Initial comments

This list has been prepared in 2020-21 but most entries are extracts and adaptations from SL Edgar and MJ Eade, Toward the Sunrise, NZ Baptist Historical Society, 1985, and from NZ Baptist. It is not intended as a complete list of Baptist women missionaries in India and Bangladesh since 1886. It calls our attention to some who were leaders, early leaders or long-serving.

The initial two women in this collection were born in England. One contributed much to mission work in Sri Lanka and settled in New Zealand, and one influenced New Zealanders to start a mission society and send women to take the gospel to the zenanas of India.

Hannah Carter

(nee Morton, 1853-62; 1869-81; 1888-92, became NZ resident)

Born c. 1831; died 1922. Hannah Carter was a missionary in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Along with husband Rev. Charles Carter, Mrs Carter served as a member of the English Baptist Mission Society and was instrumental in the publication of the Singhalese Bible. Hannah took ‘an active and laborious part in the literary work of her distinguished husband,’ and was the person who took responsibility for copying out the Bible translation into Singhalese.

When the family moved to New Zealand, she cared for a large family, ministered in NZ churches alongside her husband (Ponsonby and Caversham), and was known for her kind hospitality. She was later a member of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle.

Source: Obituary:  NZB February 1922, 21.

Ellen Arnold

(Born in Aston, Warwickshire, England in 1858 and then resident in Australia; died East Bengal, India, July 1931)

Ellen was the first Baptist woman missionary from Australia. In an unusual move in 1884-85, Ellen Arnold took a ‘crusade’, as she called it, through the colonies to raise the profile of East Bengal and the highly restricted life of women in the zenanas (the women’s quarters in homes, from which they could very rarely go out). The ‘crusade’ included New Zealand where her visit reinforced a call recently given by Silas Mead for a NZ contribution to Mission. Ellen’s push was decisive in the fact that New Zealand Baptist leaders resolved to set up the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society (NZBMS) and to start by sending women for the Zenana mission.

[Source: Sutherland, Martin, Baptists in colonial New Zealand, NZ Baptist Research Society, 2002, p. 210]

Hopestill Pillow

(Born 1857; died 28 May 1895, Calcutta India. Member of Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, Christchurch)

Miss Pillow joined Rosalie Macgeorge at Narayangunge near Dhaka, in 1889 before proceeding to Furreedpore to learn Bengali. In 1891 she commenced work in Brahmanbaria, starting schools for children and undertaking Zenana Gospel missions and river journeys to outlying villages. She also supervised indigenous workers, demonstrating a natural business acumen in her administration of the affairs of the mission. Tragically, her tireless enthusiasm for the work along with her desire to delay taking furlough for a year (granted reluctantly by the Society) led to a rapid deterioration in health. She was taken to Calcutta by Annie Bacon in May of 1895 and there she died.

[Source: Obituary: NZBaptist August 1895, 113]

Annie Bacon

(Died 1946. Served 1890-1899 NZBMS Missionary, India, Member of Hanover St., Dunedin)

Miss Bacon pioneered the medical work at Brahmanbaria where a mission station was set up east of Dhaka. She is credited with breaking down barriers of suspicion between Indian women and foreign missionaries. She married Walter Barry in 1899 and both relocated their work to the New South Wales mission station in Comilla, then in East Bengal.

[Source: Obituary: NZB June 1946]

Nellie Gainsford

(Served 1904-1920)

Nellie found the demands which the climate and prevalent fevers made on her health more than she could stand, and had to return in 1907 to NZ. By 1909, when she had regained strength, she was able to serve a further four years. This was followed by a two-year furlough which enabled her to go to India a third time, in October 1916, where she stayed until ill health forced her resignation in 1920.

During her last spell on the field Nellie Gainsford opened up women’s work in Chandpur, the city on the huge Lower Meghna River, south of Dhaka.

In July 1919, with Miss Cousins of Comilla and two Bible women, Nellie travelled northwards by riverboat, calling in to 25 villages as an evangelist with the gospel message. She wrote, ‘We confined ourselves mostly to Hindus. There are more Hindus here than in the south and the majority are Namasudras.

‘Most women we met had never seen a white person and were scared at first, but their fears were soon overcome, and they grew quite friendly and confiding. Many listened and tried to understand though the message was so new and strange to them. In one or two places we were told we were not wanted, but in each case it was the men who objected to our presence, not the women.’

The next year, again speaking mainly to Namasudra women, Nellie, Miss Cousins and the Bible women again voyaged along the river to take the Good News. The women listened well, asked intelligent questions and appeared to grasp the message and accept it.

‘We wished we could remain with them,’ Nellie pined, ‘or that they were near enough to our station to receive regular teaching. They were illiterate so could not read for themselves though some purchased books in the hope of finding someone to read the for them.’

After her return to NZ, Nellie became secretary of the Baptist Women’s Missionary Union, BWMU, (1920-37 and 1940-48) and also Ropeholder Superintendent (1950-54). Her encouragement of missionary interest among the women at home may well have exceeded her valuable work on the field.

[Source: Toward the Sunrise, Edgar and Eade]

Amy Cowles

(Served 1911-1947)

Amy had lived in Richmond, Nelson, and Wanganui. Her training as a teacher and also a nurse was put to good effect, first in Brahmanbaria and then Chandpur. In 1915 she had responsibility for the mission’s work in schools when establishing small village schools staffed by national teachers was seen as a way of identifying with the needs of the country and also making the gospel known more widely. Amy managed eight such schools with a total roll of 167 children. She also visited Hindu schools and gave Christian instruction.

When missionaries travelled for village evangelism later, they tried to keep contact with these children, and in this way in 1917 Amy wrote of meeting seven girls who had recently been married. So on one of these tours, Amy, travelling with Nellie Gainsford, visited in fifteen days 16 villages. This strategy worked well so Nellie and friends increased their visits. For instance, in 1929 Amy visited 97 villages, 54 of which had not been visited before. After 58 days of itinerating she said, ‘This work appeals to me more and more.’

Amy was described as a saint by fellow missionaries. In the Bengal society of the time, derogatory sexual verbal abuse was hurled. Amy copped a lot, but was undeterred.

Indeed, over all her 35 years of service Amy visited villages both in the wet and dry seasons. Mostly she was reasonably well received by the villagers, especially the women, but at other times she was pelted with cow dung and forced out of the village, but would return to see her children. She realised ‘some of the people were almost fanatical’. She guessed that any welcome they received was largely due to the medical help they offered.

Despite the strain Amy experienced, and what she found to be a depressing ‘lack of variety’ she persisted. In 1934 she spent eight months mainly in the villages, visiting over 1000 homes and selling 100 books. At this time, she was accompanied by Margery Bush. The next year she wrote, ‘the whole of my time has been occupied in visiting villages.’ She went to those close at hand by bicycle or horse cart, but used the Shantidut (Peace messenger, name of the mission boat) for more distant districts, spending 55 working days on the boat, alone or with Gertrude Wise and Bible women. What a marathon of gospel teaching in Bengali villages!

When not out in the villages Amy Cowles carried out a great variety of other tasks. At various times she had responsibility for the Home for widows and orphans in Brahamanbaria, supervised the girls’ school at Chandpur, took over from Hilda Rice the railway school at Chandpur, had oversight of the dispensary, worked in the hospital and supervised repairs to the latter’s buildings. In 1940 she spent some time in Tripura working with Dr Dorothy Daintree.

In 1941 Amy Cowles was so eager to return to India after a furlough that she chose to fly, meeting the additional cost herself. Seeing she was the first NZBMS missionary to travel in this way, her description of the flight was received with great interest. ‘It was the best way I have ever travelled to India yet. When in the tropics it was good to soar up to 7,000 or 8,000 feet. Once we went up to 13,000 to avoid an air pocket. Besides coming down at night, we also came down twice almost every day, and were taken out on a pier or for a run in a launch to get some fresh air while the (air)liner took on fuel.’

[Source: Toward the Sunrise, Edgar and Eade]

Hilda Rice

(Served 1914-1936)

From Napier, Hilda had always wanted to be a missionary, but she looked physically frail. Consequently, when she applied to the mission society she had difficulty convincing the committee of her suitability for a life in Bengal. She persisted, aided by an offer made by Mr WH George to ‘to make her his representative on the foreign field’. She departed for India in 1914.

As a trained teacher, she was soon teaching young people and through all her 22 years in India had a part in both compound and village education. Hilda used to travel round to villages with two Bible women and a number of teachers. The reports repeatedly noted how frequent her travel and how varied the reception could be. At one village, Durgapur, the people demanded their visitors call in again on their way back to Chandpur, but in the same year, 1920, the party had to retreat from a village because Hindus had shown considerable interest in their teaching and the anger of the Muslims had been roused.

Even in Sunday School work acceptance could change from time to time.  In 1932 some people objected to the decision to give Bible story books rather than toys as prizes for attendance. Enrolment dropped and some students deliberately drove other students away from the gates.

Hilda Rice’s service supported the activities of the mission and the church through the period between the wars. She increased the effectiveness of education, both secular and religious, seeking to provide additional training for national teachers, and maintained contact with village people until her resignation in 1936.

[Source: Toward the Sunrise, Edgar and Eade]

Mary Bradfield

(Served 1918-1954)

Mary Bradfield from Owaka travelled in 1918 with Emma Beckingsale who had already been a missionary for 23 years, and Nellie Wilkinson, going out for a second term. They were held up in Sydney for three weeks, because war conditions disrupted travel, then joined about 40 other passengers travelling on a ‘horse boat’ called the ‘Janus’ that was to convey 800 horses from Townsville to Calcutta. This part of the journey took 18 days.

From Calcutta the party visited other mission stations and Mary Bradfield arrived at Brahamanbaria four days before the end of World War I. When that news reached them there was general rejoicing, with the missionaries co-operating with government officials in distributing clothing (a loin cloth for men and a sari for women) and rice to the poor people to mark the occasion.

For two years Mary studied Bengali in Brahmanbaria and Chandpur, broken by three months in Calcutta receiving treatment for malaria and ear trouble.

Her teacher training fitted Mary to give Bible lessons in the government schools in Brahmanbaria and in the villages. For several years she had charge of the Brahmanbaria Mission School and from 1933 to 1934, relieved at an Australian mission school in Mymensingh when it was without a certificated teacher. This was in part in return for the help the Australians had given to widows and orphans before the NZBMS Home of Hope was built.

Mary Bradfield was also very active in village work. The challenge of this must have been very daunting even to those with great faith. Towards the end of her first term she wrote, ‘I have travelled over only a very small part of our field in the house-boat, but the little I have seen has given me some idea of the immense size of our field and the tremendous amount of work that is waiting to be done.

She recalled an occasion when for the first time she had to make all arrangements for a tour by houseboat. They were leaving from Chandpur. Boatmen had to be engaged, extra bread brought from Calcutta (by steamer and train resulting in its being two days old on arrival) and obtaining other food locally. She sent the cook to the market to buy ‘for the men rice, pulses and vegetables and for us a fowl, eggs, vegetables and charcoal’. She gave him a ten rupee note. He had not returned by 1 p.m. Instead a greatly agitated relative arrived imploring her to write a letter to the magistrate. Apparently when the cook, normally penniless, arrived at the market with a ten rupee note in his hand, the police thought he had stolen it and put him in jail. He was soon freed, and the boat left on its tour of the villages shortly after.

On that trip, as Mary recalled, they had no Bengali Bible women as there were no Bible women stationed at Chandpur at that time. The lack was felt deeply. (It was normal at Brahmanbaria to appoint two women to assist the missionaries in their work because they knew well the variation of Bengali spoken by the village women and could sort out the problems which frequently arose. Three of these special people were Moni’s Ma, Santustha and Niroda.

Mary had a magnetic personality that overcame all cultural boundaries. Children flocked to her.

In the years before World War II Mary Bradfield worked for least privileged Namasudras (Hindu occupational caste) and leatherworkers.

One of her main responsibilities was the ‘Home of Hope’ at Brahmanbaria, which Mary took over from Emma Beckingsale in 1936, continuing to care for the widows and orphans until 1953. Typical of these was an unwanted girl, Leela Bati, whose mother had died and father could not both care for her and work his land and crops. Mary wrote to the Tahatika Baptist Sunday School near her Owaka home in the Caitlins south of Dunedin to ask if they would undertake her support. This they did for the next 15 or 16 years until Leela became a trainee nurse at Ranaghat and could meet her own needs.

Mary also had to arrange marriages for the girls. She shared in arranging Leela’s marriage to a male nurse from the hospital where Leela trained. It was a good marriage. When the youngest child was three, the father Satya took over the daily care of the three children while Leela resumed nursing duties, increasing the family income because a female nurse earned more than a male nurse at that time.

The Home of Hope, which had commenced with the encouragement of the Australian BMS, continued to provide a home for women and orphans until 1937, Mary Bradfield retired in 1954 and lived in Invercargill. She maintained a lively interest in the missionary work in Bangladesh and Tripura and encouraged others to serve and to support missions.

[Source: Toward the Sunrise, Edgar and Eade]

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