Pioneering girls’ education in India

When the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East ( SPFEE) sent its first agents to India in June 1835 it could have had little doubt about the Herculean task facing them.

In India at that time  it was generally believed that women should not be educated and a missionary commented that to attempt female education there was as hopeless as to try to scale a wall 500 yards high1.  An Indian was reported as saying: “You will be wanting to educate our cows next!”2

An SPFEE agent, Elizabeth Carter, on arrival in India in 1836, wrote: “I hear of nothing on all sides, but difficulties in the work of female education: not that this disheartens me, for I am fully persuaded that it is not by might, nor by power of ours, but that God can, and will, bless the feeblest instrumentality.”

The call for Western women to help their Indian sisters who were living in what was described as darkness and ignorance came initially from the Baptist missionaries based at Serampore near Kolkata. Within a year of arriving there in 1799 Hannah, the wife of Joshua Marshman,  had set up the first Christian boarding and day schools for girls in India and in 1819 she founded the Serampore Native Female Education Society. A  “Letter  to the Ladies of Liverpool and of the UK” from the Serampore missionary, William Ward, published in January 1821 led to the British and Foreign School Society ( BFSS ) sending Mary Ann Cooke (Wilson) to Kolkata that year.   See Mary Ann Cooke Wilson and her Kolkata schools.

The SPFEE in its first fund raising pamphlet noted that those who knew India thought that her attempt to educate Hindu girls  in schools was “as idle as any dream of enthusiasm could be.”  And yet by 1825 about 480 girls were attending 30 schools, and the number continued to grow. The society was inspired by Mrs Wilson and by the shocking stories about the “degradation” of Hindu women.

In that pamphlet it was reported: “They are treated like slaves. They may not eat with their husbands. They are expressly permitted by law to be beaten. They are, by system, deprived of education. They may not join in religious worship without their husbands, and are considered by their laws as irreclaimably wicked.”

The Society fully believed the missionaries who had supplied this information and that it was the duty of the East India Company to be paternalistic  towards those it ruled in India at that time. Therefore it was the duty of women in Britain to assist in providing “the blessing of maternal wisdom and piety – to teach the men … that those who are now their degraded slaves, may be their companions, counsellors and friends.”

And so, within a year of the SPFEE being founded, it sent three agents to India:  Eliza Postans (Mc Cullum ) who went to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh near the Nepalese border;   Jane Jones (Leupolt ) – a trained infant school teacher – to work with Martha Weitbrecht (Mary Weitbrecht *) at Burdwan, 72 miles norther of Kolkata; and Priscilla Wakefield (Chapman) to assist Mrs Wilson in Kolkata. 

On arrival in Kolkata Miss Wakefield found she had to learn Bengali and prepare to take over superintending the Central School as Mrs Wilson was keen to move to an orphanage she had founded nine miles away.

Hindu parents knew that the Central School, which was opened in 1828,  provided a Christian education and Miss Wakefield told the SPFEE: “The time we have with (the girls) is so short, that it is of importance to secure it all for making them acquainted with the Scriptures: the first three classes read the Testament; the next four the Bible History; the next six Watts’s Catechism; and the rest compose the spelling and ABC classes. The average number of children is 300, divided into 26 classes.

“February and March are the great marrying months, when probably all the first classes, and some of the next divisions, will be taken away; and then there is nothing to be done but to endeavour to bring the next best children forward, and to fill up the lower classes with the new children, which the teachers will bring in the place of their old ones. This takes place every year, so that probably 100 children are thus exchanged, or rather 100 are married away, and 100 new ones are brought in their place; for it is the interest of the teachers to get children, as they are paid a pica for ever one they bring. This constant removal of the children is one of the greatest outward discouragements.” It was usual then for a girl in India to be married by the time she was 12-years-old.

Miss Wakefield  studied Bengali for three and a half hours each morning and by March 1836 she could write: “I am thankful to say that for the last month I have been able to attend to the school with some degree of pleasure; that is, I can understand what is going forward, hear the children read, blunder out a few questions, and more or less direct the teachers in their work. My interest in the children increases with my acquaintance with them, and now that I understand their answers. I hope I shall be able to get amongst some of our women teachers at their own homes, and, when I know the language better, talk to the women, who will soon assemble in numbers at the sight of an English lady. At present all attempts to get admittance to (those) among the higher class appear utterly useless.”  She also told the SPFEE that she not only felt no desire to take over the “reins of government” of the Central School but even felt unfit to do so. She added: “Still I have nothing to do but to go on, in daily and hourly dependence that ‘as our day is, so shall our strength be’.”

Then, in October 1836 she married Henry Chapman and the SPFEE had to send  someone to replace her. Eliza Postans married in March 1837 and Jane Jones became Mrs Charles Benjamin Leupolt in 1838. All repaid the SPFEE the percentage of what they owed the society. Prior to Mrs Leupolt’s  marriage the Rev Weitbrecht had noted about the orphanage at Burdwan: “In addition to Mrs W’s maternal care the children have the advantage of very efficient superintendence from a lady who left England expressly devoted to the work.”

His wife would have probably applied to the SPFEE if it had existed in 1831 for she was so keen to work as a missionary  in India. She was 22-years-old when she met Caroline Eliza Garling, the wife of the British Resident in Melaka.  Mrs Garling invited Martha to join her family group when they left for Melaka less than a week later. So Martha packed her bags and went. In Melaka she met and married a British missionary, Thomas Kilpin Higgs but he died on the sea journey to Bengal. So, early in 1832, she arrived in India as a widow after just seven weeks of marriage.

In 1834 she married the Rev John James Weitbrecht and went to live and work with him at the CMS mission in Burdwan where they founded a small orphanage and a day school using the monies given to them as wedding gifts. Mrs Weitbrecht initially planned to train the girls to become domestic servants but wrote in 1875 that those who had been converted in such orphanages in India had “formed a goodly band of teachers and matrons for the ever increasing openings in schools and private residences.” She added: “In this and other respects, both orphanages and boarding schools must be regarded as having proved of essential service in the progress of female education and enlightenment.”

She obviously convinced Jane Jones Leupolt who moved with her husband to Varanasi (Benares) after her marriage. There she not only took care of her own children and helped her husband but was involved with orphanages for girls and boys. Both of these were run by the Leupolt’s on “by faith” principles in that they had to depend upon prayer alone to see the costs covered.

She taught some lessons at the boys’ orphanage and was involved in finding trades for the boys such as Persian carpet making, tailoring, gardening, and in domestic service. Of the girls’ orphanage her husband wrote: “Its aim is to make these girls good Christians and useful members of society. For this purpose they are instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, knitting, plain and fancy needlework…. (and) knitting.”  The fancy needlework was sold to raise funds for the institution. The girls did their school work early in the morning, had an hour’s break, and then helped with such jobs as grinding corn, sweeping the sleeping and school rooms, and cooking food.

Mrs Leupolt noted that some of the girls had later been able to make a living through their sewing and so had been able to support their otherwise destitute families. One, whom she called Mary, was married to a Muslim fakir when she was 12-years-old. He had then disappeared for two years and when he returned she did not want to leave the orphanage. He, therefore, asked for the Rs 5 he had paid for her to be returned. When a missionary offered him Rs 8 if he signed a divorce document he agreed. Mary later converted to Christianity and became a teacher.

At the orphanages Mrs Leupolt began working with some blind children and when she and her husband were in Europe from 1857 to 1860 they visited William Moon in Brighton. She told Moon that a blind Indian Christian woman could already read embossed text in her own language and had begun teaching others. Moon promised to pay the wages of any blind teachers working with the Leupolts.

Back in India Mrs Leupolt devised a system to print Hindi using Moon’s characters and had reading books published in it. These were awarded a special prize at the  Agra Exhibition in 1867.

The Leupolts obtained funding from the government to teach 20 blind boys and girls at the mission schools and orphanages, and when her embossed books were introduced into the Raja Kali Shank Ghosal’s Asylum she sent an Indian teacher as well.  When that teacher died she took along a young Indian man called Titus whom she had trained.

In his second book of recollections Leupolt wrote: “In the morning he taught the blind, and in the afternoon he taught the lame and decrepit who were not blind. He was directed not only to teach the blind to read, but to tell them tales and anecdotes, and to instruct them well in mental arithmetic.” It would seem that Titus was the first specially trained Indian teacher of the blind whose name is still known (M M).

The Leupolts retired from India in 1872 and the work among the blind was carried on by a Mrs Erhardt at the Secundra orphanage.  One of the blind girls, Julia, stayed at the orphanage because, due to her disability, she had nowhere else to go. Mrs Erhardt described her as a faithful teacher.

These are just fleeting glimpses of the Indian teachers who helped to open up the world of education for girls. Most of the mission records are about European men and the stories about missionary wives often remain hidden histories. So it is even harder to find out what happened to the local women who took part in this great revolution.

Copyright Pip Land March 2012


Minutes and pamphlets of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, held in the Special Collection at Birmingham University.

Mary Anne Cooke Wilson: Priscilla Wakefield Chapman at the Central School in Kolkata and Miss Carter on female education : History of The Society for promoting Female Education in the East, London, Edward Suter. pp52-59

1- Louise Creighton Missions Their Rise and Development USA H Holt & Co 1912, p115 (

2 –Nothing to You – a Record of the Work among women in connection with the LMS,  LMS 1899 (London Missionary Society), p14

M Weitbrecht Memoir of the Rev John James Weitbrecht J Nisbet 1854 (pp 51 & 56), and The Women of India and Christian Work in the Zenana London, J Nisbet, 1875 (p65).

*Mrs Weitbrecht is usually referred to as Mary Weitbrecht on the internet sites which list her as an author.

In the Church Missionary Intelligencer for 1888 there was an obituary for Mrs Weitbrecht (pp315-320) in which it was stated her name at birth was Martha Edwardes.

See also


Charles Benjamin and Jane Jones Leupolt:  C B Leupolt Recollections of an Indian Missionary London, SPCK, 1865 pp  ; C B Leupolt Further Recollections of an Indian Missionary, London, Nisbet 1884  – and with thanks to (MM)  M Miles Blind and Sighted Pioneer Teachers in 19th Century China and India (revised edition) April 2011 – – this provides more information about Jane Jones Leupolt.

And a bit more …..

Mary Ann Cooke Wilson 1784 – 1868

Rev John James Weitbrecht, born in Schorndorf, South Germany, April 29 1802. Sent by CMS to India first arriving in 1830 and assigned to Burdwan. Married in 1834. Died March 1852 in Bengal. (Five of their nine children also buried in Bengal)

Martha Weitbrecht, nee Edwardes, born in Great Marlow, Bucks, UK, 24 July 1808.  Died in North Kensington  February 1888. For more about how the Garlings encouraged those involved with girls’ education in Melaka see Single women not wanted.

Henry Chapman born August 15, 1797, married Priscilla Wakefield at Old Mission Church, Kolkata, November 28 1836, died in England March1854. In the 1851 census Mr Chapman described himself as an East India Company agent and merchant. (With thanks to

Priscilla Wakefield Chapman, born January 1810 and died at Wimbledon, England, in January 1887 ( from  www.

Charles (Carl)  Benjamin Leupolt, born in Saxony (Germany) October 1805. Sent by CMS to India in 1832, first to Gorakhpur and then to Varanasi (Benares).  In 1874 he became the rector of Marsham, Norfolk. He died in Aylsham, Norfolk in December 1884.

Jane Jones Leupolt, born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England in  1812 and died in Cannstatt, Germany in November 1894

Eliza Postans married John Mc Cullum at Gorakhpur in March 1837. (India Office) I can’t find any more information about her.

According to the minutes of the SPFEE of March 1839  Elizabeth Carter married Charles Madden and died shortly afterwards. From the Family History Research section of the India Office: she married Charles Madden, a civil assistant surgeon, in June 1837 and died in November 1838.

Two other women sent out by the SPFEE died very soon after they reached their destinations. In its first ten years the society sent out more than 55 women of which eight got married before completing five years. So the SPFEE did avoid becoming a “lonely hearts” club for the single men searching for suitable wives in far off places.

One thought on “Pioneering girls’ education in India

  1. Thank you so much. I recently found out that I’m a descendent of Jane and Charles Leupolt. It is fascinating to hear about what they were doing in India.

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