Under Rock Villa, Bonchurch and Gandhi
Updated: May 10
Under Rock and Gandhi
by Simon Harrison
Gandhi and Under Rock, Bonchurch - facts and conjecture
Part of local folklore is the visit of the young Gandhi to Ventnor whilst a law student in London. This was supposedly to visit Sir Lawrence Peel at Under Rock in Bonchurch, a retired former Lord Chief Justice of Calcutta, to seek advice on Indian independence.
As the current custodian of Under Rock it is of more than passing interest, it's fascinating to think that he and Sir Lawrence might have taken tea together in our drawing room!
With grateful thanks to local historian Graham Drucker, we've pieced together some of the story. It clears up one or two issues but raises more questions.
Gandhi was born in 1869 and came to London in 1888. He had wanted to study medicine but his father had objected, and his studies were in law. He was a prominent member of the London Vegetarian Society, and that may have led to his staying at Shelton's Vegetarian Hotel at 25 Madeira Road in Ventnor, in January 1890 and again in May 1891, on the second occasion addressing a Vegetarian meeting in Ventnor.
Sadly he never met Sir Lawrence Peel, who had died in 1884 (and had moved out of Under Rock some years earlier). Whether news of his death had reached Gandhi or not is unclear - he may well have only found out on arrival in Ventnor.
However by the time of his visit Under Rock was owned by Dr George James Shaw, who bought the property in 1877 and continued to own it until 1891 (despite an abortive sale process in 1886 for which estate agents' particulars survive). Dr Shaw had served in the Indian Medical Service from 1841 to 1868, arriving on the Island in 1871 to take up a position as Deputy Inspector of Hospitals.
Given Gandhi's undoubted medical interests, and presence in Ventnor, it seems not implausible that his friends here might have suggested he met Dr Shaw. Maybe he did visit Under Rock after all. It's nice to think he may indeed have taken tea in our drawing room.
Sue Lowday, blog editor has added the following pieces of information that add insight into Gandhi's Ventnor visit.
The following sections describe moments of Gandhi's visit to Ventnor in his autobiography
'The Story of My Experiments with Truth'.(1)
Chapter 18. SHYNESS MY SHIELD
I once went to Ventnor with Sjt. Mazmudar. We stayed there with a vegetarian family. Mr. Howard, the author of The Ethics of Diet, was also staying at the same watering-place. We met him, and he invited us to speak at a meeting for the promotion of vegetarianism.(2) I had ascertained that it was not considered incorrect to read one's speech. I knew that many did so to express themselves coherently and briefly. To speak ex tempore would have been out of the question for me. I had therefore written down my speech. I stood up to read it, but could not. My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap. Sjt. Mazmudar had to read it for me. His own speech was of course excellent and was received with applause. I was ashamed of myself and sad at heart for my incapacity.
19. THE CANKER OF UNTRUTH
My cowardice was on a par with my reserve. It was customary in families like the one in which I was staying at Ventnor for the daughter of the landlady to take out guests for a walk. My landlady's daughter took me one day to the lovely hills round Ventnor. I was no slow walker, but my companion walked even faster, dragging me after her and chattering away all the while. I responded to her chatter sometimes with a whispered 'yes' or 'no', or at the most 'yes, how beautiful!' She was flying like a bird whilst I was wondering when I should get back home. We thus reached the top of a hill. How to get down again was the question. In spite of her high-heeled boots this sprightly young lady of twenty-five darted down the hill like an arrow. I was shamefacedly struggling to get down. She stood at the foot smiling and cheering me and offering to come and drag me. How could I be so chicken hearted? With the greatest difficulty, and crawling at intervals, I somehow managed to scramble to the bottom. She loudly laughed 'bravo' and shamed me all the more, as well she might.
In February 1891 Gandhi started writing articles for The Vegetarian, a weekly newspaper.(3)
On Gandhi's way to the Isle of Wight he stopped off for a Vegetarian Societies Meeting in Portsmouth in 1891.
A Portsmouth newspaper report has a photograph of the group.
The Vegetarian Society's May Meetings, held at Portsmouth, in 1891. Back row (l-r): Rev. James Clark, E. Dolby Shelton, W. Chudley, William Harrison, Peter Foxcroft. Middle row (l-r): Miss May Yates, G. Cosens Prior, Mrs. William Harrison and Mrs. Peter Foxcroft. Front row (l-r): T.T. Mozumdar, Josiah Oldfield, Mohandas K. Gandhi
Gandhi returned to India 12 June 1891.
(1)An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth,Translated by (from Gujarati): Mahadev Desai, General Editor: Shriman Narayan.
(2) The meeting was held at the Friendly Societies Hall in Hight Street, Ventnor.
The Friendly Societies’ Hall, in High street, is a spacious building, used for holding lodge and kindred meetings. Kellys Directory 1898