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Leading women

Musician, author, princess, spy: Noor Inayat Khan


Following our recent Open Garden Squares event, Dr Elizabeth Dearnley explores the life of another extraordinary woman associated with Bloomsbury, gardens and espionage – secret agent Noor Inayat Khan. 

Noor Inayat Khan

Listen to Dr Elizabeth Dearnley talk about the life of Noor Inayat Khan on BBC radio (from 1:38:20)

In a quiet corner of Gordon Square – set slightly apart from the formal rose beds, Ginger Jules café and picnicking UCL students – stands a bronze bust of a remarkable Second World War heroine. Perhaps best-known by her Resistance code name ‘Madeleine’, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is unfamiliar to many today, but contains so many extraordinary elements that it’s incredible she isn’t more widely recognised. A staunch pacifist regarded by her captors as a fierce and dangerously uncooperative spy, an outspoken supporter of Indian independence who gave her life fighting for the British, a children’s author, musician and princess (descended from Tipu Sultan of Mysore), Noor is also the first - and so far only – Muslim woman to be honoured with a statue in Britain. 


Looking for fairies in Gordon Square 

The eldest child of American poet Pirani Ameena Begum and famous Sufi teacher and musician Inayat Khan, Noor was born in Moscow in 1914, moving shortly afterwards with her family to Bloomsbury. She spent the next few years living at 4 Taviton Street, a few minutes’ walk from Gordon Square, where the young Noor would look for fairies in the garden with her brothers. 

The Khans moved to Paris after the First World War, where Noor would spend most of her adult life, studying child psychology at the Sorbonne and composition at the Paris Conservatory under Nadia Boulanger. She enjoyed a successful career as a children’s writer, contributing regularly to French radio and children’s magazines, and publishing Twenty Jātaka Tales – a collection of animal fables inspired by early Buddhist literature – in 1939.

A ‘bridge between the English people and the Indians'

Noor and her family fled from occupied France to England following the outbreak of the Second World War. Strongly influenced by the Sufi teachings of their father, the Khan children remained committed pacifists. However, Noor and her brother Vilayat decided that merely opposing fascism was not sufficient; they felt morally obliged to play a more active role, but in a way which would not involve taking a life. For Noor, this meant volunteering for some of the most dangerous work of all: joining the Special Operations Executive, training as a radio operator, and becoming a secret agent. 

A passionate believer in Indian independence, Noor had no reason to be a natural supporter of Britain itself. During her initial interview with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, she took the panel aback by remarking that, after the war, she might feel obliged to fight for India against the British. Nevertheless, she remained hopeful that her service might help to build understanding between the two countries:  

‘I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave …it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.’ 

Noor was the subject of more disagreements regarding her suitability as an agent than perhaps any other recruit. Her SOE report suggested she had ‘an unstable and temperamental personality …it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field’ (to which F Section chief Maurice Buckmaster retorted ‘Nonsense!’ in the margin). Intelligence officer Vera Atkins, who oversaw SOE recruitment, also remained convinced of Noor’s ability. 

In the early hours of 17 June 1943, Noor became the first woman agent to be parachuted behind enemy lines in France (previous women had been sent as couriers). Her task was to maintain radio contact between Britain and the Resistance in Paris. This was an unbelievably dangerous job – radio equipment was bulky and hard to conceal, and staying on air for more than 20 minutes at a time risked detection by the enemy. The average lifespan of a field agent was just 6 weeks. 

Noor evaded capture for three months, as the Paris Resistance network – which had been infiltrated by double agents more deeply than anyone had realised – began to disintegrate during the summer of 1943. In October, she was arrested at her Paris flat and taken to German security headquarters.  

Noor made two immediate escape attempts (and refused to sign an agreement with her captors ruling out a third). Regarded as a particularly dangerous prisoner, she was kept in solitary confinement in Pforzheim prison for 10 months. Finally, Noor was transported to Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed in September 1944. Her last reported word was ‘Liberté’. 

Bust of Noor Inayat Khan

A memorial for Noor

Noor was awarded a posthumous George Cross in 1946, as well as a French Croix de Guerre. However, in the 21st century, Shrabani Basu, author of Noor’s 2008 biography Spy Princess, began a campaign for a permanent memorial to Noor in the Gordon Square garden she had loved as a child. Noor’s statue, sculpted by Karen Newman, was unveiled by University of London Chancellor HRH The Royal Princess Anne in 2012. 

The recent unveiling of Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s statue in Parliament Square has reignited a national conversation about the lack of women represented by public monuments (currently the UK boasts more statues of men named John than statues of historical women). While there is clearly much work to be done on a country-wide level, Noor’s presence in Gordon Square remains a testament to the courage of an extraordinary woman. 


Dr Elizabeth Dearnley teaches within the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at UCL and is Communications & Engagement Assistant for the University of London’s Leading Women campaign. You can find her on Twitter @eliza_dearnley