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VOL. XXIII No. 9, August 16-31, 2013
A Readers Write

Medhurst, Elizabeth and Loveless

I am an Australian working on a biography of my ancestor, the English missionary, Dr. Walter Henry Medhurst, and my research required me to recently visit Chennai.

I was particularly interested in Dr. Medhurst’s wife, Elizabeth, and her early years growing up in South India, because she was to become an important partner in the missionary life of the Medhursts. She was born in Thanjavur in 1794, the daughter of George and Elizabeth Martin, her father being an officer in the Madras Army. During her early life, she and her younger sister Sophia had moved around to various regimental stations. In 1803, her father was a Captain, based at the Fort in Trichinopoly.

In 1807, the newly appointed Governor, Sir George Barlow, sparked a crisis in Madras when he decided against the previous practice of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army having a seat in the Governor’s Council. The Governor also made a number of other changes to allowances for senior officers which, he believed, were being abused. In short, these activities initiated an atmosphere of revolt within the Madras Army and George Martin, a Lieutenant-Colonel now, was one of three officers who signed a covering letter to the General outlining what could be construed as seditious demands. The crisis came to a head but, before a resolution could be achieved, General Hay Macdowall, the Commander-in-Chief, resigned and returned to England, only to die when his ship was lost at sea. Meanwhile, George Martin was sent back to London to explain to the Directors of the East India Company the army’s side of the dispute. The crisis ultimately died down and Martin returned to India as a full Colonel with the 13th Madras Native Infantry in 1813.

In the middle of this crisis, Elizabeth’s mother fell ill with a fever and died. Distraught from the loss and under the threat of a court martial from the potential revolt, George Martin arranged for Elizabeth, then just 14 years old, to marry a fellow army officer, Lieutenant George Braune. The couple got married at Chitradurga on October 14, 1808. George Martin entrusted Elizabeth’s younger sister Sophia to their care and he returned to his army duties.

Elizabeth dutifully bore her husband two sons, the first when she was 16 and the family was living at Machilipatnam. Tragedy struck again in 1815 when the younger son died on the day that Elizabeth was to celebrate her 21st birthday. As if that was not bad enough, her husband was away on a campaign at Kurnool. Whether he died of wounds sustained during action or from some other cause is not recorded. We do know that he died on November 26 at Gooty. Elizabeth would not learn of the death of her husband for several weeks, receiving the news as a dreadful Christmas present. By that time her father had returned to India and word came that he had also died at Bellary in June that year.

So at 21, Elizabeth became an orphan, a widow and lost one of her children. All of this in a land where she had no family other than her son and her younger sister. She moved to Madras, placed her sister in an orphanage and went to live with missionaries at what is now the William Charles Memorial Church in George Town. There she taught and looked after the children, receiving board for herself and her son for her services. Then known as the Missionary Chapel, it was founded in 1806 by William Charles Loveless of the London Missionary Society and was the first church to be built outside Fort St George. Elizabeth’s young son George was able to attend the school which the missionaries operated just next door to the church.

In 1817 a young Walter Medhurst arrived in Madras from London, en route to Malacca where he was to set up a printing works for the Society. Due to the reluctance of the East India Company to take missionaries on their ships, Walter was delayed for three months in Madras and during this time he lodged with Mr and Mrs Loveless, the missionaries in George Town. He wrote back to London that he had procured a Chinese grammar and began to teach himself Chinese. Of greater interest to Walter, however, was his meeting Elizabeth. He fell in love with her and convinced her to marry him and join him on his journey to Malacca. They married in the Missionary Chapel on May 19, 1817 and sailed next day with young George on the Fair Trail for Malacca. Walter wrote back to London to inform them of his changed circumstances:

Yesterday I entered into the Holy State of Matrimony with Mrs Elizabeth Braune, widow of the late Captain Braune of the 15th Madras Native Infantry, who has resided in the house of our brother Loveless for these nine months. She speaks Tamil fluently and can also talk in Telugu. Born in India and having travelled over the greater parts of the peninsula living in tents under a scorching sun, she is more likely to endure the terrors of an eastern climate than one of our English ladies.”

Thus commenced a partnership which embraced missionary work in Penang, Indonesia and China and involved the establishment of churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals, some of which are still operating today. Medhurst published numerous reference works and he played a key role in translating The Bible into Chinese.

In visiting Chennai, I wanted to find out if the Church in which Walter and Elizabeth met and married still existed and after a few internet searches I was delighted to find that the William Charles Memorial Church was very much alive and well and I was invited to attend a service while I was in Chennai. The invitation turned out to mean a lot more than just attending a service. The welcome I received and the hospitality shown by the Presbyter and the congregation were astonishing. They were so appreciative of having someone visit who was connected with their history and I could assure them that I shared those same feelings. It was really gratifying to see that this Church is as vibrant today as it must have been in 1817.

During my visit I became aware that the Church did not have a picture of its founder to display among its other historical information. As a result of some previous research I was aware that the National Portrait Gallery in London had a picture of William Charles Loveless on display and I thought I might be able to source a copy from it. I am happy to report that I was able to obtain a copy of the portrait and give it to the Church as a small token of my appreciation. Hopefully this will add to the history which is portrayed so well on the walls of this wonderfully restored Church.

John Holliday

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In this issue

Metro Rail’s impact – on churches
Why can’t temple tanks be put to good use?
Taking a look at bridges
Portuguese San Thome and Madras Week
The Gentle Book Man – in his simplicity sublime
Kalakshetra’s new Director
The gubernatorial life
Speaking of heritage at a Sunday breakfast
Madras Week 2013
A most cerebral cricketer

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Madras Eye


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