Thomas Beighton loved writing sagas – and Mary Christie Wallace certainly provided him with one in 1835. It was a saga which could have wrecked all attempts by the Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the East ( SPFEE ) to recruit single women to run girls’ school overseas.
In October 1834, three months after the SPFEE was founded in London, it was recorded in the Society’s minutes that Miss Wallace was working with the American Board of Missions and so didn’t need any further support. This was followed by reports that she had gone to China – reports which are still repeated today. But Miss Wallace never got to China and her career as a teacher in Malaysia came to a very sad ending. Melaka (Malacca) certainly proved to be a very hard and lonely place for single women like Maria Newell Gutzlaff and Miss Wallace.
After being recruited by Mary Ann Aldersey Miss Wallace left Glasgow to study the Lancastrian monitoring system of education at the Central School of the British and Foreign School Society in London so that she could assist in the girls’ section of the Malacca Free School. Subscriptions were raised in Edinburgh, Hackney and Norwich to promote the Education of Chinese Females in order to pay for her outfit and passage to Melaka and to help support her when she was there.
She arrived in Melaka in August 1829 about seven months before Charles (Karl) Gutzlaff took his wife Maria to Bangkok. Miss Aldersey’s plan had been for Miss Wallace to be a companion for Maria – and certainly not to be left as the only single woman among the missionaries there. Miss Wallace, however, did so well initially that the LMS directors received a warm recommendation about her. She was described as being remarkably timid, modest and retiring in character when among the English people but bold, diligent and persevering, undaunted and active with the nationals.
When Samuel and Maria Dyer visited Melaka in April 1832 Mrs Dyer and Miss Wallace set up seven small schools for about 120 Chinese girls. Mrs Dyer left funds to help support these schools while Miss Wallace took on the job of superintending them. There was a large Chinese community in Melaka but as the girls couldn’t travel far small schools had to be set up close to their homes.
One of the problems that Miss Wallace faced was that the girls who came to the schools were the offspring of Chinese men and Malaysian women. Their main language was Malay and yet their school books were in Chinese. “The children do not understand the language which they must be taught in. In learning Chinese the children are first made acquainted with the sounds of the characters, then taught to repeat the book off, and when they can do so well they are taught the meaning.” This was a long and slow process and she added: “We frequently have the mortification to see clever promising girls taken from the school by their parents before they understand anything, because they are considered too big to attend.”
Even though the number of schools had decreased by April 1833 with a total of attendance of about 70 she did feel that the prejudice against educating girls was being broken down.The parents would have preferred that their own books would have been used in the schools but Miss Wallace made sure that only Christian ones, often translated and printed at the Anglo-Chinese College, were available. The high cost of running the schools was barely covered by donations from the Dyers, Samuel Garling (the British East India Company’s representative in Melaka), the LMS and friends in Britain.
She was less successful with the school for Malay girls. In 1831 the attendance had increased and so a larger school room was built. But this roused the fear of the parents and especially an old Muslim priest that the girls at the school would be converted to Christianity. Over half the girls left and it was not possible to use Christian books. “They are at present reading books of a moral kind not touching upon Christianity but we hope in time to be able again to introduce Christian books,” Miss Wallace wrote.
By 1832 she had been joined by Mary Wanstall from England (also supported by an independent ladies’ committee) and had handed over the Malay school to a missionary at the College. She reported: “We have found since we devoted ourselves more particularly to the Chinese schools that they have made greater progress, and that superior opportunities are afforded to us for acquiring the Chinese language.”
All seemed to be going very well but then, on August 8 1833, she arrived in Penang and told the Beightons that she was no longer wanted in Melaka. Garling had even suggested that the cost of her return to England should be met by the LMS. Beighton told the LMS that she was a young, healthy woman who just wanted to do good and he couldn’t understand why the missionaries in Melaka wanted to be rid of her. Miss Wallace moved to Singapore while in Melaka, in 1834, Miss Wanstall became the second wife of Charles Gutzlaff and accompanied him to Macau.
In February 1835 the Rev Ira Tracy of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) wrote to the LMS because he thought Miss Wallace was one of its missionaries. He explained that she had been running a small school for Chinese and other children in Singapore. As he was the only missionary working in Singapore at that time he felt bound to support and encourage her. He had even advanced her money as well as passing on financial gifts from American friends. He said he visited her as often as he could be had to be careful for both their reputations as he was not married. Then on January 1 he was informed that she was dying.
“We found her deranged and saying she was about to depart. She wished to make some communications to us ‘for the good of the church’ and began reading from her journals, which showed plainly that she had been out of her right mind for weeks if not months.” He encouraged her to rest but the next day her servant took him to a Chinese house where he found her barefooted with her hair loose and in “native” dress. He wrote that he and a newly-arrived missionary doctor unsuccessfully tried to reason with her and finally they sent for the magistrate. When that didn’t resolve the problem they moved her to the house of an American where she stayed several days before taking passage to England via Penang. “Miss Wallace is evidently deranged and we endeavoured to treat her as we would a sister laboring under that calamity,” commented Tracy.
The only source of information as to what happened next is in Beighton’s letters from Penang to the LMS. He said that she was ejected from the ship she had sailed on from Singapore after she had left her journal open on the deck. In it she had written that she had seen the ship on the rocks and that she was being murdered. Faced with the dangerous voyage around the Cape the crew didn’t want a Jonah on board.
“I feel sorry for her. She ought never have come out alone,” wrote Beighton. He felt responsible for her as she had received some support from the LMS. For a few months he didn’t even know where she was but then heard that she was staying with Roman Catholics who had been able to put a restraint on her and she was not allowed out. Then in July 1835 a Grand Jury unanimously decided she was insane and sent her to prison. The jailor took pity on her and tried to care for her in his own home but found she was too difficult to have around his young children. Finally, by the order of the Bengal government in India which had jurisdiction over the British Straits Settlements in South East Asia, she was sent to Kolkata. Her friends in Britain then paid for her return to England. Beighton wrote later:
“I am very glad Miss Aldersey acted so promptly in the affair but still had not the Commission of Lunacy been obtained we could not have sent Miss Wallace to England without her consent. I hope this distressing affair has been arranged to the satisfaction of Miss Wallace’s friends. I sincerely hope no case of such a kind will ever occur again.”
It would appear from the minutes of the SPFEE that Miss Aldersey never did officially report on this sad ending to Miss Wallace’s career overseas. But the committee obviously did know what had happened and that would affect its view of Miss Aldersey’s determination to go overseas in 1837. The experiences of Maria Newell Gutzlaff and Miss Wallace in Melaka also had an impact upon the career of the first single woman that the SPFEE sent overseas (Eliza Thornton ).
copyright Pip Land February 2012
E Aldersey White, A Woman Pioneer in China, the Life of Mary Ann Aldersey, Livingstone Press, London, 1931, pp12&14
“An Address to the Ladies of Great Britain on Behalf of the Chinese Female Population”, February 1828, with incoming letters from Ultra Ganges in the CWM archives at SOAS.
Minutes of the Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the East 1834, in the Special Collection at Birmingham University Library.
Council for World Mission/London Missionary Society archives at the School of Oriental and African Studies Library (SOAS) Incoming letters – CWM Ultra Ganges Malacca and Singapore – from Miss Wallace, Thomas Beighton and Ira Tracy.