A School Forgotten
By Ajay Singha, Social Historian
Published in two parts on 16th & 17th April 2017 in ARBIT- Rashtradoot, a leading daily of Jaipur, (Raj.) INDIA
In the mid 18th and early 19th centuries, the lot of the East India Company soldiers was unenviable. Wars and disease took such a toll that few survived long enough to return to England. Between 1736 and 1834 only some 10% of the East India Company’s officers survived, to take the final voyage home. The most tragic feature of this reality was the fate of the children. Neglect and tropical diseases ensured that few, if any, survived to adulthood. Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence a prominent personality during the colonial rule in India, mooted the idea of establishing a chain of schools to provide education to the children of the deceased and serving British soldiers of the army. Little is known about institutions which were established for children of ordinary European soldiers who formed the bedrock of the colonial rule in the subcontinent. One such institution was the Lawrence Military School at Mount Abu in Rajputana.
Sir Henry Lawrence had served as the Agent of the East India Company in the Frontier Provinces, Nepal and the Punjab before being appointed as the Resident in Rajputana. Sir Henry's dream took shape and four such schools, known as Lawrence Asylums, were established in India for these wretched victims of mismanagement. As the jewel in the Imperial British crown India has been home to some of the best public schools outside of England which were essentially meant for the children of the well to do, the privileged classes and nobility of the Princely States of India. Europeans of the elite classes serving in India received private education through tutors or were sent back home to complete their school education. Orphans and other children of the working European classes in India had few affordable options. From 1844 to his death Sir Henry devoted all his income to this and related forms of charity. The first school opened with 14 pupils at Sanawar in 1847, the second at Mount Abu admitted 7 children of British soldiers in 1854. By April 1855 another 11 children were admitted and the strength at Abu Lawrence grew to 60 in 10 years under Headmaster A. Wolfe. Immediately after the Indian mutiny the strength went up to a 100 children and in 1859 the School’s main building (Pic.) was constructed. By mid 1860s the School was in high demand for admissions but constrained in space because of its central location at Mount Abu. The other two of the four Lawrence schools were started after the death of Sir Henry Lawrence and after the Crown was firmly in the saddle directly ruling the subcontinent. Lovedale was mooted during his lifetime but established a year after his death. The last at Ghora Ghali in the Murree Hills (now Pakistan) was started in 1860 as a memorial to Henry Lawrence.
Lady Honoria Lawrence (Pic.) played a key role in establishing the school at Mount Abu. This was a school meant exclusively for orphans and other children of British soldiers serving in India. In 1855 it is the first recorded co-educational boarding school in Rajputana highlands for boys and girls. The stated aim according to Sir Henry was “to create an Asylum from the debilitating effects of the tropical climate and the demoralizing influence of Barrack-life; wherein they (children) may obtain the benefits of a bracing climate, a healthy moral atmosphere, and a plain, useful, and above all religious education, adapted to fit them for employment suited to their position in life”. Sir Henry was no stranger to the barracks and knew that its atmosphere was such as must nip virtue in the bud. Religious education was therefore included but care was taken to ensure that no attempt be made to prejudice children against their parents creed. All the leading truths of Christianity were to be inculcated but “without unnecessary allusion to disputed points of faith on practice”.
Honoria Lawrence died unexpectedly at Mount Abu on 15th January 1854. Much loved and adored by her husband, Sir Henry wrote a letter to his children just five hours after she passed away, expressing his anguish but emphasising his resolve to complete the unfinished task his wife had set her heart on. The letter bears testimony to the affection and devotion he had towards his beloved wife and the task at hand which she had undertaken at Mount Abu. As a man of action Sir Henry ensured that the school in Mount Abu for which his wife had worked tirelessly, admitted children within the very year of her passing away. What better tribute could he give to a departed soul when 7 children (4 girls and 3 boys) of British soldiers were admitted to the school on 13th December 1854.
The school was co-educational from its beginning and the site at Mount Abu was chosen by Honoria and Sir Henry Lawrence when he was serving as the Governor General’s Agent in Rajputana. The school allowed Anglo Indian children to be admitted, though Lawrence insisted that preference should be given to those of "pure European" parentage, as he considered they were more likely to suffer from the heat of the plains. The school was known as "Lawrence's Asylum", reflecting its focus on orphans. Lawrence began his new role as the Governor-General's Agent in Rajputana in 1853 and much of his energy was devoted to two principal causes. The abolition of widow-burning in Rajputana and reforming the prison system received his attention. Lawrence was able to bear upon the Maharajas of Raputana States to abolishSati, Female infanticideand child slavery through their dominions. The other most important task for Lawrence was the establishment of a school at Mount Abu. With the death of his wife his own health began to fail, prompting him to apply for long leave to visit England. This was not to be, in 1856 Oudh was annexed by the East India Company on the grounds of internal maladministration and in March 1857, Lawrence was appointed to the prestigious post of Chief Commissioner of Oudh. With all his past experience of dealing with native troops and related social issues Sir Henry could sense the unrest building up and immediately undertook preparations for an imminent siege of the Residency. On 30 June, the Residency was suddenly besieged by Indian mutineers, and the Siege of Lucknow commenced. Henry Lawrence was wounded by an exploding shell on 2nd of July and died two days later. When Lawrence was critically injured, he is supposed to have said to those around him: "Put on my tomb only this; Here lies Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty."
For the children of underprivileged British soldiers the Abu Lawrence Asylum offered an education that stressed discipline, obedience and acquiescence to a future of limited opportunity for the underprivileged British children. A class structure has always segregated English society and as colonial rule spread across continents the social baggage associated with it also moved along. Albeit temporarily, the working classes felt privileged and elevated when they served in the European colonies abroad. In the eyes of the ruling masters the lowest serving European in India was higher in the social pecking order than the highest serving native. Sir Henry Lawrence may have belonged to the privileged class of British society but he greatly appreciated and valued the contribution of the European working class in India. This and personal inclinations towards charity led him to start this all boarding co-educational school for children of the British working classes in India. The students were therefore expected to look after themselves rather than depend on native servants. A semi military organisation was introduced, wherein boy NCOs and girl orderlies were appointed to look after the affairs of all their fellow school mates. The students `were divided into companies and five companies made up a division leading up to a School Sergeant for the boys and a School Matron for the girls. Boys wore artillery uniforms complete with a leather helmet etc. Girls were dressed in drab jackets and white bonnets, and both marched to the bugle and drums on parade grounds while divided into military-style companies. The emphasis on self discipline encouraged the children to do most of the tasks themselves so that they would become “trained in industrial habits.”
The tradition of military training was so strong and of such a high standard that several boys were enlisted from the school and sent straight to the battlefields of the First World War. The visitors’ book is mute testimony of the high level of visitors to the Abu Lawrence School. The who’s who of British India visited the establishment to acknowledge the success of the Lawrence Schools and support the war effort. Replete with names of great personalities the visitors book records the words of encouragement and hope for the children of ordinary British folk who had decided to seek their fortunes in India. This pattern of military service was repeated again during World War II and according to a BBC Radio broadcast in 1941, pupils of the Lawrence schools in India were making a major contribution to the defence of the country.
Sir Henry Lawrence envisioned his wards taking up manual trades like carpentry, masonry, mapping, drafting and smithing, creating the nucleus for a British artisanal class in India. Those who did not make it to the British Indian army were recommended as drummers and musicians to Native Indian regiments. In the British military tradition the drummer, trumpeter and the entire band played a crucial role in the scheme of things. Native Indian infantry battalions whether under direct British control or the Indian Princes required well trained bands to be an effective fighting force. Students from Lawrence Schools were absorbed as bandmasters and conductors, especially in native forces where in house talent was non-existent. The girls were to be employed in such occupation as would help qualify them for becoming the wives of working British men in India or back home. Plain needle work, Housewifery (sic.) attending to the sick, management of children were taught as part of the school curriculum. These working class girls would have added to the domestic work force in England as domestic helps, maids and factory workers. Options for European young girls was limited in British ruled India and a good education combined with some vocational training greatly enhanced their chance of finding a working class match or a good job as a teacher, medical or office assistant, either in India or back home.
From its foundation the financial burden of the School was borne by Sir Henry until his death in 1857, when the government assumed responsibility for the finances as a mark of esteem to his memory. The minimum age for admissions to the Lawrence schools was 3 years and maximum was 16 when a child was expected to leave the institution. There were almost no charges for orphaned children of Private Soldiers and those of a living Sergeant Major paid up to 10/- Rupees a month. Classes comprised of 30 students each and a half yearly examination was conducted for all students.
Under these circumstances, control of the School passed from the 'Honourable Board of Directors' to the Crown after the Indian Mutiny and exit of the East India Company. This was a most unusual arrangement which continued very successfully till the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. In 1947 with India’s independence, the bulk of the staff and children at Mount Abu and other Lawrence schools returned to Britain. Thereafter, control of the school passed from the Crown to the government of India's Ministry of Defence who decided to close the Abu Lawrence School in 1950. Sanawar and Lovedale were lucky as the Ministry of Education resolved to administer the school through a society specially created for the purpose. The schools turned public, somewhat elitist and have done exceedingly well ever since. Sadly the Abu Lawrence school which catered to the underprivileged found no takers amongst the westernised Indian power elite, was soon forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history.