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Dr Graham, who loved children, founded these Homes in 1900
Epitaph in the Katherine Graham Memorial Chapel, Kalimpong

As you might guess from our name, our charity’s story really starts with another story - that of a remarkable young man called John Anderson Graham. He was a Scot who travelled to Kalimpong in the late 1800s to undertake missionary work. Moved by the needs of the local people, particularly the plight of the “Tea Garden Children”, he laid the foundations for the Homes – and everything that followed. This is his story.

He saw the need: a Dr Graham Timeline

Who was Dr Graham?

John Anderson Graham was born in Hackney, London, in 1861. His early years were overshadowed by loss. John’s father – a retired civil servant who moved the family back to their native Scotland in 1862 – passed away when John was just six years old. This, inevitably, placed a serious strain on the Grahams’ finances. By 13, John had been withdrawn from school so he could begin to earn a living, initially working as a clerk in a lawyer's office. Meanwhile, recognising the need for education, he enrolled in evening classes and, in due course, began studying in Edinburgh for a divinity degree. He was also becoming increasingly involved in Christian mission. In the late 1880s, while serving with poverty-stricken children in Edinburgh, he met a young fellow worker called Katherine McConachie. Just two days after John graduated from college and was ordained as a minister of the Church of Scotland, they married. Within a week, they had left the UK to join a mission in India. Their ultimate destination: Kalimpong.

Operation: Kalimpong

In the late 1800s, Kalimpong was just a remote hill station in the Himalayas, then part of British Sikkim (nowadays West Bengal). It was perched on a ridge, 4,600ft above sea level and within sight of the world’s third-highest peak, Kanchenjunga. As the Grahams wound their way up to Kalimpong for the first time in 1889, they were awed by its setting. “Words can convey little idea of the surpassing beauty and grandeur of this valley,” John wrote in his journal. Originally settled in the 1870s by Church of Scotland missionary Rev William Macfarlane, the 16-acre compound contained a scattering of buildings, a small church and a training school for catechists. But John’s ambitions for the local people would soon grow far beyond the mission’s compact borders.

Mission improbable

Former headmaster Bernard Brooks describes Dr Graham as “a man in a hurry!” – and this is no exaggeration. Within six years of his arrival, John had transformed the landscape of Kalimpong. Along with senior missionary Reverend William Sutherland, he oversaw the building of a new, Scottish-style, 500-capacity church (the Macfarlane Memorial Church), a school for boys, a school for girls, and a multi-workshop craft industry to generate income for local people. The latter included a female-only workshop, the first time women in the area had ever received a wage. With increasing incidence of disease in the region, the Grahams also identified a need for healthcare in Kalimpong. In 1893, they opened a hospital (the Charteris Hospital) and a leprosy treatment centre.

The “Tea Garden Children”

As the mission grew, Dr Graham was also becoming aware of a problem facing Anglo-Indians in both the nearby tea plantations and the slums of Kolkata. Children born to white European fathers and Indian mothers routinely found themselves rejected by both communities and consigned to dire poverty. Moved by their situation, Dr Graham urged his mission to fund a home and an education for these children. Disappointingly, they refused – not because the project lacked merit, but because they believed he already had enough on his plate. By 1898, the Doctor’s roles included headmaster, hospital superintendent, workshop supervisor, church pastor and mission administrator (a post he would hold for the next 35 years). Undaunted, he began his own fundraising drive. Returning to Scotland on furlough, he toured churches across Scotland, speaking at over 200 towns and villages to raise awareness of the needs in Kalimpong. Within two years, he had enough money to launch the scheme.

Birth of the Homes

The doors of the Homes opened for the first time on 24 September 1900. At this point it was only a rented house in the town with room for six boys. Within weeks, however, Dr Graham had received a request to take in another 26 children. After securing 100 acres of land from the government, he set about creating the first dedicated cottage for them to live in. A year later, in November 1901, it was ready – along with a farm, to provide for the growing community. Not a man to rest on his laurels, Dr Graham kept developing the mission in new directions. Over the next 20 years, 44 new buildings arrived. By now the community’s renown reached far beyond Kalimpong; the “St Andrew’s Colonial Homes”, as they were then called, were becoming famous from Calcutta to London.

A life well lived

Aside from fundraising trips and speaking engagements, the Grahams remained in Kalimpong as the Homes developed, bringing up their own six children there. When Katherine died in 1919, aged just 58, John stayed on. In 1925, he commissioned a chapel in her memory (sadly damaged in an earthquake in 2011). In his later years, he built a holiday home for returning students, and a kindergarten. This was completed in 1938. The following year was his personal Jubilee year (1889-1939) and well-wishers worldwide contributed to the building of a new Principal’s house in the compound (Jubilee House). His work was widely recognised, with honorary doctorates, a Companion of the Indian Empire award and, in 1931, the role of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He was the only missionary ever to receive this honour. By the time of Dr Graham’s passing in May 1942, war was casting its long shadow over India. Even on his deathbed, however, his thoughts were with his pupils and the impact they might have beyond Kalimpong – as one of his very last letters makes clear.

“The world is in difficulty and this is the call to us to do all we can to help. You dear children have your part to play and it may be a big part. The way for you as for all of us is to live just as Jesus lived, to follow him in His loving, unselfish, generous life of service to all, to bear witness to Him and His way, in everything we do. So shall we best help the world out of its difficulties by helping to bring God’s Kingdom to come… from your loving friend. John Anderson Graham”

An enduring legacy

Eighty years after Dr Graham’s death, his vision for the Homes is still bearing fruit. The school he established is now open to fee-paying pupils. Modern “Grahamites” come to Kalimpong from every corner of India, as well as from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and as far afield as Korea. The school’s ethos remains true to Dr Graham’s original goals – to give young people the opportunity to develop “strength of character, greater self-esteem and confidence so that they may walk this earth with dignity, whilst at the same time give of themselves for the benefit of society.” Just as importantly, it still provides a loving home and education to scores of children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to come by either – youngsters who have lost their parents, or whose families are struggling and impoverished. This is the great legacy of Dr Graham’s long and remarkable life and one that, with your help, we want to safeguard for future generations.

Read on!

Learn more about how DGH is building on Dr Graham's amazing legacy.

The Homes TodayThe Homes Today

What would it have been like to meet Dr Graham?

Thanks to one of our long-term supporters, we can tell you! Nesta Farrow was born and brought up at the Homes in the 1930s and 1940s. She remembers "a lovely old man who stopped and talked to everyone - and knew every child's name." You can read about her memories of John, and the Homes, in this blog in our News section.

Read the articleRead the article
DGH changed my life forever
Lolly Raphael, former Homes pupil

Notable alumni

  • Lyonchen Jigmi Yoser Thinley, former Prime Minister of Bhutan
  • Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of Bhutan
  • David R. Syiemlieh, academic
  • Anirban Bhattacharyya, author, director, comedian, actor
  • Binod Pradhan, cinematographer
  • Norman Douglas Hutchinson, artist who painted the British Royal family
  • Sonam Tobgye, Chief Justice of Bhutan Supreme Court and High Court

Notable Visitors

1921 Edward, Prince of Wales

1922 George Mallory

1933 Lord Clydesdale, aviator

1948 Lady Mountbatten, patroness of the Homes

1957 His Holiness The Dalai Lama

1973 Indira Gandhi

From DGH... to Everest

Many famous faces have passed through the Homes over the years – not least the climbing team that first attempted to conquer Mount Everest in the 1920s. Legendary climber George Mallory and his fellow adventurers spent three days at the school en route to the mountain in 1922. They met the staff and children, played football and even joined a singalong in the school hall. Though the expedition ended in failure, the team set a new climbing world record (8,325m) during their attempt. Mallory, tragically, would go on to lose his life in a second expedition two years later. Parts of the team’s 1922 journey through Darjeeling were captured on film by photographer John Noel.

Watch the 1922 Everest ascent on the BFIWatch the 1922 Everest ascent on the BFI

And a Mount Everest flypast

Mallory's expedition wasn't the school's only brush with Everest fame. Eleven years later, aviator Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, then known as Lord Clydesdale, arrived in the Himalayas to attempt the world's first flight over the great mountain. (This was an idea that had been suggested to him by the Scottish MP and novelist John Buchan). Dr Graham spied an opportunity. "Just before the first flight over Everest, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr Graham, at his Mission School at Kalimpong, asked Clydesdale to fly over the school in his Moth [monoplane]," recalls the author of Roof of the World: Man's First Flight Over Everest, the team's memoir of their expedition. "The event caused a sensation and when the children asked if they had seen something supernatural, they were quickly disillusioned." Douglas-Hamilton successfully completed the Everest flyover on 3 April 1933.

Watch a short film about the Everest flyoverWatch a short film about the Everest flyover

When Dr Graham met Queen Elizabeth II

In 1931, Dr Graham was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the first missionary ever to take up the position. That same year, he was invited to stay with the royal family at Balmoral Castle in Scotland – where he encountered Britain’s future queen, Elizabeth. A wonderful letter from our archives records their meeting: “I showed your pictures… to that bewitching little five-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who was greatly interested in you all,” Dr Graham wrote, to his children at the Homes. “After seeing our Kalimpong Babies’ Cottage and the Babies, she took me upstairs to see her baby Sister, the Princess Margaret Rose, a happy, gurgling, rosy baby… All the time I thought of Kalimpong and the children there, and I told everybody I was wearying to get back to you.”