The forgotten history of the Indian Army soldiers that camped in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace in the early 20th century is set to be uncovered in a new exhibition opening in September.
‘The Indian Army at the Palace’ will explore the story of these encampments in detail for the first time, including the soldiers’ experiences in camp, as well as press and public reactions to their stay. It follows an appeal issued by Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), the charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace, to the South Asian community and those with South Asian heritage for objects relating to the South Asian role in historical events during the colonial era associated with the famous palace dating back to the 16th century.
Dr Tejpal Singh Ralmill, a military expert at A Little History of the Sikhs which develops tours and lectures on Sikh, Anglo-Sikh and Punjabi history, was among those who worked with HRP on the new exhibition.
Dr Ralmill said: “In 2021, and 2022, the Standing with Giants project has given us a platform to shine a light on the historic relationship between the Indian Army and Hampton Court Palace. This manifested in the form of presentations and tours. It was clear that our audiences were intrigued to hear of the hidden stories of our forefathers contained within the walls of the Royal Palace, and a connection that nearly all were unaware of.
“It is therefore pertinent that these stories are further explored. Through our research and outreach work, we have established connections with descendants of Indian soldiers who resided in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace in the first half of the twentieth century at historic events such as Coronations. It has been fantastic to develop upon this research and support the team at Historic Royal Palaces to interpret submissions from our community to the call-out and to work on the content of this important part of the Palace’s history.”
The new display shares the stories of the Indian soldiers who took up residence on four occasions on the Hampton Court estate for the Coronations of King Edward VII in 1902, King George V in 1911 and George VI in 1937, as well as for the First World War Victory Parade in London. It will explore their experience within camp and more generally in England, with many of them visiting the country for the very first time. Efforts were made in the camps to meet the cultural and religious requirements of the soldiers from many ethnic communities, and the soldiers were entertained with excursions to attractions in London and across the country.
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Visitors to the display, which runs until early March 2024, will learn about the daily experiences of the soldiers camped in the grounds, from food and rationing to entertainment, travel and religious accommodation. Through press and public reactions, it will also look more widely at the sometimes negative perceptions of the South Asian presence in Britain in the early 20th century, as well as its impact. The HRP said the idea is to commemorate their contribution to these historic occasions, overlooking the very grounds in which they stayed over a century ago.
Zakira Begum, Interpretation Officer at HRP, said: “We’re really excited to be shining a spotlight on the stories of the Indian soldiers encampment at Hampton Court Palace, celebrating the contribution that they made to the Palace’s history.
“Working with South Asian community groups has been a key part of bringing this story to life, and we look forward to sharing their objects with our visitors as part of the display. We believe that our work is enriched by the involvement of a wide range of people and perspectives, and working with these groups has been instrumental in creating this new display for our visitors.”
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The new exhibition will bring together a range of never-before-seen objects, including photographs, maps, postcards and even a surviving military uniform. The items will include many from HRP collection, including an official plan from one of the camps, press cuttings depicting the soldiers’ arrival at Hampton Court station, and Indian soldiers in and around the Palace grounds. These objects will be displayed alongside a collection of items on loan from the South Asian community. Groups have also contributed to the objects’ panel texts, sharing their reflections on the items and history being told.
HRP said its public call out earlier this year, alongside work with community partners, yielded moving results – including objects submitted by direct descendants of the soldiers who once camped at Hampton Court Palace. Items selected include a 32nd Sikh Pioneers Indian Army Officer's tunic, medals and photos belonging to soldiers from the 1902 and 1911 contingents, original photographs of the Gurkha regiment in the 1919 parade and newspaper articles depicting the visits.
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