Born on 27th October, 1871 at 17 Princes Gardens, Knightsbridge, London, the second daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and his first wife, Bumba Müller, Catherine Duleep Singh was not only an active suffragette but secretly assisted and saved many Jewish families in Nazi Germany during Second World War.
Complex Descent and Dual Identity
Her father, Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ascended the throne of Lahore in 1837, at a very young age. It was during this period that, previously impenetrable Punjab, was annexed by the East India Company. Owing to a vacuum of effective leadership, the British East India Company’s army defeated the Sikhs in the Anglo-Sikh wars, with relative ease in 1848. Instantly de-throning the young Maharaja, the East India Company intended to cut him off from his former subjects to curtail any chance of a rally of support to re-instate him. Duleep Singh was thus eliminated from Punjab by British authorities and sequestered to the Hill Station of Mussoorie. What eventually followed was his de facto exile to England.
In England, the young Maharaja was placed under the guardianship of Dr. John Login and his wife who were catalysts to conversion to Christianity. By renouncing the legacy of his faith, the heir to the greatest Sikh kingdom, stirred up controversy, and made himself the recipient of collective disappointment.
With his Sikh origins quickly evaporating, as he embraced Westernity, his children, including Catherine Duleep Singh, thus had a diasporic identity to navigate. To add to her already complex origin story, her mother Bumba Müller, was of German and Absissyian descent. While she visibly led an English life, she was cognisant of her heritage, and paid visits to India.
Catherine Duleep Singh grew up at Elveden Hall, near Thetford, which was said to be exuberant in construction and extravagant in decoration. Queen Victoria’s growing fondness for Duleep Singh, over time, translated into her being the godmother of his children. Their traditional English estate was thus transformed into a Mughal palace by her, with an ornate and exotic interior by the exiled Maharaja. It housed leopards, beneath the nursery and jewel-coloured parrots. While Duleep Singh was away attempting to regain his throne and wrest India from the clutches of the British, Catherine and her siblings Sophia, Bumba, and Prince Albert Edward, were granted accommodation in Faraday House, Hampton Court Palace by their Godmother, Queen Victoria.
Duleep Singh’s ill-fated attempt resulted in him being arrested on 30th March, 1886 at Aden. In 1889 after he moved to Paris, gambling, drinking, and deeply in debt, and the subsequent death of her mother, Princess Catherine and her sisters were moved to Folkestone, at 21 Clifton Street in the care of Arthur Oliphant. The Queen had initially desired for the three princesses – Catherine, Sophia, and Bumba, to be in charge of Lady Login, but it was decided by the India Office that the princesses and their youngest brother Prince Albert Edward should be placed in charge of Mr. Oliphant, whose father James had been the Maharaja’s equerry.
It was under the care of Mr and Mrs Oliphant, that Princess Catherine was acquainted with her governess Miss Fraulein Lina Schäfer of Germany. The German governess from Kassel, twelve years older to Catherine, was promptly befriended by Princess Catherine. Under the Oliphants, violin and singing tutors, along with a swimming instructor were also employed for Singh’s children. The following year, Schäfer took Princess Catherine to the Black Forest in Kassel and Dresden. The special bond they shared was quickly germinating.
In 1890 Princess Catherine attended Somerville Hall, Oxford. She was introduced to high society as a debutante at Queen Victoria’s debutante ball in 1895, along with her sisters, Sophia and Bumba.
Participation in the Suffragette Movement
Princess Catherine was an active member of the women’s rights movement. In 1912, in aid of the ‘Constitutional Women’s Suffrage Works’, she established a forest of Christmas trees in Birmingham. Princess Catherine, along with her sister Sophia, was a strong supporter of the Suffragist Movement, aimed at securing women’s right to vote. Additionally, she was a member of the Fawcett Women’s Suffrage Group as well as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and was immersed in several events and dinners in support of the movement.
Life in Germany
Around 1903, Catherine visited India, and Lahore, Dalhousie, Kashmir, Shimla, Amritsar. During this trip she met with elderlies who were acquaintances with her grandfather. In 1908, Catherine and Lina moved to Germany and set up a house together in Kassel. While historical accounts do not explicitly term their dynamic, as a ‘lesbian’ relationship, Catherine’s sister, Princess Sophia described their relationship as “intimate“. Furthermore, historical records do not mention disapproval of their relationship. Catherine stayed in Germany throughout the First World War. Lina Schäfer said, “We are like two mice living in a little house.” The couple enjoyed taking long walks. Catherine liked gardening and Lina liked to cook. Catherine wrote: “I am having a very good time of it and enjoying myself thoroughly.“
During the 1930s, the couple’s neighbours said, “The local Nazis disapproved of the old Indian lady.” Nevertheless, Princess Catherine continued to live with Lina Schäfer, and rescued Jew families, until Schäfer died on 26 August 1937 aged 79. Catherine was said to be deeply upset by her death. In her will, she requested that a quarter of her ashes be “buried as near as possible to the coffin of my friend Fraulein Lina Schäfer.”
With the surging Nazism in Germany, and the fast approaching threat of war, Catherine felt Germany had not much to offer especially as Lina had departed. Her neighbour and accountant Dr. Fritz Ratig warned her to leave the country. Life in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party became increasingly difficult for Catherine as a lesbian woman of Indian heritage. In keeping with the same, in November 1937, she sold everything and fled, returning to England via Switzerland. Before she left she was able to help the Hornstein and Meyerstein families escape the Nazis.
Aiding Jewish Families Escape from Nazi Germany
Even during her later years in England at Coalhatch House in Penn, Buckinghamshire, Princess Catherine took in a series of Geman-Jewish refugees until her death in 1942. Peter Bance, author, historian, art collector, and Maharaja Duleep Singh archivist, forged contact and conducted interviews with descendants of families who were aided by Princess Catherine to escape Nazi Germany. One such family was the Horstein Family, formerly in Kassel in Germany who were saved from the clutches of Gestapo Chief SS Reinhard Heydrich and brought to England by the Princess in 1939. Recently, a branch of the family who now live in the USA, discovered old recordings of their parents giving detailed statements of how the Princess rescued them and assisted in their escape from Germany and safe passage to England. Vouching for Jews, housing them, and funding their travel is why they refer to her as the “Indian Schindler”.
Bance also interviewed Shirley Phimster, an evacuee. During the Second World War like most country folk, Princess Sophia and Princess Catherine Duleep Singh took in evacuee children from London which was being heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe.
The late Shirley Phimster and her two brothers from Ealing were fortunate enough to be evacuees sent to the Princess’s house ‘Coalhath House’ in Penn in the Country of Buckinghamshire in 1940. The Princess’s condition of accepting evacuees was that they must be accompanied by an adult, so Shirley’s family fitted the bill perfectly as Shirley’s mother was a teacher and so would be accompanying the children from her school which included her own children. They were allotted to the countryside, to the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire.
Over the course of her interviews with Peter Bance, Shirley described to him how it was to live with Indian Princesses. They were taken to school by a car, sweets were distributed to the school on their birthdays, and birthday parties were also thrown for them at the house. Despite tumultuous times, their stay with the Princesses was exuberant. Amongst her memorable memories were of a Jewish refugee ‘Volgarioff’ who Princess Catherine had rescued from Germany. “He would entertain the school children on my birthday and played the violin for the Princess every evening at dinner,” Shirley told Bance.
Catherine died on 8 November, 1942. She was cremated in Golders Green crematorium, and as requested her ashes were buried as near as possible at the coffin of Lina Schäfer at the Principal Cemetery at Kassel in Germany. Sophia and Bamba had Catherine’s home renamed in her honour—Hilden Hall, after her middle name Hilda.
Princess Catherine Duleep Singh, was said to lead a very private life. She was the most secretive of Duleep Singh’s children. Subsequently, information on her life is very scant, and often her father’s complicated history with the British, the controversy of the koh-i-noor diamond, and her sister Sophia’s extensive contribution overshadow Catherine’s legacy. Nevertheless, she aided several Jewish families, was a strong supporter of women’s rights, all while facing intersectional oppression for being a queer woman of colour.