Miss Hersilia Susie Oliphant arrived in India from England in 1920 as a governess to the princess of Cooch Behar. None could have guessed then that for the next four decades, she would play a significant role in the development of education in India.
It was a series of fortunate episodes that brought together academic visionaries in the sylvan town of Dehradun in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each of these pioneers set out on a challenging new path which culminated in the establishment of institutions that stand as epitomes of good education. Miss Olipahnt was one among them and set up the Welham Boys’ and Welham Girls’ Schools, naming them after her village in Nottinghamshire.
Born on August 17, 1883, she spent her childhood at Playworth Hall at Retford in Nottinghamshire. There is no record to establish whether she attended school and college or not. In 1920, however, she landed in India as the English governess of Gayatri Devi. She was to soon leave Cooch Behar and work in Kanpur and then Delhi. From Delhi, she came to Dehradun and worked at The Doon School and Colonel Brown School. It is there that she resolved to set up a preparatory school for boys and, in 1936, was told by the owner of 5, Circular Road, Hukum Chand, that the house could be converted into a school.
The place was done up and the first boy to join the Welham Boys’ Prep School in January 1937 was Maqbool Hussain Khan; he was joined by five others. Miss Oliphant’s dream of a residential kindergarten and prep school for Indian children was finally realised. Soon, parents were keen on a public school for Indian girls on modern lines too.
Miss Oliphant finally acquired rooms in an estate, Nasreen, near the boys’ school and started a small boarding school for girls. The school began with 10 students. She wanted it to expand and requested well-to-do parents for funds, but all she could generate was Rs 5,000. She brought Miss Grace Mary Linnel on board, entrusting her with the task of starting and running the school. Miss Linnel became the founder-principal. The estate belonged to Sahibzada Saiduzzafar Khan of Rampur state of Uttar Pradesh and the principal’s office is, even today, housed in that estate.
The girls’ school, right from the start, began to symbolise qualities like independence, high standards and a progressive attitude. It aimed at developing in its students a pride for Indian culture and awareness of national and global issues. Among its well-known alumni are Subhashini Ali, Madhu Trehan, Brinda Karat and Laila Tyabji.
The boys’ school too has come a very long way from its sheltered existence as a little prep school in the quiet Dalanwala area. The school magazine titled The Oliphant is brought out by the student-editors of Welham Boys’ School. India’s first Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, studied here and at The Doon School in the 1950s. At one of the founder’s day celebrations, where he was the chief guest, he said that after leaving the “familiar” atmosphere at Welham Boys’ School, when he went to The Doon School, he “felt lonely and unhappy” for the first few weeks. He remembered Miss Oliphant as a “motherly figure”, “stern at times.”
In 1956, Misss Oliphant donated all her assets to the Welham Boys School, which presently is administered by a board of trustees. An ailing Miss Oliphant went back to England in 1962 where she died later that year. However, the town observes her death anniversary on September 20 every year and remembers her monumental contribution towards making Dehradun a town of schools.
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