We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Gulati, (Harbans) Lall (1895/6–1967), general practitioner, ophthalmologist, and local politician, was born in Sherpur, near Lahore, Punjab, India, the son of Dola Ram Gulati. His date of birth is not known for certain but is thought to be 1 July of either 1895 or 1896. He was the tenth of eleven children and had nine older brothers and one younger sister. He was raised as a Hindu.

Gulati initially qualified in medicine in Lahore and then joined the British army as a medical officer. He was in Amritsar when Reginald Dyer ordered troops to fire on civilians in 1919. His reasons for leaving India are not known but he arrived in the UK shortly afterwards. He landed in Liverpool with scant resources and walked to London. He initially did odd jobs to support himself and occasionally slept rough. He had to retrain at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School as his Indian medical degree was not fully recognized in England. He qualified LRCP, MRCS in 1926. He subsequently studied for the diploma in ophthalmic medicine and surgery, which he was awarded in 1945.

On requalifying Gulati became a general practitioner in Battersea, south London. He established a surgery in his house at 107 Northcote Road in the 1930s and lived and worked there until his death. As well as working as a family doctor he saw patients in his practice as an ophthalmologist and worked in the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital. On 1 August 1931, at St Michael's Church, Battersea, he married Norah Louisa Knobel (1909–1994), a local woman with a Swiss background, daughter of Henry Knobel, electrical engineer. They had two sons and two daughters, one of whom died in 1938 at the age of four.

Remarkably for someone who had arrived penniless in the UK from India just over a decade before, Gulati (known as Lall) became a prominent figure in local politics from the 1930s. He was elected to Battersea council in 1934 and was a Conservative councillor until 1949. As a member of the Food Control Committee he repeatedly raised concerns about the impact of rationing on health following the Second World War. Although he was later described as the pioneer of the ‘meals on wheels’ service (BMJ, 22 July 1967); (Visram, 2002, 285), there is little evidence to support such a claim. Meals on wheels were pioneered during the war by the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). The WVS, the Red Cross, and the Old People's Welfare Committee started a service in Battersea in 1946. Gulati himself recognized the role that others played in starting a mobile canteen service in the area (as, for instance, in the South Western Star of 2 January 1948). He did, however, argue for the extension of the service locally in order to help older people who were not able to queue for rations. He also started a petition to draw the minister of food's attention to the difficulties of older people and those living alone who had to survive on single rations in post-war London. He said that some of the people he saw as a doctor were virtually starving.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—the high local profile he gained as a result of his campaigning his relationship with the Conservative Party deteriorated. He claimed that ‘The trouble is that I have refused to put party before public’ (Creighton). He did not stand for re-election in Battersea in 1949 and switched allegiance to the Labour Party. He was elected to the London county council in 1958. His ultimate ambition was to become an MP, but this proved beyond him. He was defeated when he stood for selection as prospective parliamentary candidate in 1961. He served as a local councillor once more, between 1962 and 1965.

As well as working as a doctor and being involved in politics Gulati was a justice of the peace and an active freemason, who was awarded the sought-after title of London grand rank. He was also a member of the Socialist Medical Association and of the management committee of the Indian Young Men's Christian Association in London. He was a heavy smoker in spite of suffering from asthma. He died suddenly on 13 June 1967 at St James's Hospital, Balham, south London, of status asthmaticus, an acute exacerbation of the condition. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and a daughter.

Julian M. Simpson

Sources  

Medical Register (1928) · South Western Star (25 Jan 1946); (24 Oct 1947); (7 Nov 1947); (2 Jan 1948) · Medical Directory (1948) · C. Graves, Women in green: the story of the WVS (1948) · Battersea and Clapham Star (16 June 1967) · BMJ (22 July 1967) · R. Visram, Asians in Britain: four hundred years of history (2002) · S. Creighton, ‘Dr Harbans Gulati: Battersea's Asian doctor and politician’, unpublished talk, 27 Oct 2010 · M. McMurray, ‘The origins of WVS meals on wheels’, 15 Oct 2007, www.wrvs.org.uk/Uploads/Documents/About us/origins_of_meals_on_wheels.pdf, accessed on 11 April 2012 · private information (2012) [Ajeet Gulati, son] · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in BMJ,

Wealth at death  

£21,610: administration, 20 Sept 1967, CGPLA Eng. & Wales