Hampstead, Highgate, and the Indian freedom struggle

A MOTHER OF FAMILY-planning and women’s rights, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) lived at number 14 in Hampstead’s Well Walk between 1909 and 1916. I remember seeing a plaque recording her residence in Hampstead. However, I do not recall seeing the plaque to one of her neighbours, the socialist Henry Hyndman (1842-1921) on number 14. It was only when I acquired a copy of an excellent guide to Hampstead, “Hampstead: London Hill Town” by Ian Norrie, the owner of the former Hampstead book shop, ‘High Hill Books’ and Doris Bohm that I discovered that Hyndman had lived and died in Well Walk. Hyndman, a politician, lawyer, and skilled cricketer, was initially of conservative persuasion but moved over to socialism after reading “The Communist Manifesto”, written by Karl Marx in 1848. Although anti-Semitic, he was amongst the first to promote the writings of the (Jewish) Marx in England.

Replica of Highgate’s former India House in Mandvi, India

It is an extremely pleasant walk from Well Walk, across Hampstead Heath, Kenwood, and through Highgate village to Highgate Wood, opposite which the Indian born barrister Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) lived in self-imposed exile with his wife Banumati. Born during the year when The Indian Rebellion of 1857 (First Indian War of Independence or ‘Indian Mutiny’) commenced, it seems that it was appropriate that he was a keen promoter of India being liberated from the British Empire. Krishnavarma, in common with Hyndman, believed that it was wrong that the British should control and exploit the inhabitants of India. They corresponded and most probably met each other.

In 1905, responding to events in India such as the unpopular partition of Bengal, Krishnavarma, a wealthy man, decided it was time to do something about bringing down the British in India. He did three main things. He began publishing a virulently anti-colonial newspaper, “The Indian Sociologist”; he gave money to create scholarships for Indian graduates to study in England; he bought a large house in Cromwell Avenue, Highgate. He was also one of the founders of the Indian Home Rule Society, whose views were in stark contrast to those of the Indian National Congress, which at that time, put great faith in the supposed benevolence of the British Empire towards its Indian subjects.

The scholarships had several conditions attached. The most important of these was that the recipients had to promise that they would never ever work for, or accept posts from, the British Empire. The candidates for these scholarships were usually recommended by people in India, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who were working actively to end British Rule.

Krishnavarma, recognising that many Indian students faced considerable hostility in Britain at the start of the 20th century, used the house he bought in Cromwell Avenue to create both student accommodation and a community centre, a home away from home for Indian students in England. He called the building ‘India House’, which should not be confused with the better-known India House in Aldwych, the Indian High Commission.

The grand opening of India House in Highgate was on the 1st of July 1905. The inauguration speech was given by Henry Hyndman. I do not know whether he was already living at Well Walk when he opened the student centre in Cromwell Avenue.

Soon after it opened, India House became an important centre of anti-British activity. Under Krishnavarma’s leadership, and given his anti-colonialist views, India House became of increasing interest to the British police and intelligence agencies. In 1906. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a law student and leader of a secret revolutionary society, became a recipient of one of Krishnavarma’s scholarships. He lived in India House, where he wrote a couple of anti-British books, which were banned in British India. In brief, believing in armed revolution, Savarkar became one of the most dangerously anti-British activists in Europe. When Krishnavarma and his wife shifted to Paris in 1907, Savarkar became the ‘head’ of India House. Under his watch, smuggling of arms and proscribed literature to India was carried out. He encouraged experimentation in bomb-making, and was not dismayed when one of his fellow house-mates, Madan Lal Dhingra, assassinated a top colonial official in South Kensington in 1909. The assassination led to increased police surveillance and India House, which had been opened by Hyndman, closed by 1910.

I have introduced you to this lesser-known aspect of the history of the Indian Freedom Movement for two reasons. One is to explain my delight in discovering that I must have walked many times past the house in Well Walk where Hyndman lived (and died). For me, Hyndman has assumed greater interest than his deservedly far better-known neighbour Marie Stopes. The reason for this is that about five years ago I was in the town of Mandvi in Kutch (part of India’s Gujarat State). Krishnvarma was born in Mandvi and is now commemorated there. Apart from the modest house in which he was born, there is an unexpected surprise on the edge of the town. It is a modern replica of the Victorian house in Cromwell Avenue (Highgate), which was briefly home to Krishnavarma’s India House. Seeing this extraordinary replica of the house inaugurated by Hyndman in a flat desert setting got me into researching its story. In the end, I published a book about the Indian freedom fighters in Edwardian London, “Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)”, which explores the story I have outlined in far more detail.

[“Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)” by Adam Yamey is available from amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on kindle. Or specially ordered from a bookshop: ISBN 9780244270711]