A passage to India: How Blickling played its part in a nation’s struggle for independence

Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India, pictured with Mahatma Gandhi in 1946. Nehru had vis

Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India, pictured with Mahatma Gandhi in 1946. Nehru had visited Blickling eight years earlier for a country house weekend as part of Lord Lothian's efforts to broker Indian independence. Lothian also knew Gandhi, although the latter never visited the Norfolk stately home. - Credit: AP

It is one of the treasures of East Anglia, a Jacobean marvel with connections with the famous Boleyn family. But as Trevor Heaton discovers, Blickling Hall can claim a part in another key historical story – the struggle for Indian independence.

Blickling Hall and gardens: The Marquess of Lothian bequeathed the house and its estate to the Natio

Blickling Hall and gardens: The Marquess of Lothian bequeathed the house and its estate to the National Trust in 1940. Photo: Alex Lyons/Citizenside.com - Credit: citizenside.com

It is a long, long way, both in mileage and climate, from the oh-so-English elegance of beautiful Blicking Hall to exotic and bustling India.

On the face of it, then, this much-loved National Trust treasure near Aylsham couldn't be further away from the Sub-Continent.

But, unbeknown to almost all of the thousands of visitors who visit the Norfolk house and its estate ever year, there is a direct connection between the two.

And in a year when we reach the 70th anniversary of the passing into law of the Indian Independence Act, staff and volunteers at the attraction are keen to play their own part in bringing this link to light, beginning tomorrow when the house re-opens for the 2017 season.

Part of the Visitors' Book at Blickling Hall showing the influential visitors to that July 1938 coun

Part of the Visitors' Book at Blickling Hall showing the influential visitors to that July 1938 country house party. Nehru's signature is second on the right-hand page, followed by that of his daughter Indira who was herself to become Indian Prime Minister. - Credit: Archant


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That connection? It comes in the person of Philip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian, and the last private owner of the 4,777-acre estate. The politician, diplomat and newspaper editor moved in influential circles and ended his life as British Ambassador to the United States in the critical opening months of the Second World War.

But it was his patient efforts to help forge a new future for India which have inspired a themed year – 'Lothian & India' – exploring the connection.

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Sue Price, visitor experience officer at the National Trust attraction, stressed that local staff and volunteers wanted to mark this 1930s link rather than become involved with the political side of the 1947 Partition, which created India and Pakistan with implications that bedevil the countries' relations to this day.

She has been researching Lord Lothian's story for three years. 'He became Under-Secretary of State for India in 1931 but had first visited there in 1912. He also helped set up the Round Table Conference to discuss India's future, where he met Mahatma Gandhi,' she said.

Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian (left) with Lord and Lady Astor, two of the guests for the July 1938 count

Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian (left) with Lord and Lady Astor, two of the guests for the July 1938 country house party at Blickling. - Credit: Archant

Lothian already had a strong track record in helping the Empire come to terms with changing times, having helped establish the Union of South Africa in 1910.

'He was a very astute man. He didn't have the power – but he knew those who did.' Above all, he was a far-sighted realist: he could see (unlike politicians such as Winston Churchill) that the disruption and sacrifice of the First World War meant that Britain would have to redefine its model of empire.

Sadly, there is no record of Gandhi visiting Blickling – but the Norfolk house did host another key figure in the struggle for Indian independence.

'It's there in the Visitors' Book for July 9-11 1938,' Sue explained. 'Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to be the first Prime Minister of India – and his daughter Indira.'

Phillip Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian. Picture: KENNETH GRAY

Phillip Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian. Picture: KENNETH GRAY - Credit: Archant

The occasion was a country house party for the Nehrus and a select band of other guests, who all had one thing in common: influence.

They included Thomas Jones, a shrewd prime ministerial advisor – think a 1930s Peter Mandelson – newspaper baron Lord and Lady Astor, General Edmund Ironside (a senior Army officer who went on to be Chief of the Imperial General Staff) plus MP and journalist Professor Arthur Salter. The list also included Agatha Harrison and Grace Lankester, both Indiaphiles and prominent members of the Women's International League for Freedom.

Nehru, a lawyer by profession, was elected leader of the Indian National Congress in 1928.

Here was 'dinner party diplomacy' in action, real corridors-of-power stuff. We don't know what they discussed, as this was a strictly private affair, but there can be little doubt that strings were being pulled. For as Sue points out: 'Lothian sat just under the Government.' There is a fascinating letter to Lord Lothian from Nehru which hints that the 20-year-old Indira – who was herself to go on to lead India – was a reluctant guest to the Norfolk stately home.

Lothian went on to be an influential ambassador to the United States at the start of the Second World War until his death in December 1940, helping to win support for the British war effort. He was well-known in his day, and popular with the Americans – 'He was a loveable English gentleman' – but his premature death meant he has tended to slip out of the history books. Under the terms of his will, the property was passed to the National Trust and remains one of its best-loved properties.

Sue and the rest of the staff and volunteers at the property have been trying to raise awareness of Lord Lothian's life with a three-year programme of displays marking the 75th anniversary of his death.

With Lothian & India, visitors to the house can see some of his letters and extracts from his speeches, plus other Indian-themed exhibits (included a bust of Gandhi). The Stables restaurant will also showcase Indian flavours. There will also be costumed interpretation on selected days, and even a planting of bulbs in the orange, white and green of the Indian flag.

The Indian connections will be sure to strike a chord with many visitors. After all, as a nation we adore our curries, a food taste we first developed in the 18th century. And probably all of us use a word or two every day that the British brought back from the sub-continent, from bungalow to shampoo, from pundits to pyjamas, bangles to dungarees.

Add in the people who have enriched our nation's life through business, culture, medicine and other ways, and you will see that, though our shared past has had its bleak times, the things that bind us remain strong.

It's India's story, it's Blickling's story, but it's our story too.

Find out more at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blickling-estate

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