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Founder’s Day Guest Speech 2021

History of Bishop Cotton School

With thanks to Raaja Bhasin, Old Cottonian and Writer (NB: this speech was broadcast on Facebook Live and a recording is found on our BCS You Tube Channel)

A brief history of Bishop Cotton School, Shimla. By Raaja Bhasin with image of Rev Slater the first Headmaster of the school.

Honouring our Founder, Bishop George Cotton, Founder’s Day 2021

The monsoon winds would have been sweeping both Kolkata and Shimla when, on this day in 1859, George Edward Lynch Cotton, Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan of India and Ceylon, conducted the thanksgiving service for the restoration of peace in India. Queen Victoria had personally selected George Cotton to go to India. This was a time when a very different wind had blown across the country. The Great Uprising of 1857 had just ended. Tempers and passions still ran high. There was resentment on the one hand and a powerful desire for revenge on the other.   

A part of the offertories of that day in Kolkata were devoted to the establishment of a hill school, with a chapel in which its memorial character would be recorded. The Bishop’s historical sermon was based on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: ‘Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.’ This was the moment when the endowment fund to create the institution was also started and this is the moment that we take as the foundation of Bishop Cotton School.

By the time Bishop Cotton preached his sermon in the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘Anglo-Indian Schooling’ had found a footing in India. Its early stages had stemmed from the European trading concerns that had arrived in the country and were able to establish their presence. As the years went by, the British East India Company overtook the somewhat parallel establishments of the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese. In these early years, the number of children of mixed European and Indian parentage had increased significantly. The earliest schools for these children were started by churches, the military and by a few individuals. Expectedly, the English language and modifications of education as drawn from the British Isles, began taking root in India. Here, it is significant to mention that the Elementary Education Act was passed in England only in 1870 – around two decades after Bishop Cotton School had started functioning in Shimla.

The first places with some basic education of an ‘Anglo – Indian nature’ were the three Presidency towns – Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Here, in informal and in often squalid settings, children would be provided a passable knowledge of Christian scriptures and the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. The teachers were rarely well-educated themselves and were pensioners of the British East India Company or were its employees.

These were also years, when whoever could, sent their children back to England to be educated. The separation of children and parents could last several years. The two primary reasons for this was the absence of suitable schools in India and the climate. Some schools had already come up in the hills – for example, there was Mister Maddock’s school in Musssorrie, which was on the site of today’s Savoy Hotel.

In April, 1860 Bishop Cotton came to Shimla for the first time. With him travelled his wife and daughter and a huge entourage that included a chaplain, a doctor, a nurse, around a hundred soldiers and a similar number of servants. Included were a cow, goats, sheep and a cat who was blamed for all cream and milk that went missing.

The first premises made available to the Bishop for the school were of the cantonment at Jutogh that lies at the other end of Shimla. The buildings were repaired and put to use. In Dr. Samuel Slater, Bishop Cotton found the school’s first headmaster. The Rev. Slater already had a substantial experience of education in India, and before his appointment to Bishop Cotton School, he had been at St. Paul’s School in Darjeeling. At Jutogh and named ‘Bishop’s School’ this institution received its first pupil a day after it opened. And on the 16th March 1863, the fifteen-year old Fredrick Naylor, “Creeping like a snail, unwilling to school” became the first Cottonian.

The site at Jutogh was soon found unsatisfactory. Accommodation was limited and unsuitable for a school. It was surrounded by orchards and the old road to Shimla passed through this – and the distraction of constantly moving carts and ponies, expectedly, were of greater interest to the boys than say, grammar or multiplication.

In the autumn of 1864, the southern end of the Knollswood spur was selected as the new site for the school and this is where we are today. The land taken amounted to some fifty-four acres and the process of constructing the school buildings began.

The foundation stone of the new school was laid by the Governor-General and Viceroy of India, Sir John Lawrence on the 26th September 1866. Ten days after this, the Bishop tragically drowned in Bengal. His body was never found.  In 1867, as a mark of respect and to perpetuate the memory of its founder, the name of the school was changed from Bishop’s School to Bishop Cotton School.

The life of Bishop Cotton is in itself what he would have aspired his boys to be. Cotton’s father had been killed in the wars with Napoleon and he never saw him. He was raised by his mother in less than ideal circumstances. He went to Oxford on a scholarship and then started teaching at Rugby. Subsequently, he was appointed as Headmaster at Marlborough just after that school had gone through a rough patch. It was at Marlborough that Cotton established organised games, the House and the prefect systems – and these systems were soon picked up by other public schools in Britain and when he came to India, these very systems and ideals were to form the basis of this school that owes its existence to him. The Bishop achieved what he did, by sheer hard work and capability – which is the ideal he set for the boys of this school.

On the 29th September 1868, the school moved from Jutogh and occupied the new buildings – though these were not complete till 1870. In another three years, there were a 105 European and Eurasian boys on the rolls and all came from varied backgrounds. While the death of Bishop Cotton had had a very deep impact on the School’s first headmaster, the Rev. Slater, he did not allow this to interfere with the working and growth of the School. These were years when the systems that ensured school’s running were made secure. 

On the subject of holidays, Samuel Slater held the opinion, “that the longer the holidays, the worse it is for both boys and masters.” One may add that this opinion remains.

There is so much to be said of those years, but one event that could have brought Bishop Cotton School to its closure stands out. On the 7th May 1905, a huge fire almost completely destroyed the main building. Boys were moved to other accommodation and many slept in tents. The school was rebuilt and occupied in July 1907.

By now, the School flag had a recognisable identity of its own. The two shades of blue have been drawn from the colours of Oxford and Cambridge. A word about the four houses of School. In 1906, the first house to be created was Lefroy and was named after the Bishop of Lahore, George Lefroy. The second House to be formed was Ibbetson in 1907. This was named after Sir Denzil Ibbetson, Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab from 1907 to 1908. Rivaz House took its name from Sir Charles Rivaz, Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab from 1903 to 1907. Curzon House was named after the Viceroy, Lord Curzon.

It was only in 1915, after the first two Indian boys who had joined School in the 1880s, that the next lot came. The reasons for this are not clear, and this change may well have been the result of the First World War and the falling numbers of European and Eurasian boys. In the following years, several others joined. To honour the old boys who had fallen in the War, the Memorial was built on the First Flat and unveiled on Founder’s Day, 1925. Opened in 1930, the hall where we sit now, was named in honour of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin whose tenure in India was marked by rising nationalism (to which he was not entirely unsympathetic).

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ayrcliff Girls’ School, on the slope of Chhota Simla, was purchased and converted into the Bishop Cotton Preparatory School – this is now the Tibetan School. In 1938, eighty-six boys were enrolled in the Preparatory School and a hundred and twenty-nine in the Main School. The Prep School was closed in 1947 and the boys shifted to Linlithgow. 

When the Second World War broke out, to escape the Blitzkrieg and the heavy bombing of London by Nazi Germany, in August 1940 about fifty applications from boys of various schools in England were received. When this War ended, in December 1945, ninety boys went back to England.

With the coming of Independence and the Partition of the country in 1947, another chapter opened in School. A saga and a story on its own, forty-two Muslim boys left for Pakistan and several European boys also left. Apart from the financial crunch, by the end of 1947, the School had lost 140 boys, six masters (including two Housemasters), several ladies and over sixty servants and their families.

To offset this shortfall, severe economies were introduced and Day Scholars were encouraged to join B.C.S. and by April 1949, the School was virtually full. One measure of those economies, is visible where we sit now. Several chairs here have a small brass plaque behind them. These were ‘sold’ as it were, to Old Cottonians to generate funds for the School.

In the early 1950s, the changes that had swept across India made their presence more strongly felt in School, which was able to modify and adapt itself and yet hold on to its treasured traditions and distinct identity. The pupils were now overwhelmingly Indian. Punjabi was introduced as a subject and the number of periods for Hindi was increased. Mohan Rakesh, the Hindi teacher, went on to become one of the acclaimed pioneers of a new wave of writing in Hindi – and tongue in cheek, later likened the Staff at B.C.S., in their black academic gowns, to bats flitting about the place. 

I came to BCS as a 6 year old in Transition, as Class 2 was called. I was here for another 10 years and unlike most others who studied with me, this, for those years, was also ‘home’ as my father taught here and we lived on the premises. As for many others, those golden moments of childhood were among the happiest of my life and these were also the years that shaped much of what I have done in later years.

School’s like Bishop Cotton School have stood the test of time by being based on a few core principles. This is a school well rooted in tradition but with its eyes firmly set on the future and a global presence. 

Let me end by noting that between the time that Bishop Cotton preached his sermon in Kolkata and today, thousands of Cottonians have gone out into the world. Barring a few, almost all have carried the school motto ‘Overcome Evil with Good’ as a badge of honour with them. This is a motto that becomes a way of life. It is a line that transcends religion or individual belief. These men, who as young boys formed bonds and found principles that endure through life, have stepped out of these acres and buildings to help make our world a better place.

Director Simon Weale, Founder’s Day 2021
The Chaplain with the Headmaster and our panel of staff, guests and boys
Headmaster’s Question Time, Mathew John with guests, staff and boys panel on what makes BCS special.
OC Karan Pal Singh, Businessman and guest panelist, receives a gift from the Director
OC and Writer Raaja Bhasin receives a thank you gift

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