In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
Dorothy was a Masters degree holder from Oxford University and also trained as a teacher at Paddington. But somehow she never developed a fascination for teaching. Hence, when the Director of Public Instruction, perhaps on the governor’s urging, offered her the post of the principal, Dorothy was aghast. Pentland appealed to her, and finally as a compromise, Clement suggested she try it for one academic year. She agreed reluctantly.
Thus began, in 1914, the historic Madras College for Women – the Queen consented to name the institution after her only in 1917. Later christened Queen Mary’s College, it was the first women’s college in the city and the third oldest women’s college in India.
In the early 1800s, Lt Col Francis Capper of the Madras Army occupied a house on the Marina – the Nawab himself was the only other who had a sea-facing property then. The plot that Capper, a geographer, occupied had some pretty geography; the Buckingham Canal ran at the rear, and the ever growing Marina beach to its east. As early as 1859, handbooks of the Madras Presidency mention this place as a vegetarian hotel which, around 1900, was in a pretty uneasy state of survival. That was levelled by Capper to build his house, which later became the core of the college.
The Queen Mary’s College was a prime property, but most buildings were derelict. The college was ill-equipped and didn’t have labs. But soon funding came in and Pentland House, Stone House, and Jeypore House were built. Two properties on the south were acquired to make it bigger. Dorothy even arranged a set of free horse-drawn jutkas to get her science students to Presidency College.
Though she was reluctant in agreeing to it, Dorothy ended up teaching History besides administering the college for a couple of decades. It was an irony that Clement, who had come for teaching in Madras, was prematurely shot by a student in a scandal over his pretty wife. And Dorothy, who never wanted to teach, stayed back to nurture one of the greatest colleges in India. By the time Dorothy left in 1935, what started with just 37 students and just one classroom became an institution that had 250 students, including girls who came from all over India and the far east as well.
Being on the beach, the students had an opportunity to witness history in the making. During one Navaratri, the German ship Emden’s firing could be heard close by and the flash of the bombs landing could be seen. Dorothy ordered the girls to remain indoors. But the next morning, a few of the brave ones cycled up to the port to see the damage with their own eyes.
During World War 2, the girls were directed to prepare air raids and blackouts. The tennis courts were dug up to form trenches. The girls turned to gardening vegetables to make the hostels self-sufficient. The walls of the college were painted greyish green to hide them from the Japanese bombers.
The girl students from Presidency College were given hostel facilities in Queen Mary’s and were often unfairly blamed for making the Queen Marians political. During independence satyagraha, the students protested on the front lawn causing great embarrassment to the British staff. Quit India movement had the management and the students at loggerheads. QMC students came out in great numbers – two of them, Sakunthala and Maya, even spent some months in Vellore prison. In protest, the students cancelled all celebrations in the college for the academic year in 1943.
In 1945, when Winston Churchill posed with a victory sign after winning the World War, the Britain-born principal, Miss Myers, arranged for a huge ‘V’ sign made of sparkling white shells in the garden. But some nationalistic students crept out in the night and broke this, terming it a monument of imperialism. Seeing the writing on the wall, Myers did not repeat her exercise.
True to the college motto, “Common sense and consideration”, Queen Mary’s has attracted gifted students who have contributed much to society in various fields and a Queen Marian used to be looked up with a sense of awe.
Dorothy De La Hey’s words in the preface of the first QMC magazine were: “This college is destined to have an influence on the future of Indian womanhood.” How true!
—The author is a historian and author