The story begins in the Punjab in 1839 with the death of the powerful Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. Following several years of unrest and rivalry his young son, born in 1838, was confirmed as Maharajah to succeed him. The child’s mother was to be Regent and he was made a ward of the British Government. At the time a policy of colonial expansion was being pursued under Lord Dalhousie. In 1848 a Sikh rebellion gave him the excuse he needed to send troops into the Punjab, ostensibly in the name of the young Maharajah, and to annex the territory for Britain. In 1849 the Maharajah resigned his sovereign rights and property (including the Koh-I-Noor diamond) to the British Crown in exchange for a pension.
With money from the British Government he purchased the Elveden Estate in 1863, a few miles south of Thetford on the A11. The estate was large enough – 17,000 acres – it allowed him to live the life of a country gentleman and follow his sporting interests, and the “Black Prince” became a familiar name in the Thetford area. Between 1863 and 1870, with the help of the architect John Norton, he enlarged the hall into an Oriental extravaganza unparalleled in England. The walls, pillars and arches of the central domed hall were covered with intricate Indian ornamentation, all in white Carrara marble, the doors with panels of beaten copper. The subsequent owner, the Earl of Iveagh made even grander additions.
By the 1880s the Maharajah was finding the expense of running the estate, and his dependence of the Government, intolerable and he requested an increased allowance. It was refused, relations became strained, and the Maharajah at length announced his intention to return to India. He was not allowed back into his native land, however, and so settled in Paris, where he died in 1893.
The Maharajah Prince Duleep Singh, G.C.S.I., had been twice married to European ladies. By his first wife, Bamba Muller, who died in 1887, he had three sons and three daughters. Prince Victor was the eldest. He was born in 1866, educated at Eton and Cambridge, and became a Captain in the Royal Dragoons. He married a daughter of the Earl of Coventry, and died in 1918. The next son was Prince Frederick, the benefactor of Thetford, who was born in 1868. Prince Albert died at the age of 13 in 1893. The three princesses were Catherine, Sophia and Bamba (Sutherland). His second wife, Ada, was the mother of two more daughters, Princess Pauline (Mrs Torry) and Princess Irene (Mme Villemant).
It was Prince Frederick who brought his father’s body back to his beloved Elveden for burial. The grave, beside those of the Maharanee Bamba and their youngest son Albert, is still a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs.