s attachment to the Mahatma’s cause. Years later, Patel played a key role in uniting the former Princely States with what had been British India to form the India of today. An important freedom fighter for Indian independence, he became a senior member of the country’s government after 1947. A close associate of Gandhi, the two men chose to differ on how to deal with certain issues, for example the creation of Pakistan.
We sat under the verandah of the Gujarat Club and enjoyed cups of tea. From where we sat we could see a large rectangular open space, which was being used as a car park. The ground was marked out with tennis court lines and a couple of nets were stretched between rows of parked cars.
We began conversing with an advocate at the next table. When he learned that my wife was a barrister, he kindly offered to show us around the neighbouring court building.
We spent well over an hour sitting in various court rooms. Most of these had two layers of glass screens, separating the judges and the court officials from the rest of the room: a covid precaution.
Several things impressed my wife as being different from what happens in British courtrooms. First, the plaintiffs are permitted to speak directly with the judges, rather than via intermediaries such as barristers. Secondly, the judges seemed to be handed the papers of a case at the moment it was about to be heard, rather than in advance. Thirdly, each judge was able to switch seamlessly between fluent Gujarati, Hindustani, and English. Also, they made decisions far more rapidly than their counterparts in the UK.
After our fascinating visit to the court house, our host and a charming advocate from his firm invited us to return to the court and the Club to celebrate Republic Day on the following morning, the 26th of January 2023. We accepted, and I will describe the events in another essay.
Our visit to the vibrant Gujarat Club proved far more exciting than we had anticipated. What was once a place where mill owners rubbed shoulders with British officers and officials, where Patel first met Gandhi, is now a congenial place where advocates meet, converse, read, and relax.
BOMBAY IS RICH in fine examples of buildings in the art deco style, which flourished roughly between the end of WW1 and the end of the 1930s. There is a good collection of buildings in this style along Marine Drive in Bombay, the Oval Maidan, and elsewhere in the city. London has some fine examples of structures that exhibit features of this kind of decorative style, but, apart from along a stretch of the A4 road, there are few concentrations of art deco buildings in London, such as can be found in Bombay. In London, the art deco buildings are mostly scattered around the city.
At the end of December 2021, we were walking with friends along the bank of the Thames between the London Apprentice pub at Isleworth and Richmond Bridge when I spotted a row of houses built in the art deco style. I had never seen them before. They line the south side of Park House Gardens in Twickenham. The detached house nearest the river, number 66, is larger and more attractive than the others in the street. The rest of the art deco residences on the street are rather mundane pairs of semi-detached homes, constructed to a pattern that I have seen elsewhere in London’s suburbs. Most of them have curved art deco period Crittall windows, which have panes of glass framed in metal rather than wood.
Park House Gardens was laid out in the early 1930s when:
“…gravel pits were filled in with, according to the local people, rubble and other material from the foundations of the Old Hotel Cecil in the Strand. The first houses were then built in Park House Gardens at prices of up to £1600 for semi-detached with garages, about the price of a garage today.” (www.twickenhampark.co.uk/a-brief-history.html)
The Cecil Hotel was in the Strand. Of its many guests, one was Mahatma Gandhi.
WHEN I USED TO visit Hampstead with my parents in the early 1960s, we always walked past a place that intrigued me when I was a youngster. It was the still standing Hampstead Quaker Meeting House, which has a lovely front garden. The latter is overlooked by its neighbour, the late 18th centuryMansfield Cottage, which in the 1960s housed a tearoom or restaurant. The Meeting House with art nouveau (Arts and Crafts) features was built in about 1907 to the designs of Fred Rowntree (1860-1927). According to James D Hunt in his detailed book “Gandhi in London”, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), the future Mahatma, spoke in this meeting house on the 13th of October 1909:
“… perhaps travelling there by the recently opened underground line … The Society of Friends (Quakers) were not at this time much interested in Indian affairs … The 1909 meeting was sponsored by the Hampstead Peace and Arbitration Society”
The speech, as recorded by Robert Payne in his “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi”, was entitled “East and West” and outlined the evils of the British occupation of India and the sufferings of Indians in South Africa. I knew nothing of this or about the house when we used to stroll down Heath Street.
RECENTLY, I WALKED in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, neither in India nor in South Africa nor in London, but in southeast England.
I am sure that many years ago, at least once, I travelled by ferry across the English Channel from Folkestone in Kent to a port in France. Whether I was travelling by car or by train I cannot recall. Had I been travelling by rail I feel sure that I would have remembered the pier at Folkestone, but I cannot now recall it. If I reached the ferry by train, it would have had to have been before 2001, when the last ferry sailed from Folkestone.
The first ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne began in 1843 (https://folkestoneharbourarm.co.uk/history/the-harbour-in-the-19th-century/). Passengers reached the boat from the mainline railway station by local transport. In 1847, a long viaduct was constructed to take a steeply inclined mile long branch line from the main line, which was 111 feet above sea level, to the shoreline. This track crossed the viaduct and a swing bridge, which still exist and separate the Inner harbour from the Outer Harbour. At the seashore, the track ran onto a newly constructed pier, The Harbour Arm, from which passengers and freight could be embarked and disembarked. The pier, which was only fully completed in 1904, had a station, a customs house, and warehousing facilities.
During WW1, the Harbour Arm played an important role in the conveyance of military personnel and materials between war-torn Europe and the UK. In December 1915, the famous spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (‘Mata Hari’; 1876-1917) was prevented from boarding a vessel at Folestone bound for France by Captain S Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Another famous person, of far greater historical significance than Mata Hari, stepped of a vessel, the SS Biarritz, onto the Harbour Arm on the 12th of September 1931. This passenger was a Gujarati, the only member of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), going to London to attend the Round Table Conference. A picture taken at the time (www.alamy.com/mahatma-gandhi-alighting-at-folkestone-kent-england-united-kingdom-uk-12-september-1931-old-vintage-1900s-picture-image346793736.html) shows him, dressed in white robes and a dhoti, stepping along a gangplank. The curved platform of the station on the pier, which still exists, is clearly visible in the picture. He is shown walking towards a group of policemen and reporters, some of whom are holding unfurled umbrellas. His arrival at Folkestone on a rainy day is also recorded in a short but amusingly commentated newsreel film (https://youtu.be/P6njRwz_dMw), which also illustrates the rapturous reception he received in the streets of London.
Far more recently, another arrival at Folkestone has hit the headlines. On the 19th of October 2021, a large puppet called Little Amal (‘amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic), over ten feet in height, first made its appearance in the UK in Folkestone. Little Amal has been carried on foot all the way across Europe from Turkey (www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/whats-on/the-walk-one-little-girl-one-big-hope/) as part of an exercise to raise the public awareness of the plights of refugee children fleeing their native lands. On British soil, she plans to tour the country for a while. Little Amal did not arrive, as Gandhi did, on a cross-channel ferry bound for Folkestone, but she did make her first an appearance on the Harbour Arm (www.kentonline.co.uk/folkestone/news/little-amal-coming-to-town-255932/). She was greeted by the actor Jude Law.
Folkestone harbour was heavily bombed during WW2 and then the pier was repaired after the war ended. Passenger services to France resumed in 1946, but limitations of the harbour’s depth, which prevented the docking of larger ferries, and the development of roll, on roll-off ports elsewhere, led to Folkestone’s gradual decline as a port. These factors and the completion of the nearby Channel Tunnel resulted in the ending of Folkestone’s life as a passenger port by 2000. After this date, the Harbour Arm and its buildings fell into decline and became dilapidated.
In 2014, the Department of Transport closed the railway line ad the facilities on the Harbour Arm. The following year, it was acquired by the Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company (www.folkestoneseafront.com/). This organisation has tastefully restored the Harbour Arm and its buildings as well as the viaduct leading to it across the water. The rails on the viaduct have been preserved but submerged in the walkway in such a way that their top surfaces can be seen. The sinuous platforms and their canopies have been repaired, as have the signal box (now a café) and the old Customs House. Beyond the station, the pier runs out to sea towards a lighthouse. All along the pier, there are several eateries. Also, there is an artwork by Antony Gormley. What was once a busy transport hub has now become a delightful leisure facility, which along with Folkestone’s transformation as an artistic ‘creative hub’ has turned the town into a place well worth visiting, a far cry from what it was when Gandhi set foot on its pier. My wife and I wondered whether Little Amal, who is quite tall, will have as much influence on the future of the world as did the short man from India, who arrived in his dhoti at Folkestone in 1931.
I am pleased to have walked where Gandhi once stepped in Folkestone because I have also followed in his footsteps in various places in India including his birthplace Porbandar in Gujarat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bombay, Madras, and Bangalore. In London, I have often walked by Friends House on Euston Road, passing the very door through which he left the building to greet his admirers back in 1931. In all these places, there are ample monuments and other reminders of the Great Soul (the Mahatma), but, as far as I know, Folkestone is yet to materially commemorate his brief presence there.
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?
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.
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.
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.
NOBODY IS PERFECT, and that includes all of those ‘great’ men and women whose lives are remembered with statues. Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without questioning (or even after questioning) nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.
Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without or with questioning nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.
Consider Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). He was not a person that I would have enjoyed meeting, even for a brief drink in a pub. From what I know of him, he was power hungry and greedy and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
Undoubtedly, money derived from his endeavours has been spent on good works including the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which began funding bright young scholars from 1902 onwards. Many academic and other fine accomplishments have been achieved by the recipients of these awards. However, some of them are now criticising the way that Rhodes exploited/plundered Africa to produce his wealth. Given that these scholarships, funded by what some might describe as ‘dirty money’, are awarded to people with above-average intellectual abilities who could easily have examined Rhodes’ history, I find it strange that the recipients did not question the morality of the origins of what was being offered to them before receiving and spending it. Some recipients justify accepting the scholarships by saying it is a way that Rhodes’ debt to Africa can be partially repaid. Maybe, but would you feel comfortable if, say, the infamous Kray Twins or Al Capone offered to use some of their ill-gotten gains to fund your education? Would you justify accepting their money by saying that although they killed people and committed crimes like theft, it was good that they were using someone else’s wealth to repay their debt to society? Few people would justify erecting statues to either the Kray Twins or Al Capone.
Unlike Capone and the Krays, Rhodes was not breaking any British law when he was plundering Africa to glorify the British Empire and line his own pockets. From the viewpoint of the great majority of ‘white’ British people, his contemporaries, Rhodes was doing a good job during his lifetime for the Empire and his native land, Great Britain. Statues were erected in his memory by those who had benefitted from his life’s work. Those people were mostly, if not all, ‘white’ people. The monuments were put up during an era when racial prejudice went unquestioned and people ‘of colour’ lacked any public influence.
Times have changed. The racial situation, the rights of ‘people of colour’, is also changing, albeit too slowly. Recent and not so recent events across the Atlantic in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” have justifiably heightened popular consciousness and questioning of the worthiness of those, like Rhodes, whose statues adorn our lands.
So as Vladimir Ilych Lenin, discredited by some, and many of whose statues have been toppled, asked in 1902: “What is to be done?” What is to be done with the statues of celebrated people with flaws in their personalities? One could pull them down as has been the case with many statues of Stalin, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and more recently a slave owner in Bristol. Apart from temporarily assuaging the temper of an assembly of aggrieved folk, the toppling or destruction of a statue might have few or no lasting beneficial effects.
It would be far better to remove the statues from positions of great public prominence to more discreet locations (maybe to museums) and to label their plinths with inscriptions that summarise the subjects’ both good and bad actions. Also, it would be a good idea to educate children and other students to understand that just as there are two competing teams in a football match, there are two sides to a person’s personality: a good one and a bad one. It is the balance of these that needs to be judged. In the case of Rhodes, the bad wins, but in the case of, say Edward Jenner (of smallpox vaccination fame), whose statue can be found in Hyde Park, his good features easily predominate.
Finally, destruction of statues and monuments worries me because they are part of remembering. If we know that a monument commemorates something that should not be repeated, such as slavery, let it remain, suitably labelled, so that we do not run the risk of unpleasant aspects of history repeating themselves. For as the philosopher George Santana (1863-1952) wrote in 1906: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”