The spy who got a blue plaque in London

March 02, 2019 07:08 pm | Updated March 03, 2019 08:57 am IST

Britain’s Princess Anne near a sculpture of Noor Inayat Khan in London in November 2012.

Britain’s Princess Anne near a sculpture of Noor Inayat Khan in London in November 2012.

Even on a brief stroll through central London, a visitor is likely to encounter a smart blue plaque on the door of a building, marking a place where a notable person lived.

Run by English Heritage — one of the organisations running many of Britain’s historic monuments — the system of marking places that had been home to major figures, ranging from Charles Dickens to Karl Marx to Jack Cohen (the founder of the grocery giant Tesco) has been going on since the 19th century, with over 900 plaques located across the capital.

While some had insisted that there have been too many in the U.K., others pointed to a far more concerning aspect: the lack of women, and particularly women from ethnic minority groups, to have been recognised in this way. Even last year, just 14% of blue plaques marked women, English Heritage noted, as it pledged to address the gender imbalance. “The London blue plaques scheme is over 150 years old and the dominance of plaques to men reflects a historic blindness to both the role women have played in our society and the types of roles deemed worthy of celebration,” the organisation’s curatorial director said, as she launched a public call for nominations.

Among those approached in recent times was the ‘Memorial of Noor Inayat Khan’, which carries out work to build recognition and understanding of the part-Indian, part-American British secret agent, who worked for the country’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) that carried out covert work in Nazi-occupied Europe. Codenamed “Madeleine”, she was eventually betrayed, captured by the Gestapo and executed at the Dachau concentration camp in 1944, at the age of just 30. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery.

Messages of support

An initial attempt to get the property where Noor lived recognised had failed. Soon after the publication of a biography on her in 2006, Shrabani Basu, the author, had gone through the process of attempting to get her a blue plaque, encouraged by messages of support she’d received from members of the public about the then little known heroine. But a year later, the application was rejected, with the way in which Noor had spent time in the property not quite fitting the criteria, much to the frustration of Ms. Basu.

“They said the house wasn’t really her house and she wasn’t really there but it was her mother’s house and she wasn’t there all the time because she was out at country houses being trained,” says Ms. Basu, “Over the years, I’ve kept on and on about it: Even Ziggy Stardust [the iconic David Bowie album] got a ‘blue plaque’ but Noor didn’t.”

Ten years on, Noor’s memorial trust was able to apply again and last week received news that they had been successful: subject to the agreement of the owners of the property — the University of London — a blue plaque will be placed on the door of 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury, down the road from Gordon Square, where Noor was said to have spent many a day on a bench reading and where a bust of hers now stands.

The news has added significance as Noor will be the first woman of Indian origin in the U.K. to be accorded a blue plaque.

Noor’s admirers are hopeful that it will help build public understanding of a woman whose extraordinary heroism in the face of grave danger has only begun to be recognised now (she had originally trained to be a radio operator but joined the SOE and stayed on even after colleagues were killed).

While an attempt to make her the face of a £50 note didn’t succeed, she’s on a postage stamp and her bust was unveiled by the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne.

“I love blue plaques,” says Ms. Basu. “I love the thought of tourists walking round London, saying, ‘Oh, this is where Virginia Woolf or Dickens lived’ — the plaques bring a person to life. You stop and think, ‘She might have looked out of that window’, or you can envisage her walking out of that door. [The address] 4 Taviton Street is the place I most associated with Noor. She grew up in the area, this is where she came to stay between training. This is where they wrote to Noor when she went missing and this is where news of her death came to the family... But I like to think of Noor coming out of that door, and walking to the park in Gordon Square and sitting on the bench, or going to the library or museum.”

Vidya Ram is The Hindu’s London correspondent

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