S India’s first female teacher training institute

The album and journal of Caroline Cuffley Giberne (1803-1885) provides a fascinating insight into the development of female education in South India. She was the first to train South Indian women as teachers and one of those who graduated from her school in Kadatchapuram, near Palayamkottai in Tamil Nadu in the 1840s, was Mrs Anna Satthianadhan (daughter of the Rev John Devasagayam), who went on to set up several schools herself. Miss Giberne’s journal contains some of her often haunting sketches of her first students – like that of Anbye Lydia (below) who died just a few years after joining her school.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Miss Giberne would have watched girls like Anbye Lydia while sitting on her verandah in the cool of the evening and wondered whether she could make a success of that small rural teacher training school in Tirunelveli (Tinnevelly) District. In 1845 she certainly could not have imagined that one of her “undisciplined” school girls would ever have the honour of being introduced to Queen Victoria!


She was far from impressed with her first group of students even though she had selected them herself. The objective of the Normal School she had set up in 1843 was to train female Indian teachers1 but to her it was more like a dame school in England than a good “lady’s establishment”.

In her journal2 in April 1845 she wrote: “There is something about them which I do not like. They are close and not at all open characters but remind me of common English schoolgirls, whispering together, while before me they are as silent as possible. This is my present interpretation of them, but they may improve.” She added that the girls were not used to submitting to the will of others and so were rather unruly. “In time they will I hope be in good order.”

One of the biggest problems was that the girls had only ever learned by rote. “They cannot think!” she complained.

To add to her problems the Indian parents, even the Christians, were very wary about sending their daughters to a boarding school which was not within easy walking distance from their homes. And few were convinced about the need to educate their girls.

In the late 18th century the first Christian missionaries to South India, like the Rev Christian F Schwartz3  had encouraged the Christian converts to open schools for boys. Martha Mault is accredited with opening the first boarding school for girls in 18214. Her husband, Charles, was sent to Nagercoil in what is now Tamil Nadu State by the London Missionary Society and it was there that his wife began the family’s involvement with female education in India.

Other missionary wives followed her example including those associated with the Church Missionary Society (CMS). It was at Palayamkottai near Tirunelveli in 1836  that the wife of CMS missionary, the Rev Charles Blackman, gained her first experience of teaching Indian girls. When they moved about 30 kilometres south east to Sathankulam Mrs Blackman decided to experiment with day schools and the first was at Kadatchapuram in September 18375. This was one of the earliest villages created by the Native Philanthropic Society as refuges from violence and persecution for those who had been converted to Christianity6.

At Kadatchapuram Mrs Blackman was able to employ a school master and a school mistress. The latter was a married woman whose father, a Christian Catechist, was undaunted by the prejudice against female education and had allowed his daughter to attend a boys’ school5.

The Blackmans left India in December 1841 and some of the school mistresses wrote to remind her how parents and others had long resisted the idea of female education stating that “it is not good or proper for girls to learn to read.” The school mistresses added: “Thus for a long time they kept up the bad practice of thinking meanly of us, the female sex, and reared us like young wild beasts.”7

The Rev John Devasagayam and his wife took over the supervision of the girls’ schools started by Mrs Blackman8 and had encouraged the formation of the Normal School. The Rev Devasagayam came from a Christian family and had studied with the Rev Schwartz. He was the second Indian to be ordained as an Anglican minister and the first national to become a Church Missionary (CMS) district missionary9.

Miss Giberne’s first home in Kadatchapuram was a “native” bungalow owned by the Rev Devasagayam and his wife. They sent their own daughter, Annal Arokiam (“child of grace”) to the new Normal School and to Miss Giberne she became Anna. (Below – in the centre is the bungalow built for Miss Giberne at Kadatchapuram.)


Through the support of the Rev Devasagayam Miss Giberne had finally been able to fulfil her calling. She was 35-years-old when she arrived in Sir Lanka (Ceylon) in 1838 believing that she was about to begin what she saw as her life’s work overseas. That had only been possible thanks to the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East (SPFEE) and its pioneering attitude towards single women. But the SPFEE had the policy that its agents should become self-supporting as quickly as possible by superintending fee paying boarding schools.

For Miss Giberne this meant supervising a school for Eurasian Burgher girls. These belonged to an economically and socially upwardly mobile group which valued an English education as a means of being accepted by the British colonial administration. Miss Giberne later lamented: “I had been greatly disappointed in Ceylon, at having seen so little of missionary operations.”

It was very unusual at that time for a single woman who did not have a father or a brother on the mission field to be employed by a missionary society but Miss Giberne was recruited by the CMS and moved to Tamil Nadu. She commented: “I arrived in South India with all the joyful anticipation with which I had left home more than four years before – and my expectations were not in the least disappointed.” After studying Tamil at Palayamkottai she went to Kadatchapuram where she chose 12 pupils, aged from six to 16 years, from the local day school. They slept on her verandah until the new school was built.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Her first senior school mistress was Nulla Mootoo (right)who had been a pupil at a school founded by Mrs Blackman. Nulla Mootoo moved to another village in 1847 and was replaced by Annamy. The latter had begged to attend the boarding school in 1845, was married in 1846, and took over as head teacher at the Normal School in December 1847. “She is a tolerable teacher but would be much more efficient had she been accustomed to discipline in her youth,” commented Miss Giberne.

She also wrote: “No one must imagine that our Indian women have attained anything in mental or moral requirements to be compared with Europeans, indeed it will be many years before they become such as we could wish, because our female teachers are few in number and have not yet arrived at that degree of perfection that is absolutely necessary for teaching the young.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The first girl she trained to become a teacher was probably Sarah (left), who was 15-years-old when she joined the Normal School. Sarah got off to a bad start because her mother insisted that she should return home soon afterwards. Sarah, however, was so determined to attend school that she went on hunger strike until she was allowed to return. Miss Giberne took her back on the condition that she was not again “interfered with”.

But after a few months her mother again wanted to remove her from the school as the family planned to marry her to a young merchant. Miss Giberne reported: “As he was not well educated, I persuaded her to leave her daughter at the school and the young man to go and study (with) a missionary. As soon as she (Sarah) was prepared to teach I gave her a class of very young children and thus laid the foundation of an infant school.”


When Sarah did get married in July 1847 the couple were provided with a house next to the school.

Miss Giberne’s school was probably not so different to those started by Mrs Blackman, and it was also supported by the fund raising efforts of Sarah Tucker. Miss Tucker’s brother, the Rev John Tucker, was a CMS missionary in South India from 1833 to 1847. He started a girls’ school in 1845 and his sister, although disabled, became a firm supporter of such schools10.

In her book South India Missionary Sketches Miss Tucker described the rooms as being spacious and lofty with no chimneys and no glass in the windows. There were just mats on the floor which she said gave at first a cheerless and unfurnished appearance. She added: “These things are, however, well suited to the climate; and so are the wide verandahs round the house, into which the rooms all open, and the outside blinds, called tats, made of the sweet-scented cuscus grass, which during the hot winds are placed against the verandah or the window, and having water constantly thrown upon them from without, cool and perfume the wind as it passes through11.” (Below: Miss Giberne’s sketch of a school master teaching older girls while the younger ones practised their writing on sand covered boards.)


Miss Tucker was fascinated by the way that Tamils wrote at that time and stated: “You would wonder to see them write their copies, for, instead of paper, they have each of them an olei, or long strip of the Palmyra leaf, about an inch and a half broad, and one or two feet long. This they hold in the left hand, and in their right, instead of pen and ink, they grasp a style, or sharp iron instrument, which they rest against a notch in the left thumb nail, and with it scratch the words on the leaf. They afterwards rub it over with powdered charcoal, or the leaf of some particular plant, which, sinking into the scratches, makes the letters black or green.”

She said that school books were made the same way except that the strips were shorter and all cut to the same length and breadth. “They are kept together by a string fastened to a shell, which is long enough to allow the leaves to be sufficiently separated to be read, and when they are not in use, is twisted round them. Sometimes the outside leaves are ornamented with various devices, and when nicely executed, the whole is remarkably neat and pretty12.”

Miss Giberne wanted the girls at her school to have copies of the Tamil Prayer Book but found it was too expensive to buy them. Instead the girls made copies on Palmyra leaves. Below: An illustration of writing on Palmyra leaf (olei) from Sarah Tucker’s book; An example of this form of writing kept by Miss Giberne in her album; and her sketch of one of the teachers with a copy of the Tamil Prayer Book.  




In 1847 she wrote in her journal: “When I look back a few years, to the time when the Normal School was first established and recollect the unruly girls of 15 or 16 years of age, whom I had then to break in, and see around me now, well-behaved girls of the same age, setting the younger ones an example of neatness, obedience, diligence, and order to which their teachers have scarcely attained, I am both surprised and thankful and can only say ‘What hath God wrought’.”

And when the infants were examined that December it was reported: “many …appeared to be sharp, intelligent children and answered very nicely. There cannot be a doubt as to the feasibility of establishing infant schools among our Christian people in Tinnevelly… provided we had a sufficient number of native teachers working under European supervision.”  It was also noted that Miss Giberne had laid the foundation for a greatly improved system of female education at her Normal School.

In June 1848, when there were 26 in the Normal School and  35 in the infant section, Miss Giberne was advised by a doctor to go to England for a rest. She returned to India in late 1852 to spend another ten years in Kadatchapuram.

Four years before she finally retired to England the Sarah Tucker Training School for Women was opened in Palayamkottai. One of Miss Giberne’s pupils, Thungamuthus went on to become both a matron and a school mistress at that school. In a letter in 1884 Thungamuthus recalled  how Miss Giberne had come to her village in 1843 and asked her father, the CMS Catechist Gnanamuttu, if he would send both her and her sister to the new school. By 1884 she was a mother and a grandmother and yet she finished her letter to Miss Giberne by stating “I remain, Respected and dear mother, your most obedient daughter.”

Miss Giberne carefully kept other letters from her graduates including those from Anna and her husband, the Rev W T Satthianadhan. In one of his letters he referred to Miss Giberne as “my mother in Christ”.

The Satthianadhans obviously forged a deep and long lasting friendship with Miss Giberne during her last ten years at Kadatchapuram. And Anna would go on to prove, with her husband’s support, that Indian teachers did not always need European supervision. Her school work in Chennai (Madras) alongside her husband’s ministry was so successful that in 1878 they were presented to Queen Victoria. How that came about I will explain in the next post. (Below: Miss Giberne with some of her students.)

©P Land November 2013


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. On its website (http://johnbaptistchurch.webs.com/historyofchurch.htm) St john the Baptist church at Kadatchapuram states that “Miss Kibern” established the first Teacher Training Institute for girls in 1843. The term Normal School for the system of training elementary-school teachers comes from école normale in the 16th century in France. The objective of these schools (and that of Miss Giberne) was to teach model teaching practices, with the teachers in the same building as the students (Wikipedia).

2. With many thanks to the staff at the Cadbury Research Library Special Collection, University of Birmingham, for their assistance, and for access to the journal and album of Caroline Cuffley Giberne. These with the letters she kept with them were presented to Selly Oak Colleges library in 1950 by Miss Giberne’s great niece, Helen Neave, and were subsequently deposited in the Cadbury Research Library Special Collection. All the illustrations reproduced here are from Miss Giberne’s album and the rights are held by the Cadbury Research Library Special Collection.

3. Christian Friedrich Schwartz (1726-1798), Lutheran missionary who was in South India from 1750 until  his death in 1798. http://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/r-s/schwartz-christian-friedrich-1726-1798

4. Martha (nee Mead, 1794-1870) and Charles Mault (1791-1858) in South India – see David Gore’s post  at  http://www.britishempire.co.uk/article/faithandfamily.htm

5. Sarah Tucker, South India Missionary Sketches, James Nisbet and Co, London, 1848 (3rd edition)  Vol II pp134,145.  http://www.archive.org/details/southindiansket00unkngoog

6. Ibid Vol II p90  See also  Dyron B Daughrity, A Brief History of Missions in Tirunelveli, International Association of Mission Studies, Port Dickson, Malaysia, 2004, p72 http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ijt/46_067.pdf

7. Ibid  Vol II p147

8. Ibid  Vol II p149

9. CMS Missionary Register List III, Native Clergy, no 2, died at Kadachapuram in January 1864, aged 78. Ordained as a deacon in 1830 and as a priest in 1836;  See also http://johnbaptistchurch.webs.com/historyofchurch.htm ; and  Eugene Stock, Beginnings in India, Central Board of Missions and SPCK, London, 1917 – Project Canterbury ://anglicanhistory.org/india/stock_beginnings/06.html

10. Rev John Tucker (d 1873) http://www.mundus.ac.uk/cats/44/1211.htm;  and see the School page on http://pvbungalow.com/. Concerning Sarah Tucker see  http://www.sarahtuckercollege.in  and Daughrity  p81, footnote 79. For the development of mission schools and colleges in Palayamkottai see Daughrity p 75.  On the Sarah Tucker College website it states that it “holds pride of place as the first college for women in South India”.  According to Wikipedia Palayamkottai is known as the “Oxford of south India” and most of the schools were founded by Christian missionaries in the 19th century.

11. South India Missionary Sketches, Vol I p9

12. South India Missionary Sketches , Vol 1 pp76-77, including illustration of olei.

2 thoughts on “S India’s first female teacher training institute

  1. wonderful work really helpful to future historians to know about the origin of teacher training institute in Madras presidency

  2. Highly appreciatable work. My sincere and heartfelt thanks for your effort to bring this article.


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