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The first English medium school in Punjab

Multiple historical events suggest that there has not always been one approach to either education or official language

The first English medium school in Punjab
The Rang Mahal mission school. — Photo by Rahat Dar

During the recent debate on the use of Urdu as an official language, I was reminded of the foundation of the first English medium school in the Punjab, which was the forerunner of the Forman Christian College where I worked until recently and whose history I am currently writing. It was fascinating that the first English medium school in the Punjab was set up by the two pioneering American Presbyterian missionaries shortly after the kingdom of Lahore was annexed by the British — the kingdom was formally annexed in March 1849 and in December of the same year an English school had been set up.

This of course meant that education in the Punjab moved from Persian — which was the official language of the Lahore court, to English for a number of people. While the government continued to patronise Persian for a while and then wanted it replaced by Urdu, the demand for an English language education kept increasing, despite some initial attempts of the government to stem it.

On December 19, 1849 the Rev’d John Newton and the Rev’d Charles Forman, two American Presbyterian missionaries who had just arrived in Lahore, made one of the most important and far reaching decision in the history of the Punjab — they opened the first English medium school in northern India. This school was under a tree and its first pupils were three Kashmiri boys, out of which two had previously studied with the missionaries in Ludhiana. The boys were even paid a pice a day to attend the school. Ten days later the number of boys had increased to seven. Mr Forman taught the boys for 4.5 hours a day, and Mr Newton 2.5 hours.

The summer of 1850 was an especially hot one and nearly a tenth of the British soldiers stationed in Lahore died of the heat and illness. Forman and the Newtons also had severe bouts of illness, so much so, that the Civil Surgeon of Lahore, Dr Madden, took Forman into his bachelor quarters, while Sir Henry and Lady Lawrence took in the Newtons. The Newtons were so sick at the end of the summer, that they had to return to the United States on furlough — after sixteen years of hard labour in India.

Meanwhile, Forman did not return to the Ajit Singh haveli, considered unhealthy for habitation, and since no other house was available outside the city walls, Forman lived in the tomb of Nasrat Khan in Mughalpura on the road between Lahore and Amritsar. Despite the distance from the city, Forman walked the three miles every day to teach the young boys in a small chapel outside the city walls where the school had now moved. By that time the school had become very popular with nearly sixty students on the roll.

Of his initial few months, Dr Henry Forman, Charles Forman’s son, noted: “Few things in his life seem to me more noble than his living thus, though brought up in it home and community where plenty and good cheer abounded, self-contained and quietly firm, alone in that old massive tomb with its desolate surroundings, walking each morning into the city to teach full hours in his school and to preach to the people for hours before and after the school, then to return in the evening alone to his uncheerful dwelling, ever quiet, stayed and purposeful in spirit…”

The missionaries also translated a lot of material — mainly religious texts, but others of general interest too — in Urdu, Hindi and Persian, thus again becoming one of the first people to translate material into the vernacular languages for mass dissemination.

The school quickly became very popular and by 1850-51 there were 36 Punjabis, 3 Kashmiris, 7 Bengali, 28 from the North Western Provinces [later the United Provinces], 3 Afghans and one Balochi students. The total of 80 students included Muslims, Hindus and Sikh with ages ranging from six to forty. Forman was very keen that these students receive the best education possible. In 1850, he ordered six hundred dollars worth of scientific apparatus and told the Board Secretary that if he would not release the money, he would use his personal funds to acquire the equipment.

Next year when the equipment arrived Forman exuberantly wrote to the Board Secretary: “The apparatus has been received. I have worked with it a good deal. If you could have heard the “Wahwah!” which came from every part of the room when the pith figures commenced dancing under the influence of electricity you would have been pleased. The microscope and compass are beautiful instruments… Please send me the following articles at my expense: Astronomical telescope, price one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars; Globes and low stand, diameter 13 inches; Magic lantern, size, &c.” It was the sheer will power, dedication and attention of the Rev’d Charles Forman that within a few years the school was able to establish itself as the premier educational institution in the Punjab.

By 1852, the school had outgrown the small chapel and therefore Forman looked for other appropriate sites to move the school. One such site was the Rang Mahal, a large palatial house of one Sadullah Khan of Chiniot who was the Prime Minister of Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan in the seventeenth century. During the Sikh era Sultan Mohammad, the Commandant of the artillery, occupied it. The building was “once unrivalled in architectural grandeur [and]…the highest house in the city furnished with 10 wells…The Haveli was divided into three parts, the Mahal Sarai or female quarters, the Court house known as the Rang Mahal and the Kalai Khana.”

Charles Forman.

Charles Forman.

At the Rang Mahal enrolment further increased, and within a year of the move it crossed two hundred. Rev’d Forman was very pleased with the rapid advancement of the school and wrote in his report: “Considerable progress has been made by the two upper classes, containing nearly thirty scholars, in mathematics and physical geography, English grammar and arithmetic…The third class, of twelve scholars, have studied geography, arithmetic, grammar and the Bible.”

By January 1853, another missionary joined Forman, the Rev’d J.H. Morrison, who with his family had been transferred from Ambala. Morrison had come to India in early 1839 and had already been victim of the harsh climate and suffering from many handicaps in health. However, he was committed to his work and Forman cherished the opportunity of a fellow worker [as the Newtons were on furlough and he was alone]. Morrison was of a strong character and Forman noted that he was: “intensely earnest, perfectly candid and wholly devoted.”

Contrary to public impression, the missionaries were not there for an ‘Anglicising’ mission [or Americanisation, in this case]. The missionaries also made significant cultural and literary contributions to the society. The missionaries produced the first Punjabi dictionary — a monumental task. Their dedication to the cause of literary work can be seen from the fact that even though the Rev’d Joseph Porter was practically on his death bed in 1853 he still did not stop working.

Porter wrote to the Mission Secretary: “At least 1/3 of the Punjabi dictionary is printed. If our workmen should remain well (which we can scarcely hope for) and my own health were equal to the labor, I think we could complete the dictionary by the time of our annual meeting but of this I have little expectation. My little stock of strength is well nigh exhausted. I feel almost daily as though I would not keep on my feet much longer…” It was after the Rev’d Porter had passed away that in 1854 the first full dictionary in Punjabi was published by the missionaries.

The missionaries also translated a lot of material — mainly religious texts, but others of general interest too — in Urdu, Hindi and Persian, thus again becoming one of the first people to translate material into the vernacular languages for mass dissemination.

The story of education and the history of the English language and its connection with this region is not as simple as some would like us to believe. Multiple historical events affect it, and the diverse nature of our society — from time immemorial, has meant that there has not always been one approach to either education, official language or even missionary activity for that matter.

The Rang Mahal mission school, one of the largest schools in the Punjab, survived along side schools which taught in Persian and Urdu, but did not relegate these languages to the backburner. The high school curriculum of the Rang Mahal school in Persian and Urdu would still put an MA in those languages to shame. Further the contribution of the missionaries to the Punjabi language and its development was second to none in that age, considering that today we are even ashamed to teach the mother tongue of the people of the Punjab. Perhaps we need to look at the past in order to plan for the future.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.


  • I don’t understand why people always preferred political Government College Lahore over Forman Christian College.Both colleges are equally respectable.And I think that FC College deserves more respect than Government College because it is not a political institution like GC,and it has come through a long way after facing many challenges.Today,FC College University have much higher standard than Government College University in terms of discipline,core values,studies and infrastructure.Presently,FC College University is certainly the best institution in Lahore after LUMS.
    I did my intermediate from prestigious FC College, and wanted to do my BA (Hons) from LUMS,but my father told me that if I want to succeed in CSS exams I should hold degree of Government College University.Because the interviewers in CSS exams are Ravians themselves and so they prefer Ravians over students of other universities.It was really hard for me to settle in GCU after leaving FC,because of lack of standard in GCU.But still I’m doing my BA (Hons) in poor environment and infrastructure of GCU for my success in CSS exams and to fulfill my dream to become a diplomat,Inshallah.

  • This is really awful and even immoral if not criminal to prefer Ravian and reject Formanite in CSS exam and if it is true then immediate through investigations by an independent body with no Ravian participation be initiated to dig out the real truth.
    I will step a step forward to pen that the investigation committee must note down which Ravians have interviewed during last 10 years time and how many Ravians have been passed and how many non Ravians have been failed by them. I wish this catches the eyes of Supreme Court and then none will escape from the wrath of law. I wonder how and why such discrimination has not been voiced before unless I have missed it. Who takes it up, if at all, is the most baffling question I am posing and request for an answer at least for my enlightenment if not for others? Yeh aapka mujh per eshan e garan hoga. Iqbal Hadi Zaidi / Kuwait.

  • Naveed Shahid
    I did my matric in the session of 1959-60.
    I still remember the roof garden of my school. Years back I once visited my old school and really wept by seeing the pathetic condition of the building.
    My classmates were Air Chief Marshal Mussaf Ali Mir (Shaheed), who was also my muhledar. Also late Jahangir Baddar (PPP)
    Does anyone remember late Dr. Ifran (principal) his wife was also heading the missionary girls school. Dr. Irfan committed suicide by felling himself from the hostel building at Nila Gumband.

    Naveed Shahid
    Phone 0300-4175096

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