Indian London (part one)

There’s been an Indian community in London for centuries. While nowadays strongest in West London, it was at one time based firmly in the East End.

Indian page with
young aristocrat, 1674

It’s not impossible that people from India reached London in Roman times, but the first Indian Londoner that we know of was one Saloman Nurr, who was buried at St Margaret’s church in Westminster in March 1550. A Colette Nurr, possibly his wife, was buried there the following month. Direct contact between London and India began in 1608 when the East India Company’s first ship reached Surat in Gujarat.

Lascars at Royal Albert Dock in 1936
(Port of London Authority, CC BY-SA 4.0)

As the Company grew, its wealthy employees started bringing people over from India as domestic servants, such as “ayahs” (nannies) or fashionable child pages. Once their employment ended, they were usually left to fend for themselves on the streets, with little hope of earning enough for a passage home, especially after 1657 when the Company imposed a levy of £12 (equivalent to around £1,500 today) on anyone travelling from Britain to India.

Itisam Uddin

As the seventeenth century wore on, more and more Indian servants and abandoned servants were living in London. They were joined by a contingent of Indian sailors, known (along with Malay, Yemeni and Somalian crew) as “lascars”. Most came from Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala and Bengal. Like the ayahs and pages, many were abandoned in London after working on an inbound voyage. Gradually a lascar community grew, based around the docks in the East End, but by and large they lived in poverty. One or two upper-class Indians also made it over however: the Bengali Mughal diplomat Itisam Uddin, for example, spent three months in London in 1766, and wrote a book in Persian about his travels.

Sake Dean Mahomed

In 1773, a coffee house on Haymarket started serving curry. Within a decade, restaurants along Piccadilly were offering it, and English-style curry powder began to appear in grocery stores and recipe books. The first Indian-run curry house, the Hindoostane Coffee House on George Street was set up in 1810 by a Bengali (though born in Bihar) named Sake Dean Mahomed.

Veeraswamy restaurant, Regent Street
(photo by stephenrwalli, CC BY-SA 2.0)

By the 1970s, no self-respecting London suburban high street was without a tandoori house (usually Bangladeshi-run), complete with flock wallpaper, and advertised at the local cinema. Indian restaurants in London have come a long way since then of course, and today, all sorts of Indian cuisines and specialities can be had, depending on where you live. The oldest Indian restaurant currently operating in London is Veeraswamy on Regent Street, which opened in 1926.

Nehru (l) & Menon (r)

Another historic London Indian restaurant was the India Club, upstairs at 143 Strand. Long used by staff at the Indian high commission, just across the road, it was founded in 1946 by Krishna Menon, India’s first high commissioner. A former Labour councillor in St Pancras, Menon was a close ally of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also known to dine at the India Club.

India Club (1st floor)

Unfortunately the restaurant has now been forced to close by the building's owners, who want to redevelop it. It is apparently seeking new premises, so it may yet reopen elsewhere. The other big threat to Indian cuisine in London is of course the English regime’s anti-immigrant policies, which are making it extremely difficult for London’s Indian restaurants to recruit the staff they need.

Three Parsi MPs: Dadabhai Naoroji (Liberal),
Mancherjee Bhownaggree (Tory),
Shapurji Saklatvala (Communist)

Aside from Menon, prominent members of London’s pre-WW2 Indian community included the MPs Dadabhai Naoroji (Lib, Finsbury Central 1892–5), Mancherjee Bhownaggree (Con, Bethnal Green North East 1895–1906) and Shapurji Saklatvala (Comm, Battersea North 1924–9), all of whom were Bombay Parsis. Naoroji joined with Kolkata-born London barrister W.C. Bonnerjee in 1865 to form the London Indian Society, and both went on to be founder members of the Indian National Congress.

Indian Suffragettes marching in London 1911

Several London Indian women were meanwhile prominent in the suffragette movement, most notably Sophia Duleep Singh. One of the movement's leading activists, she was in fact a princess; her father had been the last Sikh maharaja of Punjab before being usurped by the British and exiled to London in 1849 when he was just ten. Not that much older was World War One’s youngest RFC flying ace, nineteen-year-old Indra Lal Roy, who lived in Hammersmith but was originally from Kolkata. Unfortunately he was shot down in July 1918; he is buried in France.

[Click here to see part two of this post.]