Lady with the lamp

ROMSEY IN HAMPSHIRE is a delightful small town with a spectacular parish church, Romsey Abbey, with many Norman and gothic architectural features. The edifice that stands today was originally part of a Benedictine nunnery and dates to the 10th century, but much of its structure is a bit younger. It rivals some of the best churches of this era that we have seen during travels in France. That it still stands today, is a testament to the good sense of former citizens of the town.

During Henry VIII’s Dissolution of The Monasteries in the 16th century, much of the nunnery was demolished. However, the establishment’s church was not solely for the use of the monastic order but also served as a parish church for the townsfolk. As Henry VIII was not against religion per se, and the need for a parish church was recognised, the townsfolk were offered the church for sale. In 1544, the town managed to collect the £100 needed to purchase the church and what remained of the abbey from The Crown. Thus, this precious example of church architecture was saved from the miserable fate that befell many other abbey churches all over England. However, what you see today was heavily restored in the 19th century, but this does not detract from its original glory.

The town of Romsey is 3.4 miles northeast of East Wellow, the burial place of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the social reformer and statistician as well as a founder of modern nursing. I had no idea that Florence was famous in the field of statistics. Her biographer Cecil Woodham Smith wrote:

“In 1859 each hospital followed its own method of naming and classifying diseases. Miss Nightingale embarked on a campaign for uniform hospital statistics … which would ‘enable us to ascertain the relevant mortality of different hospitals, as well as different diseases and injuries at the same and at different ages, the relative frequency of different diseases and injuries among the classes which enter hospitals in different countries, and in different districts of the same countries.’”

In 1858, she was elected a member of the recently formed Statistical Society. So, there was much more to Florence than the commonly held image of ‘the lady with the lamp’ during the Crimean War.

Florence was christened with the name of the Italian city, where she was born. Part of her childhood was spent at the family home of Embley Park, which is 1.8 miles west of Romsey Abbey church and close to East Wellow. Now a school, it remained her home from 1825 until her death.

Broadlands, which was built on lands once owned by the nuns of Romsey Abbey, is a Georgian house on the southern edge of Romsey. It was home to Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who was Prime Minister in 1856 when the Crimean War came to an end. Broadlands was Palmerston’s country estate. It is maybe coincidental that both Palmerston and Nightingale were associated with both Romsey and the Crimean War.

Palmerston is celebrated in Romsey by a statue standing in front of the former Corn Exchange. Florence has a more discreet memorial in the town. It is a stained-glass window within the Abbey church. Placed in the church in 2020, it was formally dedicated in May 2020. It depicts a young lady seated by a tree, her face turned away from the onlooker. Created by Sophie Hacker, the image depicts Florence seated on bench beside a tree in Embley Park. The tree in the window, a cedar, still stands in Embley Park’s grounds. The image is supposed to recall the moment when, as a young girl, she received her calling. Woodham Smith wrote:

“Her experience was similar to that which came to Joan of Arc. In a private note she wrote: ‘On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service’”.

The window includes the following words above her head:

“Lo, it is I.”

And beneath her:

“Here am I Lord. Send me.”

There are a few other words on the window, some in English and others in Italian.

A visit to Romsey Abbey church is highly recommendable. We thought that we had visited it many years before 2021 and arrived expecting to see an abbey in ruins. We were delightfully surprised to realise that we had mistaken Romsey with some other place, whose name we have forgotten, and instead we had discovered a church that was new to us and unexpectedly wonderful both architecturally and otherwise. Anyone visiting nearby Winchester with its fine cathedral should save some time to come to see the magnificent ecclesiastical edifice in Romsey.

Rambling in Hampstead: Romney to Robeson

AN OLD FIRE STATION with a tall clock tower was built in 1871 and used until 1923. It stands on a corner at the southern end of narrow Holly Hill, opposite Hampstead Underground Station. Let us begin the steep climb up Holly Hill, noting on our right the house (number 16) where the painter Derek Hill (1916-2000) lived between 1947 and his death.  A painter of portraits and landscapes, he was greatly regarded in Ireland.  Close to his home, number 18 Holly Hill is named ‘Sundial House’ and has a heavily painted black sundial attached to its façade.  It was once part of the house owned by Hill.

former Mount Vernon Hospital

A little further up the hill on the same side as Sundial House, there is a large house with white painted weatherboarding, which was the residence of a painter far better-known than Hill, George Romney (1734-1802). Romney bought the property in 1796 and had it redesigned by Samuel Bunce (1765-1802) for use as a studio and gallery in 1797/8. Although Romney had spent a great deal of money to create his Hampstead abode, to which he moved from having lived in Cavendish Square for at least 20 years, he was not entirely happy being so far away from the buzz of central London life.  He sold the house in 1799. In 1807, the house was enlarged and became ‘The Hampstead Assembly Rooms’. Later, in1929/30, the house was remodelled and enlarged by the architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), who created the picturesque village of Portmeirion in western Wales. So, much has happened on this plot of land, which used to be the site of the stables of Cloth Hill, a house that existed in the 17th century.

To the north of Romney’s house is Fenton House, built about 1693, once owned by the Riga merchant PI Fenton, who bought it in 1793, and now owned by the National Trust. It houses a fine collection of old keyboard instruments. In the late 1960s when I first visited it, visitors were free to touch the instruments and make sounds or music with their keyboards. Now, this is forbidden unless you are a musician who has been given special permission to play them. Fenton House is next door to Bolton House and Volta House. These two and another, Windmill House, comprise a terrace constructed 1720-1730 (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101379202-volta-house-bolton-house-windmill-hill-house-and-enfield-house-hampstead-town-ward#.YAG3W-j7RPY). The poet Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) lived in Bolton House between 1791 and 1851. Her guests at the house included John Constable, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and John Keats. The street on which these buildings and Fenton House stand, Windmill Hill, was named in 1709, probably because there had been a windmill nearby in the 17th century (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33).

Across Holly Hill and high above Romney’s house, a steep footpath reaches Mount Vernon. Just where the small lane makes a right-angle turn, there is a plaque on a high brick wall commemorating the physiologist Sir Henry Dale (1875-1968), who lived nearby. Dale first identified acetylcholine in 1914 and proposed that it might be a neurotransmitter, a substance that allowed nerve cells to communicate with one another. In 1936, he and his collaborator Otto Loewi (1873-1961), whom he met at University College (London), were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on the role of acetylcholine in neurotransmission.

The wall to which Dale’s plaque is attached is part of that which surrounds the  Mount Vernon House, which is barely visible behind the wall. The house, originally named ‘Windmill House’, was built in about 1728. It has been home to Dale; the surgeon William Pierce (c1706 -1771); General Charles Vernon (died 1810), Lieutenant of the Tower of London from 1763 until 1810, who leased it between 1781 and 1800; and the British landscape painter Edmund John Niemann (1813-1876). Dale and his wife occupied the house from 1919 to 1942.

Immediately north of Dale’s former home, there is a massive Victorian building replete with turrets topped with conical roofs. Now a block of flats, this used to be Mount Vernon Hospital for Tuberculosis and Diseases of the Lungs (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/mountvernonhampstead.html). It was built on land owned by General Vernon.  I often wonder what people living in former hospitals like this one and the old Royal Free, also in Hampstead, the former Royal Dental Hospital (now a hotel in Leicester Square), and the former St George’s Hospital (now the luxurious Lanesborough Hotel), think when they consider that parts of their residences might once have been filled with consumptive patients, or the sickly poor, terrified dental patients, and the dying.

Built in 1880 and opened a year later, this hospital was built in faux 17th century French renaissance style. In 1914, the building and its later extensions was sold to the Medical Research Committee and Advisory Council  to house a National Institute for Medical Research. By 1915, it was a hospital again. After WW1, the building reverted to being used for medical research until 1950. According to a watchman at one of the entrances to the former hospital, the place was converted into flats about 25 years ago.

Moving northwards, Holly Hill becomes Frognal Rise, which drops downwards to the east end of Frognal before rising again. Two gate posts marking the beginning of a lane, Oakhill Way, that leads west from the ascending part of Frognal Rise are the entrance to Combe Edge. Along the lane, there is a house with that name, whose gateway bears the date 1878. One of its walls has a plaque commemorating Elisabeth Rundle Charles (1828-1896), who lived there from 1874 to 1896. A writer, Charles is best known for her novel about Martin Luther, “The Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family”, published in 1862, which can be read online (www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/36433), if you have nothing better to do. But we must move on to our next port of call: Branch Hill House.

The house, formerly called ‘Spedan Tower’, is an ugly brick pile, which looks institutional.  However, its gothic revival gatehouse, built 1868 and designed by SS Teulon (1812-1873) and overlooking a large area of allotments, is attractive. The former care home (built in 1901) was once the home of John Spedan Lewis (1885-1963), founder of the retailing group John Lewis Partnership.  Beneath it in what was once its gardens, there is a modern council estate called Spedan Close. Completed in 1978, it:

“…was, at the time it was built, the most expensive council housing in the country; every property with its own individual roof garden.” (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=29094).

Returning to Frognal Lane, it becomes Branch Hill a few yards before it joins West Heath Road. Number 1 Branch Hill, a house named ‘The Chestnuts’, was home to the great singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976) from 1929 to 1930. This was after his appearance in “Show Boat” in London in 1928. It was in this show that his famous performance of the song “Ol’ Man River” was first heard. Paul and his wife bought the house in Hampstead, but soon after they divorced, he returned to the USA.

By now, you will have walked not much more than 600 yards, but passed plenty of places of historical interest, which I have mentioned, and others that wait for you to explore.

Umbrella of memory

BUILT BETWEEN 1787 AND 1820, BRIGHTON PAVILION looks less like a hospital than most other buildings. Yet, during the First World War (‘WW1’), this decorative seaside retreat for British royalty was converted into a hospital to treat Indian troops. They had been wounded whilst fighting for the for the British Empire in the battlefields of Flanders. On the 14th of December 1914, the Pavilion was opened as a hospital with 724 beds. According to George Morton-Jack in his book “The Indian Army on the Western Front”, 14,185 wounded Indian troops were brought to Brighton on six “state-of-the-art” hospital ships. They were treated in the Pavilion and other hospitals specially established for the Indian wounded in Brighton and elsewhere. Over 2,300 Indians were treated in the converted Pavilion.

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The Chattri

A few of the Indians did not survive their injuries. Of those treated at the Pavilion, 18 died, 10 of whom were cremated. Those who died, were given last rites according to their religious beliefs. Moslem corpses were buried in a purpose-built cemetery near the Shah Jehan Mosque at Woking (in Surrey). This mosque was completed in 1889 to the design of Gottlieb William Leitner (1840-1899), an orientalist of Hungarian Jewish heritage. The Hindus and Sikhs who succumbed to their injuries in the hospitals in Brighton were cremated on traditional funeral pyres. Between the 31st of December 1914 and the 30th of December 1915, 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated at a specially demarcated spot on Holt Hill (near Patcham) in the South Downs, 500 feet above sea-level and then their ashes were scattered in the sea according to their rites.

Years ago, we used to meet the late General Misra (of the Indian Army) once a year for dinner when he came from India to the UK on his annual visits. He was a jovial gentleman, who seemed to enjoy life. All that we knew about his visits was that during them, he used to make a trip to Sussex to pay his respects to those Indian soldiers who had died during WW1. Apart from knowing him as a pleasant dining companion, we knew nothing else about him apart from the fact that he was related to some close friends of ours. We were not sure exactly why he used to go to Sussex in particular. Also, we were then unaware that our affable old friend had had a formidable military career.

During WW2, the General was attached to the 6th Rajputana Rifle regiment. A report (https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/28086/4/MANIS002.txt) written during the British Indian campaign against the Japanese in Burma noted:

“Expediting the Jap withdrawl from the TENGNOOPAL Ridge and converting his retreat into a rout, the capture of a prominent hill to the east of Sibong, know(n) as Battle Hill, by a battalion of the 6th. Rajputana Rifles enabled us to have a grand-stand view of the retreating Japa on their LOC. The Rajputs singing and shouting made merry here as they sent MAG bursts on the jap LOC. In this battle and from the attack on Lone Tree Hill near Shenam, the Rajrifs [sic] have been commanded by Lt. Col. Dinesh Chandra Misra of Agra and a graduate of the Indian Military Academy.”

On the 5th of October 1944, the London Gazette announced that the then Captain (temporary Major) Misra had been awarded the prestigious Military Cross for his services in Burma. His distinguished military career (with the British before Indian independence) is summarised on the Imperial War Museum website (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80017253):

“Indian cadet at Indian Military College, Dehra Dum, India, 1933-1935; officer attached to North Staffordshire Regiment in India, 1935-1936; served with 5th Bn Rajputan Rifles in India and Hong Kong, 1937-1941; served with British Army Aid Group Indian Section, China, 1942-1943, served with Rajputan Rifles in India and Burma 1943-1944; student attended Staff College at Camberley, GB, 1944-1945.”

From what my wife and I remember of this affable general, he never mentioned his brave exploits or even hinted at them.

Recently, a friend posted a photograph of a monument that he runs past whilst taking exercise on the South Downs near Hove. This small structure, which looks Indian in design, is what General Misra used to visit on his annual trips to the UK. A few days ago, we visited our friends in Hove and after eating a delicious lunch with them, we drove up on to the Downs near Patcham and walked through a field of well-fed grazing cows to reach a small enclosure containing the Chattri and a monument listing the names of the Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated at this place during WW1.

‘Chattri’ is the Hindustani and Punjabi word for ‘umbrella’. The monument on Holt Hill consists of a small white marble dome supported on eight pillars made of the same material. This stone Chattri stands on a podium with stairs leading up to it from a lower platform on which there are three low granite slabs. The three granite slabs cover the spots where originally there had been three concrete slabs on which the funeral pyres were built and then ignited according to religious tradition. The ‘umbrella’ or ‘chattri’ symbolises, according to a plaque nearby, “the protection offered to the memory of the dead”.

Funded partly by the India Office and Brighton Borough Council, the monument was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921. It was built to the designs of EC Henriques (died 1940, aged 51) a young Indian architect from Bombay. His work was supervised by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob (1841-1917), an expert in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. I have eaten dinner at one of Jacob’s other buildings: Bikaner House, a palace he designed in Mount Abu (Rajasthan), constructed in 1893. Built as a summer palace for a maharajah of Bikaner, it is now a hotel. In January 2020, we ate a poor-quality meal there. We and the other diners sat dressed in padded jackets because the dining room was unheated, and the outside temperature was close to freezing point.

The bases of the eight columns of the Chattri interested me because they bear the same decorative motif seen on the bases of pillars in Hindu temples constructed well before the era of Moslem invasions of India began. The early mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat (e.g. in Ahmedabad and Champaner), which borrow many structural features of Hindu temples, also contain pillars whose bases are decorated with the same motif seen on the Chattri. The same is true of the capitals of the pillars that support the dome of the Chattri. Also, the domes in those ancient Hindu temples and mediaeval mosques are always supported on eight pillars arranged in an octagon, as is the case at the Chattri.  In brief, the small but elegant Chattri, which looks a little incongruous in West Sussex, would look very much at home in many parts of India.

The Chattri stands high on the South Downs in a pleasingly landscaped garden. It overlooks the surrounding hills and the ribbon of coastal towns including Brighton and Hove, and beyond them the sea. Part of the monument complex is a more recently (2010) erected concrete wall on which are carved the names of the 53 Hindu and Sikh men who were cremated at this spot, as well as their ranks and regiments.

To reach the Chattri, we walked along a path through a field in which cattle were grazing. As I looked at the cows, I thought that most of the Indian men whose lives ended in Brighton and were cremated on the Downs must have often walked amongst cattle in India before they left it to fight in Flanders  for the Empire, which did their fellow countrymen few favours.

During our brief visit to the Chattri, there were a couple of families relaxing around it. Their children were playing cheerfully around the pillars and on its steps, blissfully unaware of what it represented. This did not bother us. We felt that their joy would have been appreciated by the men who sacrificed their lives for the future of families such as these and many others. The wide horizons, the lovely landscape, and the fresh air enveloping the monument, gave the place and its surroundings a special, maybe spiritual, atmosphere, a feeling of the continuum of life and beyond. Who knows, but any of us at the Chattri might possibly be reincarnations of some of the soldiers cremated there.

POSTSCRIPT: INDIAN SOLDIERS ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Many Indian soldiers fought for the British because they believed, or hoped, that by supporting the Empire in its struggle for survival, India would gain at least some autonomy, if not a generous dose of self-rule. In the last years of WW1, even the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi roamed around India encouraging Indians to enrol to fight for the British. Joseph Lelyveld wrote of Gandhi in his book “Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India”:

“He implores wives to send their husbands to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the empire, blithely promising, ‘They will be yours in the next incarnation.’ Fighting for the empire, he now argues, is ‘the straightest way to swaraj’”

The Indian soldiers fought for the empire. Some were killed, others injured, but India did not reach swaraj (i.e. self-government) at the end of WW1. Remember, less than a year after the Great War ended, soldiers commanded by a British general killed at least 379 and wounded over 1000 unarmed Indian civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab, the district of India that supplied many troops to the Western Front and other battlefields. Even Winston Churchill, no lover of India, was genuinely outraged by the horrific nature of this murderous event.

India would have to endure many upheavals and another world war before independence was won.