Monday, 3 January 2011

Nan and Grandad Mill in India and the birth of Kathleen M

My Aunty Kath and her husband Harry were two of life’s truly decent, salt-of-the-earth working class people – proud hardworking Brummies who had both grown up in the cobbled inner city streets of Ladywood, romancing and courting through the uncertain Blitz years of the 1940s and marrying at St Peter’s church near Broad Street in 1942. True and lasting love not only blossomed for K and H, but the happiest days of their lives were fulfilled in spite of the constant threat of Herr Hitler’s bombs, raining down on the factories and streets of Britain’s industrial heartland.

Aunty Kath's birth registered in Army Returns 1921-1925.
Millington, Kathleen M - 1922
Station recorded as Nasirabad.

Kath was my dad’s second oldest sister. Not quite a fully fledged born and bred Brummie; the family in-joke was that fair-skinned, blonde-haired and blue-eyed Kathleen was actually not really a Brummie at all - but the world’s most unlikely looking Indian. In fact, Kathleen Mary Millington entered the world not at Dudley Road, Sorrento or Selly Oak maternity hospitals but in the far away city of Ahmedabad in the northern Indian region of Gujarat on 3rd January 1922. She was baptised on 20th January at the church of Our Lady of Carmel in Ahmedabad where her god mother was Sister Violet Baptista and the minister a Roman Catholic Chaplain named Father P. Fernandes. Her father’s occupation was given as ‘Private’ and her parent’s address recorded simply as ‘camp’.

My granddad Mill was a young soldier in the Worcestershire Regiment when he was posted to India in about 1919. In those days a long-term posting to the other side of the world meant that young British privates were unlikely to come home for years as opposed to months, so their wives were given the unique opportunity of following on to join them in India. To my grandmother Florence, this was a chance in a lifetime for a young working class woman from the back-streets of Birmingham. The couple already had one child, Annie, who unfortunately became very ill just before Florence was due to embark on her long voyage around the treacherous southern tip of Africa to the east.

William Joseph Millington

Florence was told by the local doctor in Ladywood, “if you take that child, you can expect to bury her at sea”. It was an impossible choice – to miss the chance of the experience of a life time and stay at home in the court houses of Garbett Street to care for her sick toddler, or to leave her daughter far behind in the care of the child’s grandparents. Rightly or wrongly, Florence made the painful choice to board the Milti Aids military supply ship for a voyage which would take her on her very own passage to India. Many years later, my Aunty Annie, now an old lady and nearly blind, expressed her deep sadness about being left behind:

“ I was very sad about it for many years, but recently I’ve sorted it out in my mind. Flossie was only a young woman and from such a poor background, it must have been so thrilling to travel around the world. My father was very disappointed when she arrived in India without me. He had a little place laid out for me with my own little knife and fork.

Florence Millington nee. Clayton

" So I stayed in Garbett Street with my grandparents. Granddad was a lovely man who doted on me. They called me ‘Honey’ and granddad was a master decorator – he painted me a beautiful doll’s house. It turned out that at a later date I could have been sent out to India to join them but granddad wouldn’t let me go. He said that they couldn’t look after me properly out there in India. When my parents returned from India in 1922 I didn’t know who they were – they told me I had a baby sister and I remember she had white hair and hardly any nose! ”

Life for my grandmother was full of curiosity and adventure out in the exotic Gujarat. From a background of poverty and toil back in rainy Birmingham, Florence now found herself aspiring to be the proverbial English lady abroad, with her own servants, tea on the terrace, army dances and games of tennis in the hot Indian sunshine. Even the basic family accommodation of the army camp in Ahmedabad was a million miles away from the struggles of home. Here was a vast land of huge contrasts and overwhelming diversity, a country with hundreds of kingdoms and provinces, about fifteen major languages as well as about 1,600 minor languages and dialects and at least 5 major faiths. It was a land of ancient traditions, extreme weather conditions and beautiful geography. I can only wonder how strange and exciting it must have been to my grandparents, the subtle tastes and aromas of the food, the bright colours of the bustling markets, the intricately crafted architecture of palaces, temples and courtyards, the dusty simplicity of the people in the fields and villages, the deep spirituality, the tranquil splendour and the clamorous chaos. I wonder how it affected them?

Map of India showing Ahmedabad on north west coast

Today, Ahmedabad is the capital city of Gujarat, a state only formed in 1960 during an era when the Indian government was re-organising the country and drawing out new states on a cultural and linguistic basis. Under the British, Gujarat had been part of the Bombay Presidency, with India’s most populous city, Bombay as it’s capital. Ahmedabad was and still is a Gujarati speaking city where the Hindu majority, whose local legends tell of how Lord Krishna founded his kingdom on the nearby coastline of Saurashtra, live alongside their minority neighbours such as the Muslim Bohris and the Parsi Zoroashtrians originally from Iran, in a cosmopolitan mosaic of cultural influences typical of so many Indian cities.

Modern Ahmedabad has a population of about 3.3 million people, more than three times that of Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city. Even with a population size approaching that of several European countries, Ahmedabad is only ranked 7th in the list of India’s most populous cities. Delhi is in third place with a population of 8.4 million, whilst Calcutta is second with 10.9 million and Bombay the most populated city in India has about 12.6 million people.

India as a country has the second largest population in the world, exceeded only by China. A forecast from the Indian Government estimated that there will be above 1.3 billion Indians by the year 2050 – this estimate has been criticised for being too ambitious in terms of the government’s population control policy. In the 1990s, the average per capita income was 2830 rupees per annum, equivalent to about £61 a year. Perhaps this gives us some indication as to the conditions that might have existed for the general populace of Ahmedabad in the early 1920s.

Gandhi was famously put on trial in Ahmedabad in March 1922.
My aunty Kath was 2 months old.

The British had taken over the administration of Ahmedabad in 1918, less than two years before my granddad’s posting. Prior to the imposition of British governance in Ahmedabad, the city had been under the rule of the Gaekwad and Peshwa factions who had in turn won it from Mughal rule in 1753. Modern Indian commentators credit the British for improving and developing the city, founding a Municipality Committee and establishing a railway link.

Even so, times were changing quickly for British rule in India and Ahmedabad was the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s massive peaceful disobedience movement first originated, a movement which eventually brought about independence for India in 1947. Gandhi had arrived in Ahmedabad from South Africa in 1915, setting up an Ashram on the banks of the river Sabarmati in 1917. Close to the Ashram, Gandhi lived a simple life in his small cottage and from here he orchestrated the greatest freedom movement the world has ever known.

By 1919 the mighty British Raj was already becoming edgy and a government act called the Rowlatt Act which allowed arrest without trial was drawing strong protest all over India. In that same year British soldiers under the command of General Dyer opened fire on peaceful protestors at Amritsar in the northern region of Punjab, killing an unimaginable 5000 people. It was a turning point in the independence movement which had hitherto been based entirely around peaceful non co-operation. Violent incidents began to increase, culminating in a number of brutal killings in Utter Pradesh in 1922. Angered and disillusioned by the outbreaks of violence, Gandhi called off his peaceful independence movement.

Some years later, Mahatma Gandhi’s famous 26 day Dandi march which started on March 12th 1930 from his Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi on the coast, a symbolic protest at the British government’s unfair Salt Law, was the impetus for a renewed and prolonged ‘Brits out!’ movement which eventually saw the Union Jack officially lowered for the last time in India on August 15th 1947.

The sights and sounds of 1920s India stayed with my grandmother all of her life

As a child in Harborne in Birmingham during the 1960s, I had my first exposure to the wondrous art of oral history through story. At the age of about 5 or 6 I would snuggle tightly up to my Nanny Mill on the big setee in our front room at 107 Station Road, transfixed and listening with bated breath on her every next word as she told us her tales from long-ago India. I could have no conception of the sheer magnitude of the wider context in which her Kippling-esque tales were set – the events that led to the end of the great British Raj and to the partition of India. Like Kippling, Florence’s stories of India were not of politics, revolutions and radicals, but of elephants, monkeys and mamsaabs.

Stories of how she met an Indian Cobra on a wooded path one afternoon and successfully stared the deadly reptile out until he slithered away back into the jungle. How monkeys would climb into the open windows to steal bread from the kitchen. How my grandfather got locked in a room with an unhappy mongoose and had to trap the angry beast by throwing a mosquito net over him. The sound of the wild dogs laughing in the Indian moon light and turning over the bins like demons in the night. Forty years later I remember each adventure as clearly as though I lived it myself, yearning to revisit my grandmother’s memories as if they were my own.

As children we would chuckle at my Nan’s random recall of the Hindustani language. As if talking to a simple servant she would say “mamsaab idero, kis wasti, tum bolo, jao jaldi”. For years we joked that she must have been making it up. Thirty years later, whilst attending a night school class at Bournville College, learning Hindi and Urdu from a Brummie Irish tutor named Sean, I began to discover what those old colonialist phrases really meant: “servant boy, come here, what is this? You speak. Go quickly”.

My grandparents returned to their humble abode in Ladywood in 1922 – although not without firstly missing the ship they were meant to sail on which apparently sank with great loss of life in the Indian ocean – bringing home with them their second baby, Kathleen Mary with her white hair and ‘no nose to speak of’ and my grandmother harbouring an illegally imported parrot named Polly up her skirts as she passed through customs. The novelty of having a genuine Indian parrot in the back-to-backs of Garbett Street quickly wore off and poor Polly was soon sold when Florence needed a few extra bob, just a couple of months later.

So the little sisters finally got to meet and thence grew up together in Garbett Street, attending St Peter’s RC school in their Daily Mail boots and later on blossoming into two of the loveliest ‘Honeys’ in War time Ladywood. As the air raid sirens wailed out over the slate roofs of Hockley and Winson Green, beautiful Annie would dance the night away to the smooth jazz of the American big bands in the infamous Palais in Monument Road, whilst her snow-haired Indian sister Kathleen kissed goodnight to her dashing sweetheart Harry on the corner of Ledsam and Blythe Street.


  1. A very interesting story about Florence and Annie. Well told. Thank you for sharing.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  2. Thank you Theresa, that's really nice of you to comment.


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