Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh (27 October 1871 – 8 November 1942), born to royalty, was a suffragette in the United Kingdom. She lived in Germany before World War II with her governess Fräulein Lina Schäfer, with whom she had a lifelong relationship. She was the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, known as the "Lion of the Punjab", who abdicated his kingdom of Punjab to the British Raj following political maneuvering by Governor-General Dalhousie in India. Her mother was Maharani Bamba Müller. Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh and Schäfer lived in and toured Europe until the latter's death on 27 August 1937. Singh died in 1942. After World War II, her name was again in the news upon the discovery of a jewel box stashed in a vault and a joint bank account in a Swiss bank. After several claimants had been rejected, the box and contents of the bank account were awarded by a Swiss tribunal to the family of a secretary of her elder sister Bamba in Pakistan.
Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh was born on 27 October 1871 at Elveden Hall, Suffolk, in England. She was the second daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was the last ruler of Punjab and son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was popularly called the "Lion of the Punjab". Duleep Singh was exiled from his kingdom in May 1854 (though he had been shifted from Lahore on 21 December 1849) by the British following political maneuvering by Governor-General Dalhousie in India. When he was fifteen years old, he was moved from Lahore to England, where he lived in a lavish style. He had also surrendered the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria favoured him and treated him very kindly and provided for his upkeep; his handsome stature and regal bearing led to his becoming her platonic lover. He had converted to Christianity. In 1864, on his way to London, he married Bamba Müller in Cairo at the British Consulate on 7 June 1864; her father was a German banker and mother a Coptic Christian slave from Abyssinia. Bamba and Duleep Singh had six surviving children, and Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh was their second daughter. Catherine's siblings were her elder sister Bamba Sofia Jindan (1859–1957) and younger sister Sophia Alexandra (1876–1948), and three brothers Victor Albert Jay (1866–1918), Frederick Victor (1868–1926), and Edward Alexander (1879–1942); Sophia was the best known of the three sisters as she was an active suffragist. As Duleep Singh was working against the interests of the British empire and in favour of Indian independence, he moved to Paris, where he was involved in activities related to getting back his Sikh Empire and was therefore under surveillance by British intelligence. In Paris, Duleep Singh married again, as his first wife Bamba Müller had died earlier due to illness. He married Ada Douglas, an actress in Paris, on 21 May 1889, and had two daughters by her – Ada Pauline (1887–?) and Irene (1880–1926). Duleep Singh died in Paris in 1893 in a Paris hotel, two years after his last meeting with Queen Victoria. He was interred at Elveden Hall with "floral tributes from the Queen".
Singh and her older sister Bamba were educated at Somerville College, Oxford. During this period she received private instructions in violin and singing. She was also given swimming lessons. She was the prettiest among the three sisters; she and her sisters were debutantes at Buckingham Palace in 1895, dressed gracefully in silk. When her father attempted to move to India with his daughters he was forced to return from Aden. Catherine and her sisters then stayed at Folkestone, at 21 Clifton Street. Initially, Queen Victoria had desired to put them under the care of Lady Login but on the advice of the India Office in London their care was entrusted to Arthur Oliphant and his wife; Oliphant's father had worked as an equerry. It was during this period that the princess was introduced to Fräulein Lina Schäfer, a German teacher and governess from Kassel who was twelve years her senior. The Princess then developed a deep and intimate bond with Schäfer that lasted until the latter's death, thus changing her life style. Lina Schäfer and the princess moved to residences in the Black Forest in Kassel and in Dresden.
Like her sister Sophia, Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh also became a suffragist. She was a member of the Fawcett Women's Suffrage Group and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), also known as the Suffragists.
In 1903, she toured India, went to her ancestral home in Lahore and other places such as Kashmir, Dalhousie, Simla, and Amritsar. She also visited the princely states of Kapurthala, Nabha, Jind, and Patiala and interacted with both the royalty and the local people. After her return from India in March 1904 she lived in Europe with Lina Schäfer in Kassel and also visited her family in Switzerland.
Although not called a lesbian, Singh spent all her adult life with her former governess Lina Schäfer. Even during World War I she lived with Schäfer in Germany at the risk of being called a traitor. None of the family members seemed to have opposed this relationship. Schäfer died on 26 August 1938 at the age of 79, leaving the Princess deeply saddened. At that time, the Nazis had made their presence in Germany, and as local people did not like her living in their area, on the advice of Dr. Fritz Ratig, her neighbour and accountant, she left Germany in November 1937 after disposing of all her property and moved to England via Switzerland.
Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh died due to a heart attack on 8 November 1942 at Penn. On the evening of her death she and her sister Sophia had attended a drama in the village, dined in Coaltech House and retired for the night. The next morning, when the maid attending Singh found her room locked, she informed Sophia who rushed and broke open the door and found her sister dead. The doctor declared her death as due to heart failure. Sophia was inconsolable at her sister's death. She was the only relative who attended the cremation of Singh. In memory of her sister, Sophia renamed the Coaltech House "Hilden Hall", adding Catherine's middle name, and sealed the room where she had died.
When the princess died she left a will dated 1935 in which she stated "I, Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh desire to be cremated and the ashes buried at Elveden in Suffolk. I give my gold jewellery, my long pearl necklace and my wearing apparel to my sisters Princess Bamba Sophie Jinda Sutherland and Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh". In a codicil she had also requested that her ashes be "buried as near as possible to the coffin of my friend Fräulein Lina Schäfer at the Principal Cemetery at Kassel in Germany". However, there was no mention of a bank account and a vault in her name in a Swiss bank in Zurich, which were revealed to the public many years later.
Legacy in Swiss bank
In July 1997 a news item appeared which was related to a list of more than 5,000 dormant accounts in Swiss banks published by the Swiss Bankers Association at the insistence of Holocaust survivors. This list contained the name of the Princess with the address recorded as "Duleep Singh, Catherine (Princess), last heard of in 1942 living in Penn, Bucks", as one of the account holders. These accounts had not been operated since the end of the Second World War.
There were a large number of claimants to the joint account of the Princess with her governess Lina Schäfer, as well as a box of jewels discovered under her name in the vault, from relatives in Punjab, the Government of India and also relatives from Pakistan. There were no living direct descendants of the family as none of Duleep Singh's children had any offspring. A three-member Claims Resolution Tribunal was set up in Zurich to process the claims. During the three years of hearing on the claims of various parties held by the tribunal, the Government of India's claim was considered untenable as the princess had not ruled over any princely state and her account in the bank was private. The tribunal also rejected all the claims from her relations in India and Europe. The tribunal then identified the Supra family (Supra was the caretaker-cum-tutor of the princess's sister Bamba. As Bamba was also childless, she had bequeathed her estate to Supra) in Pakistan who had not initially staked their claim as that family was the beneficiary of Bamba's fortune according to a will signed by her in 1942, and Princess Catherine had named Bamba as a beneficiary in her will of 1935. The tribunal then gave its award in favour of Supra's "five living sons – four in Pakistan and one in India – and his deceased daughter's children will receive an equal share of the assets besides the interest on the amount". The assets totalled 137,323 Swiss Francs (Rs 39.8 lakh).