Modern Times

A friend to Mahatma Gandhi, the UK’s first Asian mayor was the force behind the Finsbury Health Centre. As a new building is named after him we look into the life of Dr Chuni Lal Katial 

Chuni Lal Katial & W L Prowse & Others (1939) Credit Islington Local History Centre
Chuni Lal Katial & W L Prowse & Others (1939) Credit: Islington Local History Centre

On Goswell Road a new block of flats has been erected bearing the name Katial House. Passers-by might miss the connection, but it commemorates Dr Chuni Lal Katial – not only the Mayor of Finsbury, and thus the first Asian mayor in the UK, but also a key instigator in the celebrated Finsbury Health Centre in Pine Street, EC1. 

The Grade I-listed FHC is now one of the most feted Modernist buildings in the country. Its origin story as a precursor to the NHS, and its role as the project of architect Berthold Lubetkin, is well known. Less well known is the role of Dr Katial, considered by many to be the FHC’s “driving force”. 

Katial, born in the Punjab in 1898, came to the UK in 1927 as a qualified doctor. Moving to London in 1929, he took up practice in Canning Town where in 1931 he introduced his fellow advocate for home rule in India, Mahatama Gandhi, to Charlie Chaplin – an historic photograph exists of them on Katial’s practice in Beckton. 

The relevance for Clerkenwell is that while living in the East End, Katial saw a design for a TB clinic in East Ham in 1932 by Berthold Lubetkin and his firm Tecton. This became the ‘eureka’ moment for the Finsbury Health Centre. A member of the Labour Party, Katial moved to Finsbury where he became councillor in 1934 and rose up the ranks. 

As chairman of the Public Health Committee of Finsbury Council, he had significant input into a pioneering medical project and himself commissioned Lubetkin to lead the building. 

Tecton provided four designs in 1936, one was chosen and with the site bought from the landowner, the Marquess of Northampton – and 21 houses and assorted shops cleared – the build began. 

Katial’s medical ethos infused the FHC. “For some time the disadvantages of a service which has grown up piecemeal… and scattered here and there through lack of accommodation, have been only too apparent to my council… we have unanimously gone forward to erect this new health centre,” he said. 

“Its opening marks…the dawn of a new era in public health service.” It opened in 1938 – the same year that Katial was elected Mayor of Finsbury, as the first Asian mayor in Britain – following the trail blazed by the first Asian MP, Dadabhai Naoroji of Finsbury Central in the late 19th century (see EC1 Echo Oct–Nov 2020). Lubetkin’s design, and his oft-quoted saw: “Nothing is too good for ordinary people”, appealed to many.  

The FHC’s design, with wings, was designed, said Lubetkin, to be like “opening arms” and the engineering work was undertaken by the celebrated Ove Arup, whose many other contracts included Sydney Opera House. Katial’s input included the plentiful use of light and air and the FHC became a patriotic symbol, as seen in the 1943 Abram Games wartime poster below: “Your Britain, fight”   

Abram Games wartime poster of Finsbury Health Centre (Credit: Wellcome Collection)
Abram Games wartime poster of Finsbury Health Centre (Credit: Wellcome Collection)