Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh was born on 27 October 1871 at Elevaden Hall, Suffolk in England and was the second daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and Maharani Bamba Muller. She had two real sisters, Princess Bamba Sofia Jinda and Sophia Alexandra, two stepsisters Ada Pauline Duleep Singh and Irene Duleep Singh. She had four brothers, Victor Albert J Duleep Singh and Fredrick Victor Duleep Singh and other two, one died just after two days of birth and second in teens (at the age of 13 years). Sophia was the best known of the sisters as she was an active suffragette.
In 1886 her father Maharaja Duleep Singh attempted to move out from England to India with his family but was detained from entering India and forced to return back from Aden. The Family was sent back to England. Unless her mother died of kidney failure in December 1887, Catherine and her sisters stayed at Elevaden, then shifted to Folkestone, 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, the son of an equerry of Duleep Singh during his stay in England. It was during this period that the princess Catherine was introduced to Fraulein Lina Schafer, a German teacher, and governess from Kassell, who was twelve years her senior. The Princess developed a deep and intimate bond with Schäfer that lasted until the death of Lina Schafer in 1937. She lived with her in Germany from 1904- 1937, almost 33 years.
As a child, Princess Catherine accompanied her mother on several occasions to Europe when she visited her Uncle Wilhelm Alexander Muller in Switzerland. Later in life Princess Catherine often visited the other Muller family members in Germany, usually during Bayreuth Festival. Between 1928-30 she made several trips to Switzerland visiting her uncle and his son Karl
In September 1890, Princesses Catherine and Bamba joined Oxford University at Somerville Hall, where Princess Catherine passed all her exams including her coaching in voilen, singing, and swimming also. Princess Catherine was growing up to become the most beautiful of the three sisters, her fair complexion, high cheekbones, slender figure, and her dress sense, gave her a very European appearance.
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. The following year in 1904, Lina Schafer took the Princess to the ‘Black Forest’ in Kassell and Dresden. The Princess spent most of her life in Europe, shared between family in Switzerland and the company of Lina Schafer in Kassell.
Lina died on the 27 August 1937 at the age of 78 leaving Princess Catherine deeply saddened. In Germany, Nazism was on the increase, and war was just around the corner. The Local Nazis disapproved of the old Indian lady. She now felt that Kassel had nothing to offer her, especially as Lina had departed. Her neighbor and accountant Dr. Fritz Ratig warned her to leave the country. In November 1937 Princess Catherine sold everything and fled, arriving back in England via Switzerland
During the Second World War, with Nazi occupation spreading rapidly across Europe, Princess Catherine passed away peacefully in bed at night on Sunday 8 November 1942 at her home in Penn, aged 71. 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 attended Catherine 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. Bamba could not reach as she was held at Lahore due to World War. 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 jewelry, my long pearl necklace and my wearing apparel to my sisters Princess Bamba Sophie Jinda Sutherland and Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh”. In the Will, she had also requested that her some of the 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.
‘Frank Perfect & Sons’ funeral directors had taken the responsibility for the delicate arrangements. On the 12th November, her beautifully reefed coffin was placed at Coal Hatch House so all her servants and friends could pay their last respects before the cortege was borne from Penn to Golders Green in North London. The chief mourner and only family member present were Princess Sophia, Princess.
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 with Lina in a Swiss bank. 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.
After several claimants had been rejected, A three-member Claims Resolution Tribunal was set up in Zurich to process the claims which took almost three years to decide. The tribunal identified the Supra family ( the caretaker-cum-tutor of the princess’s sister Bamba.) Bamba was also childless, she had bequeathed her estate and fortune to Supra in Pakistan. As Princess Catherine had named Bamba as a beneficiary in her will of 1935, The Tribunal had decided to give its award in favor 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 totaled 137,323 Swiss Francs (Rs 39.8 lakh).