H.H. The Rajah’s Free School was the first public school in Trivandrum

H.H. The Rajah’s Free School, established in 1836 at the site where Ayurveda College stands today, was the mother of all city schools. The school, which taught the Bible to all, produced the first batch of students who set the trend for excellence. They did their school proud by becoming prime ministers of princely states, scholarly historians, government secretaries, and high court judges. One of them also had the rare opportunity to see and listen to Saint Tyagaraja. In 1919, the school morphed into SMV High School. The Free School is no more in the form it started. The SMV High School is its only descendant, transformed in name, place, and glory.

The first public school in the city started functioning in a thatched roof building 180 years ago in the spot where the Ayurveda College now functions (the Zillah Court functioned there earlier). In 1834, Swati Tirunal, the then monarch of erstwhile Travancore, visited the Christian Seminary in Nagercoil where he met John Roberts. In the words of missionary Agur: In December 1834, His Highness the Rajah of Travancore travelled about in the Southern parts of his kingdom ...he was so much delighted with the working of these useful institutions [missionary school and press], and so much impressed of their importance as civilising agents, that he very much regretted that his own capital could not boast of such establishments. Another missionary, Hacker says: The Rajah, much struck with the institution, invited Mr. Roberts to Trevandrum, a request to which he acceded on one condition – namely, that he should be allowed to give Scripture teaching in the Government school.

Swati Tirunal, a devout Hindu, agreed to the teaching of Christian scriptures in the school supported by a government grant. One can only conclude that his conviction in bringing modern education to his capital was very strong. The school first started in 1834 as a private school, and became a Government school in 1836. An archives’ record in 1837 cites a visit of Swati Tirunal to the free school and gifting of four gold rings to four select students. Swati's promotion of the school was not merely that of a detached titular head of the state.

The Free School was also replicated in five other villages in erstwhile Travancore, which laid the foundation for the Government’s initiatives in free education. A slightly exaggerated report on the free school appeared in The Gardner’s Magazine and also The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, in 1841. “…Rajah of Travancore, the great promoter of science in the East. This prince was only twenty-eight years of age, and had not reigned more than ten years… The Rajah had established schools within his dominions – he had established a mathematical school under English superintendence; but he had done more – he had done what had neither been done in England, Scotland, nor Ireland – he had established a school in every village of his dominions – and he gave education to every child, male and female – a change in Indian customs that might lead to the happiest results.

Sangunni Menon’s biography tells us that he was a favourite student of Roberts. English, arithmetic, history, astronomy, natural philosophy were taught in the school. It was an English medium school.

The headmaster Roberts mentions his own name in records as both John and Joseph. It is evident that he had a feud with Reverend Meads. His young son Charles Edward Roberts (1830-1855) succeeded him as headmaster. John Roberts had two wives (one a daughter of a Muslim woman) and six children, all of whom were no more by 1855 when he left for England. Robert lies buried in Hithergreen Cemetery in London and reads ‘Joseph Roberts, of Dacre Park, Lee, Kent, who died on 2 April 1878, aged 77 years’. In 1857, Allen Broun in his report on ‘Trevandrum Observatory', mentions that “I have been fortunate enough to obtain, as assistants, several young men taught in His Highness the Rajah's Free School, where they have received a fair elementary education”.

By 1866, the University College had been established at its present site, affiliated to the University of Madras, and the school was made a part of the college. N. Sekhara Pillai and M. Vaidyalingam Pillai who were among the last batch of school students at the University college campus mention that the middle school was in the northern buildings on the Sanskrit College campus and high school was on the north side of the ground floor of the main building of the present University College.

The Madras Presidency Administration reports of 1870 say that the “The High School at Trevandrum is the principal educational institution of the Sirkar.” At the Madras University Examinations held in December 1868, five students passed the first examination in Arts, and 15 the Matriculation examination. John Bensley was the Head Master from 1861-72.

In 1885, Murray Mitchel who visited the school found that the Bible was still taught in the school for one hour every week and it surprised the visitor as the school belonged to a “heathen Government”. The Bible teacher was a Syrian named Luke, “relative of late Patriarch Mar Athanasious”. The College and the school used to hold their anniversary meetings together. The 1891 Anniversary proceedings saw the Rajah, resident, Valia Koil Thampuran and Professor H.N. Read addressing the audience. The high school had then 478 students and preparatory school, 211. Many prizes such as the Ezhuthachan prize and Science prize for the sixth class in the high school were taken by the same student – C. Krishna Bhattathiri.

The Vanchiyoor High School was established in 1919 in Sreemoolam buildings in Vanchiyoor in the majestic building that now houses the District court. In an evening in 1919, all the school students of the Maharaja’s High School marched from University College waving colourful flags and singing Vanchipattu and reached the new Vanchiyoor premises, marking the closure of the 83-year-old history of the mother of the city schools.

The great great-great-granddaughter of John Roberts, Barbara Kearns, visited the University College to revive memories of her great ancestor. She also shared interesting information about Roberts with local historians. Though the Rajah's Free School remains as the first government school, there were schools in the city that predates it or co-existed with it. ‘Mission Boarding School at Trevandrum’ is one such possible school. The education has mainly been religious and in Malayalam, but general education also was included. Missionary registers tell us that Abraham Tabasa, son of Patros, hailed as a Hindu Christian preacher, studied here and fell in love with Rachel, also a student of ‘Girl's boarding school at Trevandrum’, which does not seem to be isolated from the boys' school.

Swati Tirunal’s efforts to bring modern education to his capital city opened the doors to modern education.

The First Students

Who were the first students who first went to modern school in the city? The earliest ‘Register of Boys in the Free School’ tell us that it was Shangunni, son of Sankara Warrier, Dewan Peshkar from Cochin. He is none other than Sangunni Menon who became Dewan of erstwhile Cochin State from 1860-1880. The school admitted boys of all religions, but the evils of the caste system saw to it that it did not admit the “lower” castes. In 1834, there were 3 Brahmins, 5 Shhodras, 12 Paundys and 13 Roman Christians and 7 Protestant Christians (40 in all and four dropped out in an year). In the next year, the numbers reached 70 and remained at around 150 for a decade.

Sangunni’s classmates included Padmanabhan Thampi (son of former Dewan Ummini Thampi), Ramaswami (son of a tailor), Vedadridasa M. (son of Sulochana Mudaliar, a Naik; Vedadridasa Mudaliar went on to become a high court judge, and in 1843 with his uncle Nallathampi, met and listened to Saint Tyagaraja), White R. (son of Dewan’s secretary, who became a Chief Secretary), Parameswaran (son of Sripadam lamp lighter), Vaiyapuri (son of the Resident’s butler), Mahommed Khan (son of Colonel Cadogan), Srinivasaiyan (son of a cloth merchant), Chandan (brother of Caldecott’s butler, Kanaran), Alveyn Geo (son of merchant from Pettah), Vegas Jos (son of P. Veigas of Poonthura), P. Sangunni Menon (who authored the History of Travancore) and Nanu Pillai ( who became Dewan of erstwhile Travancore).