Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

248 posts categorized "Women's histories"

04 July 2024

Jabez Tepper: The cousin who thwarted JMW Turner’s bequest (Part 2)

We continue the story of Jabez Tepper, cousin of JMW Turner...

Jabez Tepper is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey, in a grave that contains several other Turner relatives.

Photograph of the gravestone for Jabez Tepper at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.Gravestone for Jabez Tepper at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Photograph by author.

In January 1872, letters of administration for Tepper’s estate were granted to his cousin, William Coham Turner, as it was thought that he had died intestate.  This grant was revoked in July 1872, following the discovery of a will dated January 1835 which named his mother and her heirs as beneficiaries.  Tepper’s brother, Samuel, a house painter and carpenter, now the sole heir, was located in Alabama USA.  He returned to England in May 1872 and stayed with William Coham Turner in St John’s Wood, London.  The will was granted probate in August 1872.  In the documents Tepper is described as a bachelor.

Newspaper report of the arrival of Samuel Tepper in England from Alabama - Leeds Times  11 May 1872Arrival of Samuel Tepper in England from Alabama - Leeds Times 11 May 1872 British Newspaper Archive

Samuel Tepper met with Victoria Boyer, Jabez Tepper’s elder married daughter.  Because they were illegitimate, neither Victoria nor Catherina had any claim on the estate, but Samuel Tepper wanted to do the right thing and gave a substantial sum to each of the sisters.

Shortly after Jabez Tepper’s death, Mary Pennell went to his offices in Bedford Row, with a friend, and arranged for the removal of furniture, a large chest of silver plate and other valuables, including a diamond snuff box, which had been a gift to JMW Turner from King Louis-Phillipe of France.  She also visited and removed items from the farm in Sussex where she had lived with Tepper.  She was later apprehended and taken to court, charged with theft.  Mary claimed that she had a right to the property as she had lived as Tepper’s wife for sixteen years but could produce no proof of marriage.  She denied the existence of any will, although there were rumours that copies had been destroyed.  At the preliminary hearing it was judged that there was insufficient evidence for a successful prosecution and the case was dismissed.

Samuel Tepper returned to his home in Camden, Alabama, in October 1873, with a substantial sum of money and several Turner paintings and engraving plates.  He disposed of many others before he left, not wishing to pay the duty for importing them.  He suffered from ill health and probably depression and, in 1887, took his own life.

Gold snuff-box with floral and foliate ornament round the sides  on lid and on base. On the lid is the monogram LP with crown above for Louis Philippe  all in diamonds set in silverGold snuff-box with floral and foliate ornament.  On the lid is the monogram LP with crown above for Louis Philippe, all in diamonds set in silver. © The Trustees of the British Museum 

After Samuel Tepper’s return from America, it appears that Mary Pennell had to return items that she had taken, including the Louis-Phillipe snuff box. The box was donated to the British Museum in 1944 by Maria Helena Turner, the great-grand-daughter of J.M.W. Turner's uncle, John Turner.

In 1877, the surviving beneficiaries of JMW Turner’s will brought a case against the estate of Jabez Tepper.  Tepper had bought their shares in Turner’s engravings for what he claimed was a fair price of £500 for each beneficiary.  This had netted him £2,500. When the engravings were auctioned after Tepper’s death, they fetched £35,000.  The family’s lawyers produced evidence that the engravings had been valued at £5,000 for legacy duty, so Tepper had been well aware of their real value.  The court found in the plaintiffs’ favour and ordered that the sale to Tepper be set aside.  An appeal by the Tepper estate failed.

Report of court ruling about the Turner engravingsReport of court ruling - Brief 15 December 1877 British Newspaper Archive

There is a certain irony in the coincidence that Jabez Tepper, having thwarted Turner’s plans for his inheritance, was similarly thwarted in his own. In both cases, large portions of the estate went to people they were never intended for.

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Creative Commons Attribution licence

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive for reports on the court cases involving the Turner estate, the prosecution of Mary Pennell, and Samuel Tepper’s visit to England.


Turner's house logo

Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open to visitors.

02 July 2024

Jabez Tepper: the cousin who thwarted JMW Turner’s bequest (Part 1)

When JMW Turner died in 1851, his chief executor was solicitor Henry Harpur, a cousin on his mother’s side of the family.  The will, however, was contested by another cousin, Jabez Tepper, also a solicitor, representing Turner’s father’s relations.

Letter from Jabez Tepper published in The Times 24 December 1851Letter from Jabez Tepper published in The Times 24 December 1851

Tepper’s successful challenge meant that that ‘Turner’s Gift’, the proposed alms houses for ‘the maintenance and support of poor and decayed Male Artists being born in England’, was never established. Tepper invoked the Mortmain Law, under which the transfer of land in Twickenham to a trust had to be at least a year before Turner’s death.  This had not happened.

Extract from the will of Joseph Mallord William Turner  concerning the establishment of an alms house for artistsExtract from the will of Joseph Mallord William Turner, 10 June 1831 – The National Archives, document reference PROB 1/96

In 1856, the relatives represented by Tepper inherited a substantial part of Turner’s estate.  In January 1858 Tepper offered to buy the other relations’ shares of Turner’s engravings for £500 each.  All but one accepted his offer.

Jabez Tepper was born in South Molton in Devon in August 1815, one of seven children born to James Tepper, a wool stapler, and Mary Turner Tepper, JMW Turner’s cousin.  Jabez left Devon to join the legal profession, becoming an indentured clerk in London in 1835.

Like his cousin Turner, Tepper lived an unconventional private life, never marrying but fathering two daughters, Victoria Helen and Catherina Mary Jane, probably born in 1840 and 1841, although no records of their births have yet been traced.  In the 1841 census Tepper was described as a law student living in Gravesend, with wife Jane and seven-month-old daughter Helen.  Family historians have identified the woman who was the mother of Tepper’s daughters as Jane Cook, born in London in October 1817.  According to some family trees, she died in 1842, but the only death record I can find for a Jane Tepper in London that year is for a two-year old child.

There is, however, a Jane Tepper, also known as Cook, a shoebinder, who died aged 47 on 21 February 1865 in the London parish of St Giles.  This Jane lived in poverty; could they be one and the same and if so, when did she and Tepper separate?

About 1855, widow Mary Pennell moved in with Tepper,  She is also referred to as his wife, although they never married.  Born Mary Smith in Walworth in 1824, she married gardener Edward Pennell in 1846.  Their daughter, Mary Jane, died as a baby in 1848 and Edward Pennell died the following year.

After Mary moved in with Tepper, his two daughters lived with them for some time but there is some suggestion that Pennell treated them unkindly and they were found lodgings.  In the 1861 census, Tepper is living at 24 Notting Hill Square with Mary, whilst his daughters are boarding with the Taylor family in St Pancras.

In 1864, Tepper was granted freedom of the City.  He was an active freemason, and in 1871 he was Worshipful Master of the Metropolitan Grand Steward’s Lodge.

Report on Jabez Tepper's activities at the Grand Steward's Lodge - The Freemason  25 March 1871The Freemason, 25 March 1871 - Museum of Freemasony Masonic Periodicals Online

For some time between 1868 and 1871, Tepper lived at Turner’s former studio and gallery in Queen Anne Street.  The 1871 census shows Tepper living on a farm at Hellingly, Sussex, with Mary.

Death notice for Jabez Tepper - Morning Advertiser 14 December 1871Death notice for Jabez Tepper - Morning Advertiser 14 December 1871 British Newspaper Archive 

Jabez Tepper died at his London home on 10 December 1871.  His actions would be challenged in the law courts in the years following his death.

To be continued…

David Meaden
Independent Researcher

Creative Commons Attribution licence

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive for Jabez Tepper’s career and reports on the court cases involving the Turner estate.


Turner's house logo
Turner’s restored house in Twickenham is open to visitors.


30 April 2024

A military wife in India - Deborah Marshall's letters

The wives of Army Officers offer a unique perspective into history.  They were often close to conflict and military action but distanced from their husbands and extended family.  Such is the case for Alice Deborah Marshall, known as Deborah, (1899-1993), whose letters sent to her mother document her life as a military wife between 1927-1933 in the North-West Frontier Provinces, India [now Pakistan].  These letters are now part of the India Office Private Papers series Mss Eur F307.

Extract from a letter sent by Deborah Marshall to her mother describing an incident where a young British soldier was shot on a train  28 July 1931Extract from a letter sent by Deborah to her mother Isabella Alice Cree describing an incident where a young British soldier was shot on a train, 28 July 1931 - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F307/5

Deborah was the wife of Major-General John Stuart Marshall (1883-1944), who served in the Indian Army between 1904-1940.  She came from a military family herself, born to Major General Gerald Cree (1862-1932) and Isabella Sophie Alice née Smith (1874-1966), with a brother, Brigadier Gerald Hilary Cree (1905-1998), whose very active career during World War Two is well documented.

The life described in her letters is one she seems at ease with despite the hazards and constant upheaval.  In her witty and descriptive manner, she documents the lively and gossipy social life of a military town and the characters involved, as well as the minutiae of how she occupied her days and her responsibilities as a mother to her daughter Suzanne Mary (1924-2007) .

We see the towns she lived in, Gulmarg and Peshawar primarily, changing over the year, becoming lonely ghost towns when the army moved on or weathering the destruction the monsoon caused.  Golfing and gardening are casually discussed alongside the daily conflicts of the Indian Army and the dramatic events of the Afridi Redshirt Rebellion (1930-1931).

Crowd on Khissa Khani Bazaar 31 May 1930 Crowd on Khissa Khani Bazaar in Peshawar, 31 May 1930 -  British Library Photo 345 (66) Images Online

Her husband John Stuart Marshall’s military duties and his involvement in the conflict are described in detail.  Between 1930 and 1931 battles fought against the Afridi tribal freedom-fighters in the Tirah Valley as well as in the Khajuri Plains are described by Deborah to her mother.  At the end of the year in December and January 1931-2 we see the intensity of the mass arrests of ‘Redshirt’ sympathizers in Peshawar.  ‘Rebels’ were beaten bloody and imprisoned and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the anti-colonialist activist, was arrested. While living in Army-occupied Peshawar at that time Marshall writes to her father:
'They [the British soldiers] combed the City through and when they marched out (...) were salaamed on all sides by a perfectly silent crowd!  Those with any tendency to shouting hicalab [revolution] by that time were nursing horrible bruises at home! (…)  Everyone is very hopeful on the effect this may have on the rest of India, when they see what a very strong line they have taken here' (Mss Eur F307/5 f.287).

Scenes such as this and Deborah’s observations reveal the everyday British attitudes towards their own rule during a time when great political upheaval was imminent.  John Stuart Marshall would eventually go on to become Chief Administration Officer of Eastern Command in India and of the Eastern Army before passing away in 1944.  Deborah was re-married in 1946 to Major Arthur John Dring (1902-1991) of the Indian Political Service, subsequently becoming Lady Dring until her death in 1993.

Maddy Clark
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Deborah Alice Marshall Papers India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F307– a paper catalogue of the contents is available to consult in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.
Allen, C. 1975. Plain tales from the Raj : images of British India in the twentieth century. St Martin’s Press, New York.
Papers of Lt Col Arthur John Dring 1927-c.1948 India Office Private Papers Mss Eur F226/8.


26 March 2024

A letter between female activists

A letter between two 19th-century women can provide a glimmer of light into their personal lives.  It can help researchers relying mainly on published material to find out more about the women than just their public achievements.  Emily Faithfull and Mary Carpenter may not share the same historical fame as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson or Elizabeth Fry, but a letter sent by one to the other gives useful, albeit small, evidence of personality.

Letter from Mary Carpenter to Emily Faithfull  2 July 1862 -  first page

Letter from Mary Carpenter to Emily Faithfull  2 July 1862 - second pageLetter from Mary Carpenter to Emily Faithfull, 2 July 1862 - British Library, Add MS78907H

On 2 July 1862 Mary Carpenter wrote to Emily Faithfull to congratulate her ‘on [the] status given you by being appointed the Queen’s Publisher…’.  Mary was ‘desirous of becoming better acquainted’ with Emily and was keen to meet her if she happened to visit Bristol where Mary resided.  A scrawled note under Mary’s signature suggests that she also had the generosity of spirit to send Emily a mechanical Earth.

Mary Carpenter (1807-1877) was devoted to helping children who were living in poverty, especially those who had unfortunately fallen into committing criminal acts.  Through her lobbying efforts, Parliament introduced two laws known as the Youthful Offenders Act in 1854 and 1857 which approved the establishment of reformatory and industrial schools.  However, Mary became better known for her work in helping to educate women in India with her attempts to establish schools, as well as for establishing the National Indian Association in England. 

Emily Faithfull (1835-1895) was equally committed to promoting the rights of women but in the field of employment in England.  She strongly believed that with good education, women were just as equipped to do the same kind of jobs as men.  This conviction led her to create the Victoria Press in 1860, recruiting women compositors to help publish books.  Emily was rewarded for her efforts by Queen Victoria appointing her as ‘Printer and Publisher in Ordinary’ to Her Majesty.

Front cover of Emily Faithfull  Employment of WomenFront cover of Emily Faithfull, On some of the drawbacks connected with the present Employment of Women (1862) British Library shelfmark 8276.a.13, also available via Google Books

Emily not only issued her own publications about women and employment but also toured the United States giving lectures and helped movements promoting women’s employment rights.  Her beliefs were encapsulated in a paper which she presented to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences.  Mary Carpenter was involved in this group, but clearly hadn't met Emily prior to 1862.  In her paper, Emily argued that a woman should not rely on the income of her husband.  A husband’s sudden death might mean having to find employment to support herself and her family, and an untrained woman was at a disadvantage.  Emily asked: ‘Is it less dignified to receive the wages of industry than the unwilling or even willing bounty of friends and relations?’ and continued to state that it must be, ‘... undignified for her to receive payment for labour...’.  Emily also established the International Musical, Dramatic and Literary Association in 1881 to represent composers and artists.

A letter helps us learn about how women activists might have needed a reason to contact each other, as well as how little they may have met each other in person.

Mary (Marette) Hickford
Library, Information and Archive Services Apprentice

Further reading:
Carpenter, M (1862) Letter from Mary Carpenter to Emily Faithfull, 2 July 1862. London: British Library, Add MS78907H.
Faithfull, E (1862) On some of the drawbacks connected with the present Employment of Women. A paper read before the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science ... 3rd edn. London.
Hunt, F (2009) ‘Faithfull, Emily’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Prochaska, F (2004) ‘Carpenter, Mary’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The National Indian Association and its handbook for students in Britain

19 March 2024

Rescuing a woman from drowning in the Irrawaddy River

On 11 August 1898 23-year-old Charles James Deefholts, Telegraph Signaller in the Government Telegraph Department of Minbu, rescued a Burmese woman called Ma Sein from drowning in the Irrawaddy River.

I located correspondence sent between the Government of India in Rangoon and the India Office in London which document the rescue.  Each letter reveals intriguing details including eyewitness accounts.

Testimony of Charles DeefholtsTestimony of Charles Deefholts - IOR/L/PJ/6/510 File 940

Charles Deefholts was questioned about the incident by the police on 17 August 1898.  He said that he was in the office when two peons came running up and said that a Burmese woman was drowning,  Deefholts ran down to the river bank with Mr Benjamin and saw the woman being taken away by the current, about 25 yards from the bank.  He stripped to his underpants and swam out to her.  When Deefholts reached her, only her face was out of the water and she was motionless.  He seized her from behind and pushed her towards land.  When they came closer to the river bank, the line-man came to help.  Ma Sein’s head went under the water and that brought her round.  She was only wearing a jacket, having lost her longyi.  When they got onto land, she was able to walk away.

Testimonies of Kada Bux and Ma SeinTestimonies of Kada Bux and Ma Sein - IOR/L/PJ/6/510 File 940

Kada Bux, one of the peons, stated that on 11 August he was near the river bank and saw Maung Po Mya (the woman's husband) looking for a boat.  The woman was floating down the river with only her face exposed.  Deefholts came running down, jumped into the water and pulled her to the bank, where the line-man helped him.  She was not fully dressed.

Ma Sein was also questioned.  She said that she could not swim well and got into deep water whilst taking a bath.  Unable to get back to land, she drifted downstream.  Deefholts came and rescued her.  Her longyi was tangled round her feet, but once she had freed herself from it, she was able to float.  She was not attempting to commit suicide, nor had she quarrelled with her husband.

Letter sent by the Government of India to HM Secretary of State for India  27 April 1899Letter sent by the Government of India to HM Secretary of State for India, 27 April 1899 - IOR/L/PJ/6/510 File 940

A letter from the Government of Burma was forwarded on 27 April 1899 from India to Lord George Francis Hamilton, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for India.  It contained an application for an award for Charles Deefholts from the Royal Humane Society for his act of bravery in rescuing Ma Sein.

Letter from the Royal Humane Society to the India Office with a bronze medal and certificate to be awarded to Charles Deefholts 23 July 1899Letter from the Royal Humane Society to the India Office with a bronze medal and certificate to be awarded to Charles Deefholts 23 July 1899 - IOR/L/PJ/6/513 File 1203

On 23 June 1899 the Royal Humane Society sent the India Office a bronze medal and certificate to be awarded to Charles Deefholts for his ‘gallantry’.

Daniel Deefholts
Civil Servant

Creative Commons Attribution licence


12 March 2024

Applications for Trinity House Pensions

The British Library holds the papers of Lord George Francis Hamilton (1845-1927), Secretary of State for India 1895-1903.  The papers are on a variety of subjects relating to India, and correspondence with the Viceroy and Governors of Bombay and Madras.  Amongst these papers is a very interesting file of applications relating to the Trinity House in London.

'View of the new Trinity House on Tower Hill'  in 1799'View of the new Trinity House on Tower Hill' 1799 - British Library Maps K.Top.25.8 Images Online

Trinity House is a charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers.  It began as a fraternity caring for distressed mariners and their widows and dependants by maintaining alms houses and awarding pensions.  Lord George Hamilton was an Elder Brethren of Trinity House and was able to nominate a mariner in need of help.  The file on this in his papers contain letters applying for his help in securing a place at Trinity House.  Here are a few of the applications he received:

John James in applying for an annuity declared that he was 66 years old and had been employed at sea for the previous 52 years.  He stated that he was thoroughly incapable of filling any post whatsoever having swollen legs and feet due to chronic Bright’s disease [an inflammatory disease of the kidneys].  James further stated that ‘I have no means to support myself and wife and have to rely upon the generosity of my two married daughters’.  He said his savings had been lost through investing in shipping and his wages for the past ten years had not left him any margin for saving.

Letter from John James applying for an annuityLetter from John James applying for an annuity, 1900  - British Library Mss Eur F123/43

William J Spark wrote on behalf of his brother-in-law, J F Spark and wife, whom he described as ‘an old worn-out master mariner & his wife, who are a very deserving couple & are in very needy circumstances – both of them are between 70 & 80 years of age, and I regret to say, are quite broken down & always in the doctor’s hands’.

Edward Dunstall wrote in February 1901, that he was an old master mariner of the merchant service, aged 66.  In 1890, he had been compelled to vacate the sea service, and in 1894 he had an operation for a ‘very painful internal disease, the effects of which I am still suffering’.  In 1898 he had been accepted as an eligible applicant but had never been nominated.  He appealed to Hamilton for help:’My Lord, myself and wife, having been so long on such poor pittance, and with the enormous rising in the price of living, been unable to procure a sufficiency of the necessaries of life have often to go hungry.  And with ailment in the struggle of life to keep a house over our heads, we are sorely pressed and to get relief we should be ever thankful’.

Letter from Edward Dunstall in 1901 appealing for helpLetter from Edward Dunstall in 1901 appealing for help - British Library Mss Eur F123/43

Elizabeth Mary Goddard wrote to Hamilton in October 1900.   She wrote that she was ‘the unmarried daughter of Captain Charles William Goddard who had the Captains Out Doors Pension and died some years ago and Anna Johanna Elizabeth Goddard my dear Mother who also had the Captains Out Doors Pension also died some years ago’.  Elizabeth was then 60 years old and suffering very much from rheumatism.  She wished to apply for a pension and needed Hamilton to nominate her.  A note on the letter gives the reply: ‘Lord G H has noted her name on his list of applicants and will consider her claims with those of others when an opportunity occurs; but H L is sorry to say that his list for the Trinity House is already a long one, and it is but seldom that he has a presentation at his disposal’.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Applications for Trinity House Pensions, 1900-1902, shelfmark: Mss Eur F123/43.
Trinity House

05 March 2024

What about the East India Company Women? Emma Roberts and the spinsterhood of India

'There cannot be a more wretched situation than that of a young woman who has been induced to follow the fortunes of a married sister, under the delusive expectation that she will exchange the privations attached to limited means in England for the far-famed luxuries of the East.  The husband is usually desirous to lessen the regret of his wife at quitting her home, by persuading an affectionate relative to accompany her, and does not calculate beforehand the expense and inconvenience which he has entailed upon himself by the additional burthen.’

These are the words of Emma Roberts whom we met in a previous blog post.  They appear in her book Scenes and characteristics of Hindostan, with sketches of Anglo-Indian society which was published in 1835.

Title page of Sketches of Anglo-Indian Society by Emma RobertsTitle page of Emma Roberts, Scenes and characteristics of Hindostan, with sketches of Anglo-Indian society (London, 1835)

Emma had travelled to India in 1828 with her sister Laura, who was married to Captain Robert Adair McNaghten of the Bengal Infantry, so it seems that she was speaking from experience.  She explained that it was likely that the family would move up-country soon after arriving in India, and this was when the poor young woman's’s troubles began.  She was ‘an incumbrance’, the third person in the buggy, always finding herself in the way.  Outdoor recreations were denied, except riding in a carriage, and she was not allowed to walk beyond the garden or verandah.  The climate made gardening impossible even though she was surrounded by exotic plants.  Hot winds split the wood of pianos and guitars, and sheet music was eaten by white ants.  Drawing was a possible pastime, but supplies of necessary materials might be lacking.  The climate did not suit needlework.

Any young men at the station would avoid giving attention to a single woman unless they were contemplating matrimony, fearing that ‘expectations’ would be formed which they were not inclined to fulfil.  Few young women who had accompanied their married sisters to India possessed the means to return home however much they disliked the country.  They were forced to remain ‘in a state of miserable dependence, with the danger of being left unprovided for before them, until they were rescued by an offer of marriage’.

Tom Raw's Misfortune at the Ball -  dancers in a ballroom, with young soldier Tom Raw about to tear a muslin gown by standing on the hem accidently‘Tom Raw’s misfortune at the ball’ from Tom Raw the Griffin; a burlesque poem (London, 1828) Shelfmark: C.119.d.25 British Library Images Online

Emma identified two other categories of ‘spinsterhood’ in India apart from the sisters and near relatives of the brides of officials.   The first consisted of the daughters of civil and military servants, merchants and others settled in India, who had been sent to England for their education. They generally returned to India between the ages of sixteen and twenty, expecting to be married.

The second was made up of the orphan daughters, both legitimate and illegitimate, of men resident in India.  These girls were educated in India and often had no family connections to help them.  A large number, supported by the Bengal Orphan Fund, lived in a large house at Kidderpore near Calcutta.  The practice of holding balls for invited men to meet the resident girls was discontinued by the 1830s – ‘this undisguised method of seeking husbands is now at variance with the received notions of propriety’.  Emma said that the girls then had no opportunity to encounter suitors unless they had friends in Calcutta to invite them to social events, or ’the fame of their beauty should spread itself abroad’.  The increasing number of young women arriving from England every year lessened the Kidderpore girls’ chances of meeting eligible matches.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Emma Roberts, Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan, with sketches of Anglo-Indian society (London, 1835) British Library shelfmarks 1046.e.10. and T 37078

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.



Untold lives blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs