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]

Where Engels dared to tread: Sylvia Plath, Jose Rizal, and Friedrich Engels

AT THE FOOT OF PRIMROSE Hill, there is a lovely street called Regents Park Road, which we have visited many times before, but it was only today in late January 2020 that we spotted the former residences of two famous people and one less well-known in this country, but very important in his own country.

Chalcot Crescent

The highly regarded American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) lived briefly in picturesque Chalcot Square, which is a few yards south of Regents Park Road. There is a plaque on number three that records that the poet lived there between 1960 and 1961. Married to the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), the couple moved in  to the top floor flat, somewhat cramped accommodation, in January 1960. It was here that their daughter Frieda was born a few months later. Plath described the square as:

“…overlooking a little green with benches and fences for mothers and children … five minutes’ walking distance from Primrose Hill and beautiful Regent’s Park”

It is still an attractive square, made even more appealing by the variety of colours of the 19th century houses surrounding it.  The Hughes’s moved to larger accommodation in nearby Fitzroy Road where she took her own life. Although Sylvia lived longer at Fitzroy Road than in Chalcot Square, her children decided it would be best to commemorate her time in the square. When the plaque was placed on the house on Chalcot Square in 2000, her daughter Frieda was asked why it was not placed on the house in Fitzroy Road. She replied:

“My mother died there … but she had lived here.” (both quotes about Plath from: www.hamhigh.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/poet-sylvia-plath-she-died-there-but-she-had-lived-3438440)

Plath lived for about a year in Chalcot Square, but the Filipino national hero Dr Jose Rizal (1861-1896) spent even less time in the neighbourhood in number 37 Chalcot Crescent, a sinuous thoroughfare. He stayed in London from May 1888 to March 1889. He came to the metropolis to improve his English; to study and annotate a  work by Antonia de Morga (1559-1636) about the early Spanish colonisation of the Philippines; and because London was a safe place to carry out his struggle against the Spanish, who were occupying his country (www.slideshare.net/superekaa/rizal-in-london-52133406). At Chalcott Crescent, he was a guest of the Beckett family. While lodging with the Becketts, Jose had a brief romantic affair with Gertrude, the oldest of the three Beckett daughters. When her love for him became serious, Jose left London for Paris. Before he left, he gave the Beckett girls three sculptures he had made in London.

Rizal was a remarkable man with many skills. Born in the Philippines, he was an ophthalmologist by profession and fought vigorously for reform of Spanish rule in the Philippines. Amongst his other abilities were novel and poetry writing; philosophy; law; art including drawing, painting, and sculpting; ethnology and anthropology; architecture and cartography; history; martial arts; and magic tricks. Apart from his brief fling with Miss Beckett, he had numerous other affairs all over the world. After staying in many places in different continents, he returned to the Philippines, where his involvement in activities against the Spanish rulers caused  him to be arrested and executed by Filippino soldiers in the Spanish army on the 30th of December 1896.

Well, if you, like me, have never heard of the remarkable Jose Rizal, it is likely that the German born Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) is familiar. This father of Marxism and socialism came to Britain in 1842 to work in his father’s textile business in Salford. Friedrich’s father had hoped that by sending him to England, his son might abandon some of his radical political views. The opposite happened. With his partner, Mary Burns (1821-1863), with whom he lived until she died, he completed his research for his work “The Condition of the Working Class in England.”

After spells in Prussia, Paris, and Brussels, Engels arrived in London in November 1849. He re-joined his father’s company near Manchester in order to make money to help finance Karl Marx whilst he laboured in London on his important work “Das Kapital”. Engels in Manchester corresponded daily with Marx in London. By early 1853, Engels was already predicting that there would be revolution and civil war in Russia. He did not live long enough to see his predictions fulfilled.  In 1869, Engels retired from his father’s firm and moved to London in the following year.

Unlike his friend and colleague Marx, who lived in modest accommodation in London, Engels, who was well able to afford it, lived in a lovely house facing Primrose Hill. He moved into 122 Regents Park Road in 1870 with Mary Burn’s sister Lizzie, with whom he lived until she died in 1878. Marx lived not far away, in Kentish Town (at Grafton Terrace) until 1875, then even closer in Belsize Park (at Maitland Road) until his death in 1883. With the Marx family living close by:

“… Marx now living in Kentish Town and Engels based in Primrose Hill, the two concentrated their efforts on various groundbreaking works such as German Ideology (1846) and Capital (three volumes: 1867, 1884, 1893 – the latter two were edited and published by Engels after Marx’s death).” (www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/the-history-of-karl-marx-and-friedrich-engels-in-primrose-3435968).

I find it ironic that two men, Marx and Engels, whose ideas were to bring about the downfall of the bourgeoisie and plutocracy in many countries of the world, lived in an area that was and is, even more now than before, prized by members of those classes, who seem to ignore the examples of history by continuing to espouse these ideas whilst simultaneously enjoying the rewards that money and privilege bring. I wonder what Engels would be thinking if he were to tread the pavements of Regents Park Road today.

Politics aside, there is no escaping the fact that Primrose Hill and its surroundings are fine examples of what makes London such a wonderful place to live and enjoy.