Avabai Wadia


Of an elite Parsee background, Avabai Wadia arrived in Britain aged 14, accompanied by her mother and to join her brother. She attended Brondesbury and Kilburn High School in London where she was the only South Asian pupil. She excelled at school and went on to train as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn, becoming the first Ceylonese woman to pass the Bar exams. As a direct consequence of her success, the Law College in Colombo opened its doors to women. She was called to the Bar in 1934 and eventually found a chambers willing to take on a South Asian woman. Committed to women’s rights, Wadia was an active member of a number of women’s organizations in Britain. She was also involved with the Labour Party and the Indian nationalist movement in Britain. On her return to India, she pioneered the family planning movement.

Published works: 

The Light is Ours: Memoirs and Movements (International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2001)


Wadia, Avabai, The Light is Ours: Memoirs and Movements (International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2001), pp. 31, 34-5

Date of birth: 
18 Sep 1913

In The Light is Ours, Wadia documents her stay in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Her account includes description of her experience of being the only South Asian pupil at a London school, her life as a law student, and her involvement in a number of women’s and Indian nationalist organizations where she encountered a wide range of socially and politically active men and women, both South Asian and Britain.


Annie Besant, Spitam Cama, Charlotte Despard, Pearl Fernando, M. K. Gandhi, Agatha Harrison, Elizabeth Knight, J. Krishnamurthi, Emily Lutyens, K. P. Mehta, Krishna Menon, Herbert Morrison, Sarojini Naidu, Rameshwari Nehru, H. S. L. Polak, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, Devika Rani, Uday Shankar, George Bernard Shaw, Dorab Tata, Meherbai Tata, Florence Underwood, Monica Whately.


Indians in England in the 1920s and 1930s lived in a totally different milieu from that of today. They were a tiny minority, and were in England as professional or business people, with or without families, or as students, and all faced overt and covert discrimination. We were singular, and singled out – favourably occasionally, but usually as the inferior subjects of a grand empire. This did not mean that we could not lead good lives and have friends for, in spite of an imperial consciousness and ineradicable colour bar, on a personal basis people were friendly and helpful. They were seldom rough, but a barrier between white and brown skins was maintained and caused harm at times. The discrimination was a given, not to be questioned.


My mother, as a good psychologist, decided I would wear sarees to school. This gave me an advantage as my difference from the other girls was then not merely in skin colour but in totality, and to be an individual won a kind of respect…Comments such as “How is it your finger nails are pink just like ours?” showed racial ignorance or prejudice, but there was never unkindness. I was the only Indian among hundreds of girls, although there was one other whose father was Indian, but she had been born and bred in London and counted as English. I had a small distinction all my own, for I spoke and wrote English like the best of the others, and my French teacher said I had the best French accent!

Secondary works: 

Fisher, Michael H., Lahiri, Shompa and Thandi, Shinder S., A South-Asian History of Britain: Four Centuries of Peoples from the Indian Sub-Continent (Oxford and Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007)


Wadia’s memoirs are of interest for the account they give of the reception and treatment of South Asians in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. It is important, however, to bear in mind that she is of an elite background and was probably treated comparatively well by the British as a consequence. The second extract gives evidence of an interesting assertion of cultural difference on the part of Wadia’s mother, as well as of a migrant attempting to compensate for their minority status through academic achievement in this early period.

Involved in events: 

All-India Women’s Conference

British Commonwealth League conferences

Celebration of Gandhi’s 62nd birthday (Women’s Indian Association)

Concerts at the Albert Hall, the Queen’s Hall and the Covent Garden Opera House

Dinner held at the Minerva Club to celebrate 89th birthday of Charlotte Despard, 1933

League of Nations, 1935

Meetings and festivities at Zoroastrian House, Kensington

Performances by the dancer Uday Shankar at the Arts Theatre Club

City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Current name country of birth: 
Sri Lanka
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
05 May 1928
Dates of time spent in Britain: 


Dharm Sheel Chowdhary


Dharm Sheel Chowdhary originally came to England to do postgraduate medical studies, having received a basic medical qualification from Lahore Medical College. He studied at Edinburgh University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, before joining Dr Gilder’s medical practice in Laindon, Essex, as a GP. In 1933, shortly after his Indian wife joined him in Laindon, Chowdhary bought the practice. The couple went on to have two children, remaining in Britain for the rest of their lives.

According to his wife Savitri Chowdhary's memoir, Chowdhary worked around the clock, also offering dentist work, eye tests and a counselling service. He became a hugely popular doctor and hired a number of assistants to help him with his practice over the years. Chowdhary also served in the Civil Defence and the Home Guard in the Second World War. While the Chowdharys had numerous English friends in Laindon, they were also closely connected to the Indian community in London, making frequent excursions there for meals at Veeraswamy’s, Shafi’s and the vegetarian restaurant Shearn’s, and to attend social functions at the Hindu Centre and the India Club both of which he and his wife helped to establish. An Arya Samaj Hindu and trained as a Hindu priest in India, Chowdhary also officiated at Hindu marriage ceremonies, including that of Indian and English acrobat pair, Dickie Pather and Maisie Rogers.

Chowdhary died in 1959, aged 57, and was mourned by the people of Laindon. In 1966, some years after his death, the Chowdhary County Primary School was opened in Laindon and named after him. The plaque on the school (now closed) read: ‘To honour the memory of Dr Dharm Sheel Chowdhary who gave devoted service to the people of Laindon and the local schools throughout the period from 1931–59.’

Date of birth: 
01 Jan 1902

Savitri Chowdhary (his wife), Sir Learie Constantine, Krishna Menon (both visited India Club), Dickie Pather, Paul Robeson (visited India Club).

Precise DOB unknown: 
Secondary works: 

Chowdhary, Savitri, I Made My Home in England (Laindon: Grant-Best Ltd, n.d.)

Chowdhary, Savitri, In Memory of My Beloved Husband (Laindon: Grant-Best Ltd, n.d.)

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002) 

Involved in events: 

Celebration of Indian Independence at the Albert Hall, 1947

City of birth: 
Jullundur, Punjab
Country of birth: 
Other names: 

Dr Dharm Sheel Chowdhary


Laindon, SS15 6ET
United Kingdom
51° 34' 31.3176" N, 0° 25' 20.0028" E
Date of death: 
01 Dec 1959
Precise date of death unknown: 
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jan 1928
Dates of time spent in Britain: 


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