Queen Mary's Institute, Pune

By Murphy, Paul | History Today, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Queen Mary's Institute, Pune


Murphy, Paul, History Today


Painted on a red-and-blue sign in the compound of the former army camp outside Bombay, dotted with stone buildings that served as barracks during the Great War, is a verse translated from the Sanskrit, a message of hope to wounded war veterans. `Although hurt (stricken or maimed), I grow, become young again, and thus offer shade, flowers and fruit in the service of humanity'.

The motto was chosen by Lady Willingdon for a school that she opened in 1917 to train Indian soldiers who had lost legs and suffered other disabling injuries in the First World War.

In the visitor's book, each page decorated with a border of lotuses and rural scenes, is the message `With all good wishes and profound admiration'. The signature is Lady Edwina Mountbatten's. The date, February 1st, 1957. Other signatures include Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959 and his daughter, Indira Gandhi in 1963.

What these and many other visitors saw were paraplegics and amputees on crutches being trained as radio/TV technicians, stenographers, tailors, diesel mechanics and electricians at Queen Mary's Technical School for Disabled Ex-Servicemen at Pune, a military town south of Bombay. Their general observation: Why don't we have many more institutions like this?

Around 750,000 Britons died in the 1914-18 conflict. But the British Empire lost a further 200,000 - nearly a third of whom were Indian. Disgorged from ships in Bombay, they wandered around the city, many suffering from shellshock, others hobbling on crutches, or with rags over their eyes having been blinded by gas.

Distressed by these scenes, Lady Willingdon set up a school to train injured Indian soldiers who were mostly rural, uneducated peasants whose only knowledge was how to handle a plough and a rifle. She donated to the project more than one million rupees - a colossal sum in those days.

R. Trevelyan in his memoirs referred to Lady Willingdon as an eccentric and described her husband, who was Governor of Bombay from 1913-1919, and who became successor to Lord Irwin as Viceroy of India in 1931, as `a caricature of a pukka sahib in topee and spats'.

Lady Willingdon was an archetype of Bombay's high society which had imbibed a mixture of socialism and Fabianism, mingled with theosophism and a taste for philanthropy. A time-honoured tradition of altruism in India had begun with the Sassoon family, Sephardi Jews, who arrived in Bombay in 1833, and donated much of their wealth to numerous charities, setting up schools, hospitals and convalescent homes.

Lady Willingdon, a cousin of Queen Mary, founded the school for disabled soldiers on May 16th, 1917, at Braganza Hall, Sassoon Barracks, Bombay, which was then owned by SirJacob Sassoon. She issued an appeal to all ruling princess and philanthropists, and collected over two million rupees to give the institution a sound financial start.

At this time, concern for the Indian veterans was widespread. During the war, George V had inquired as to whether their religious needs were adequately catered for. As Emperor of India, he deplored the segregation which had divided European and Indian society and became patron of the Willingdon Club, named after the Governor of Bombay which was open to all races.

When Lady Willingdon said she wanted to help the Indian soldiers, Queen Mary acceded to giving her name to the institution. The queen remained its chief patron until 1948: the President of India has replaced her.

The minutes of the working committee meetings, some attended by Lady Willingdon tell the story of the early days. At a meeting of January 21st, 1918, for example, `the matter of engaging a special man from America for the purpose of the manufacture of artificial limbs' was discussed. Another meeting on February 15th, 1918 records that: `The superintendent reported that there were 108 students in the school Employment had already been secured for several, including two oil engine drivers'. …

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