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 By 13, John had been withdrawn from school so he could begin to earn a living, initially working as a clerk in a lawyer's office.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.
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, . As the Grahams wound their way up to Kalimpong for the first time in Kanchenjunga1889, 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.
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 for them to live in. A year later, in dedicated cottageNovember 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.
Learn more about how DGH is building on Dr Graham's amazing legacy.