Joseph Peet led an active and interesting life as a missionary in British India. He was married three times, and had children from his first two marriages. His first and second wives died at an early age.
The Peet Memorial Teachers’ Training College in Mavelikara, Kerala, India, is named after him in honour of his missionary work.
Revd Joseph Peet married Mary Ann Hansford, daughter of my great-great-great-great grandfather James Parkham Hansford and his wife Mary Ann Gregory, in India in 1855. For him it was his third marriage; for Mary, her first, at the age of 38.
Mary’s sister’s daughter, ie her niece, Amelia, travelled to New Zealand and married David Johnston, and their daughter, Mary Anne Hansford Johnston, married my great great grandfather Walter Pilliet.
Joseph Peet was born in Spitalfields, London, on 1st February 1801 to Benjamin Peet and his wife Elizabeth Lafond. Benjamin was a silk dyer, and he married Elizabeth on 27 May 1792. Joseph was baptised at the Christ Church in Spitalfields on 22nd February 1801. Joseph probably joined his father at first in the silk dying trade.
It is quite possible that Joseph attended the Wheeler Chapel, established by Sir George Wheeler to minister to the rapidly growing population of Spitalfields, and that he heard the evangelical preacher Mr Josiah Pratt. Pratt took up the position of minister at the Wheeler Chapel in February 1810 and was there until 1826, by which time Joseph was 25 years of age. Pratt established the Spitalfields Benevolent Society which provided much-needed relief to the growing areas of the east end of London around Spital Square. Joseph’s humanitarianism may have been acquired, or encouraged, by listening to Pratt’s lectures, and his awareness of the poverty surrounding him. Spitalfields had for some decades been a centre of protest against injustices.
Pratt became interested in missionary work. and went out to India after leaving the Wheeler Chapel, where he established a College at Cottayam (or Kottayam), in Travancore in the southwestern corner of India, where the majority population of about 1 million people were Hindu and spoke Malayalam. The London Missionary Society, which was the Congregationalist mission society, had already established mission stations in India after 1813, and the Church Missionary Society, mostly Anglican, was to follow(1). An Act of the British parliament in 1813 made it possible for Christian missionaries to establish themselves in India for the first time and the first place that CMS missionaries settled was Travancore.
In 1829 Joseph entered the Church Missionary College in Islington in London and in 1831, on 18th December, he was made a deacon. (2) He was still at the College and preparing to be sent to an overseas mission station when in December 1832 he wrote to the committee of the CMS in London that he had endeavoured to find a wife before departing: ” I had hoped to form an engagement with a view to the Lady’s following me at some future period, but I am sorry to state (after a painful and fruitless search) that I find that to be impossible…but with one, whom I could feel justified in submitting for your approval…so impracticable does it appear, and so painful to my feelings, that I have now abandoned the project altogether”. It is not known who the lady in question was who had evidently refused his proposals. He asked that he be permitted to return to England “from a foreign clime” within 2 years for the purpose of finding a wife. [A] Peet’s marital struggles give us some early insight into his character and also foretell problems that arriving in India without a suitable wife were to create for him.
In so writing, it is apparent that Joseph did not yet know where he was to be sent. But later that month, on 21st December, the Directors of the East India Company considered a request from the CMS to send Peet, and another missionary, Jacob Pettit, and Mrs Pettit, as well as a printer by the name of Peter Batchelor to Madras.[B] Madras was one of the administrative divisions of India known as Presidencies, the extent of which extended from the city of Madras in eastern India to the western shores of southern India at Travancore, an area now known as the state of Kerala. The Company Directors approved, and on 23rd December 1832 Joseph was ordained a Priest by the Bishop of London. Finally he received his instructions as to were he was to proceed: to Josiah Pratt’s Kottayam in Travancore. On the 18th January 1833 he embarked on the Orontes. A letter from Peet to the Committee on the day of sailing, informs us that they were at Spithead, and had “just put to sea, with a fine breeze”. (3) Peet’s feelings were high and confident as he put to sea; he enthused: “..now I have really entered upon my great work…I have committed myself to the good providence of God with some degree of confidence, being fully persuaded that I am in the path of duty” [C}
India: “Here I am, here I wish to be…”
Cardinal Tisserant in his book “Eastern Christianity in India”, notes that Colonel Munro, who was the British Resident at the courts of Travancore and Cochin, brought out four missionaries from the CMS in 1816-19, who intended to reform the clergy to a “Protestant sensibility”. They founded a college-seminary at Kottayam. …they did their best to bring the Holy Scriptures within the reach of the faithful through a Malayalam translation (published in 1811, 1818 and 1830), and through scriptural classes imparted in the various schools started by the missionaries. These institutions were the vernacular schools of each parish, a grammar school, and even the college-seminary, which admitted lay pupils. Malayalam services were introduced according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Catechisms of the English church were also translated into Malayalam and published for the benefit of the Jacobites.  At first, things went well, with the Jacobites tolerating the missionaries and some even changing their practices, such as allowing priests to marry (and many did).
An excellent video which explains the history of the Church in Kerala and the arrival and work of the CMS missionaries is on Vimeo.
The Jacobites were the descendants of the Ancient Syrian Church founded by an Arab people known as the Ghassanids who had established a formidable kingdom in the sixth century, in the Holy Land. They converted to Christianity, and one of their most ardent clergy was a charismatic eastern Syrian called Jacob Baradues, “Travelling often in disguise, Jacob undertook a prodigious programme of ordinations and consecrations of Bishops. He created a Syrian church which is often called Jacobite, …but which also insists on Orthodoxy in its official title, the Syriac Orthodox Church”. This church had found its way to the Malabar coast of India, and was sometimes known there as the Jacobite Church of Malabar.
LW Brown, in his work “The Indian Christians of St Thomas” notes that the New Testament was published in Malayalam in 1830. He writes: “But the Jacobites were opposed to the Bible being read in common tongues or in private houses. Matters came to a head when the Anglican Bishop Wilson of Calcutta came on a visitation in 1835”, not long after Peet arrived in India. “The missionaries, on one side, were profoundly dissatisfied with the results of nearly 20 years’ work. They had not attempted to publicly reform the Syrian traditions, but had influenced many inside the training College and outside it, by their privately expressed opinions”.
Brown writes that the missionaries “felt a stronger position was required. Some missionaries, indeed, had already begun to take up a more uncompromising position. Joseph Peet, for example, felt that to tolerate some practices [what he considered to be their doctrinal errors] was to deny the Gospel. Accordingly he went one day to a church where great crowds had assembled to celebrate a feast in honour of St Mary, and had purified themselves for the feast by washing. Deliberately touching them, to defile this ritual purity, he proceeded to preach violently against their superstitions in the church. It is certain that only his white skin protected him from violence, but the resentment of the crowd did not not stop his fulminations. There were many such instances, and while they may be deplored as discourteous and unwise, it has to be recognised that the missionaries had become convinced that silence on their part would be, in fact, a denial of fundamental Christian truth” [Brown, 5].
In 1837 Joseph left Kottayam to establish a new Mission at Mavelikara, to the south of Kottayam and mid-way to Quilon (see map, to the right). There he began the building of Christ Church, what is now the oldest Protestant church in Mavelikara. The first church building was dedicated on May 22, 1839 and the present building constructed in Gothic architectural style was dedicated and opened for worship in November 1845 and rededicated on April 3, 1850 (6) .
In 1840 Rev J Tucker visited Travancore and back in England, at an evening meeting at the Exeter Hall, he gave an account of his visit to Mavelikara and meeting Rev Joseph Peet: “The whole of the people of Mavelikara – except, indeed, the Syrians, who are Christians, though in a most degraded condition – [are] sunk in the grossest idolatry. [I met] hundreds of persons…passing along singing a melancholy song, ‘Swamy Iapa, cherapath’. I inquired from Peet, and from the people, the history, and they told me that every year there was a pilgrimage to a temple, on the summit of a mountain, the temple to Iapa, one of the sons of Shiva.” (7) Such critical terms are frequently repeated in the writings and thoughts of the missionaries, who sought to depict the Syrian Christians as mostly villainous and the clergy as exploitative of their flock, and the Hindu majority as living in a barbaric and unfortunate state, much in need of conversion and rescuing from their heathen condition.
Peet, however, was inexhaustive in his endeavours to being the Gospel to the Hindus and to bring the Syrian Christians over to Anglican ways: in 1841 he authored a grammar of the Malayalam language. As we have seen, the College at Kottayam had already translated the Old and New Testaments into Malayalam, but Peet was probably fluent in the language. He wrote a book on the geography of Travancore in Malayaylam (8). His work was not entirely ecclesiastical, however. Fascinatingly, in 1858 he translated the Bengali novel Fulmoni O Korunar Biboron into Malayalam, the first novel to be translated into that language (9).
Peet had charge of a small estate called Munro Island, granted to the Mission by the then Regent,Ranee Parwarten, as an endowment for educational purposes [obit].
In 1840 the Bishop of Madras, George Spencer, made a visit to the western extremities of his vast bishopric to inspect the missionary work being performed in Travancore and Tinnevelly (the region to the southeast of Travancore). The visit was held in November and December 1840 and January 1841. He wrote a Journal of his tour, during which he reached Cottayam on 2nd December. He was pleased with the scene which met his eyes; after a gruelling journey up the Cottayam river he opened his eyes to “a beautiful country…the banks of the river clothed with splendid forest-trees, and a mountain range….it was a tranquil and a happy scene, such as I like to look upon (10). He wrote that “the cause of Christianity will never be promoted in India by the Syrian Church”; he complained of the poor state of the Syrian churches and of the interior fittings, and of the “degenerate” state of their clergy. He attended a service which was translated sentence by sentence into Malayalam, making the service “unavoidably long and exhausting”.
Spencer considered whether he would accept a Syrian clergyman into the Anglican communion. “That”, he said, “must depend on his character…he must be prepared for a very searching investigation into his life and morals…and into his motives for coming over to us.”
He gives some sense of the heat and difficulty of the Indian climate for the Englishman, frequently referring to his tendency to faint, and envious of the native’s “impunity to the sun. It kills me by inches” (Journal, p. 55).
The College at Kottayam had both English and “native” students, taught by four clergymen, an education on the “sound, pure, evangelical basis of the Church of England.”
Spencer pressed on to Mavelikara and arrived there on the 17th December. It is worth recounting his impressions as related to his Journal. “This is truly a mission station in the fullest sense of the term. Mavelikarra is situated in the centre of a dense heathen population, calculated at about sixty thousand souls, and in the very lion’s den of idolatry, it being one of the most Brahmin-ridden places in the country. The pagodas here – hideous, barn-like, storehouse-looking edifices – are considered of peculiar sanctity, and their priests…heartily detest the Christians, whom they take every safe opportunity to insult and oppress”. There were about twenty Syrian churches in the area, with large congregations, and one of the lay members of the Syrian church had already been persuaded by Peet to come over to the Anglican communion. He went on: “Mr Peet, who is a most active and energetic labourer in his Lord’s vineyard, and just the man for such a mission as this – where the new ground is not only to be ploughed up, but to be cleared of all its jungle of thorns, and briars, and noxious weeds – has already made some very important converts from heathenism, and one most valuable one from the Syrians, a Malpan [minister] who has joined our Communion. I confirmed this morning seventy-two of Mr Peet’s Mavelikarra congregation, many of them old and grey-headed, whom he has gathered from out of the heathen in their eleventh hour. This mission is flourishing…Mr Peet has no church here at present, and uses a temporary building for divine service; but, like his brethren, he is very zealous on this point, and has selected an excellent site for the erection of one”. He was indeed to go on to build his Christ Church at Mavelikarra. The Bishop moved on to Quilon, evidently much pleased with the Rev Mr Joseph Peet.
Marriage and family
Joseph married Emily Elizabeth Tranchell on 25th February 1835, when he was aged 34. The birth and parentage of Emily has not been established, but it is likely that this was in India, and that Joseph and Emily married in India. A George Tranchell, born in 1806, served in the Indian Army. He may have been Emily’s brother. George’s father was John Tranchell of the Ceylon Civil Service. As the name is not common it is quite possible that Emily was born to John Tranchell of Ceylon, and that the marriage to Joseph Peet occurred somewhere in British India (11).
There were seven children from this marriage:
Emily Elizabeth, born 12 February 1836 in Kottayam,Kerala, India. Emily married William Dunlop at St Stephen’s Church in Oocatamund, India, on 3rd January 1855.
Joseph, born 20 April 1837 at Kottayam, Kerala [Kerala used here means the modern Indian state of Kerala.] Died young.
Eliza, possibly born 1838, died young.
Alfred Henry, 3rd January 1839, at Quilon, Kerala
Mary Louisa, 28 September 1840, at Mavelikkara Mission, Kerala. Died young.
Henry John, 26 August 1842, at Travancore, India. Henry served in the Indian Army and died in India in 1888, aged 46. Married Mary Caroline Stuart Belli-Bivar, born 1850, the daughter of Henry Stuart Belli-Bivar, Assistant Commissioner of Assam.
Arthur William, born 25 August 1845, at Madras, India. Arthur married Gwen Harrison at Llanber, in Wales, on 25th August 1886, and their son Lionel Meredith Peet was born in India in 1887. Lionel married Elinor Hayward in Oocatamund, India, in 1919, and died in Cornwall in 1967.
On 26th January 1846 Joseph and his family set sail for England. Sadly it was whilst they were in London that his wife Emily became ill, and died in Clerkenwell in London on 9th August 1847.
Joseph remained in England and married again, to Sarah Landwell George, on 16th October 1848 at St Matthew’s Church, Brixton Hill, London. She was aged 21 and Joseph was now 47. The family returned to India after the wedding and their only child, Emma Annie Peet, was born. Emma married William Henry Elton at Christ Church, Folkestone, Kent, on 15th April 1873.
Sadly Sarah Peet too died, on 28th April 1854, and is buried at St Stephen’s Church, Ootacamund, India. Oocatamund, better known as Ooty (officially Udhagamandalam) is a beautiful hill station in the Nilgiri Hills, Tamil Nadu, inland from the Kerala region. Sarah probably travelled there due to her poor health, but died there. Ooty was the summer capital of the Madras Presidency, which was the British administrative region for the whole of southern India,
A third marriage, the Great Uprising; death, and a legacy.
Joseph married again, to Mary Ann Hansford who was born in Portsea, Hampshire, on 4 October 1804. She married Joseph Peet at Tirnvalloy, Trichinopoly, in the modern state of Tamil Nadu, southern India, on 9th April 1855,
Mary Ann was herself a missionary. The Register of Missionaries records that she began her career in the 1840s, working in Ceylon in connection with the Society for The Promotion of Female Education in the East. On 18th June 1849 she was taken up by the C.M.S together with Mrs Amelia Johnson, and had charge of the Normal Girl’s School at Kottayam. She was resident in Tirnvalloy at the time of her marriage to Joseph Peet in 1855. Amelia Johnson was the daughter of Rev Baker, one of the four clergymen at the Kottayam College.
The marriage appears to have been unhappy – in his 1865 will he left nothing to Mary, and he directed that his daughter by his second marriage, Emma Annie was “on no account” to be left in the charge of Mary Ann. The reasons for this unhappiness are unclear.
The Indian “Mutiny”, or Great Uprising, swept across parts of India from 1857 to 1858. It did not effect the south and west; the Bombay and Madras armies remained loyal to the British (12). It is worth noting that until the mutiny, Indians outnumbered British in the Indian Army by nine to one. After the mutiny this ratio changed to 4 to 1. In the years prior to the uprising, a young Englishman in the employ of the East India Company would commonly arrive in India unmarried, and take an Indian wife or companion; by the 1850s this had completely changed and as a result the social gap between the Indians and the British had altered considerably. The immediate cause of the uprising on the part of some Indians in the Army was the British insistence on using beef or pork fat on the rifle carriages which the sepoys had to bite off to release the gunpowder; this was offensive to both Hindus and Muslims.
Appalling atrocities were committed on both sides, and no doubt caused a great deal of concern to Joseph and his fellow missionaries even at their remote location in Travancore. Over 200 European women and children were massacred at Cawnpore; the British retribution was merciless: they entered Delhi and put most of its inhabitants to death – not mutineers, but simple residents. The final death toll from the Mutiny was never reliably documented but runs into the hundreds of thousands.
The lasting effects of the Mutiny were firstly that the East India Company was dissolved and rule was now to be direct from Britain; Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India; and the numbers of Indians serving in the army was considerably reduced. As Robinson notes (2014) a further legacy was a racial superiority and arrogance that was assumed on the part of the British, and came to be an intrinsic part of loyalty to the Raj. In essence, the process of creating the entity known as India that was to be liberated as a nation one hundred years later, was begun. As Meghnad Desai notes in his The Rediscovery of India (London, 2009), “an ideology of a nation” began to arise.
The implications for Christian missionaries were that their voices were “muted’, writes Desai: “they were never again to push their luck as they had in the four decades preceding” the Mutiny (13). Hindu society began its own process of reform and modernisation. In a sense, all the hard work that Peet and Bishop Spencer and others at Kottayam and Mavelikara had put in since their arrival from 1830, was in vain. But Peet had already prepared for this with his emphasis on education and on improving the social conditions of the poor, both Christians and Hindu, in Travancore. He had moved from the view that Spencer evinced in his Journal twenty years prior, that the Hindus were hopelessly degenerate and idolatrous, to an acceptance that they would not change their religion, but he would help them to reform their society which meant women married as children and were required to take their lives on the death of their husbands, and encouraged moves to alter the caste system to lighten the burdens of the most oppressed. He was, in other words, an humanitarian.
Joseph Peet’s legacy is the Peet Memorial Training College, in modern day Mavelikkara. Eipe John in his 150th Jubilee of the Mavelikara training college wrote that “The College was founded in 1960 in memory of the Rev. Joseph Peet, who was one of the leading missonaries, sent by the CMS to South India. He came to Mavelikara in 1836 not only to spread the gospel, but also to uplift the downtrodden. He was mainly instrumental in popularising education in the area. The college is governed by a council, constituted by the Diocese of Madhya Kerala of the Church of South India. The college is affiliated to the university of Kerala, accredited by NAAC, recognised by the NCTE and offers a one-year teachers training course leading to the Degree of Bachelor of Education in Six subjects such as English, Mathematics, Physical Science, Natural Science, Social Studies and Commerce. The sanctioned strength of the college is 150.” (14)
Situated in the heart of the Mavelikara town on the bank of Achenkovil river, the nineteen acre church campus currently houses the Arch Deacon Oommen Mammen Memorial Lower Primary School, the Bishop Hodges High School and Higher secondary school, the Peet Memorial Training College, a music school, an auditorium with a couple of indoor badminton courts and the Church cemetery. Christ Church is also known for its choir which is believed to have been leading church services since 1886. (15)
Joseph Peet died on 11th August 1865, aged 63 years and six months. The cause of his death is not recorded.
He was buried on 12th August in the grounds of his church, Christ Church, At Mavelikara.
His last wife, Mary Ann, returned to England where she died, after a long illness, at the home of her mother Mrs Hansford at Mile End, Portsea Island, in Portsmouth on 15 September 1873.
(1) Hiney, Tom: On the Missionary Trail, London, 2000.
(2) Register of Missionaries and Native Clergy from 1804 to 1904. Church Missionary Society, London .
(3) http://www.csimichigan.org/CKD_Chapter1.htm : History of Christian missions at Kerala, India.
(4) The Missionary Register, Vol. 21, page 68
(5) Cadetship papers for George Tranchell, accessed in British India Office Birth and Baptismal Papers for Cadetship records, on Find my past.co.uk; 27 September 2014. The application for a cadetship in the Madras Infantry was made by George Tranchell on 16 July 1822. This document shows that George Tranchell was the son of John Tranchell who was a Provincial Judge in the Ceylon Civil Service, who was deceased by 1822. John’s wife was Mary Magdalene “who was a descendant of European parents”. George was born 1 July 1806 and “has served in His Majesty’s Navy two and a half years as a midshipman and is free from any defect in his person”.
(3) MacCulloch, Diarmaid, “A History of Christianity”, Pengiun, 2010
(4) “Eastern Christianity in India”, by Cardinal Tisserant, Longmans, London, 1957. p. 146. (trans from French).
(5) Brown, LW. “The Indian Christians of St Thomas”, Cambridge University Press, 1956. pp 137, 138
(6) Wikipedia entry for Mavelikara, accessed 27 Sept 2014.
(7) Church Missionary Gleaner April 1841 no. vol. 1 pp 63-65
(8) Register for Missionaries, entry for Peet, page 34.
(9) Wikipedia entry on the Malayalam novel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malayalam_novel
(10) Journal of a Visitation to the provinces of Travancore and Tinnevelly, 1840-1841, Bishop George John T. Spencer, 1842; p.45.
(11) Entry for Peet in Register of Missionaries 1804-1904
(12) India, a short history, by Andrew Robinson, London, 2014
(13) The Rediscovery of India, Meghand Desai, London, 2009. The title refers to Nehru’s great work, The Discovery of India.
(14) John, Eipe, “Rev. Joseph Peet Vyaktiyum Darshanavum (Rev. Joseph Peet – Man and Vision)”, Triteeya Suvarana Jubilee Smaranika (150th Jubilee Souvenir), CSI Christ Church Mavelikara, 1996 pp 37–41. Accessed via Wikipedia entry on Mavelikara.
(15) Copied from http://xklsv.org/viewwiki.php?title=Mavelikara
CMS paper of 1845, also in googlebooks, has, on paper CXVIII, an account of Peet’s establishing a church at Cottayam.
Many of Peet’s papers, including his letters, are held in the Univ of Birmingham Library, England.
Records of births, marriages, deaths and of Peet’s will have been accessed and downloaded from Find My Past website.
George Varghese, who has kindly supplied me with photographs of the College, Peet’s house, tombs and of the Church, lives in Mavelikara. His father was a professor at the Peet Memorial Training College. George started a music school at the College and arranged for it to be named after Eliza Peet, one of Peet’s children. George was choirmaster at the College until 2012.