It may come as a surprise to many readers that Dulwich was home to the founding secretary and two presidents of the Indian National Congress and had links to a number of other Indian nationalists. In fact, Dulwich nearly had the first Indian parliamentary candidate for the House of Commons.

Allan Octavian Hume, the first secretary of the Indian National Congress in 1885 lived at The Chalet, 4 Kingswood Drive. He held the post for ten years and is widely regarded as the founder of the Congress, which was the main India nationalist organisation until independence in 1948. It became the basis of the Congress Party which has ruled India for much of the post-independence period. Hume, who was born in St Mary Cray in Kent in 1829 was the son of the radical MP, Joseph Hume. He served as a civil servant in India between 1849 and his retirement in 1882. He was a theosophist and a vegetarian. Hume became a supporter of the legal reforms proposed by the viceroy, Lord Mayo, but was dismissed from his post by the more conservative viceroy Lord Lytton in 1879, though he only resigned from the service three years later. Hume then wrote an appeal to the Indian graduates of Calcutta university to support the reforms. 

“If only fifty men, good and true, can be found to join as founders, the thing can be established and the further development will be comparatively easy....

And if even the leaders of thought are all either such poor creatures, or so selfishly wedded to personal concerns that they dare not strike a blow for their country's sake, then justly and rightly are they kept down and trampled on, for they deserve nothing better. Every nation secures precisely as good a Government as it merits. If you the picked men, the most highly educated of the nation, cannot, scorning personal ease and selfish objects, make a resolute struggle to secure greater freedom for yourselves and your country, a more impartial administration, a larger share in the management of your own affairs, then we, your friends, are wrong and our adversaries right, then are Lord Ripon's noble aspirations for your good fruitless and visionary, then, at present at any rate all hopes of progress are at an end and India truly neither desires nor deserves any better Government than she enjoys “

This initiative led to the foundation of the Indian National Congress, with the Indian nationalist, Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, becoming the first president and Hume as secretary. In 1894, Hume returned to England for good, to live in Dulwich, but maintaining his INC role, taking a leading role in seeking to persuade the House of Commons to support Indian self-government or Home Rule.

From 1890, Hume spent time in London as well as at his home in Shimla in India. In 1891, he was elected a vice-president of the Dulwich and Penge Liberal and Radical Association (at the time Penge was part of the Dulwich parliamentary constituency). In the 1892 general election, he acted as agent for the unsuccessful Liberal parliamentary candidate, Sir Arthur Clayden. On his move to Kingswood Drive in 1894, Hume became president of the Dulwich Liberal Association, a position which he held until his death in 1912. Hume was also a leading ornithologist and founded the South London Botanical Institute in Norwood Road.

The Indian nationalist, Gopal Khrishna Gokhale paid tribute to Hume at a London meeting:

“ Mr Hume was one of those who appeared from time to time in the world, under the dispensation of a wise Providence, to help forward the onward march of humanity, whose voice sounded like a trumpet call, waking up whole peoples from the slumber of ages, and whose title to an honoured place in the history of nations no man could possibly challenge. Mr Hume loved India passionately, as everyone who knew him could testify.; and he loved justice and freedom also passionately. Thus it was that, after the close of a distinguished official career, he came forward to devote his great gifts to guiding India along the path of justice and self-respect. He came forward to teach Indians to walk nobly along the path of nationhood.”

George Yule

The fourth president of the Indian National Congress, George Yule, president of the Allahabad congress of 1888, also at one-time lived in Dulwich - at ‘Springfield’, 9 Kingswood Drive, which was the Yule family London home, directly opposite the Hume residence. Yule appears to have acquired the property as early as 1876, despite being resident in India at the time, with the property being occupied for most of the time by tenants or staff. The Yules were a family firm of merchants, originating from Kincardineshire. George’s father, Robert, was a linen and wool draper. George and his younger brother Andrew were based in Manchester, with Andrew moving to Calcutta in 1863 to set up an Indian branch of the family firm. In 1875, George and his nephew David Yule moved to Calcutta to manage the Bengal Cotton Mills. George became involved in municipal politics. He became sheriff of Calcutta and president of the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce. A supporter of Indian participation in the governance of the country, he was invited to be president of the Indian National Congress in 1888, the first non-Indian to take the post, his predecessors being the Hindu Bonnerjee, the Parsee Zoroastrian, Dadabhai Naoroji, and the Muslim Badruddin Tyabji. Yule held a banquet at the National Liberal Club in London to celebrate his presidency. In India, he had used his fees as sheriff to support Indian schools. In his speech as Congress president, Yule committed himself to the principles and objects of the Congress, which he referred to as ‘just, good and true’. He identified himself as an Indian and was critical of the House of Commons. He argued that ‘no rational mind can believe that the present system of government in India was the last will and dying testament of Providence regarding us’. Yule focused on demanding the establishment of representative institutions in India. He objected to the fact that the Government of India was a subordinate agent of the British government and denied any initiative. He also objected to there being no Indian representatives in either the British parliament or on the Viceroy’s Legislative Council in India.

In 1891, George Yule retired, returning to England to live in the Dulwich house, where he died on 26th March 1892. In his last year, he was active in the British Committee of Congress, with colleagues such as William Wedderburn (who succeeded him as INC President) and its secretary, William Digby. His widow, Frances Caroline stayed in Dulwich and was still at Springfield in 1916. George’s brother Andrew also returned to England on retirement and died at ‘Braeside’, Fountain Road in Norwood in July 1902. David Yule took over the firm, becoming the leading employer in Calcutta, receiving a knighthood and meeting George V on his royal tour of India in 1911, before returning to England to live near St Albans and become a director of the Midland bank and several other companies and buying up newspapers in both England and India.

Lalmohan Ghosh

As demonstrated through the political careers of Hume and Yule, there were close links between British liberals and radicals and Indian nationalists. In 1885, the newly-founded Congress sent one of its leading members Lalmohan Ghosh (or Ghose) to London to lobby on its behalf. Ghosh, who had been born in West Bengal in 1849, had moved to London to qualify as a barrister before returning to join the Calcutta bar in 1873. He became a member of the British India Association (a predecessor organisation to the Congress) and had previously visited England to represent the grievances and demands of Indians to the British public. In July 1880, he had been a member of a committee lobbying the British government for changes to legislation and restrictions on the entrance of Indians into the Indian civil service. In June 1885, The Peckham and Dulwich Radical Club decided to propose that Ghosh be adopted as a parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming general election. Ghosh was presented to a meeting in Newington as the Dulwich radical candidate. However within a few weeks, Ghosh was also selected by the Deptford radicals and liberals as their official parliamentary candidate, and Ghosh must have decided that as a more working class constituency than Dulwich, an area which had traditionally returned Conservatives to the House of Commons, he had a better chance of being elected. In fact, Ghosh was only narrowly defeated by a Conservative, while in Dulwich the official Liberal candidate, the newspaper owner James Henderson, lost more heavily to the Conservative. Ghosh, who nearly became the first Indian in the House of Commons, then returned to India, becoming president of the Indian National Congress in 1903.

Indian nationalists in London also had close links with Irish nationalists, both groups arguing for Home Rule for their respective countries. There were somewhat inconclusive discussions as to whether the Irish Parliamentary Party would nominate Indian nationalists for Irish seats in the House of Commons, for which Home Rule nominees were often returned unopposed. The Indian nationalists turned to the Liberal party, with the nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji, president of the Indian National Congress in 1888, standing unsuccessfully for the Holborn seat in 1886 (in the same election as Ghosh stood in Deptford), before being returned for the London seat of Finsbury in the 1892 general election. Naoroji spoke in favour of Irish home rule in parliament as well as on self-government in India. He was a regular speaker at Liberal and radical clubs in London and in February 1892, he was invited to speak at the Dulwich branch of the Irish National League by its secretary John Dillon O’Flynn, who was clearly named after the Irish nationalist leader, John Dillon. O’Flynn, a lawyer and journalist, received coverage in the national and provincial press two years later for being tried for and convicted of defrauding a woman by taking payment for journalism lessons and implying that he could find employment for his students. The collaboration between Irish and Indian nationalists continued with the Irish nationalist MP, Alfred Webb, becoming president of the Indian National Congress in 1894.

Links between Dulwich liberals and Indian nationalists were reaffirmed in 1910, when the Dulwich Liberals selected Evan Cotton to contest the parliamentary seat, Cotton being the son of Hume’s colleague, Sir Henry Cotton, a former Indian civil servant, who had been president of the Indian National Congress in 1904 and was now Liberal MP for Nottingham East. Evan Cotton was defeated in Dulwich by the Conservative candidate but was later returned for the Finsbury East seat Like Hume and Yule, Besant is also included in the volume, Foreign Fiends of English Freedom, by P Kodanda Rao, published in Bangalore in 1973. (previously held by Naoroji) in a by-election in 1918.

The final, and perhaps best known, connection between Indian nationalism and Dulwich is of course Annie Besant. Besant, atheist, secularist, birth control campaigner, member of the London School Board, socialist, and in later in life theosophist and Indian nationalist, lived at 39 Colby Road, West Dulwich from 1874. Having developed an interest in eastern religions and specifically in theosophy in 1889, Besant moved to India in 1893; she was active with Henry Olcott and Charles Leadbetter in the theosophy movement and in educational projects, before getting involved in the Indian nationalist movement. In 1916, she established the All India Home Rule League, partly modelled on the Irish Home Rule movement. After being interned during the First World War (the young lawyer Jawarhalal Nehru campaigned for her release), Besant was in 1917 elected president of the Indian National Congress. Besant campaigned for India to be granted dominion status on a par with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In comparison with Gandhi and Tilak, she was a moderate nationalist and was soon marginalised by the new militants. For fifteen years, she edited the New India daily newspaper. She continued to travel to Britain, the US and Australia to promote Indian self-government and wrote several books on the subject as well as a semi-official history of the Congress, which recorded the speeches of the early Congress presidents used in this article. In 1925, she sponsored a Commonwealth of India Bill, introduced into parliament by her former socialist colleague, George Lansbury, at that time leader of the Labour Party. Besant died in Madras in 1933 at the age of 85.