In its sesquicentennial year, Fort Mission School remains an ordinary school with an extraordinary history and heritage, nurtured by a bevy of staff and students who were devoted to carrying forward the vision of founder-headmistress Augusta Blandford
After the times of Augusta Blandford, Fort Mission School (Zenana Mission School) had a number of committed women to lead it. The first one was Louise Moncrieff Cox who was brought to Travancore in 1896 by Blandford. She took charge of the school in 1906.
In 1911-12, Bastow, the Chief Engineer, examined the school building and found it weak. The children were moved out to a rented building and the building repair started. Cox records that she was “filled with profound gratitude that a Hindu state should grant Rs. 8000/- for the use of mission school”. All the repairs were of no use. The school building (Vadakkekottaram) collapsed in a raging monsoon on June 3, 1913. Cox noted in her diary the next day: “Faith looks on and sees rising from that place something grander and better”, inspired by the biblical verse in Haggai, “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former, and in this place I will give peace”.
Bastow designed a new building in the same site and it was ready in a year. In this fiftieth year of the school, the then Governor of Madras Lord Pentland opened the new building [Pentland was acclaimed for his interest in the indigenous tradition and culture of India. He wrote to the Viceroy of India to direct the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to undertake an extensive and intensive survey of Rameshwaram and its beautiful environs, particularly with reference to the historic and primordial Adam’s Bridge. He is also infamous for his crackdown on Annie Besant and leaders of the Home Rule Movement]. On the occasion, Lady Pentland was presented with “a carved box in which a short history of the school from 1864-1914 was placed”. Cox left the school after leading it for 14 years in 1920 and died in Ireland in 1941.
In the 1910s a lot of changes took place in educational system with the advent of education code and the school was sanctioned only primary and middle school sections. Elder girls moved to “Girl’s High School in Cantonment” (present Malayalam Department of University College). These girls assembled every month for an “Old Girls Meeting” at Fern Hill [perhaps the first effective alumni gathering in the city. The school is also famed for one of the first major initiatives in organising a parent-teacher association in Kerala].
Miss Adamson who reached the city in 1912 was the head of the school during this period. She left India in 1922, though she returned thrice afterwards and the visits gave her a view of the transformation of the city in a way that the locals could not get. It was then the turn of Emma Beaumont. Lenna Beaumont and Emma Beaumont were daughters of an English Army Officer and an Anglo-Indian mother and the former served as a doctor and latter as a teacher in Blandford’s Mission. Emma was for many years in the Christ Church choir and lies buried on the church premises. Her brother-in-law was palace physician, Campbell Perkins.
Miss Dawes, a history graduate from West Field College, London University, and great-grand daughter of British Resident Newall, joined the school in 1946 and watched as the Government assumed more and more authority over private schools. Miss Dawes mentions that 1950-59 were “years of devolution of authority, made necessary by the wish and policy of the society”.
Dorothy Taylor, who joined the school in 1922, retired after 34 years of service and returned to England in 1956. She was a popular English teacher and used to give classes in All India Radio, Thiruvananthapuram. She has left behind an unpublished history of the school, which is getting ready for publication after 50 years. She, much like Blandford, graphically describes the ethos of the school and the societal transformation. She has even put down her favourite poem (by Annie Mattheson) that she used to teach the students:
Where are the snow drops? said the sun;
Dead, said the frost, buried and lost, everyone
A foolish answer, said the sun,
They did not die, asleep they lie, everyone
And I will wake them, I, the sun…
In 1951, the school was given high school status. The first headmaster of the primary school was M. J. Jones and Saramma Philip Oommen became the first headmistress. Soon two new classrooms were built. There was no maharaja to support, but the school received contributions from the public. The management of the school was left to a board comprising members of the Christ Church and under the chairmanship of A. H. Legg, Bishop in South Kerala Diocese.
Currently the school is managed by a board of management headed by former headmistress Susamma Abraham, with members from both Central and South Kerala Diocese. Headmistresses of the recent past include Molly George (who was also school manager for sometime) and Elizabeth Issac. The present headmistress is Helen Violet.
The centenary of the school was celebrated in 1964 in the University Senate Hall and Taylor flew in from England to attend it. An unnamed alumnus, an advocate in the High Court, spoke: “Though this mother is 100 years old, she is always bringing about social, economic and cultural changes in the lives of all her children, and she keeps watch over them in whatever sphere and whatever climes they are working. To me my Alma Mater means my dear sweet, sweet Mother”.
The school is presently facing a space constraint. It desires to expand to a higher secondary school, but is facing not only the issue of having required land, but, more importantly, not having ‘pattayam’ (title deed). The alumni and well-wishers of the school hope that the Government will take up this issue. The sesquicentennial celebrations held on November 4 this year witnessed this demand.
The school now has around 600 students, not much different from the strength of 700 it had in the centenary year (It has a generous mix of Hindu, Muslim and Christian students, Christians being the least). It is heartening that when many public schools are going through tremendous erosion in student strength over last couple of decades, girls’ schools in the city present a contrasting picture. Both Fort Mission School and Cotton Hill Girls High School are shining examples for the same. However, what Dorothy Taylor said in 1946 is very much true: “We are no longer a rather unique school, but just one among the very ordinary schools”. Fort Mission School remains an ordinary school with an extraordinary history and heritage.
Pride of place
The Fort Mission School has a long list of alumnae such as Ambu Bai, Kaveri Bhai and Suckoo Bai of Dewan T. Madhava Rao’s family, Kaiyalam Parukutty Amma, Adoor Bhasi (possibly in the primary school), Kalyanikutti Amma (wife of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai), Kalaranjini, Kalpana, Kavitha/Urvashi (and their mother Ammini), Ponnamma Pattom Thanupillai, B. Arundhathi, (Carnatic and playback singer), S. Bhagyalakshmi (Carnatic singer), R Mini (handball player), J. Gaurikutti Amma (educationist) and bureaucrat J. Lalithambika.
(The concluding part of the series on the Fort Mission School)