Eliza Thornton – a singular success

In 1835 the Society for Promoting Girls’ Education in the East ( SPFEE) badly needed a success story. Its all female committee had to prove that a single European woman could not only survive living in either South East Asia or India but could also superintend schools for girls in such far away places. It found that pioneer in Eliza Thornton. She became renowned for her work in Jakarta (Batavia) in Indonesia as an SPFEE recruit,  Emma Cecilia Combe from Berne in Switzerland, recounted in November 1839 after their first meeting.

“I approached with a beating heart. ‘Let me find grace before her eyes’ was my prayer, as the next minute was now to show me her whose name I had long pronounced with respect, whose example had inflamed my heart with a holy emulation, and who was now to be so much to me. If sometimes a distant fame awakens expectation which a closer knowledge of the person is not able to realise, it was not my case with Miss Thornton. I expected much and found more.”

Mme Combe was the second woman sent by the SPFEE to help Miss Thornton, the first being a  Miss Hulk from Holland. Miss Thornton had arrived in what was then called Batavia , the capital of the Dutch East Indies, in August 1835 after being selected by the SPFEE and attending a teacher training course. She had superintended some schools in Corfu while working as a governess with the family of an Anglican minister there before applying to the SPFEE. Of her the SPFEE wrote:

“The testimony to her character and ability were deemed so satisfactory, and her personal communications with the committee inspired so much confidence in her piety and judgement, that she was unanimously received as its representative to carry forward the work it had at heart. It was not without serious consideration of the responsibility they incurred, that the ladies came to this decision.”

The committee would pay £150 for her sea passage and her outfit, and would make sure that she was properly chaperoned during the long journey. But with £533 in the kitty in March 1835 and with the possibility of sending three women to India the SPFEE made it very clear to Miss Thornton that she would not receive a salary and would have to support herself from school fees. It was expected that she would do that by taking Mary Wanstall Gutzlaff’s place at the Melaka Free School. It was also hoped that she would be able to superintend the local schools founded by Mary Christie Wallace and Maria Dyer.

Jakarta was then the capital of the Dutch East Indies and was on the crossroads between the Roaring Forties sea route from the Cape of Good Hope and the trade routes from India to China. The prevailing winds at the time of Miss Thornton’s arrival meant that she could not travel on to Melaka for two months and  Eliza Medhurst, the Indian Eurasian wife LMS missionary Walter Medhurst, encouraged her to remain in Jakarta. Mrs Medhurst had opened a boarding school for the girls and young boys of the wealthier families as a way of raising extra funds and was due to go to England with her husband. Miss Thornton informed the SPFEE that the Medhursts had also started an orphanage after finding three half-caste children running around the streets “in utter wretchedness”.

During the 200 years that the Dutch had been in control of Jakarta there had always been a dearth of European women. So the European men had married local and Eurasian women. Some of these families were keen to have their children learn English and to study the Bible. The children at Mrs Medhurst’s school were also taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and grammar, plus needlework for the girls.

Thirteen days after arriving in Jakarta Miss Thornton wrote: “This day I have commenced school with twenty children; the school-room, a bamboo roof without walls, exceedingly cool, close to a coffee-plantation, which will shortly be in bloom, and surrounded with cocoa-nut trees and plantains. If I could transport you here for one hour, you would be delighted; separated from the world, dwelling in this lovely spot close to the chapel, which is in the compound, surrounded with the beauties of nature, and abundantly supplied with an occupation which has interest to fill the heart even to overflowing  – you can suppose me to be one of the happiest of human beings. ”

“By the time this reaches England I trust my tongue will be loosened in the Malay language; and then I shall lose no time in attempting Chinese. When any one asks after my welfare, you may say that I would not return for the sake of every earthly blessing. My work is my pleasure, nay more, my delight. Our God is a God of love; the Gospel is a dispensation of love, and by affectionate sympathy we ought to seek to win men to the truth.”

It took almost  year for Miss Thornton to receive the letter from SPFEE which authorised her to stay in Jakarta. The committee had no problem agreeing to her request especially as one of its members, Mary Ann Aldersey, knew what had happened to Maria Newell Gutzlaff and Mary Christie Wallace in Melaka.

Miss Thornton was delighted when she found two teenage girls she could “adopt” and train as monitors and teachers. Emma and Sarah were the daughters of a Frenchman and a Malay woman. Following her father’s death Emma, then about 14-years-old, had been taken by a man who, Miss Thornton said, made it his business to get what girls he could “to bring up for the vilest purposes”. Miss Thornton was very happy to save Emma from such a horrible fate but would in time find the two teenage girls quite expensive to care for.  She taught Emma how to play the piano as the girl had a good ear for music and a beautiful singing voice.

She trained  her servant, Dortchy, to teach Malay girls and proudly set up what she described as the first school for them on the island. It didn’t last long, however. The five schools for Chinese girls, which had been set up by American and British missionaries, survived longer. She felt that three of these were especially under her care as they were supported largely from the sale of fancy goods sent from Britain by the SPFEE. She wrote in July 1836: “This day last year, I was tossing about upon the great deep, anticipating years of toil before I could hope to obtain what I now enjoy – now comfortably settled in a school that supports me, two nice girls under my care training for teachers, and more than all, three Chinese girls’ schools, containing thirty children.”

She found, however, that the schools for Chinese girls faced a special cultural problem as she explained in 1837: “The infant school system is especially necessary, because no girl is permitted, after the age of eleven years, to be seen out of her house, or, indeed, out of her room, without her mother’s special permission, until she is married. The eldest and most promising girl in my school has just been taken away. I went to enquire the reason, and to see the child. The mother said she was too old to come any more to school, she must now be shut up.”

By the time that Miss Hulk arrived in mid 1837 (funded by a committee in Geneva) Miss Thornton had moved to a new house. This was very pleasant, cool and healthy and had large grounds – but was expensive. She hoped to meet the cost through school fees and the sale of fancy goods sent by her friends in Hackney. She worked 12 hours a day, starting at 5am, but wrote in 1838: “This month my own school has increased in numbers, so that my house is quite full, and I am enabled to meet all my expenses. We sit down, twenty to dinner every day, but we are a very happy family – peace reigns amongst us almost without interruption. I sometimes think, though I have my trials, that I am certainly one of the happiest beings in the world; and the delight I experience in the affection of the children amply compensates for my toils and weariness.”

Miss Combe was the next to join her. One morning in November 1839 she got up early to enjoy her first view of Java from the deck of the sailing ship on which she had travelled from England. She wrote:

“An ampitheatre of lofty mountains, between when we could distinguish woody valleys – the bamboo cottage, peeping out of shady bowers, surmounted by lofty cocoa-nut trees, were reflected in a glassy sea, and gilded by the first rays of the morning sun. That was a feast indeed for us who for months together had seen nothing but sky and water, or stolen a glance of some distant mountain that seemed to come within the horizon, only to tantalise and disappear.”

She and a travelling companion had a very bumpy journey by palanquin and then horse-drawn carriage from the port to Jakarta, the cosmopolitan city which had developed under Dutch rule. There at last she met Miss Thornton.

By February 1840 Miss Combe had opened her own school with ten Malay girls, based in Miss Thornton’s pleasant and cool house. Miss Thornton was, by then, superintending a school for Eurasian girls and the fees from that helped to cover their living costs and enabled them to be self-sufficient.

Despite many problems Miss Combe so loved the work that even after she married the American missionary, the Rev Frederick B Thomson, in December 1840 she continued to superintend a girls’ school in Jakarta.

The Dutch colonial government, however, was determined that the American missionaries would not remain there as it was worried that they would antagonise the Muslims and so hinder its commercial interests. The Dutch also thought the Americans were interested in developing trade in that region. The colonial government had, therefore, insisted that the Americans who had been sent by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed Church and the Prudential Committee of the American Board should, after a year’s residency in Jakarta, move to southern Kalimantan (Borneo).  Mr Thomson stayed in Jakarta longer because his wife died there leaving him with two young children. His period of stay was extended when he married Miss Combe – but finally in February 1842 the Dutch insisted that the family had to leave.

They moved to a compound deep in the forest to live and work among the Dayak tribe which didn’t even have a written language. And yet Emma wrote to the SPFEE requesting someone to help with teaching girls. The Geneva Auxiliary Committee gave £50 towards the cost of sending someone to join her. And the young woman chosen by the SPFEE was Jemima Poppy.  (See Jemima’s Story)

The Medhursts, who had returned to Jakarta in 1838, left for China in June 1843. Mr Medhurst reported that by 1842 the Dutch authorities in Jakarta were restricting the movements of non-Dutch missionaries and traders. Many of the Chinese had gone and the missionaries couldn’t open schools or distribute tracts.

The following year Miss Thornton wrote that all the missionaries had left and, after 11 years, she wanted to return to England for a rest. By then her oldest pupils had completed their education. There is no record of what happened to Emma and Sarah.

copyright Pip Land  February 2012


Minutes of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, in the Special Collection of Birmingham University Library.

History of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East published by Edward Suter in London 1847, pp 10-32 & 36-43

C R Boxer The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800 Penguin 1990 pp221;239; 241-3.

Council for World Mission/London Missionary Society archives at the School of Oriental and African Studies Library, London: CWM Ultra Ganges – from Java and Batavia 1841-43.

Mission to Borneo – The Historical Society of the Reformed Church in America Occasional Papers No 1, by Gerald de Jong, 1987.

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