The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), an autonomous organisation affiliated to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, runs 34 other cultural centres besides London, including in Berlin, Moscow, Johannesburg, Cairo and Colombo. These centres function as part of the diplomatic missions of the Government of India of those countries with the objective of serving as windows into the composite culture of India.
In 1989-90, the year of the birth centenary year of Jawaharlal Nehru, the need was voiced for a centre in London which would help address the cultural aspirations of the Indian community and facilitate a sustained dialogue between Indian and British cultures. The Nehru Centre commenced its work in July 1992, with a programme to mark the centenary of the election of Dadabhai Naoroji to the House of Commons – the first entry of an Asian to that body. During the last 18 years the Centre has been home to a variety of cultural activities. This includes eminent Indian artists visiting the United Kingdom as also are a number of eminent artists and institutions from Britain.
The Nehru Centre (TNC) acts as the cultural wing of The High Commission of India in UK. Established in 1992, it is regarded by ICCR as its flagship cultural centre abroad, and has, over the years, emerged as a premier institution engaged in India’s cultural interface with UK. The Centre organises a wide range of cultural events on its premises, showcasing Indian music, dance and theatre, besides a range of activities aimed at strengthening and deepening the intellectual dialogue between the two countries, including exhibitions, lectures, illustrated talks, book launches, film screenings, workshops, seminars and round tables. The Centre serves as a platform for Indian culture in the broadest sense, focussing on the role played both by British and Indian artists in promoting greater mutual cultural understanding. It has launched several books by both Indian and British authors and promoted the participation of British authors in Indian literary festivals. The Centre also serves as a catalyst and facilitator in promoting interaction among cultural bodies in the two countries, as well as in building strategic partnership and collaborations with important cultural institutions in UK with the end objective of promoting Indian culture in this country.
History of the building
South Audley Street is named after Hugh Audley, a remarkably successful, if not entirely scrupulous, lawyer who acquired this land in the 16th century. It had few inhabitants then other than shepherds and tenant farmers. Its lanes were infested with thieves and its only produce was osier reeds, used in basket-making. It was also prone to flooding.
We know that No. 8 South Audley Street was constructed prior to 1744 because in that year James Lumley moved here from No. 21a South Audley Street, bringing with him an elaborate and very beautiful chimney piece said to have been designed by the architect, Isaac Ware (d.1766). Lumley, a prosperous City merchant, occupied No. 8 until 1744. The property was then acquired as the London residence of the Archbishops of York. It was still in this use at the turn of the century. Records for 1806 show the dwelling in the possession of Lady Margaret de Clifford, Baroness de Clifford in her own right.
The property was either rebuilt or very substantially refurbished by its next occupant, Adolphus Frederick, H R H The Duke of Cambridge (1744-1850) the seventh son of George III, who renamed the dwelling Cambridge House. Adolphus Frederick was a dull, plodding sort of man, virtuous and respectable. His one eccentricity was the rather startling habit of thinking aloud. When the parson remarked that we come naked into the world and can take nothing from it, His Royal Highness was heard to mutter : “True, true … to many calls on us for that.” He frequently lapsed into the Hanoverian trait of triptology – saying everything three times – and during the reading of the Commandments, was heard to repeat very earnestly : “Mustn’t steal, mustn’t steal, mustn’t steal.” The uncle of Queen Victoria, he left this building about 1820 when his former home was purchased by Edward Law, first Baron Ellenborough (1750-1818), Lord Chief Justice of England.
Ellenborough was retained as leading Counsel for Warren Hastings in 1788. His son, also called Edward Law (1790-1871), who spent some years in this house, was long associated with Indian affairs. Governor General of India in 1841, he was the First Lord of the Admiralty in Sir Robert Peel’s reconstituted administration of 1846. In 1858, under Lord Derby he was President of the Board of Control.
When the Census enumerator called at No.8 in 1851, he found it held by Richard, 1st Earl Howe (1817-1870), Lord Chamberlain to Queen Adelaide, the consort of William IV. Earl Howe lived here tended by a butler, a valet, two nursemaids for his young children, a lady’s-maid for Lady Howe, three housemaids, two footmen, a page-boy and a messenger.
In 1872, Lord Howe’s executors sold No 8 to the sportsman, Henry Sturt, 1st Baron Alington (1825-1904). In partnership with Sir Frederic Johnstone, Lord Alington won a number of races on the Turf, including in 1883 the Derby with St Blaise. Lord Alington, who sat in Parliament in the Conservative interest for thirty years, died in 1904 when No 8 was purchased by its last private occupant, Sir Berkeley Sheffield 6th bt. (1876-1946), Unionist Member of Parliament for Brigg in Lincolnshire.
About 1933 the property was converted into the Bachelors’ Club. Something of the flavour of this club may be had from Major Arthur Griffiths’ account of it in his book, Clubs and Clubmen (1907):
A modern club of fashion and distinction is the Bachelors’. It is exclusive, will admit no foreigners and, acting up to its title, so approves of celibacy that marriage disqualifies for membership, and any member who becomes a Benedict must stand the ballot of the committee to remain on the list. Ladies are accepted as visitors, but on the responsibility of their introducers who risk expulsion if their friends are not absolutely above suspicion, and ladies must be those eligible for presentation at Court. Play prevails to a great extent, and the maximum points allowed are high. Debts of honour are settled weekly, on every Monday.
In 1940 the Bachelors’ Club was offered a home by the St James’s Club, with which it amalgamated in 1946. The lease of No. 8 was then acquired by the High Commission of India.