Noor Inayat Khan: A Very Important Statue You Probably Never Noticed

By M@ Last edited 53 months ago

Last Updated 07 January 2020

Noor Inayat Khan: A Very Important Statue You Probably Never Noticed

This is Noor Inayat Khan. You would be forgiven for saying 'Who?'*. Her claim to fame was secrecy itself.

We first heard of Khan after stumbling across this bust in Gordon Square. The Bloomsbury garden is more commonly associated with the likes of Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, who have highly visible blue plaques nearby.

Khan's memorial is all but hidden. She's tucked away inside the railings at the north-east corner, part concealed by foliage.

This is both a pity, and appropriate. Khan worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secretive organisation tasked with sabotage and espionage in occupied Europe during the second world war. Her role was to work from the shadows.

The secret hero

Some 13,000 people were employed by the SOE, but Khan showed particular resilience and bravery. She served as an undercover wireless operator in occupied France — the first woman to do so — and remained in post while most of her fellow operatives were hunted down by the Gestapo.

After her eventual capture, she refused to hand over sensitive information despite many months of imprisonment, questioning and torture. She was finally taken to Dachau camp and shot on 12 September 1944, aged just 30.

Khan was later awarded the George Cross posthumously for exceptional bravery.

Why is she commemorated in Bloomsbury?

Khan remains a little-known hero of the second world war, although this bust in Gordon Square goes some way to keeping her memory alive. It was unveiled by the Princess Royal in 2012, close to Khan's childhood home in Taviton Street near Gordon Square. According to the inscription, she 'spent some quiet time in this garden'.

The eldest of four children, Khan was descended from Indian nobility. She was a vocal pacifist and supporter of Indian independence, yet felt a strong urge to stand up to the Nazi menace by joining up with the British war effort.  

Her memorial in Gordon Square is doubly important. It is a reminder of one person's heroic sacrifices during the second world war, but it is also the first freestanding memorial to a woman of Asian background anywhere in the UK (at least in a public space). Perhaps it's not so appropriate that she's hiding in the bushes.

*UPDATE 6 January 2020: Or 'Doctor Who', for Noor Inayat Khan has now reached a new generation of admirers through the character's appearance in Season 12, episode 2 of Doctor Who. In this episode, Noor teams up with the Doctor and Ada Lovelace to thwart the plans of the regenerated Master.