Sanjeev Bhaskar as The Indian Doctor (BBC TV). Photograph taken at Big Pit, National Coal Mining Museum, Blaenafon.

One of the most common ideas about post-war Wales is the presence of the Indian doctor, brought over to work in the South Wales Coalfield because of shortages of general practitioners within the National Health Service. The BBC have even gone so far as to make a situation comedy out of this, imaginatively titled The Indian Doctor, it tells the story of a 1960s mining village changed forever by the arrival of their new GP, ‘a high-flying Delhi graduate’. This particular doctor, of course, is a cipher for the very many who did arrive in the 1950s and 1960s often in the hope of gaining specialised training in large teaching hospitals but then confronted with the realities of medical employment in the United Kingdom. It might be thought that this wave was the first to bring Indian medical personnel to Britain, or even to the Rhondda, but this is not really true. In today’s blog, I want to explore the life and career of one particular Indian doctor, born in Calcutta in the 1860s, who came to Glasgow to train, and who eventually ended up in the South Wales Coalfield. I want to explore his politics, too, and to show how this earlier wave of doctors encouraged awareness of conditions in India and the reasons for the emerging Indian nationalist movement.

Krishna Lal Datta was, as I say, born in Calcutta in the 1860s (he gives a few different dates on the census). Initially he travelled to Britain to study for the civil service with the aim of joining the India Office. But after a dispute with his family over his conversion to Christianity, he sought a medical career instead and moved to Glasgow in the mid-1880s (around 1884) to begin his medical training at the city’s medical school, graduating in the 1890-1891 session. Whilst in Glasgow, Datta became active in the Junior Liberal Association and in 1885 was selected as one of the three Liberal candidates challenging for the new Bridgeton constituency (later made famous as the seat held by James Maxton), and was perceived as being a ‘man on a mission’, although it appears he did not campaign very hard. Instead, he gained a steady renown for his views on British imperialism in India, on the opium trade, global peace, as well as the national movement in Ireland. After graduation, and further study in Rome and Paris, Datta moved to Yorkshire, taking up medical practice initially in Huddersfield and then in Leeds. Speaking at Bethel Chapel on Meadow Road in Leeds in November 1892, for instance, he spoke on the failure of lawmakers to balance modern drugs legislation in Britain with equivalent legislation in India. ‘If they went into a chemist’s shop in Leeds’, he explained, ‘they would find that there was an Act in force called the Food and Drugs Act, which precluded chemists from selling more than a certain quantity of opium’. He continued:

If they went to India, however, they found that there was no such Act, but that any quantity of opium could there be sold, that children might be sent for it, and that, if any one chose to be so foolish, he might eat as much as would kill him. […] The government, however, said they could not do without the opium trade. […] This was a question for the English people, who could not expect to escape the evil consequences of the opium trade if, having the power to stop it, they did not do so.

In 1894, Dr Datta moved from Leeds to teaching extra mural classes in Edinburgh, before finally moving to South Wales in the spring of 1899 to take up the post of assistant to Dr Thomas Hall Redwood, the medical officer of health for Rhymney Urban District Council, where he remained for nine months before being appointed by the colliers at Ferndale as a colliery doctor and an assistant to Dr Parry-Jones the colliery surgeon. One newspaper described Datta as a ‘native of India, black in colour, and from a princely family’. Datta’s politics had advanced significantly since his earlier efforts for the Liberals in Glasgow, and now had the clear colour of labourism. In an address given at a welcoming ceremony in Ferndale, Datta remarked on the ‘possibilities of the working men of today for the elevation of their social conditions’ and that responsibility ‘rested entirely in their own hands, by sending labour representatives as their representatives on all public bodies’. This was, of course, the message of the Independent Labour Party, which Datta joined at around this time.

Datta also brought into coalfield politics his earlier focus on India and imperialism, encouraging much greater awareness in the region of both. This is important to recognise because it is often assumed that Keir Hardie infused this particular political passion into coalfield politics following his global tour in 1907. Whilst there is no denying Hardie’s enthusiasms, it is clear that an understanding of Indian nationalism and Indian politics had begun to be shaped prior to this. Thus Datta spoke, for instance, on issues such as ‘India, its needs and wants’ as well as on subjects relating to the coalfield itself such as ‘the economic conditions of colliery labourers’ and (in similar vein) ‘the economic condition of the collier’s life’. He was also active in the campaign for better workers housing (another campaign platform of the ILP). But it was his work as a colliery doctor that proved transformative since it exposed the monopolised medical practices that had developed in the Rhondda since the middle of the century. Datta’s erstwhile colleague, Dr Parry, was paid a poundage rate of 3d which was kept at the colliery itself every week, whereas Datta was paid a wage that was the equivalent of 1s a month per collier and stopped from their wage packets. This was the so-called ‘new system’, and allowed the colliers to select their own doctor rather than the one tenured by the colliery officials.

Given the tension that quickly developed between the two men, Datta offered to help the more radical miners of Ferndale to establish their own cottage hospital, paying much of the initial operating costs out of his own financial resources, with more traditional fundraising efforts kicking in in subsequent years. The Ferndale Workmen’s Hospital opened towards the end of 1900 and was staffed by Datta, his assistant Dr David Scott, and several nurses, namely, Lydia Maurice, Elizabeth Williams, Helen Evans, Blanche Rogers, Annie Beavan, and Mary Edwards. It transformed the medical situation in the Ferndale district – previously the closest hospital had been at Porth, at the lower end of the valley, with many cases having to travel on to Cardiff infirmary. More than his predecessors, Datta endeavoured to provide medical education in the locality, as well as contribute to the political activism of the labour movement, a reflection (undoubtedly) of his previous experience as an extra-mural tutor. During the First World War, for instance, following service in France, he ran ambulance classes and classes for women to undertake sick nursing, as well as delivering lectures in paramedical support.

The life of Kristnalal Datta, even in brief like this, reminds us that the South Wales Coalfield was a world within a world; described by Dai Smith as ‘American Wales’ there are many facets of this world that are yet to uncovered. All the more so since Dr Datta was not the first Indian doctor to arrive in the Rhondda. That honour (so far as I can tell) goes to Montagu Duncan Makuna – the anglicised adopted name of Mamkjee Dosabhai Makuna, who settled in Ystrad Rhondda in 1877 to take up a role as colliery doctor in the upper Rhondda Fawr working alongside the quack-doctor Idris Davies. In subsequent years he moved to Treherbert and finally to Trealaw, whilst maintaining a surgery branch at Treorchy. Dr Makuna was a graduate of Bombay University (1870) and London, and joined the Royal College of Physicians in 1876. His first job as a doctor in Britain was as superintendent at Fulham Hospital. He died in 1913 and one obituary described him as ‘highly respected throughout the Valleys, not only for his medical knowledge and skill, but also for his high moral character’. He was, the article recorded, ‘somewhat brusque in manner [and] he never hesitated to express his opinions, but underlying what might appear to be severity there was a tenderness which only those who came into close contact with him realised’. Like Datta, Makuna was a converted Christian. (His favourite hymn, apparently, was Abide With Me)

Remarkably, then, for the first decade of the twentieth century, the leading colliery doctors of the upper Rhondda Fach and the upper Rhondda Fawr were both from India. They would be joined by jobbing specialists in ocular medicine who travelled the coalfield (and neighbouring districts) selling their services in the absence of stable employment in colliery hospitals and surgeries. So much, we might conclude, for the idea that British medicine, especially one the periphery, can survive without immigration – it has always relied on immigration. And perhaps most especially, most poignantly, it has always relied on the emigration of doctors and para-medics from the Indian subcontinent. It is a history of immigration almost as old as the industrial revolution in the Rhondda itself, and it should be cherished and celebrated.