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Cliff Richard: Boy from India, Pop Star to the World

Cliff Richard: Boy from India, Pop Star to the World

You might say he is an honorary Indian. Old-timers in Maqbara housing colony in Hazratganj, Lucknow, remember Harry Webb as a good-natured kid who was born here and returned to spend his summer holidays with his grandfather. The senior Webb lived in House No 26. 

The colony hasn’t changed very much but Harry Webb went on to become one of the most successful pop singers of all time. The world knows him as Cliff Richard, a stage name he acquired in his teens, just before he scored his first hit single, Living Doll.

Cliff, who dominated the British pop music scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s and whose career has spanned more than five decades, is 81 years old today but he has never quite shaken off the ‘Anglo-Indian’ tag.

‘Anglo-Indian’ is a term used for individuals of mixed, British and Indian, parentage, a community that thrived in British-India. A large majority of this English-speaking community was working class and they staffed the administrative offices and other institutions run by the British, the railways being one of their biggest employers.

Anglo-Indians have never really fit in. They lived in a country ruled by the British (of whom they felt only a part) and populated by Indians (of whom they felt only a part). Being ‘a little bit of both’ was an uncomfortable space to inhabit.

Richard at a press conference in the Netherlands in 1962 | Wikimedia Commons

Tracing His Roots

But was Cliff Richard even a little Anglo-Indian? Cliff says his grandparents were “as English as roast beef”, and that his parents were British even though neither had been born or raised in England. But Cliff’s ‘dark’ skin tone has, time and again, raised speculation about his possible ‘Indian blood’. That and, of course, the fact that he spent the first eight years of his life in India, and that his family’s connection with India went back several generations.

Steve Turner says in Cliff Richard: The Biography (1993) that the pop star gets his swarthy complexion from two possible sources, one of them being a maternal great-grandmother, who was half Spanish and had distinctly Mediterranean looks.

On his father’s side, Cliff’s Indian roots can be traced to his great-grandfather, Thomas Benjamin Webb, who came to British-India in the 1870s to work as an engineer with the railways. The rail network was then rapidly expanding across the subcontinent and it employed many young English lads who had come to India in search of work.

A few years after he was posted in South India, Thomas Webb was joined in Perambur, in Madras, by his son Frederick, who was then just 12. In his biography, Turner says that Frederick – Cliff’s grandfather who lived in Maqbara colony in Lucknow – too found employment with the railways. And it was his wife Donella Eugenie, who may have given Cliff his ‘dark’ colouring. You see, it was rumoured that she had Burmese royal blood in her family.

The Webbs lived in Nagapattinam but soon moved to Rangoon (Yangon), the capital of Burma (Myanmar), which like India was also under British occupation. Here, Frederick was employed in bridge construction, and it was here that Cliff’s father, Rodger Oscar Webb, was born in 1904.

According to Turner, the Webbs relocated to India in 1914, and moved around railway towns such as Allahabad, Lucknow and Howrah. That’s why Cliff’s father Rodger schooled in Allahabad and became fluent in Hindi!

Rodger Webb landed a job in the railways’ catering service and he met Cliff’s mother Dorothy Marie in Asansol, in West Bengal. Born in India, Dorothy’s father was in the British-Indian Army but had deserted the family to run off to Karachi, where he started a new family. Cliff’s mother had spent most of her early life in boarding school in Sanawar near Simla, and in 1934 she and her sister moved to live with their mother and her second husband in Asansol. It was at the railway institute here – Dorothy’s stepfather had a senior position in the railways – that Cliff’s parents ran into each other and fell in love.

In his book, Turner writes that Rodger and Dorothy Marie played badminton, tennis and cards, and of course, attended dances. The couple got married and Rodger’s job took them to Dehra Dun. When Dorothy Marie was pregnant with Cliff, they had the baby in Lucknow as there wasn’t a suitable hospital in Dehra Dun.

| Wikimedia Commons

Enter Harry Rodger Webb

Harry Rodger Webb was born on 14th October 1940 in Lucknow, where Dorothy Marie stayed with her father-in-law, who by now was living a retired life in Maqbara colony. Soon after he was born, mother and baby returned to Dehra Dun, where Harry was baptised at St Thomas Church on Rajpur Road.

The Webbs spent three glorious years in this quiet town at the foothills of the Himalayas, before Rodger received a promotion and the family shifted to Howrah, the large and bustling city on the other side of the Hooghly from Calcutta.

Cliff was now 4 years old and he attended St Thomas School, where he learnt Hindi and a smattering of Bengali.

The Webbs had built a good life for themselves. Rodger had a stable job, they were financially secure and, like most British families, they had servants at their beck and call. The Webbs knew no home other than India but it was the mid-40s and independence for India was looming. The only question was ‘when’.

Nationalist tensions were at their peak and Turner in his biography mentions an incident where Cliff’s mother was heckled on the street during the ‘Direct Action’ called by the Muslim League. “Go back to your own country, white woman!” someone shouted at her. The Webbs also witnessed the horrific Calcutta Riots in 1947. The bloodbath and bodies strewn in the streets was unbearable. They knew it was time to leave.

Richard performing in July 2017 | Wikimedia Commons

When India gained independence in August 1947, there had already been a steady exodus of British families heading to England. Although an alien land for the Webbs, they had little choice but to follow suit. So, in August 1948, Cliff and his family took a train to Bombay, from where they sailed to England.

The Webbs landed in a post-war Britain, which was struggling to get back on its feet. It was a time of austerity and the future looked very bleak for Cliff and his family. School was especially tough for the 8-year-old, whose dark skin and ‘Anglo-Indian accent’ meant he was teased a lot. It didn’t help that he had a bunch of relatives who were part-Indian.

When he was 16, a casual stroll with friends became a turning point in Cliff’s life. As they walked past a parked car, its radio was playing a song unlike any Cliff had heard before. It was Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley. The young American rock-n-roller’s voice stirred something primal in 16-year-old Harry. And in that magical moment, the singer in him shook free.

Cliff Richard embarked on a record-breaking career as a pop singer and, at age 80, he was still setting records with the release of his latest album Music, The Air That I Breathe, in October 2020. For a boy whose memories of fleeing India includes the pain of leaving the family’s vinyl record collection behind, music was always in his destiny.

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