St. George’s School, the oldest existing school in South Asia, began as a humble charity institution in December 1715 with just 18 boys and 12 girls
A solitary bell hanging from the boy’s dormitory, fighting rust; stone staircases and pillared rooms; wooden windows painted moss green and the ever-present waft of mildew – everything about St. George’s Anglo Indian School and Orphanage feels like it’s from another era. With its roots dating as far back as 1715, is it possible that we could have been a part of its celebrated history in another lifetime?
The preserved records of its 296-year-old history date back to the early 1900s, but the smaller details are unearthed as fond memories of this school’s alumni, some of whom are now among the Board of Directors. The school, located in Kilpauk, is a 21-acre canvas of green hues, brick red and pale yellow, where the majestic old blends seamlessly with the contemporary. From legendary war stables to household ghosts, each building at the school has its own story.
St. George’s, the first school in the country and South Asia, began as a humble charity school in December 1715, with 18 boys and 12 girls, in a large house called Jersey House. The school was called St. Mary’s Charity School and was governed by the St. Mary Vestry, part of St. Mary’s Church in the fort, now the oldest Anglican Church in the city. One can find names like Clive, Warren Hastings and Wellesley in its minutes book.
In 1751, the school was shifted to a rented house outside the fort and 60 pagodas were paid as rent to Shawmier Sultan (who was the then leader of the Armenian traders in Madras). In 1780, the school shifted back to its old building till its amalgamation with the Male and Female Orphan Asylums in 1872.
When the schools – the Fort School and Children’s Orphan’s Asylum – came together, they were given a new name, Civil Orphan Asylums. They were then transferred to a building in Egmore which had been altered to suit their arrangements.
In 1903, the South Indian Railway decided to rebuild and extend Egmore station and wanted to acquire the land on which the school stood. About 380 grounds elsewhere were handed over the Directors of the Civil Orphans Asylums; and in 1904, the school shifted to the present site, into a building called ‘Conway House’, on Poonamallee High Road. Some still refer to this school as ‘Conway School’.
“The structure that houses the girl’s dorm is rather old. The Muslim ruler who owned this palace had his stables here. The dining area with its high arches and architecture can take you back to those days. The stables were also used by the American soldiers during the Second World War,” says Ursula Joseph, who passed out of St. George in 1971 and is now on its board of directors. During the War, the school was evacuated and shifted to Coimbatore for four years (1942-1946), where the students were accommodated at Stanes School.
Ursula and Vincent Cunningham, who passed out in 1966 and is also a director, vividly recall their childhood here. They talk about early mornings, having little but good food and bits of its untold history. On the other side of the girl’s dorm is a building in ruins. “This,” says Vincent, “was a Muslim king’s palace that became part of the premises when it was sold. It’s the oldest part of the school.” He also talks of a mortuary where many a soldier was buried during war. “We came back to St. George’s because of the memories it gave us. Those good old days will never come back,” he says.
In 1954, the school changed its name from Civil Orphan Asylum to St. George’s School and Orphanage, since the school originally began in the fort. The premises also house a picture-perfect chapel that was built in 1884.
Now, the school houses about 1,300 students and teaches the Anglo-Indian syllabus. The boarding home has 80 occupants and its principal focus is the uplift of the weaker sections of society. While the orphanage is only for Anglo-Indian children, the school runs its own version of the noon-meal scheme for students from economically weaker families.
As the dusk settles in and shadows begin their dance, a soft piano solo lightens the air around the chapel. The origins of the tune remain unknown. It’s perhaps one of the ways the school tells its stories.
The school gave us everything; from pocket money to clothes. And who could forget the boxes of ‘Gopal Pal Podi’ we used during school. – Vincent Cunnigham, Batch of ‘66
By the mid 1800s, many other schools came up in Madras. The St. Andrew’s School, now known as the Madras Christian College Matriculation Higher Secondary School, was started in 1835 after the Church of Scotland decided to bring in western education to Madras. Two missionaries, Reverend George James Laurie and Reverent Matthew Bowie, opened the school on Rundall’s Road. It later moved to St. Andrew’s Church in Egmore, where it acquired its name.
The missionaries found it difficult to manage the school and Church. Rev John Anderson, who arrived soon after, moved the school to Kirk in George Town and renamed as the Madras General Assembly School in April 1837. In 1838, the school shifted to a new place in Irabalu Chetty Street, where two other missionaries came to help. In 1846, it moved to Taylor’s Home in Esplanade where it would function another 100 years. In 1877, it was renamed Madras Christian College and the college and school functioned together. The college moved to Tambaram in 1937 and the school moved to its Harrington Road campus in 1950. Some other schools that were started around this time and still survive are Pachaiyappa’s School (1850) and the Hindu High School in Triplicane (1852).