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Bishop Cotton School in Shimla stands test of time

Cottonians from politics to sports live up to school motto of overcoming evil with good as they take on life’s challenges with dignity and respect.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2018 11:01 IST
Gaurav Bisht
Gaurav Bisht
Hindustan Times, Shimla
Bishop Cotton School,Shimla,test of time
Bishop Cotton School, one of Asia’s oldest boarding schools, was opened on March 15, 1863, with Frederick Naylor as its first student. Initially, 35 boys were admitted that year and the school increased its strength to 65 students in 1864.(Deepak Sansta/HT )

Nestled on a tree-crowned spur in Shimla’s Knollswood, Bishop Cotton School is one of the oldest boarding school for boys in Asia. Founded on July 28, 1859, by Bishop George Edward Lynch Cotton, the school has not only lived up to its motto, ‘Overcome evil with good’, but also played a significant role in the development of public schools in the country.

Queen Victoria personally selected Bishop Cotton as Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan Bishop of India, Burma and the island of Ceylon, keeping in view the critical period in India around 1857. As Bishop of Calcutta, he conducted a service for the foundation of a public school at a hill station. Collections were made in most of the churches of the diocese for this purpose. The collections were used to found the Bishop’s School at Jutogh, Shimla. The land and the buildings on it were a gift from by the first viceroy of India, Lord Canning (1858-62). Three private houses were bought by Bishop Cotton out of the India Public School Fund for Rs 17,000. The school opened for students on March 15, 1863. Though mentioned in correspondence as the Simla Public School, it never actually bore this name.

First student, rest is history

The school opened on March 15, 1863 with Frederick Naylor as its first student. Initially, 35 boys were admitted that year and the school increased its strength to 65 students in 1864. However, the school did not have enough accommodation for the stay of more students at Jutogh, which is now an army cantonment. The bishop explored more than 10 sites before he settled for Knollswood spur. The foundation stone was laid on September 26, 1866, by the then viceroy, Sir John Lawrence.

The first boy, Frederick Naylor, joined the school on March 16, 1863, “creeping like a snail, unwilling to school”, watched by the staff in curiosity and amusement. Thirty-five boys were admitted that year and the school increased its strength to 65 students by 1864. This was the highest number the buildings and grounds permitted. A change of site was then deemed necessary because the Jutogh site was divided by a road which was inconvenient. Bishop Cotton reconnoitered 10 sites in September and October 1864, and finally approved the south end of Knollswood Spur, which belonged to the raja of Keonthal.

After lengthy negotiations, the site was acquired through the intervention of the viceroy and the foundation stone for the new buildings was laid on September 26, 1866, by the then viceroy, Sir John Lawrence, the elder brother of Sir Henry Lawrence, founder of the military asylum at Sanawar (now known as Lawrence School).

A fortnight after laying the foundation stone of the school, Cotton drowned in the Gorai river in an accident on October 6, 1866, while touring Assam. In September 1868, the school moved to its present site at Knollswood and was named after him.

Trial by fire and partition

The main school building was reduced to rubble after a fire on May 7, 1905. The school was re-built on the same design and was ready in 1907. Built in Gothic style, the main building comprises dormitories and a library besides hospital staff quarters built on the 56-acre campus in 1866. The school has a Holy Trinity chapel built at a cost of Rs 1.76 lakh in 1866.

In 1925, the school set up a memorial to old school boys killed in World War I (1914 to 1918). The names of martyrs are inscribed on the memorial built at a cost of Rs 4,000. Most of the contribution was made by parents of former students.

A spacious auditorium named after the 30th viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, holds memories of the Partition. Irwin inaugurated the hall in 1930. It’s used as the school auditorium for functions, lectures, theatre, debates and cinema shows. The walls are adorned with honour boards and portraits of past headmasters.

The hall has three doors: One meant for the staff, another for students and as per tradition, the middle door was opened only for viceroys and the school captain. The middle door of the hall was closed for 52 years. It was in this hall that the headmaster addressed 42 Muslim students in 1947. School captain Hasan Agha led the 42 boys to another school in newly created Pakistan. Since then the door was kept closed. It was in 2009 that Humayun Khan, a former ambassador of Pakistan, who visited his alma mater for its founder’s day celebrations, opened the door.

Famous alumni and an infamous one

The school has produced the highest decorated officer among all armies of the world, heads of state, ambassadors, judges, defence, civil and paramilitary officers, ministers and politicians.

Virbhadra Singh, the six-time chief minister and former Lok Sabha member, is an alumnus. He joined the school in 1947 and passed out in 1951. He was the first founder secretary of the Old Cottonian Association’s Delhi Chapter in 1952. Four legislators in the state assembly are Cottonians, including Virbhadra’s son Vikramaditya Singh, Ashish Butail and Vinay Kumar.

“My school taught me to deal with daily challenges with righteousness. It helped me reach where I am today, overcoming every hurdle,” says Butail, a Congress legislator from Palampur.

There are old students who have chosen to teach at their alma mater. “Teaching is not just a profession, it is a mission. I wanted to serve the school that moulded me,” says Praveen Dharma, an alumnus who been teaching for 17 years.

Politicians from the region such as Aam Aadmi Party rebel leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira, Punjab Congress minister Charanjit Singh Channi, Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) leader Simranjit Singh Mann, former Himachal tourism minister Vijay Singh Mankotia, former chief parliamentary secretary and Jubbal legislator Rohit Thakur are Cottonians.

Colonel Reginald Dyer, who executed the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919, also received his early education at BCS. His name is mentioned on one of the honour boards at the school.

Other illustrious old students are yesteryear Bollywood actor Kumar Gaurav and authors Ruskin Bond and Raaja Bhasin.

Headmaster’s take

Headmaster RC Robinson says, “Bishop Cotton School strives to achieve and maintain the highest standards of excellence in providing education to empower men rooted in India’s heritage to live as committed and good human beings contributing positively to the country.”

The school, which is affiliated to ICSE, believes in the holistic development of a child so that when he moves out of the corridors of BCS, he can face the challenges of life with dignity and respect. “Discipline and punctuality are engraved in the hearts of our students,” he says. On future plans, he says the focus is on strengthening infrastructure.

Sporting glory

The school has three large grounds, a swimming pool and a gymnasium, a lawn tennis court and a shooting range. Participating in a sport is compulsory for all students whether its cricket, football, hockey, table tennis, basketball, volleyball, boxing, lawn tennis, swimming or track and field events.

Old students still recall boxing bouts at school. “One of lasting memories from that phase for me remains in getting a knockout in the finals of the bantam weight inter-house boxing fight. As a house captain, I was up against the rival house captain. There were no head guards, teeth guards or throwing in towels to prematurely end the fight kind of rules or safety measures in the sport then,” says Ravinder Makhaik, an old student who is now a senior journalist. “The knockout punch pierced my defence and hit me in the solar plexus, a sensitive point in the pit of the stomach. I remember trying to come to terms with the excruciating pain and gasping for air. What a fight!”

For the record, golfer Jeev Milkha Singh is also an alumnus of BCS.

First Published: Sep 10, 2018 10:58 IST