NOSTALGIA: The mystery of dapper Indians in 1912 Eastbourne

Perfectly posed ... the group pictured in 1912
Perfectly posed ... the group pictured in 1912

Eastbourne Local History Society regularly gets requests for information from all over the world – from family historians, researchers, academics and authors.

One such request came from Brenda Winnewisser, a professor of physics at the Ohio State University, in connection with her research into the German physicist Hedwig Kohn (1887–1964), the daughter of Georg Kohn, a wholesale merchant of fine cloth, and Helene Hancke, a member of a well-established Breslau family.

Hedwig Kohn was active in Breslau in 1913 and had a cousin, Edith Cohen, in London.

In 1912 Edith sent her a picture of a group of Indians outside a house in Eastbourne.

Brenda wondered whether we knew something about the group and where the picture was taken.

The house was identified as The Retreat, a boarding house at 48 Pevensey Road next door to the Congregational Church on the corner of Cavendish Place and Pevensey Road.

The church was demolished in 1977 and flats stand on the site. However, one vestige remains – the flint buttress between Grafton Court and 51 Cavendish Place.

The information was passed to Brenda, who had deduced that the man at the lower right was a Dr Ketkar, who was returning from California, where he had studied sociology and obtained his doctorate.

He had hoped to stay in London for further studies, but lacked the necessary finance. Upon examining other photographs, Barbara concluded that the girls on either side of him were Edith, to the left, and her younger sister Hettie, to the right.

Edith, who was interested in all things Indian, had met Ketkar in London through her father’s membership of The Nobodies, a liberal, idealistic, inclusive (of race and gender) London club.

Edith’s father was born in Germany – like Hedwig Kohn’s father, into a large Jewish family in Pless, then a corner of German Silesia – and brought up in Breslau. He no doubt went to London as a young man to make his way in the world. 

Edith and the young Indian academic fell in love and after the Great War, when interfaith marriages were extremely rare in India, she went to Poona to work on his Encyclopaedia of Marathi Literature.

They married and raised two adopted children.

A few years after Edith had married, Hettie went out to live with them – perhaps helping to care for the children.

Some years later, after their mother died, their father also went to Poona, where all became involved in the encyclopedia project.

Hettie never married but later lived in Bombay, and finally – probably when her health failed – returned to a retirement home in London. When Hedwig Kohn died in the USA in 1965, she left a small sum to each of the London Cohen sisters. 

Hettie asked that her share be sent to Edith, who was elderly and in financial straits in Bombay, where she probably remained until her death.

But the question remains: what were these dapper Indians doing in Eastbourne in 1912? Was it a holiday or was there some kind of conference?

Did the Cohen family have connections with the town? It is possible that the visit was reported in one of the local newspapers but judging from the light clothing, the photograph could have been taken well before Christmas.

So if someone has time for a spot of research at the library, it would be interesting to know more.

* The above was submitted by Michael Ockenden of Eastbourne Local History Society from an article in the Eastbourne Local Historian. For details of ELHS contact Diana Guthrie at dhguthrie@btinternet.com or by telephoning Eastbourne 419181.

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