Hiding away on one of the leafy streets midway up Highgate Hill sits India House.

Bearing a blue plaque on the wall to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, there is little about 65 Cromwell Avenue that suggests it has the dubious claim of being the home of one of the first foreign terrorist cells to establish itself on on English soil.

Between 1905 and 1910, the house operated as an informal but hugely influential Indian nationalist organization. Fighting for Indian freedom from British Imperialism, India House was regarded as the one of the most revolutionary and radical centres of Indian nationalism outside India during the British Empire. Valentine Choril, the then-editor of the Times, even labelled the unassuming Victorian pile in a quiet, well-off side street “the most dangerous organization outside India.”

In the late 1890s, an Oxford-educated Indian named Shyamji Krishnavarma Bhansali (commonly known as S K Varma, 1857-1939) returned to England from India, where he had become increasingly resentful of British rule. He purchased a house in Muswell Hill with a view to establishing a base for an international Indian independence movement – one in the very heart of enemy territory.

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His aim was to promote nationalist views amongst Indian students studying in Britain and Varma was visited at the house by a vast number of social thinkers and revolutionaries, including Lenin and Gandhi (then working as a lawyer.)

In 1905, Varma published his first issue of his anti-colonist newspaper The Indian Sociologist and inaugurated a new organisation called “The Indian Home Rule Society”.

1909 edition of The Indian Sociologist

The first meeting laid out the society’s aims: securing home rule for India, carrying on propaganda in England to achieve it, and spreading information about freedom and national unity in India. He followed the dictum of the philosopher Herbert Spencer (most famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest”, he is buried in nearby Highgate Cemetery): “Resistance to aggression is not simply justified, but imperative.”

In the same year, Varma purchased 65 Cromwell Avenue to be used as a hostel for 25 Indian students.

While ostensibly accommodation for students who were often racially discriminated against by other landlords, Varma’s underlying intention was to create a new generation of Indian radical patriots. It was formally inaugurated as India House by HM Hyndman, a Scottish Socialist, on 1 July 1905.

Varma may have been the driving force behind the foundation, but the activities which took place inside the house are most closely associated with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), described as an “Indian patriot and philospher” on the blue plaque.

ImageSavarkar, considered the central icon of modern Hindu nationalist political parties, lived at the house from 1906 to 1909, and together with the other men now regarded as the founding fathers of Indian communism and Hindu nationalism – men like VN Chatterjee, Lala Har Daval and VSS Aiyer – he started radical student societies and produced publications calling for complete Indian independence by revolutionary means.

Still only in his early twenties in his time in Highgate, Savarkar was a fiery young law student from Pune, whose fierce and incendiary nationalism was not shared by all of the students in the house.

Gandhi made another visit to the organization (his first to India House) in October 1906, and it has been suggested that Savarkar’s militant views about revolutionary violence (and the consequences resulting from those practices) may have influenced Gandhi’s subsequent nonviolent philosophy.

ImageGandhi in 1906

By 1906, the organization was starting to attract the attention of the British authorities. An editorial in the Times suggested Varma should be prosecuted for preaching “disloyal sentiments” to the Indian students staying in Cromwell Avenue. Following police visits to both the house and the printers of The Indian Sociologist in 1907, and fearing arrest was imminent, Varma fled to France, and Savarkar took over the operation of India House.

With Savarkar in charge, India House became swiftly radicalized. Sunday night meetings took place, where Savarkar selected topics for lectures ranging from the philosophy of revolution to bomb-making and assassination techniques. Badges – known as Mutiny Buttons – were produced commemorating the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the Indians who had died were referred to as ‘martyrs.’ The outbuilding of India House was converted to a “war workshop” where chemistry students attempted to produce explosives and manufacture bombs, while the printing press turned out “seditious” literature, including bomb-making manuals and pamphlets promoting violence toward Europeans in India.

Savarkar was at the heart of the scheme, spending a great deal of time in the explosives workshop and emerging on some evenings, according to a fellow revolutionary, “with telltale yellow stains of Picric acid on his hands”. The residents of India House practiced shooting at a range in Tottenham Court Road and rehearsed the assassinations they planned to carry out.

In 1909, Savarkar published The Indian War of Independence, which was considered so inflammatory that the British Library removed it from their catalogue to prevent Indian students from accessing it. As Savarkar’s speeches grew increasingly strident – he called for revolution, widespread violence, and the murder of all Englishmen in India – Scotland Yard placed India House under surveillance, and started to send undercover officers to meetings.

Even so, they totally underestimated the true danger that was slowly fermenting.

In July 1909, a member of India House named Madan Lal Dhingra assasinated Sir WH Curzon – an Indian army officer with close ties to the secretary of state of India, Lord Hamilton. Two years before, The Indian Sociologist had named Curzon as one of the “old unrepentant foes of India who have fattened on the misery of the Indian peasant every (sic) since they began their career.”

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A student at the University of London and the son of a wealthy Hindu doctor, Dhingra shot Curzon at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington at an event organized by the National Indian Association.

Wearing a sky-blue turban in the Punjabi style and a smart suit, a necktie and dark glasses, Dhingra filled up his coat pockets with a revolver, two pistols and two knives.

Dhingra reached the party at eight. He went around talking to people there for some time. It was past ten when political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India Curzon Wyllie and his wife arrived. Their arrival added zest to the merriment. It was about eleven when the proceeding ended. Wyllie got down from the dais. Then there was some music. Wyllie was moving around talking to people informally.

Dhingra fired five shots right at his face, four of which hit their target. Cowasji Lalkaka, a  Parsee doctor who tried to save Sir Curzon, died of Madan Lal’s sixth and seventh bullets, which the latter fired because Lalkaka had caught hold of him.

He was hanged at Pentonville the following month. But Indian intelligence sources suggested that the assassination was Savarkar’s brainchild, and that further actions were planned in Britain as well as India.

The Metropolitan police were unable to bring a prosecution against Savarkar, since he had an alibi for the night, but over the following year, police and political sources brought pressure on the residents of India House to leave England. Many moved to Paris (in the footsteps of Varma) where the Paris Indian Society gradually took India House’s place as the centre of Indian nationalism on the continent.

ImageCover of the Paris Bande Mataram following Madanlal Dhingra’s execution in August 1909

The police brought strong pressure on India House and began gathering intelligence on Indian students in London. These, along with threats to their careers, robbed India House of its student support base. It slowly began to disassemble, and the residence was treated “akin to a leper’s home” by the Indian students in the city.

In March 1910, Savarkar was arrested upon his return to London from Paris where he had briefly fled to. He was put in Brixton prison, charged with sedition and abetment to murder and deported back to India. He was freed in 1924 after serving 14 years, and turned to politics.

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He established the Hindu Mahasabha and working throughout the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s towards Indian independence from British rule: pro-Hindu, pro-Indian self-rule, and largely anti-violence.

Savarkar was one of the pivotal people in the independence movement, but disagreed with those around him: He did not like the Muslim Jinna – he believed the Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus were two different races – and he disapproved of Gandhi’s hunger strike in 1942.

Following independence, the murder of Gandhi in 1948 by Nathuram Godse – the editor of a newspaper that held Mahasabha views – led to reprisals against Hindus, and Savarker’s house was attacked. In May 1948, he was arrested with nine other men and was accused of being behind Gandhi’s assassination. A witness stated to the court that Savarker had sent two of his men a mission to assassinate Gandhi and Prime Minister Nehru, charging them to “be successful and to return.”

In February 1949, Savarkar was the only one of the nine men to be released without charge – two (including Godse) were executed, five transported for life and one turned King’s evidence. He largely retired after the trial, and died in 1966 at the age of 83.

Over the years, Savarkar has been viewed as both patriot and terrorist, but his slow ascent to respectability has no better marker than the blue plaque on the side of the house that the British establishment once drove him from.

But that’s nothing compared to his veneration in parts of India. In December 2010, an exact brick-by-brick replica of the Highgate house was built in Savarker’s birthplace of Mandvi-Kutch, Gujurat. Set in 52 acres, the replica house contains a children’s play area, statues and a fountain.

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The only thing it lacks is the blue plaque.

UPDATE: Thanks to Nicole for the following clarification: “The museum in Gujerat which includes an exact replica of India House was built to commemorate SK Varma, who founded it, rather than Savarkar.”

The area between Bloomsbury and Euston is a strange part of London. The wide empty roads run between towering buildings set around a series of large, flat, featureless squares. Most are canopied by vast trees. With no shops or businesses along the road, and large silent academic buildings fencing the squares in on both sides, there aren’t often many people around. The squares are consequently unusually (almost eerily) quiet for a central London location.

The people in the squares are so unaccustomed to having company, they often look up as you wander in, stare suspiciously for a while and hesitatingly dip back into their books. Whenever I’ve been into one, there are only ever a couple of solitary UCL students sitting on a distant bench, or a runner briefly diverting through the grass before popping back on the road. Like me, many of them must half-wonder if the squares are private and just be waiting for someone to come over and angrily ask them how they got in and what the hell they think they’re doing. It’s the type of place you half expect to spot George Smiley whiling away the hours waiting for a contact to arrive.

Tavistock Square Gardens are much the same as the neighbouring seven squares, but the large statue of Gandhi in the middle means there are usually one or two Indian students hanging around at the gates, some of whom leave handfuls of fresh flowers at the base. A tree, planted by the then Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1953, grows in the south-east of the square.

But close by the tree there’s something which doesn’t grow.

Long before the area was laid out as squares and terraces at the end of the 1700s, it was known as Southampton Fields. Unlit, undeveloped and on the far edge of seventeenth-century London’s sprawl, it was a popular haunt for lovers who picked plantain, a low growing herb, for it’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities.

The same privacy which attracted lovers also attracted those who had scores to settle away from the bright lights (and the justice) of the town. As the nineteenth century antiquarian John Timbs put it in The Romance of London, “the ground lay waste, and being on the edge of the great town, presented a ready arena for its idle and lawless dangerous classes…They were the resort of depraved persons, chiefly for fighting pitched battles.”

According to legend, two brothers, both soldiers in the Duke of Monmouthshire’s short-lived peasant army, met on the site of the present day Tavistock Square in 1695 to fight a duel. They had both fallen in love with the same woman “who would not declare a preference”, and as she coolly watched, the two brothers “fought so ferociously as to destroy each other; after which, their footsteps, imprinted on the ground in the vengeful struggle, were said to remain, with the indentations produced by their advancing and receding; nor would any grass or vegetation ever grow over these forty footsteps.”

In this unnatural act – brother killing brother – the very ground on which their blood had been spilled is said to have revolted. The scene soon became known as the Field of the Forty Footsteps, a phrase coined by one “Miss Porter and her sister”, who heard the story and used it as the basis for a romantic novel.

The poet Southey visited “The Brothers’ Steps” after a friend recommended he “take a view of those wonderful marks of the Lord’s hatred to duelling.”

We sought for near half an hour in vain…We were almost out of hope, when an honest man, who was at work, directed us to the next ground, adjoining to a pond. There we found what we sought…The steps are of the size of a large human foot, about three inches deep, and lie nearly from north-east to south-west. We counted only seventy-six; but we were not exact in counting. The place where one or both the brothers are supposed to have fallen is still bare of grass. The labourer also showed us the bank where (the tradition is) the wretched woman sat to see the combat.

Of course, with popularity came the reason why the footsteps were so apparent. As stated by A Book For A Rainy Day, the author mentioned that “the fact is, that these steps were so often trodden that it was impossible for the grass to grow.”

In 1800, the author of Commonplace Books, Joseph Moser, claimed the footsteps were built over as the terraces were erected.

June 16, 1800. Went into the fields…and there saw, for the last time, the forty footsteps; the building materials are there, ready to cover them from the sight of man. I counted more than forty, but they might be the footprints of the workmen.

Huge numbers of London books over the centuries have retold the tale – but none of the authors I’ve read actually bothered to see if these footsteps were still in Tavistock Square. So I went with my camera to see if they were.

And you know what?

They are.

I know – it’s silly.

I was looking for patterns. Look at the mud in any park you chose to go into, and you’d find similar shapes. The mind tricks the eye into seeing what it wants to see.

But whatever the real explanation is – mental suggestion, an ancient fraud, or some botanical fungus that kills those particular portions of grass – it sure looks to me like a row of man-sized footprints walking in a straight line exactly where the old books said they’d be.