Untold lives blog

26 October 2023

The happiest days of your life?

While the India Office archives contain documentation about all aspects of colonial education policy, inevitably little is to be found about the experiences of those who were being taught.  The  British Library is therefore very lucky to have the published memoirs of someone who was a pupil in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Cover of Orchids and AlgebraCover of Denise Coelho, Orchids and Algebra: the story of Dow Hill School (1986)

Denise Coelho’s slim 71-page book Orchids and Algebra is about her seven largely happy years as a boarder at Dow Hill Girls’ School just outside Kurseong in West Bengal.  Illustrated with various photographs and sketches, it is arranged in 177 short chapters, the titles of some giving a flavour of the work:

21. Of Inkwells & Soggy Pellets.
67. Ripping Times.
80. Teachers’ Pets.
135. Mrs. Stewart & Vegetables.
139. Winifred & the Ball Gown.
152. Rosalind and the Bear that Didn’t.
163. Tuck Parcels.

Denise loved art and English, enjoyed biology, tolerated history, endured piano lessons, and disliked mathematics – ‘I hated, with some intensity of feeling, the originator of algebra and the fiendishly devious brain that had devised my perpetual torment at these classes in school’ – but recorded that ‘It was my very good luck that the compilers of the Junior and Senior Cambridge arithmetic papers in the years I took these important examinations, set me a few sums I was capable of tackling, and this helped me scrape through with the minimum requirement of forty-five marks’.

Side view of Dow Hill SchoolSide view of Dow Hill School showing main building, classrooms, porch, Principal's office, stairway to senior dormitories, lower school dormitories back right - from Orchids and Algebra p.19

As in the English public schools system the girls were arranged in Houses, named after important figures of British India – Hastings, Wellesley and Clive.  Denise was in Hastings (Colour: green; motto ‘As Much As I Am Able’), the House which usually won the Work Shield; Clive (red; ‘I Serve’) tended to do best with the Games Shield, both no doubt rather looking down on the hapless members of Wellesley (blue; ‘Thorough’).

The pupils’ relations with their teachers – Miss Mackertich (Scripture and Needlework), Miss Cooper (Art), Miss Bwye (English – nickname ‘Booey’), Miss Smart (History; ‘the strictest teacher in Dow Hill’, nickname ‘Smut’) – were generally cordial, not seriously damaged by the event that went down in school annals as ‘The Cryptomeria Rebellion’, a failed attempt to get an unpopular Head Girl replaced (chapter 91).  Everyone at the school was shocked when the mother of Miss George, the Music teacher, was knocked down and killed by a bolting horse (chapter 30).

Outside lessons, Denise was able to watch Hollywood films, liking Errol Flynn, Ronald Colman, and Laurence Olivier, finding ‘Cary Grant had a hesitant charm and Spencer Tracy was a great actor’ but resisting the charms of ‘Shirley Temple with her prissy bobbing curls and cute dimples’.  She also wondered – was ‘E’, the topmost dormitory, really haunted?

The final chapter contains the score and lyrics of the school song, the chorus of which is

‘Ring out the strain both far and wide
Make it resound from every side
The echoes long on the ear prolong
Of this our song at Kurseong.'

Sad to relate, the school was damaged in a fire in February 2016.

Hedley Sutton
Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader

Further reading:
Denise Coelho, Orchids and Algebra: the story of Dow Hill School (1986) 
Victoria and Dow Hill Association

India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F351 - a collection of memoirs mainly from the 1930s and 1940s of female pupils from Auckland House School near Simla.

 

 

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