Dr Graham’s Kalimpong Homes

Catechists Kalimpong West Bengal India c 1890
Catechists, Kalimpong, West Bengal, India, ca.1890. John Anderson Graham is standing, second from the right.

Scottish missionary papers in the library’s archive and manuscript collections are replete with stories of individual Scots who sought to fulfil their vocation overseas. Figures requiring little introduction are well represented in the papers, such as in the journals of David Livingstone or letters of Mary Slessor, along with more surprising gems, including the last known letter of Jane Haining, missionary in Budapest, written only two days before her death in Auschwitz in 1944.

One story that stands out is that of Rev Dr John Anderson Graham and his wife, Katherine, founders of the St Andrew’s Colonial Homes in Kalimpong, whose humanitarian work with Anglo-Indian children was recognised by both Indian and British governments.

After a number of years working as a clerk and a minor civil servant, John Anderson Graham’s life changed course when he attended Edinburgh University in preparation for entering the ministry. Whilst completing his studies, John met his future wife, Katherine McConachie, when they were both working with children living in poverty in the West Port area of Edinburgh. After graduating from Divinity Hall, John was ordained, he and Katherine married, and the couple departed for India – all within the space of a few days in early 1889. John had been appointed as the first foreign missionary of the Church of Scotland’s Young Men’s Guild, and the couple’s destination was the remote hill station of Kalimpong, situated at 4000 feet on a ridge in the eastern Himalayas, in an area then known as British Sikkim.

Kalimpong Mission, West Bengal, India, ca.1890
Kalimpong Mission, West Bengal, India, ca.1890

The work John and Katherine embarked on together transformed this remote and undeveloped town into what has been described as ‘the power station’ of the Himalayas. A fine neo-Gothic church was built, a hospital and chain of village dispensaries followed, and schools were established throughout the area. A teacher training institute attracted students from the surrounding closed countries of Bhutan and Nepal. Under Katherine’s initiative, female education was provided for with a girls’ school established in 1892, along with the introduction of female teacher training.

Girls' school, Kalimpong, India, ca.1920
Girls’ school, Kalimpong, India, ca.1920

The couple’s greatest legacy was undoubtedly the establishment of St Andrew’s Colonial Homes, which rescued many Anglo-Indian children from poverty in tea plantations and the slums of Calcutta. John first learned of the children born as a result of unofficial unions between British planters and local women whilst visiting tea growing regions in the north such as Duars, Terai and Darjeeling. With little or no financial support from their fathers, many of whom had returned to Britain, these children endured dire poverty. John and Katherine conceived of a project to rescue the children and offer them a home and an education in Kalimpong.

Unable to secure financial support from the Young Men’s Guild or missionary committee for the project, John undertook to raise the necessary funds from other sources, and attracted contributions from the British government in India, commerce, and wealthy individuals, as well as from the wider Scottish public. The first cottage opened in November 1901, and more quickly followed. In a short space of time, this model village grew to include all the requisite facilities, including a school, hospital and chapel, with capacity to accommodate over 600 children. The Kalimpong Homes Industries added another element of success, employing over 1000 local people by 1922, and training many more in skills such as lacework, weaving and carpentry.

Training school Kalimpong ca.1900-1920
Training school, Kalimpong, ca.1900-1920

The surviving records of Dr Graham’s Homes, as they were later renamed, were presented to the library in the 1970s, and include letters from many former pupils at Kalimpong. Extensive files of correspondence between John and Katherine, written on any days that they were apart, are testament to the strength of their partnership. Both were widely recognised for their work, and such was John Anderson Graham’s reputation and influence that he was invited to visit the closed kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. He developed a particular interest in Bhutan, a fact reflected in the archive, and acted as a virtual intermediary between the British government and the maharaja.

Inventories for the Kalimpong papers can be found in the guide to manuscript collections.

A selection of photographs of Kalimpong and the surrounding region, including of indigenous people, schools, the teacher training institute and churches, have been digitised and added to the International Mission Photography Archive.