The Story of
The Madras Indian Mission

1892 to 1908

"Oh India ! Thou entrantress ! Thou breaker of hearts ! Who that has once set foot upon thy shores can fail to carry through life the haunting memories of thy sights and sounds ? Who that has heard the call and answered it can fail to brim with indignation over the grievous wrongs thou inflictest, and yet to become thy bond - slave for love of thee ? " (Miss Alice Henderson, NZ Missionary to Madras)

The title image portrays girls from the Georgetown United Free Church of Scotland Mission School at Madras, c.1906

The Beginning :

From as early as 1892, the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand and primarily the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union financially supported a number of Women Missionaries working for the United Free Church of Scotland and Church of Scotland Missions in or around Madras and Nagpur in southern India.

The Work :

Mission work at this time concentrated on Village evangelism and preaching, children's education and the running of boarding schools (for both Christian and non-Christian Hindu girls), care of orphans, Industrial training for girls, zenana work (house to house visiting), as well as Leper Asylum and hospital visiting. A boarding school was opened in order to facilitate effective teaching. Industrial training was given a high priority, and consisted of teaching girls worthwhile skills to enable them to become financially self-supporting and also support their families. This included learning pillow lace-making and fancy needlework. Native Christian teachers were widely used under the supervision of the Missionaries. As many as 750 girls were taught in the various schools at any one time

The Problems :

The lack of experienced Mission staff and sufficient finance was always problematic and Missionaries worked extermely hard, often to the detriment of their health. Miss Helen MacGregor returned to New Zealand to recuperate after less than three years service, her health broken down under the strain of climate and language study. Tropical illnesses, epidemics, fever and plague were not uncommon visitors and the annual hot season could be trying in the extreme. There was often strong opposition to Christian teachings from non-Christian men who not only objected to the spreading of the Christian faith but also to girls being educated. The system of castes created wide divisions in Indian society which the Missionaries tried to bridge by spreading the Christian Gospel, education and the teaching of new skills. Local festivals and weddings often meant that girls were withdrawn from school for days or weeks on end which could prove extremely frustrating. Placing girls in Boarding Schools enabled the Missionaries to keep their charges from these 'adverse' external influences as much as practicable.

The Successes :

Despite the almost constant under staffing and lack of finance, the Madras Presbyterian Mission went from strength to strength. Many of the students who entered the Mission schools were illiterate but could in time become accomplished students and some became qualified teachers themselves. Miss Alice Henderson (1896 to 1909), having already learnt Tamil then went to the considerable trouble of learning a second native language so that she could teach Telugu girls up to a sufficient standard to gain a recognized Government school qualification, no other avenue being available to them. Miss Henderson also became proficient in Tamil Braille after being made aware of the plight of a number of Indian blind men and instigated a special braille school which taught them handcrafts. For girls with the required ability she set up a lace making school, some becoming certified teachers themselves. The Missionary women overall were extremely dedicated to their Christian cause, intelligent and industrious people. That such single women even contemplated venturing forth onto a foreign continent under such trying circumstances in these early years, far from their homes, families and missionary womens' support networks and earning very low wages for their trouble demonstrates to us today an extremely strong tenacity of character and Christian faith.

Increasing Importance of the Work :

In 1903 the NZ Foreign Missions Comittee declared to the Presbyterian Church General Assembly that "The whole church is responsible for the work in Madras, and not just the PWMU". Therefore, from 1903 the Committe accepted full financial responsibility for two Madras Missionaries for a period of three years.

A New Beginning :

As time passed the strong interest in Indian Mission work from within New Zealand, particularly by the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union, encouraged the NZ Church to seriously look at opening a Mission presence in India. In 1908 Dr WJ Porteous was sent to India to seek out a suitable Mission area, finally chosing an area in the Punjab (North India). The only Madras Missionary to transfer to the new mission was Miss Alice Henderson who then finally became fully supported financially by the NZ Presbyterian Church. After having worked closely with us in Madras for so many years, the Church of Scotland Missions Committee in Edinburgh graciously wished us well in our new endeavour.

Donald Cochrane, PCANZ Archives

Resources used in writing this history :

- PCANZ Missions manuscript material
- "A Century of Growth" by Rev JS Murray (1969)
- "Presbyterian Church of New Zealand - Our Missionaries in India 1906"
- "My Yesterdays in Sunshine and Shadow", by Alice E Henderson (1947)