An Unsung Hero


Gather round everybody, gather round. I have a tale to tell of a hero tragically unsung. His obscurity is something that any decent person would wish to see swept away and if ever a chap deserved to be sung about in loud tones then this is the fellow.
Now your basic Unsung Hero is hardly a rare beast. For every statue erected of grumpy monarchs, self-serving legislators and blood spattered generals there should be similar monuments to any number of men and women who have added, in some way or another, to the sum of human knowledge, security and happiness.

That’s life though. Few of these folks will ever find enough champions to demand that their memory be honoured with some lasting memorial, but the gentleman I wish to tell you of really does require greater recognition, and if this tale serves to bring his honourable name to wider attention then I shall have at least made a start.

There’s a personal aspect to this story too, since the chap in question is buried in my hometown of Brighton in Sussex. As a youngster, I’d walk through the churchyard of St Nicholas at least once a week on my way into town, noting the more famous resting places of Nicholas Tattersall, (the sea captain that sailed the future King Charles the 2nd to France following his defeat at the battle of Worcester) Martha Gunn, (The large and terrifying woman who first encouraged visitors to the town to get their swimming gear on and actually immerse themselves in sea water) and the remarkable Phoebe Hessel whose life story deserves an entirely separate article. Their names I knew. But for some reason the most illustrious inhabitant of the quiet church yard was unknown to me. I must have walked past his simple but handsome gravestone a thousand times and I blush to think that it is only now that I realise what I was missing.

The man in question was Sake Dean Mahomed.

Admit it. You haven’t heard of him either. Yet this was a man who should rightly be a household name, his statue in every town and his portrait on the wall of every…. But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
I discovered Mr Mahomed, or ‘Doctor Brighton’ as he was known in his lifetime, simply because I wanted to know where the word ‘Shampoo’ came from. That strange word is in front of you in the shower every morning. Where could it have originated? French perhaps? No. The French word is exactly the same only with ‘ing’ on the end. (What a crazy day THAT must have been at the Academie Francais as the learned gents deliberated on how to admit this curious new word into their obsessively over-protected language.)

Well, if the good lord had meant us to be in the dark on such matters he would not have given us Wikipedia. It was the matter of a moment or two to discover that the word derives from the Hindi word ‘Champo’, meaning head massage, and was brought to the British Isles by Sake Dean Mahomed who opened the first Shampoo parlour in Brighton in the early years of the 19th century. Well, all things Brightonian are of interest to me so I read a little more on this splendid Bengali gentleman. Mr Mahomed was born in Patna, India in 1759. His exactly birthday is unrecorded, which is a crying shame as it should be marked as a day of international celebration, but no matter, we can surely pick another date for the purpose, but more on that later. At the tender age of ten he met an Anglo Irish army captain by the name of Godfrey Evan Baker and found his way into the service of the East India Company as a surgeon. He remained in Captain Baker’s unit until Baker’s retirement in 1782, at which point he decided to accompany his friend back to Britain. Two years later, while living and studying in Ireland, he met an attractive young lady by the name of Jane Daly, and, despite the objections of her family, converted from Islam to the Anglican faith and eloped with her.

The pair then moved from Ireland to Brighton, then to London and finally back to Brighton where they raised five children and spent the rest of their lives. While in London, Mahomed worked for the Scottish entrepreneur Basil Cochrane at his ‘Vapour Baths’ in Portman Square and his curious new method of ‘Shampooing’ the scalps of Cochrane’s wealthy clients proved popular. However, his employer must have been a difficult man to work with. A contemporary described this gentleman and his brothers thus; ‘The Cochranes are not to be trusted out of sight. They are all romantic, mad, money –getting and not truth telling- and there is not a single exception in any part of that family.’ Ouch. With a write up like that we can assume that Saturday nights at their place must have been a blast, but not the kind of people you’d find it easy to be in business with.

Small wonder then that Mahomed soon struck out on his own and in 1814 opened his own premises on the Brighton seafront. This combined Turkish baths and shampoo establishment was a roaring success and set the family up in fine style. The patronage of the Prince Regent himself set the seal on Mahomed’s status and he found himself appointed ‘Shampooing Surgeon’ to both the Prince Regent and his successor William the 4th.

This royal patronage was to end with the accession to the throne of Victoria, who took one look at the Brighton Pavilion and declared that she could not possibly spend so much as a night there. She can hardly be faulted for this I have to admit. The Pavilion, though magnificent, is possibly the most hallucinatory and vulgar royal palace ever built. So the party town of the south coast lost its royal connection forever, but by this time Mahomed had his life well in order. He died at a ripe old age in February 1851 and went to his rest in the graveyard of St Nicholas. He had authored numerous books on subjects as diverse as surgery, thalassotherapy and the history of the Mughal Empire as well as an account of his own life and travels. He was, in short, A Chap.
But, you may be thinking at this point, is that it? Introducing shampoo to the world at large is an achievement, certainly, but weren’t you going on about public monuments earlier? Is there something else that he did that got you so worked up? Don’t tell me he invented India Pale Ale as well?

Well no gentle reader he didn’t do anything quite THAT impressive, but he did do the absolute next best thing. You see, I have saved the best bit until now. The bit that should, if you are any kind of decent person have you googling his name and clamouring for his memory to be better looked after. For Sake Dean Mahomed opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain.
Pause for that one to sink in. Now let me repeat that in a font size more suited to such a statement;


If my design talents were up to the job, that sentence would be surrounded by elaborate curlicues and flourishes, with maybe a bare bottomed cherub or two about the margins, blowing trumpets. Because Sake Dean Mahomed really was that much of a Chap. He brought the first curry house to Blighty. Now tell me THAT isn’t worthy of a bloody great big marble statue or two.
Let me state, and I will brook no argument on this, that the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. In its multitudinous forms it has brought untold joy and fulfilment to everyone who has encountered it. Show me a town without an Indian restaurant and I’ll show you a bleak, desolate and unhappy place in which I would not linger for more than a minute.

So let’s try and set things to rights shall we? Indian restaurateurs, set Mahomed’s portrait prominently on your walls. It’s right there on the internet and he’s a handsome looking fellow. Let his peaceful and intelligent face gaze down from the red flock wall coverings and over the happy throng eating at your tables. Give this man his due. He brought something far better to the world than most of us could ever dream of. I myself shall begin tomorrow and I urge you all to do likewise. I shall print off his portrait, have it framed at my own expense and head without delay to Ajadz restaurant where I shall linger over a fine lunch and present it to the owners with a full explanation.

I’ll even bring a nail.

One thought on “An Unsung Hero”

Comments are closed.