FROM HOVE TO HAMPSTEAD
THE NOBEL PRIZE winning Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was born in Calcutta (Kolkata). Raised in a culturally rich, wealthy household, he began writing poetry when he was eight years old. His family wanted him to join many of his compatriots, who travelled to England to become barristers. By becoming barristers, many Indian men were able to begin on the pathway to wealth and/or political influence both within the British colonial system, or against it.
Tagore was enrolled in a school in Brighton in 1878. Whilst there, he resided in Medina Villas in Hove. His biographers, Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, wrote in their book (published 1996) that one of Rabindranath’s (‘Rabi’s’) nieces:
“…retained fresh memories of Rabi Kaka (Uncle Rabi) in the family house at Medina Villas, between Brighton and Hove, where he settled for several months.”
“Our house at Hove is near the sea. 20/25 houses stand in rows and the name of the complex is Medina Villas. When I first heard that we would be living in Medina Villas, I imagined a lot, such as there are gardens, big big trees, flowers, fruits, open space and lakes etc. After coming to my place I found houses, roads, cars, horses and no sign of Villas” (http://rabitalent.blogspot.com/2017/06/rabindranath-in-england.html).
The school that Tagore attended briefly, for about two months, was in Brighton’s Ship Street, close to the town’s famous ‘Lanes’ and a few feet from the seafront. Recently, a commemorative plaque was attached to the building which housed the school and is now part of a hotel, which used to be its neighbour. The plaque named the educational establishment “Brighton Proprietary School”.
I attended a preparatory school before moving on to a high school, but until I saw the plaque in Brighton I had never heard of proprietary schools. It seems as if they were private schools that were run as businesses, rather than not-for-profit organisations. A note on the National Archives website (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/b1c290ea-4580-4c52-962b-10c0d281ac2a) revealed:
“The school was opened on 18 July 1859 under the title of the Brighton Proprietary Grammar and Commercial School for the Sons of Tradesmen. The proprietors … each had a share in the school and were entitled to take up places there. The education given had a Protestant bias and the first headmaster was the Rev John Griffiths, formerly of Brighton College.”
Brighton Proprietary School later became the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School (www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG250324). Dutta and Robinson wrote:
“After spending a short time in a school in Brighton and Christmas with his family, he was taken away to London by a friend of his elder brother, who felt he was making little progress towards becoming a barrister. There he would stay during most of 1879, with a break to visit Devon, where his sister-in-law had taken a house, and, most probably, time spent with some cousins…”
Fast-forwarding to 1912, Tagore, by then a world-famous cultural figure, visited London. During his stay, he resided in Hampstead’s Vale of Health, as I recount in my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” (available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92). Here is a brief extract from what I wrote:
“The only vehicular access to the Vale is a winding road leading downhill from East Heath Road. This lane is bordered by dense woodland and by luxuriant banks of stinging nettles in spring and summer. At the bottom of this thoroughfare, there are houses. Most of the expensive cars parked outside them suggest that the Vale is no longer a home for the impoverished. At the bottom end of the road, there two large Victorian buildings whose front doors are framed by gothic-style archways. They have the name ‘Villas on the Heath’. One of them bears a circular blue commemorative plaque, which has leafy creepers growing over it. It states:
“Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941 Indian poet stayed here in 1912.”
I have visited the palatial Jorasanko where Tagore was brought up in Calcutta. The large (by London standards) ‘villa’ in the Vale is tiny in comparison. An article published in a Calcutta newspaper, The Telegraph, on the 13th of September 2009 reported with some accuracy:
‘In Hampstead, north London, regarded as a cultural “village” today for left-wing but arty champagne socialists, there is a plaque to Rabindranath Tagore at 3 Villas on Vale of Heath.’”
I have known about Tagore’s stay in Hampstead for a long time, but it was only during a recent visit to my wife’s relatives in Hove, that we first learned of the plaque commemorating Tagore’s brief educational experience in Brighton.