The Edalji Five
Roger Oldfield, ‘Outrage: The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes’ (Vanguard Press)
I would be very grateful if you could advise me on how to contact any Parsis who might be interested in this book. A major ingredient is a biography of Shapurji Edalji, who was brought up a Parsi in Mumbai. I appreciate that many will be saddened rather than impressed by the fact that he converted to Christianity and eventually became probably the first person from South Asia to serve as Vicar of a Church of England parish in England, but I hope that some will still want to know more about this notable figure born into the Parsi community.
His name became famous when his son George, born in Staffordshire in England, was imprisoned in 1903 for ripping open the belly of a pit-pony. This was the eighth in a series of gruesome outrages against horses, cattle and sheep in the Edaljis’ home village of Great Wyrley.
In 1907 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes, marched into battle to prove George innocent. His passionate campaign provoked huge excitement. It seemed as if Sherlock Holmes had taken on a real-life case, and newspapers from Mumbai to New York followed the story for months. Of the dozens of letters to the Daily Telegraph in 1907, one, from a Chowry Muthu, reported that ‘All India is watching… and for the name and honour of England justice must be done to Mr. Edalji.’
Shapurji’s own life was no less remarkable. He attended the Elphinstone Institution, at which Dadhabai Naoroji taught at the time and where he was a classmate of Dinshaw Eduljee Wacha. In 1856, at the tender age of about 15, he outraged the Parsi community by converting to Christianity, and his parents disowned him. The man who had captured him was the Free Church of Scotland missionary John Wilson, whose College Shapurji later attended. He ended up as a missionary among the Warli people north of Mumbai.
Then he angered the Free Church of Scotland by going over to the opposition, the Church of England network in Mumbai. Under its influence he travelled to Canterbury in England to train as a Church of England missionary.
My book covers Shapurji’s Mumbai years in detail. In his time there he had made a notable contribution to its life. Two of his books, A Gujerátí and English Dictionary and A Grammar of the Gujerátí Language, were still in use many years after his departure.
Once his Canterbury training was over he infuriated his new masters by refusing to go to India as a missionary on their terms. They abandoned all interest in him when he stayed in England and was ordained as a priest inOxford. After years travelling the country as a curate he was finally made Vicar of Great Wyrley, where he served until his death 42 years later. No author has ever pointed out that he could well have been the first South Asian to be made a Vicar in England. His is a remarkable story.
Again, many in the Parsi community may be discomforted by the fact that Shapurji married a Christian, but in historical terms it was a significant marriage,. The Anglo-Asian couple (Charlotte and Shapurji) produced three children, George, Horace and Maud, all brought up in the isolated English coal-mining village of Great Wyrley where attitudes were shaped by British imperialism. Each of their lives was blighted by the consequences of that attack on a pit-pony in 1903 which was made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intervention.
The Edalji name has been made world-famous once again by the publication of the novel Arthur and Georgeby top writer Julian Barnes, which almost won the Man Booker prize in 2005. ‘Arthur’ is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and ‘George’ is George Edalji. The book has been translated into many languages and is to be seen on book-shelves around the world.
I myself believe however that there is far more to the story of Shapurji and his family than has been told by all those who have written about George’s case over the last century. I was once Head of History at GreatWyrley High School and knew descendants of players in the Edalji family drama. I hope my book will bring the lives of Shapurji and the rest of the Edalji five into the light of public attention.
I am also hoping that the description of Shapurji’s Parsi upbringing and of the pressures on the Parsi community in the mid-nineteenth century will be of interest to some Zoroastrians, despite the fact that Shapurji abandoned his boyhood faith. I would be very pleased to receive comments so that improvements can be made if and when there is a reprint.
Full details of the book are available at
my great grandfather was kaikhosro edalji ghamat – was he any relation ? the family ran a cakeshop in mumbai before the last world war