Untold lives blog

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02 July 2015

Herabai and Mithibai Tata: British support for Indian suffragists

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In the second half of 1919, three Indian women, Sarojini Naidu, Herabai Tata and Mithibai Tata, were in London to address the Government as final readings of the 1919 Government of India Bill were being put through Parliament. They travelled to Britain to urge the Government to remove the sex disqualification that explicitly excluded women in India from the franchise.

Mother and daughter, Herabai and Mithibai Tata, were from Bombay and were on their first visit to Britain. They toured the country meeting with various women’s groups looking for support and advice. Their statement ‘Why Should Women Have Votes?’, sent to the India Office on 25 September 1919, laid out a number of reasons for Indian women to have the vote:

It has been recognised now in all countries that the sex barrier has been a grave mistake, is out of date, unworthy of the times, a relic of past days when might was above right … Why should India lag behind others in this respect and create a sex barrier where one does not exist, and thus brand Indian women as inferior to their sisters in other countries.

  Tata 1a
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Noc

In their support, as might be expected, the main women and suffrage organisations in Britain, the Women’s Freedom League, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland sent letters and resolutions to the India Office. However, the India Office soon became inundated with letters of support from individuals and local associations across the breadth of Britain.

They included resolutions from three different groups in Glasgow. The Study Circle, Glasgow, sent the following on 17 September 1919:

That this meeting, approving of the principle of equality in the citizenship of men and women, urges that, in the Government of India Bill, women having the same qualifications as men should be included in the franchise proposals; so that popular government in India may start without any sex disability.

  Tata 2a
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Noc


The Tatas then went up to Scotland and engaged in an impromptu meeting that led to the following resolution sent on 24 November 1919:

That this meeting of Glasgow Citizens approves the principle of the extension of the franchise to Indian women as well as to the men of India, and asks that they shall be included on the same terms as men, in the franchise proposals being considered in the Government of India Bill.  

Similar resolutions were sent between September and December 1919 from the Glasgow Society for Women’s Suffrage, a public meeting of Newcastle citizens, the Huddersfield, Bristol and Manchester branches of the Women’s International League, the Liverpool Council of Women Citizens, the Cardiff Branch of the Britain and India Association, the Letchworth and Swansea branches of the Women’s Freedom League and the New Cross Branch of the National Co-operative Men’s Guild among many others.

These petitions were unsuccessful as the Government of India Bill did not include women into the franchise, but the Government did concede autonomy to Indian provinces to enfranchise women, which they started to do from 1921.

Sumita Mukherjee
King’s College London

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 - Representations etc relating to Franchise for Women in India under the Reforms Scheme (1918-1919)


30 June 2015

Break of service

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As Wimbledon fortnight swings into action, spare a thought for poor Thomas Tomkins who died at Madras in 1834 because of tennis.

The Madras Club was founded in 1832.  800 members had enrolled by the time of the second general meeting of subscribers in April of that year.  They were exclusively male, drawn from civil servants; officers of the East India Company and His Majesty’s Armies; officers of the Medical Department; members of the legal profession and the clergy.  The Club Committee set to work to adapt a house and grounds near the Mount Road to meet its requirements: bedrooms, two billiard rooms and a racquet court.  There was also a smoking-room: at that time smoking was not allowed in the club house and bedrooms.  This rule however proved hard to enforce.

By October 1832, the Club had over 1,200 members and a large amount of subscription money in the kitty.  Commenting that ‘the game of Rackets can only be played in this country at stated hours in the morning and evening’, the Committee decided to build a covered tennis court at a cost of 15,000 rupees.  A skilled man would be brought from England to superintend the construction and then act as marker.  He would be paid a salary of 150 rupees per month plus 500 rupees for his passage.

Tennis 3

Illustration by Richard Caulfield Orpen for Fitzwilliam Square. A lawn tennis lay by F.W. (1885)  Noc


In July 1833, the East India Company Court of Directors in London granted permission to Thomas Tomkins to proceed to Madras ‘for the purpose of being employed as a marker in the tennis court about to be established there’.  Tomkins sailed out to Madras, but by the time he arrived the Committee had changed its plans. Instead of a tennis court, it was decided on reflection to install a large swimming bath and a set of private hot, cold, and steam baths.  A tennis court was expensive, and the marker an additional cost. Moreover if the marker’s health suffered from the climate in Madras, ‘the amusement from the game would be liable to much interruption’.

Thomas Tomkins described himself as being ‘employed at the Club House’ when he married widow Sarah Thomas at Vepery Church on 7 March 1834.  His return to England was planned, with the Club paying for his passage.  Sadly the Committee’s apprehension about his state of health proved only too accurate and Tomkins died in September 1834 at the age of 30.  He was buried at St Mary’s Church Madras and the Committee paid his funeral expenses.

Plans for the swimming pool also fell through and it was 20 years before a bath was built at the Club.  The first court for lawn tennis was laid down in 1876 and the sport became a permanent feature for members.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records  Cc-by

Further reading:
H D Love, Short Historical Notice of the Madras Club (Madras, 1902)
IOR/B/186 pp.418-419 Minutes of East India Company Court of Directors, 17 July 1833
IOR/E/943 p.536 Public Letter No.37 of 1833 to Madras

26 June 2015

ABBA’s Waterloo at the Prince Regent’s Stables

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1974 saw ABBA win the Eurovision Song Contest for Sweden with their song ‘Waterloo’, one of the best remembered entries from the show’s long history which quickly catapulted the group to international fame. But how many of us watching the live broadcast over four decades ago realised that Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid were performing in a space once graced by royal stallions?

ABBA Waterloo YouTube

ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 courtesy of YouTube


In Eurovision land, the winning country hosts the following year’s competition. Having won two years in a row, diminutive Luxembourg was in a fix and so Britain stepped in. Rather than hosting the show in London, the BBC chose one of the largest concert halls on the south coast, The Dome in Brighton.

Brighton 1

The Dome at Brighton today Noc


This yellow brick edifice with minarets and an impressive 24 metre cast iron dome was constructed in 1804-8 for George, Prince of Wales (soon to become Prince Regent, and later King George IV). The building’s ‘Indian-Saracenic’ design, created by William Porden (ca. 1755-1822), pre-dates that of the neighbouring Royal Pavilion as we know it today, which at the time comprised only a smaller neo-classical structure. The purpose of Porden’s monumental creation was as stabling for the prince’s horses, with an adjacent hall – now the city’s Corn Exchange – acting as a riding school. The stage where ABBA sang was built inside the circular stables where up to 60 royal horses were once housed and groomed. The balconies from which Europe’s television broadcasters provided their live commentary held accommodation for stable-boys.

Brighton Pavilion

74/558*.h.12 John Nash, 'Her Majesty's Palace at Brighton' (London, 1838) Noc


Queen Victoria disliked the royal estate at Brighton, and in the 1850s the buildings were all sold to the town corporation. The circular stables were first concerted into a concert hall 1867-73, and the space has been remodelled several times since. Its most recent refurbishment was in 1998-2001, when a certain Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA stepped up to become one of its 50 famous patrons. He hasn’t yet offered to give an updated performance of ‘Waterloo’ at the Dome, but here’s hoping!

Adrian Edwards
Head of Printed Heritage Collections Cc-by

Further reading:
Brighton and Hove, by Nicholas Antram and Richard Morrice. (Pevsner Architecture Guides.) [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008].
The New Encyclopædia of Brighton, by Rose Collis. [Brighton: B&H City Council, 2010].
The Complete Eurovision Song Contest Companion, by Paul Gambaccini, Tim Rice, Jonathan Rice and Tony Brown. [London: Pavilion Books, 1998].
Illustrations of Her Majesty's Palace at Brighton, formerly the Pavilion, executed by the command of King George the Fourth under superintendence of John Nash Esq Architect (London, 1838).

A free display “Waterloo: War and Diplomacy” runs until 6 September 2015 in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.