The De La Hey case

The murder at Newington School, and its aftermath

I had only a vague idea about this infamous case, and it was never my intention to delve into it. Nevertheless, I was pulled into it by chance as I was studying the collection of Kavalappara papers and saw a mention of a Parvathy Nethiyar withdrawing her ward from the Newington School in Madras in 1916. A bit intrigued, I googled the school, only to realize that this was the one that featured the De la Hey murder of 1919. Then, I picked up the biography of Lakshmi Sehgal, to complete my previous article on the Azad Hind bank and Yellappa. Again, chance intervened, and there on page six was the De la Hey case and its effect on her. Now interested, I collected and perused quite a bit of material on this case, which involved a cricketing principal, his wife, the minor wards of many the ‘Polygar’ Zamindars of Tiruneveli region. It involved many people familiar to readers of my articles, such as Lakshmi Sehgal, her father S Swaminadhan, Mrinalini Sarabhai, KP Keshava Menon etc. The story is quite engaging and believe it or not, is one of those cases which still remain cold.

If you recall, when the EIC and the British rose to ascendancy in India, they governed their possessions directly, and indirectly controlled some princely states and minor Zamindar’s (large estates). The EIC established what was known as a court of wards to protect minor heirs of these Zamin’s. The idea was that these estates would be managed by the British on behalf of the heir, who would also be educated and nurtured through the offices of the Court until their maturity. One could spend hours arguing if they did it honestly or not if they really babysat or looted. Anyway, the plan was to bring these kids up as proper young men and for this purpose, Rajkumar colleges were set up in North India. In Madras, the institution which catered to the minor’s education was the Newington College, on Mount Road, near today’s Gemini flyover. Colloquially it was known as the Minor Bungalow since these young wards were called Minors.

The Newington at Teynampet, struggled to find talented pupils and plodded along, though you will come across a few educated Zamindars among its alumni. A couple of European tutors came to administer this institution and the most important ones were Cameron Morrison (who also wrote a geography textbook), Clement De La Hey, and Mr Yates.  Sir John Sinclair (Lord Pentland) a patron of the institution, tried hard to structure and support it, even laying a foundation stone for a better outfit in 1919, but as we will soon see, the new Rajkumar style school never came up and the old one was abruptly closed. Morrison retired and left back home, after 25 years of yeoman work. The ruins of that Minor bungalow, are situated across the congress grounds on Anna Salai, in the DMS complex.

Clement de la Hey arrived in India 1901/02 as a Newington tutor and remained. There are numerous reports of him receiving dignitaries touring the school, as well as participating and captaining cricket matches and picking many a wicket as a bowler, visiting estates and other locales with his wards (e.g., Rangoon), participating in hunts etc. After a couple of trips to Canada and reaching an age of 40, he decided to get married (during a visit to Britain in July 1918) and subsequently, brought his 26-year-old wife Dorothy Mary Phillips, home to Madras. Soon the couple became parents to a little boy, Antony.

The Newington College was not only an educational institution but also the home to most of the minor male wards, as well as the De La Hey’s. At the time of the incident, there were in addition to the De La Hey family, their Ayah Harriet and attendant Ponnuswamy, nine young - minor Zamin’s as well some of their manservants. The Maravar wards were from the Tinnevelly palayam’s of Singampatti (aged 16), Kadambur (aged 18), Urkad (brothers aged 17 and 12), Thalivankottai (aged 13), as well as the Andhra Zamins of Berikai (aged 18), Chundi (aged 19), Pedamerangi (aged 14) and Saptur (aged 18). Two teachers Dharma Rao and Rangaswamy Iyer taught the children Telegu and sciences, during the day sessions. The kids went on study tours, practiced hunting and shooting, and play games like cricket, tennis etc. While the Tamil speaking Singampatti, Kadambur and Urkad youngsters formed one cluster, the Thalivankottai (though Tamil, he was kept away by the former group as he was an adopted son of the Zamin), Berikai and Chundi boys formed another. Of the lot, Kadambur was not so well off, while Singampetti, the richest, and connected to the Urkad family was also linked to the powerful Setupati’s of Ramnad.

Connecting Singampatti, Urkad, and the Kadampur boys was a potential alliance with an Urkad girl named Doraichi (sister of the Urkad brothers) who lived nearby with a British guardian. She was originally supposed to wed the Kadambur boy, but he had turned her down after hearing rumors from the Thalivankottai boy, of some ‘immoral conduct’. The Singampatti boy was now being groomed up to take her hand. Among the boys, the only one interested in studies was the Kadambur lad, but he had been having issues with Clement De La Hay who was not too keen to recommend him to a school in Britain or allow him to study Sanskrit. The Kadamabur lad’s name was Seeni Vellala Sivasubramania Pandia Thalaivar and the Singampetti lads was TN Sivasubramania Sankara Theerpathi.

Another issue at hand was the poor performance of the school, which had been failing to attract good quality students. Lord Pendleton as well as the Ramnad ruler were in the process of setting up a school in the lines of the Rajkumar school and as it appears the plan was not to continue with Clement De La Hay, who had been given notice. As the rumors put it, he called the Ramnad Raja a ‘bloody nigger prince’ which the strong-willed raja took an affront to. Meanwhile, Morrison had gone on furlough to Britain, leaving De La Hey as the officiating principal. Interestingly, Clement’s sister Dorothy took over as the principal of the first women’s college, the Queen Mary’s, not too far, off Mount Road.

The Murder

On the evening of 15th October 1919, Clement returned late from the club and went up to his rooms. The other wards roomed on the second floor while Kadambur had his room on the ground floor (which was also storage for sporting goods and guns) and close to the tennis court. Around 12:30 a.m. a gunshot was heard by Dorothy, who lying in the next bed with her baby, woke up with a start. She then screamed for help after seeing Clement who was lying in a pool of blood in his bed, with the right side of his head blown off by a shotgun blast. The mosquito net had a large charred hole, to show that the gun was fired at close range. She also heard a thud soon after.

With that started the media furor over what came to be known as the Newington Scandal, the Kadambur Murder, or the De la Hey case. The case remained in the news for over a year, was heard, and decided in Bombay four months after the event. So, what happened, and who killed Clement?

The police concluded that the killing was the result of a late evening plan hatched by the Kadambur and the Singampetti wards. They were both taken into custody and the news media quickly indulged in sensationalist reporting. They published reports of the incident, one or two even going so far as to print that the Kadambur boy had admitted to shooting the principal (who had seemingly called him a black Tamil negro), hurting his sentiments and that he had written to his mother of his guilt and asking her to pay Mrs De La Hey a sum of Rs 10,000/- as compensation. Another report mentioned he turned De la Hey on his back to get a better shot. Singampatti’s father, well-connected in the Madras circles, swung into action, intent on freeing his son from custody. A renowned lawyer from Tellicherry, T. Richmond was retained as counsel for his son and in a few days, on the 24th, the Singampetti boy turned an approver implicating Kadambur as the murderer and himself as an unwilling bystander and witness. After the inquest, he was conditionally pardoned, leaving Kadambur in the dock.

It was then that S Swaminadhan, a leading criminal lawyer of Madras stepped in, to defend Kadambur, assisted by Ethiraj. Galvanized into action, they protested about the unfair and incorrect press reporting (KP Kesava Menon provided an affidavit attaching copies of all the nefarious reports) and the action of the Madras court, who after being pressured by the European residents, were trying to speed up closure with a guilty verdict on their client. They demanded that the case be heard elsewhere since the jury would be misled and influenced by the false reporting. Swaminadhan apparently rushed to Delhi to see the Governor-General and get a recommendation to transfer of the case. To cut the story short, the case was upon mutual agreement, shifted to Bombay, where surprisingly, the chief Justice Norman Macleod of the high court decided to preside himself, dressed in all his fine and pompous livery.

Meanwhile, Dorothy, Clement’s wife left India with the Madras court’s approval, stating that she feared for her life, nearing a nervous breakdown. This led to a number of rumors around her character, especially her relations with the young wards, while Clement was busy with his passion – cricket. The public felt that the British and the prosecuting counsel, sure that many skeletons would tumble out of the cupboard, had packed her off quickly to England.

The prosecution was confident that the case will be quickly done with, that Kadambur would be sentenced and jailed. They had not expected the wily Swaminadhan to get the case transferred to Bombay. To ensure that Kadambur was properly defended at Bombay, Swaminadhan & Ethiraj teamed up with RDN Wadia, a hot-shot Bombay lawyer. The prosecution team from Madras headed by Weldon arrived at Bombay with their entourage of clerks, translators, and assistants, as well as South Indian vegetarian cooks, with all the minor wards carefully prepared as witnesses, in tow.

Swaminadhan’s strategy was to attack the character of the state witnesses since the police had been insipid in their investigation, and little evidence had been unearthed. Neither had the police done a proper investigation nor had they built up a water-tight case. The motive, modus operandi, and timeline offered were at best, vague. The prosecution case relied fully on the approver’s statement and augmented it with corroborating statements of other minors. The defense decided to prove that both the approver as well as the supporting witnesses were lying and thoroughly untrustworthy. The cross-examination presented as a textbook example, by R K Soonavala, is a delight to read – Wadia, a skilled cross-examiner tore into the witnesses, i.e., the approver Singampatti and the minor wards and exposed the fact that they were being untruthful, and demolishing the prosecution’s case.

Mrs De La Hey’s testimony

Mrs De La Hey deposed on 20th Oct – On the night of the 15th instant, I went to bed at 9-30 p.m. The beds were one behind the other. I was in the bed nearest the bedroom. My husband was a sound sleeper but he could be waked up easily. He was asleep before I was. A terrific noise awakened me. I called to my husband but there was no reply. A moment later I heard a noise of something weighty being thrown outside. I then turned round and saw the curtain on fire, smoldering. I got up at once from the left side of my cot. I tried to awaken my husband. The curtain lit up. I saw him and knew what happened. I yelled. Immediately minor Berikai came down.  After him came in Chundi. Then I went to the office room. Then Singampati, Kadambur and Saptur came down. I noticed that Kadambur had only got his veshti on. Singampati was covered to the throat. I can absolutely swear to his being there. I cannot swear that he was covered to the throat. That was my impression. I noticed nothing particular about him. Singampati did not look at all natural and appeared totally frightened. Kadambur had his hands behind his back and stared at me all the time.

Prosecution case

Talavankode testified that Kadambur and Singampatti had conspired the previous evening, with Kadambur determining to shoot De La Hey dead (as he had been ridiculed by De La Hey) as well as anybody who interfered during the attempt. Talavankottai told Chundu and Berikai about this (Urkad Jr was also present), but none of them wanted to inform De La Hey of the plan as they feared Kadamabur. At 930 Talavankottai saw Singampatti and Kadambur with cartridges in their possession as well as two guns to Singampatti’s bathroom. After the shot was fired, a bleary-eyed Berikai lying in his cot, saw Singampatti and Kadambur come running up.

According to the approver and the witnesses, as well as the conclusion at the inquest, the following timeline was established. Berikai, going down, saw Dorothy crying, who then asked him to call the police. They came and found the 12-bore shotgun (usually stored in Kadambur’s room) at the porch, in which one chamber had a fired cartridge, and the other had a loaded but fouled cartridge. Thalivankottai, Urkkad brothers, and Chundi confirmed that the plan was hatched between Singampatti and Kadambur in the billiards room, that evening. Berikai mentioned that Singampatti had thrown his gun down three floors. The next day the second gun, loaded and some loose cartridges were found in the yard, but the gun had no damages after being thrown down from a height of 40’ (this was certified as impossible by a gun expert during the cross, proving that the guns were planted outdoors to match storyline).

Singampatti’s statement was not recorded at all, and eventually, he turned approver stating that he was pulled along by Kadambur, that he was to stand at the door while Kadambur shot De La Hay and that if anybody intervened, they were all to be shot and killed. Accordingly, they pocketed some cartridges and proceeded to the De La Hey bedroom, where Kadambur shot the man dead and they then ran upstairs and got rid of the guns, Singampatti throwing his over the balcony. He said he did not go down until the police came (but Mrs De La Hay had mentioned he had come and Singampatti later added that she was mistaken). SIngampatti also mentioned that Kadambur had shot De La Hey the same night, since others heard of his plan and if the act was not quickly committed, De La Hey would know of the plan the next day. Kadambur had also informed Urkad Sr who was happy with the idea.

Defense strategy

Wadia’s cross-examination exposed many inconsistencies and untruths. It also brought out the letter exchange between Kadambur and Singampetti in Tamil, and his father’s visits, which allude to Kadambur being set up by Singampetti Sr as the fall guy while Singampetti became an approver. He also exposed the possibility of the Urkad senior as an involved party, since the Urkad was the nephew of the Ramnad raja, who may have had the racial grouse against De La Hey, and the fact that Kadambur had declined to marry his sister. It also came to light that Singampatti Sr had assured Kadambur, during his jail visits at Madras, that Kadambur would be released later.

Another major problem was the prosecution’s inability in establishing a clear motive. Was it that one of the young Zamin’s was upset at a racial slur, was it so that the Ramnad Raja, upset with the slur, was it that Kadambur was unhappy because De La Hey had written to his mother, was it something to do with the boys and Mrs Hey, or was it because Ramnad did not want De La Hey to become the head of the upcoming Rajkumar school? Or for that matter, was it because De La Hey was against the home rule, or was it an act in haste by one of the temperamental Marava lads, whoever it may be, due to their inherent violent and irritable disposition?? None of these seemed serious enough to warrant murder. Wadia also touched upon the relation with Dorothy de La Hey, and Urkad Sr stated that he had ‘visited’ her often. Her departure in a cloud of suspicion, and her decision not to return to clear her name or be a part of her husband’s murder trial, stained her character indelibly.

Wadia during the cross implied that the conspiracy and shooting were planned by Urkad and Singampatti, with Singampatti as the shooter, since he was a good shot. Chundi mentioned that he saw somebody going up the stairs with a gun, a tall person with curly hair, purporting it to be Kadambur, but as it turned out, the description matched that of Singampatti. It also became clear that Kadambur was nervous with guns, that the one-shot kill had to be done by somebody steady and skilled, perhaps Singampatti. With crafty questions, Wadia proved that Urkad jr, Thalivankottai, and Singampatti were being untruthful. He also proved that Berikai could not have seen what he did, as he was not wearing his glasses and since it was quite dark. He also established that most or all of the witnesses, had a grouse against Kadambur, because he had exposed their misdeeds in the past.

In the end, Norman Macleod summarized succinctly and the jury ruled wisely, acquitting Kadambur of all charges.


Swaminadhan had a rough time after his victorious return to Madras. Until then he and his family were leading a happy life in the upper circles, hobnobbing with the British. His daughters Lakshmi and Mrinalini (and sons Govind and Subram) were studying in British schools, but after the case, found themselves shunned by the British who wanted no part with them. We will now follow the story through Lakshmi Sehgal’s and Mrinalini Sarabhai’s words. For those who do not know, Lakshmi Swaminadhan moved to Singapore, got involved in the Indian Independence League and Indian National Army activities, teamed up with Subhash Chandra Bose during the 2nd World War, and fought the British, herself leading the Rani ‘all women’ regiment.

Lakshmi Sehgal - The first jolt, however, came when my father (who, in spite of being a brilliant student of civil law, had built up a roaring criminal practice) took up the sensational Kadambur murder case - My father knew that before the Madras High Court bench, consisting of two English and one Indian judge, the young man would get no justice. So, my father made a special appeal to the Viceroy and had the case transferred to the Bombay High Court, the only one in the country where the full bench had an Indian majority. Here my father was able to use all the arguments in his arsenal to get his client totally acquitted…. For my mother and us children, however, the repercussions were different. Many of my mother's English friends refused to greet her and in school, I was accused by the English teachers of being the daughter of a man who by unfair means had saved a native who had brutally murdered an innocent English gentleman. Here I should mention that after finishing my SSLC I joined Queen Mary's Women's College, the principal of which was Miss Delahey, the sister of the man who had been killed. She could easily have refused to admit me but did not do so, and in no way did she show any resentment towards me…The Kadambur case marked a turning point in our lives. Gone was our admiration for the honesty, justice and fair play of the British. From that day on we were determined be genuine Indians and not imitation Britishers. We were taken out of the convent and put into the government high school. We stopped wearing English frocks and got into our more comfortable and attractive pavadai and blouse. We also spoke more in Malayalam and Tamil rather than the now-disliked English. This period also coincided with the appearance of Mahatma Gandhi on the national scene. We stopped wearing all foreign clothes and using other articles made outside our country. At this stage, my mother became an active member of the All-India Women's Conference and the Women's India Association of Madras.

Subbarama Swaminadhan passed away in 1930, and after a failed marriage, Lakshmi moved to Singapore where she eventually joined the INA in the fight against the British (another story, for another day). Mrinalini became an acclaimed dancer and married Vikram Sarabhai, a pioneer in India’s space exploration. I had written about Vikram and TERLS, some years ago.

Mrinalini devoted two pages to the case in her biography, she writes (I am adding just a few extracts) – The murdered man was very unpopular with his wards because of the harsh manner in which he meted out severe punishments to young zamindars. His obvious contempt for all Indians led to his tragic death. The record showed that the foulest language was used against the wards by De La Hay and he had had the audacity to call a leading zamindar, held in high esteem by the government, ‘that bloody nigger prince’…... A High Court judge in a casual conversation with the member about the case came to know that no arrangements had been made by the Court of Wards for the defense of other accused, Kadambur, and that the Court had no intention of having him defended. He suggested that they engage  Swaminadhan, the best lawyer in Chennai. My father took up the case and when he interviewed Kadambur, the boy swore innocence and showed great courage, a trait my father admired. Soon after, my father received a summons from the ‘higher ups’, to try and persuade him not to proceed with the case.

My father refused the summons but invited them to visit him at his office if they needed any counsel, while objecting strongly to his ward Kadambur being treated as a common criminal… Singampatti, who had become an approver, repeated parrot-like a cooked-up story and the preliminary enquiry was concluded with undue haste. After the court closed, my father visited Kadambur in jail and found he had been sent a letter in Tamil from his friend Singampatti begging forgiveness for his false statement in court, which he said he had been pressurized into writing by his father. My father immediately took the letter to the registrar of the High Court. However, as he felt that his client would not have a fair trial in Chennai, he asked for the case to be transferred to Mumbai though the Court of Wards threatened him against this decision. Things had come to a serious pass and even my father’s life was in danger……My father’s wise decision to transfer the case to Mumbai saved Kadambur.

A little bit about the Singampatti region – It is home to the fabulous Manjolai hill estates and the family has been closely linked to the Travancore royals over the years (Many will also recall the Ilayaraja song – Majolai kili thano). Situated at an altitude of 5000’ above sea level, the Manjolai hills still remain an unexplored region and are known as the poor man’s Ooty. The Singampatti zamindars leased those hills later to the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp, who set up a tea plantation. It is said that the lease was concluded to pay for the legal costs of Singampatti in the De La Hey case.

So, what do you think happened after the 1920 acquittal of Singampatti and Kadambur? Well, the estate of Mrs De La Hey sued the two boys in Nov 1920 for a Rs 10 lakhs compensation. The boys rejected the summons as they were still minor. Dorothy’s team tried again and it can be seen that Stanley Wadsworth, her barrister, managed to secure a Rs 60,000/- compensation from Singampatti, to settle the case, in 1922. Though this may imply that the Singampatti was culpable, the motive has not yet been ascertained, nor was the case investigated further or closed.

Dorothy de la Hey married again and emigrated to South Africa with her son Anthony. The case and public interest in it died over time, though the old-timers of Madras mention it often. It had an interesting outcome though, for it was after Swaminadhan’s efforts in this case, that criminal cases in India were tried by a majority of Indian judges. Swaminadhan’s son Govind, following his footsteps, became a brilliant lawyer, and we read of his involvement in the Alavander Case. The Lakshmikanthan case, another interesting story where Govind was an advocate, will be a future project.

News reports on the De La Hey case – Pioneer Mail, The Englishman, Straits times, Madras Weekly mail, Andhra Patrika etc
Children and Childhood in the Madras Presidency, 1919-1943 – Dr Catriona Ellis
Advocacy: Its Principles and Practice - Rustom Kavasha Soonavala
College of Vice – R P Aiyar (In the Crimelight)
Home office files – Transfer of case to Bombay, Proceedings Dec 1919, #118-124
Madras Musings – Vol X, 22 & 23 Gunshot at midnight, who killed De La Hey? – Randor Guy
Famous judges, lawyers, and cases of Bombay – PB Vachha
Revolutionary life – Lakshmi Sehgal
The voice of the heart - Mrinalini Sarabhai


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