Spy becomes first woman of south Asian descent to get blue plaque in London

Noor Inayat Khan, first female radio operator, worked in occupied France before being executed by the Nazis

A spy who operated in occupied France for months during the second world war before being captured by the Gestapo and later executed has become the first woman of south Asian descent to be given a blue plaque in London.

Noor Inayat Khan received the George Cross for her exploits in Paris, where she volunteered as a radio operator, and now her former family home in Bloomsbury has been recognised by English Heritage after first being nominated 14 years ago.

The award came after work by a group that was set up in 2016 to address the lack of diversity in the scheme. When the working group began, only 33 of the more than 900 plaques were dedicated to black and Asian figures. Even now, only about 14% celebrate women.

Anna Eavis, the curatorial director of English Heritage, said it was vital that a more diverse selection of blue plaques were awarded, but they still needed more public nominations for people of colour in order to address the racial imbalance.

“The continuing diversity of London’s population means that it is very important that public-realm schemes like this are more representative and tell the whole story,” Eavis said.

Khan’s biographer, Shrabani Basu, said the spy – who went by the codename Madeleine – was also a talented musician and a published children’s author before becoming an unlikely candidate for Britain’s “first Muslim war heroine in Europe”.

Basu said: “She was fluent in French, she knew the area, and she was a brilliant radio operator. So she went in under cover behind enemy lines and she worked there for three months setting up crucial links and sending information back to London.”

Born in Russia to an Indian father and an American mother, Khan was a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore, and spent the majority of her life in France. The country posthumously awarded her the French Croix de Guerre for her efforts behind enemy lines. “She’s highly decorated, but her story was forgotten,” said Basu.

Khan came to Britain with her family after France fell in November 1940. She became the first female radio operator and was sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive. She was originally thought not best suited to life in the field because she was considered a “dreamer” and her superiors feared that her Sufi faith might mean she lacked a ruthless edge.

Basu said Khan’s allegiance to Britain was also questioned because of her family’s strong links to the Indian independence movement. But despite the doubts and dangers – radio operators were expected to last only six weeks in the field because it was so difficult – Khan worked successfully for three months and was only captured by the Gestapo after being betrayed.

She was kept in Pforzheim prison before being moved to Dachau concentration camp where she was executed in 1944.

English Heritage plans to unveil nine plaques rather than the usual 12 this year, with other awardees including Christine Granville, another secret agent of the second world war, the artist Barbara Hepworth, and the African slavery abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano. The Covid-19 pandemic means the unveiling ceremony will take place on Facebook.


Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Blue plaque to be unveiled for woman who was Churchill's 'favourite spy'
London marker will remember Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

16, Sep, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Freddie Mercury's modest London home gets blue plaque
Neighbours in suburb of Feltham remember noisy neighbour who became flamboyant Queen star

Maev Kennedy

01, Sep, 2016 @2:15 PM

Article image
Barbara Hepworth's time in London marked with blue plaque
English Heritage plaque in St John’s Wood honours artist and first husband John Skeaping

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

30, Oct, 2020 @7:01 AM

Article image
Plan for Gertrude Bell blue plaque in London sparks controversy
Explorer, diplomat and writer born in north-east England ‘did not have anything to do with London’, says biographer

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

26, Dec, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Bob Marley's London house to get English Heritage blue plaque
Angela Carter, Gertrude Bell and Martha Gellhorn among this year’s honourees

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

19, Feb, 2019 @2:02 PM

Article image
Blue plaque for anti-slavery campaigner Ottobah Cugoano
Recognition of 18th-century pioneer on London building is earliest for a black person

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

20, Nov, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
English Heritage calls for female blue plaque nominees
Organisation wants public to help it redress low number of women represented

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

30, Oct, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Diana, Princess of Wales, to be celebrated with London blue plaque
Diana to be among six women honoured as part of English Heritage’s scheme following public campaign

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

31, Mar, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
New blue plaques for women honour spies, artist and suffragettes
London scheme’s additions are part of effort to correct historical gender imbalance

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

04, Mar, 2020 @11:32 AM

Article image
Blue plaque to honour 1888 strike by 1,400 East End matchgirls
Tribute is one of several being unveiled to honour groups rather than individuals

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

17, Feb, 2022 @1:29 PM