SOS: Save Our Schools: Augusta Mary Blandford worked tirelessly to educate the women in the city. She also opened a hospital for women and children
The Fort Mission School continued to receive patronage from administrators even after Madhava Rao left Travancore in 1872 as Dewan. However, the period under Rama Iyengar was not good for the school. The school was vacated in a week’s notice, but Augusta Blandford ran the school from a rented building outside the fort, which attracted less students, but nevertheless survived. The original school building was soon returned to the school. But there were more crises.
Augusta writes in the magazine India’s Women: “About ten days after we returned to it a fire broke out in the compound and entirely destroyed a shed close to the palace; the woodwork of the upper story was blackened.”
For some time, she managed three schools, two outside the fort and one inside. In her own words: For the next nineteen years a Tamil-English School was carried on there, and educated a large number of girls. A third school was opened by us in Trevandrum in 1885, in which English and Mahratta were taught for the benefit of a number of Maharatta Sudras, who had been settled in the town for about a hundred years.
In 1880, the Fort Mission school came under Church of England Zenana Mission Society (CEZMS)
In the book Southern India, Murray Mitchel refers to a visit in 1885 to Augusta's School. Murray observes: Her class is composed of quite grown-up girls, pleasing and intelligent, giving very thoughtful answers to the questing put. One question was. ‘What is better than gold?’ ‘Knowledge’, at once answered a pleasant-looking girl. ‘And is there anything better than knowledge?’ ‘Yes/ answered another, ‘What is it?’ ‘A pure heart!’ she said. They all seem fond of Miss Blandford, and also of the Miss Gahans.
Murray had this to say about the looks of the kids: Most of the children are disfigured by the elongated ear filled with massive rings and weights, and also by the unbecoming way they dress their hair.
Some have it gathered into an untidy bunch at the left side, and others have the bunch on the forehead; great pities, for the faces are bright and happy and pleasant, and show remarkable intelligence.
Examinations were big events. Augusta writes in 1881 in India’s Women – My annual school examination was held last Monday, and the new Maharajah sent me Rs.30 for prizes. We have had a very good and uninterrupted year for study, and far more regular attendance than ever before. The first class, consisting of nine girls, were examined in arithmetic by the Walia Coil Tambouran, husband of the senior Rani, and in history of India and geography of Travancore by the Malayalim Munshi of the High School and College. Both examiners were fully satisfied with the papers, and the Munshi offered a prize for the best essay to be written, on the ‘Duties of a school-girl’.
This was won by a Christian named Elizabeth. Junior Rani sent a beautifully engraved gold ring as a prize for punctuality. This was given to Salome. Two plain gold rings were given to Elizabeth and Ailey for regular attendance, both having been at school without missing a day for nine months. The school was closed for six weeks’ holiday after the prize distribution, and I hope to re-open on May 23.
Augusta records in great detail about teachers of the school in the book Female Evangelist (1880). Mrs Westcott, the east Indian Mistress is faultlessly punctual and has a salary of Rs. 25, the Brahmin Munshi, who gave her some trouble occasionally, but also paid Rs. 25, Kartiani and Letchmy, former students of the school itself, and Mariam, the infant school mistress. She even records in detail about many of her students, one of whom gifted an enormous bunch of plantain, which two men carried on a stick to the school and reminded her of the spies bringing the grapes of Eschol from the Promised Land.
Augusta lived in Fern Hills Bungalow (behind the Government Women’s College, where she lived for 36 years, now Bethany Hostel), where time seems to stand still and hold her memories. She ran a women and children’s hospital, which is now a hostel in Fern Hill. She herself got trained in Royal Free Hospital in London in 1883 and had the help of “Ms. Chettle and Ms. Lenna Beaumont”.
Augusta Blandford spent 43 years in the city and left in 1906 and died soon after on September 25, 1906, in England. Her gravestone in Ladywell Cemetery proclaims her Travancore connection. The Christ Church in the city has a grand marble tablet in the chancel, in her memory. Her portrait as a young woman hangs on the wall of the school. However, it is almost completely damaged.
In 1906 she wrote: The Fort School is still held in the old palace, and last year one out of three scholars sent up for matriculation passed. May it still continue to flourish!
In her personal letters, she reveals her sadness because she felt that she had failed in her missionary work and attempts at social reform. ‘My farewell to Travancore is a sad one. I came here as a bright young girl… after 43 and half years of labour, the darkness and ignorance seems much the same’.
Looking back, Augusta’s labour was not in vain. She remains a key figure in social transformation among women of the city in the late 19th and early 20th century. Even as early as in the 1940s, many of Augusta’s dreams were already fulfilled.
Miss Adamson who worked in the school from 1912 for some years returned to Kerala in the late 1940s after an absence of 10 years and was “astonished to note the changes taking place in the sphere of women. Caste restrictions were beginning to dissolve… children were sitting next to a child who thought this meant defilement.”
And of course, as we look back from the beginning of the 21st century, we can find that the transformation has come full circle.
The Fort Girls Mission School begins its 150th year in education on November 3. The year-long celebrations commence on November 4, Monday. Helen Violet, Headmistress of the school, invites all former students, teachers and well-wishers to attend a ‘Guruvandanam’ on November 4. The programme will be inaugurated by K.M. Abraham, Additional Chief Secretary. The school plans to publish a book on the history of the school, unveil a photograph of Augusta Mary Blandford, and also start a number of other activities involving students, management and teachers and the residents of the city.
(The third part of a four-part series on the Fort Mission High School)