Mary Ann Cooke Wilson and her Kolkata schools

Just a year after arriving in Kolkata in 1821 Mary Ann Cooke  (Mary Ann Wilson)  had been so successful in setting up girls’ schools that her work was seen as more important than that of the man,  Rev Isaac Wilson, who had proposed marriage to her! Now that was extraordinary in the days when women were seen as inferior to men and when it was felt that a wife should be subservient to her husband.

Daniel Corrie, then Archdeacon at Kolkata1, wrote in August 1822 to the Church Missionary Society (CMS)  Corresponding Committee in Madras that Miss Cooke “having embarked in a cause for which she is eminently qualified, & having published her purpose & solicited & obtained considerable public support, were she to leave Bengal, it would probably prove injurious to the Missionary cause generally, & certainly to the cause of Female education.” He added she was already supervising 12 schools attended by about 290 girls.

The CMS Corresponding Committee in Kolkata  therefore suggested to the committee in Madras that Mr Wilson should swap places with another missionary. The only problem was that Mr Wilson had already completed a year of language study whereas the other missionary (Rev William Sawyer) had not yet arrived in India.

Miss Cooke had met Mr Wilson and his wife, Elizabeth, when they were in Madras in mid 1821. The Wilson’s were  newly weds having married that April before leaving for India in May. Elizabeth, however, died in Tranquebar in December 1821. Mr Wilson explained later that he and his wife had formed a friendship with Miss Cooke and had corresponded with her. A letter of condolence from Miss Cooke led to more letters and then a proposal of marriage. He, of course, expected her to join him.

But Miss Cooke, a former governess who was about 39-years-old , was determined to stay where she was. Even she had not expected to be so successful at starting girls’ schools. When the Calcutta School Society was founded  it was estimated that only 4,180 out of a population of 750,000 in that city were receiving any education and scarcely one was a girl2 . Its request for help led to the British and Foreign Schools Society sending Miss Cooke to Kolkata about three years later. That assignment did not last long, however, for some of the Indian men on the committee did not agree with educating  girls.

So, in January 1822, Miss Cooke joined the CMS and went on a tour of the mission’s boys’ schools. At one of them she saw a girl trying to listen to the lessons. Following an invitation from Miss Cooke the girl brought several friends and their mothers the next day. Miss Cooke was accompanied by Hannah  Ellerton, the widowed mother-in-law of Daniel Corrie, who could translate for her.

Mrs Ellerton wrote later about how she had answered the queries of some of the mothers concerning Miss Cooke’s motives and their response: “Miss Cooke had heard in England that the women of this country were kept in total ignorance – that they were not taught even to read or write, and the men only allowed to attain to any degree of knowledge. It was also generally understood that the chief objection arose from your having no female who could undertake to teach. She therefore felt much sorrow and compassion for your state, and determined to leave her country, her parents, friends, and every other advantage to come here for the sole purpose of educating your female children.  They cried ‘Oh! What a pearl of a woman is this!’”

Mrs Ellerton returned the next day with her grand daughter, Anna Corrie, and the Indian women were fascinated by the little girl’s hands for they were so soft and white. When asked why they wanted their own girls to be educated they told Mrs Ellerton that it would enable them to be more useful in their families and increase their knowledge. One mother said: “Our husbands look upon us little better than brutes.”

One of Miss  Cooke’s Bengali language teachers, a high Brahmin, told her that Bengali women were “like beasts – quite stupid” and did all he could to dissuade her from opening girls’ schools. Not surprisingly she did not employ him for long.

Mr Wilson was finally able to join her in April 1823 and they were married nine days later. In December that year, when she had 300 girls in 24 schools,  he wrote: “It is surprising how Mrs Wilson bears her labor (sic). She sallies forth about 7 o’clock and I see no more of her till about 12. In the evening she frequently visits a few schools and notwithstanding all this fatigue she enjoys the very best of health.” Even during the oppressive hot season when other missionaries fell ill and even died she could “bear to go out twice and visit her most distant schools.”

The schools took a lot of supervising because she  had to employ Brahmins who could read and write Bengali but, of course, had not been trained in any British educational system. It was also possible for a new teacher to start work at a school only to find that some of the girls could already read better than he could.

In December 1823 160 girls attended a public examination where a crowd of “persons of the highest respectability”, including Lady Amherst and the Lord Bishop, watched them  read from Watts catechism and produce specimens of their writing. Such examinations became major fund raising events for the schools with the main sponsors being expatriate women. By March 1824 the CMS gave control of  Mrs Wilson’s schools to the newly founded Ladies Society for Native Female Education in Calcutta and its Vicinity. One of the objectives of the society was to make the work more exclusively female. Young expatriate women were employed to supervise the schools.

It took  four years for the society to achieve its main objective which was to have a Central School built with a house attached. One of the major sponsors was Rajah Boidonath Roy Bahadur and a substantial amount of the running costs were covered by selling fancy work sent out by women in England.

In the next few years Mr Wilson became disillusioned with the mission’s emphasis upon schools. On top of his busy schedule of visiting and examining boys’ schools he was often out preaching in the streets. He felt the schools were ineffective because the children left before they had learned much. The girls were only 12 to 14 years old when they got  married and the boys left as soon as they felt they had sufficient education to find better employment. Mr Wilson also believed  they should be employing Christian teachers especially as the Christian superintendents were not able to spend long at each school. The hot season of 1828 was, however, his last for he fell ill and died that September.

His wife had made steady progress in training  teachers. At the public examination held  that year there were 25 young Indian women who were described as teachers and monitors. Many of them were either widows or had been deserted by their husbands – but not young Mary Ann. In 1825, when she was 11-years-old, she was one of the best readers in the small school that she attended. Her father and mother did all they could to stop her becoming a Christian but in the end agreed to live with her on the mission compound at Mirzapore. By 1828 all three  had been baptised and Mary Ann was the head monitor/teacher at the Central School. Mary Ann moved to Mrs Wilson’s  Orphan Refuge on the banks of the Hooghly when that was opened in 1836. She married a Baptist catechist and had a family of her own.

Mrs Wilson seems to have withdrawn from supervising many schools and focused on raising and training the orphans at the Refuge. In that she yet again led the way towards being closer to her pupils – a trend that would be picked up later by another Mary Ann (Aldersey). Mrs Wilson’s most important legacy in India was probably the women she taught to become teachers. But hardly anything is said about them in her letters or reports. Does anyone know what happened to any of those Indian women who helped to pioneer female education in their own country?

copyright Pip Land April 2012

WAS YOUR FAMILY IN CONTACT WITH BRITISH CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES IN THE 19TH CENTURY? If so why would you like any research done concerning those missionaries: when and how they reached your family’s home town, what they did there and maybe even if they had contact with your ancestors? If so post a comment on this website.


1 Daniel Corrie became the first Bishop of Madras.

2 An old friend, Peter Conlan, read the above article and informed me that Indian Recollections by John Statham, published in 1832, was available on Google books. In this book Statham quoted (pp53-57) from the 2nd annual report of the “Calcutta Female Juvenile Society for the Education of Native Females” issued in December 1821.  By then this society, instigated by Hannah Marshman of  Serampore, had three girls’ schools in Kolkata with 79 students aged from five-years to 30. At their first one of the students, Doya, had learned so much that she was able to conduct the school when the mistress was ill.  The second two were taught by Indian women even though it was very difficult to find any who were properly qualified to instruct others. One of those teachers was 15-years-old Raymunee who could read pretty well and had been used to keeping shop accounts. Her widowed mother was also engaged to help at the school and a small house was erected for them beside the school. At the third the national female teacher was assisted by her 19-years-old daughter. All three schools were supervised by European women who visited them once to twice a week.  The schools were named after the cities and towns in England from which donations towards their upkeep were received, such as Liverpool.


Letters of Mrs M A Wilson and the Rev Isaac Wilson in the CMS Archives in the Special Collection at Birmingham University.

J Richter History of Missions in India Revell 1908,p334-5-1819 education statistics for Kolkata and about Mrs Cooke Wilson.

Priscilla Chapman Hindoo Female Education L & G Seeley 1839 – and on : Preface and pages 75-77,85,92. Available on

One thought on “Mary Ann Cooke Wilson and her Kolkata schools

  1. This is so helpful, thank you. Am editing a book which briefly mentions Mrs Wilson of Calcutta and her pioneering educational work – now I know who she was!

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