Brighton Indian Hospital

Construction of the Royal Pavilion began in 1787 when George IV, then Prince of Wales, wished to have a seaside retreat.


The royal residence came to exist because of the growing popularity of the city, in part because of the presence of Prince Henry, George’s uncle. Both royals had a penchant for fine dining, gambling and fast living. The Prince of Wales was advised by his physician that the seawater and fresh air of the south coast would be a suitable treatment for his gout, though his indulgences would prevail over the effectiveness of such cures. 

After incurring the wrath of government whilst building Carlton House in London, George rented a property facing the Old Steine, a once grassy area of Brighton used by visitors as a promenade. The building of Brighton Pavilion would provide George IV with a discreet location to enjoy private liaisons with his long-time partner, Maria Fitzherbert. In 1787, the Prince called upon the designer of Carlton House, Henry Holland, to enlarge the farmhouse upon the Old Steine, creating the earliest iteration of the palace. His designs were striking, with influence drawn from French neoclassical architecture. A central rotunda, which contained three rooms: a breakfast room, dining room and library, were adorned with elaborate artworks by the decorative painter Biagio Rebecca. 

The pavilion today, with its Indo-Islamic exterior, was the product of a redesign and extension by the designer John Nash. An equally elaborate interior was the result of the collaboration between Frederick Crace and Robert Jones. The latter drew significant influence from Chinese and Indian fashion, creating an exoticism that challenged mainstream Regency style. Their vision of the pavilion has shaped the consciousness of Brightonians, with the silhouette of the palace serving as a logo for the city council.

Brighton Pavilion, once home of George IV, a proud landmark in the city today

The exoticism of the pavilion building was a result of Britain’s imperial century, a period in which 400 million people and their territories were added to the British Empire. Britain’s naval dominance, as well as lust for natural resources and human capital, saw it spread across continents. Imports from the colonies were diverse, from spices to textiles, thus influencing the practices of designers and artists of the period. The minarets of the pavilion, designed by Nash, are reminiscent of Mughal architecture and the grand mosques of the 16th to 18th centuries. 

Britain went unchallenged overseas during a period of peace between the global powers, becoming the hegemonic power and laying claim to foreign lands and peoples at will. Within the context of India, the East India Company drove vast expansion of the British Empire in Asia. Having gained a foothold in the country in the 17th century, the Empire sought to attain the favourability of the Indian emperors with gifts of European rarities. In doing so they were given the freedom to build factories and utilise Indian resources. They expelled their European competitors within the country; the Dutch, Danish and Portuguese all conceded their stakes within India to the British Empire. The British monopoly of India has created a lasting relationship with the country; once a story of pillage and oppression, Indo-British relations could only improve with the passing of time, though a disjuncture exists to this day. 

Power accumulated by the East India Company waned with the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Sepoys, the name given to Indian troops under British officers and discipline, led a mutiny against their imposed rulers. With significant losses on both sides, the British government dissolved the East India Company and assumed control of India with the Government of India Act 1858. By establishing the British Raj and placing Queen Victoria into the position of Empress of India, the country became the empire’s most valuable possession; Britain’s strength and ‘jewel in the crown’. 

The contribution of Indian sepoys in World War I was tremendous. They fought on the Western, Mediterranean and African fronts, with at least 74,000 Indian troops losing their lives in the fight against the German Empire. The Indian Volunteer Army served in Egypt and on the beaches of Gallipoli, in the failed campaign against the Ottoman Empire. As was written by an anonymous sepoy in a hospital in London, ‘this is not war, it is the ending of the world’. 

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the Indian Government had decided that two infantry divisions and single cavalry could be sent to support a European war. It was thought that any greater commitment of numbers would risk national security. The escalation of battle forced a reassessment, and more than four infantry divisions were dispatched to the frontlines. The Persian infantrymen of the Mughal Empire were immediately fighting on the brutal Western Front. Cold and extended winters were exacerbated by the poor uniforms that were provided to the soldiers. Despite not being familiar with the conditions and style of combat, Indians were responsible for manning one-third of the British line in France.

Indian troops line the trenches

Indian forces were present in greater numbers in the Middle East. Over 700,000 soldiers fended off the advancement of Turkish forces and captured Baghdad for a period, before being repulsed by the Ottoman Army. An allied front with Britain and Australia, Indian soldiers were fundamental in the successful deconstruction of the Ottoman ruling powers and subsequent partition of the region. The power balance of the region, which had existed for centuries, was altered immediately. Those who had lived under the Ottoman rule and fought alongside the allies had expected greater freedom in 1918. They were surprised to learn of a proposed British mandate for Mesopotamia, though this motion expedited Independence negotiations for many states. 

Brighton’s proximity to mainland Europe made it an ideal location for the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers injured in the war's ferocious battles. The city had three military hospitals, the most famous being the repurposed pavilion. In contrast to wounded British troops, it was decided that Indian troops requiring medical treatment would be cared for in Britain. The British government believed that the cultural values of their colonial counterparts would be best served in Brighton. Over 12,000 Indian troops passed through the city during the First World War.

The hospitals made significant attempts to care for the cultural needs of the Indian soldiers, with close attention paid to dietary requirements. In the grounds of the pavilion, a handful of kitchens were erected for co-religionists. In the grand halls of the palace, hospital beds filled each room with diet sheets used to adhere to individual beliefs and customs. A micro-industry formed in the city, with local people altering their business practice to both prosper from and care for Brighton’s new residents. Mr Tate, a renowned local butcher, was the first to provide meat that had been slaughtered in accordance with each faith.

Policy-makers deemed the pavilion to be a suitable option for Indian troops, believing they would see familiarity in the minarets of the grand building. It was also a cheap option, with the pavilion becoming a civic building when sold by Queen Victoria. Brightonians were widely accepting of the influx of Indian troops, with local people sharing meals in their homes with their new, temporary neighbours. Deep-seated racial tensions still existed, and issues arose regarding fraternisation with white women in the town. The pavilion perimeter would become walled, and those of the Kitchener Hospital to the north were laced with barbed wire. Racist hierarchies still existed, with senior Indian soldiers being treated as inferior to junior English officers.

The contribution of colonial soldiers to Britain’s war efforts has often gone unnoticed and under-appreciated, without ample acknowledgement from the government and unknown by the British public. Amongst the first Indian soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award in the British honours system was Darwan Singh Negi. In the face of adversity and injury, Singh Negi was engaged in retaking and clearing enemy trenches. Despite being wounded in the head twice, the corporal was ‘the first to push each successful traverse’. After battling for hours, his successful contribution to the effort was noted. His injuries would see him sent to Brighton, where he was one of 4,000 treated in the pavilion over a two year period.

Darwan Singh Negi would leave Brighton, returning home to his family who still proudly hold his Victoria Cross. Other Indian soldiers would, unfortunately, succumb to their wounds whilst on British soil. In keeping with the cultural traditions of the Hindu and Sikh soldiers, and receiving dispensation from the government to go ahead, open-air cremations (an illegal practice in Britain) were conducted on the South Downs. On the chalk headland, overlooking Brighton and the English Channel, the Chattri was the exact site where bodies were cremated in accordance with religious rites. The ashes of the fallen were then scattered in the sea. Indian Muslims, 21 of whom died in Brighton, was buried in accordance with Islamic tradition at the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking.

The Chattri, meaning ‘umbrella’ in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, was the final resting place of 53 Indian servicemen who died between 1915 and 1916. Lieutenant Das Gupta of the Indian Medical Service sought to construct a memorial on the site of the cremations, proposing the plans to the mayor of Brighton, John Otter. The city embraced the notion, though Mr Otter was the driving force behind its building and maintenance in later years. Upon leaving his mayoral duties in 1916, he accepted the duty of Chairman of the Indian Memorials Committee for Brighton. The design of the memorial was conjured by the Indian architect E.C.Henriques and unveiled by the Prince of Wales in February 1921. Sat atop granite slabs, eight white Sicilian marble columns carry the domed pavilion.

The Chattri, lying above Patcham to the north of Brighton

In the succeeding years, the memorial would be poorly managed. A decade after its ceremonial unveiling, local walkers complained of its neglected state, labelling it a ‘disgrace to the British nation’. This reputation lasted until the Brighton Parks and Gardens Department established plans for repair and renovation. Still, the memorial would experience periods of disrepair. By 1951, the difficulties to maintain the site were solved. The Royal British Legion undertook annual pilgrimages to the funeral pyre and contributed to its upkeep. This annual memorial event lasted for 48 years, before finally ending in 1999. At the turn of the century, remembrance services for the Indian soldiers were continued by the Sikh community. For the past two decades, a diverse congregation gathered at the Chattri, with descendants of Indian soldiers and local people joining to respect the fatal sacrifices of the Indian Army. Those in attendance are often present to learn of the profound input of ethnic minorities during the First World War. 

Fittingly, with his tireless effort toward the construction of the Chattri, John Otter prepared the text that is inscribed into the base of the memorial. In English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, the plinth reads:

“To the memory of all Indian soldiers who gave their lives for their King-Emperor in the Great War, this monument, erected on the site of the funeral pyre where the Hindus and Sikhs who died in hospital at Brighton passed through the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly affection dedicated”.

A heartfelt tribute to the Indian soldiers that passed away in the city of Brighton.

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