Of Auckland House, its ghosts and women trailblazers
Standing tall on the pinnacle of Elysium Hill in Shimla, Auckland House, lovingly referred to as “Aucky”, can easily be spotted among tall deodars and rhododendron trees by its signature red roofs. Its bare-brick and red-brick façades lend the 152-year-old institution a quaint old-world charm.
Interestingly, it was the home of viceroy of India George Eden (1836 -1842), better known as Lord Auckland, in the first half of the 19th century. Indeed, Emily Eden, one of Lord Auckland’s sisters found Auckland House “quite delightful.”
She writes in her memoir, “The views are too lovely, deep valleys on the drawing room side. Red rhododendron trees bloom in every direction and (there are) beautiful shrubberies on all sides of the hill.” Today, ruthless urbanisation has marred the landscape surrounding the school, but it remains verdant.
On sepia pages
In 1864, Reverend JB d’ Aguilor, decided to open an institution that would provide education to girls on Christian principles. A group of women, in Dalhousie, who frequented the church and were referred to as the grey ladies of Dalhousie, started collecting funds for the same. Initially, it was decided that the school would be built in Dharamshala, however, at the behest of the wife of Bishop George Edward Lynch Cotton the school was established in Shimla instead.
In the spring of 1866, the school was established on the Jakhu Hill at Holly Lodge, near the residence of the former chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Virbhadra Singh. It was at that time known as, “The Punjab Girls School,” although, ironically only girls of European lineage were granted admission into its portals.
Two years later, the authorities bought Lord Auckland’s former house and the school came to be known as such. In the early years, funds were scarce and staff was hard to find.
The situation was temporarily mitigated when Cheltenham Ladies College took over and it was refashioned as The Cheltenham College of India.
In 1905, the Kangra earthquake, that claimed 20,000 lives and wrecked many towns in Himachal, extensively damaged the school building, the girls had to live in tents, till alternative arrangements could be made at the Sterling Castle, in Longwood. From 1908 to 1952, St Hilda’s Society, Lahore, provided the school with principals and the staff. It was during this period that the school began admitting Indian girls too. In January 1952, students resumed classes at the newly erected Auckland House building. Students from around the world, including, Thailand, Ethiopia, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand were enrolled.
In 1960, the school acquired the Bevedere estate, which now houses the Auckland House School for Boys.
Back in the day, the staff and principals of Auckland House were from the West and were adept at transforming girls into graceful ladies.
Prabha Chawla, president of the alumni association, who was admitted to Auckland in 1957 at the age of 10 says, “The school was still very colonial then. Our principal Miss Twiss, was a Canadian lady, 6-feet tall and very correct. Our teachers were strict, especially our matron, a British woman by the name of Miss Rivett. She ensured that our table manners were perfect.”
Dinner used to be a grand affair, with bearers in uniform serving students food.
Sunayana Bhinder Chibba, who runs a leading event management company and is an alumna, says, “We would get lamb, cake, treacle pudding and roasted potatoes. The menu was excellent. Of course, we were told to sit upright while having food. Chapattis had to be rolled up instead of broken the way people normally do.”
She also holds the school’s then-principal Rita Wilson in high regard. “We tried to emulate the way she spoke, dressed, and carried herself. She used to put up such lovely theatricals and taught us to be ladies.”
Wilson who joined the school as a teacher in 1974 and went on to become the principal, fondly recalls the bygone days, with a tinge of sadness, “The emphasis was on shaping personality rather than academics as is the case now. The girls used to do such beautiful needlework, which was then sold and the proceeds would go to charity. The girls were taught pattern-writing. All of them had such beautiful handwriting and they would be asked to send a letter to their parents each week.”
“I remember our Shakespeare classes would bleed into the after-hours of school and no one would complain. Teachers would take out time to tutor students who needed help. I recall, in those days it used to be compulsory to pass the English examination. Everyone was sure that one particular girl would not pass, but I tutored her through the night and now she is the principal of a Tibetan school. The coaching culture had not eaten into the student-teacher relationship.”
An alumna of Auckland could be distinguished by the way she spoke.
Harkeerat Kaur, 70, an entrepreneur, and one of the first wedding planners in the country and an alumna of the 1964 batch is known far and wide as ‘Aucky Aunty’. “When I enrolled at the Home Science College in Chandigarh, people were taken aback by my command over English. When they learnt that I had studied from Auckland they started calling me ‘Aucky’. The sobriquet stuck, I named my business ‘Aucky’ too,” she narrates.
Dainty! I think not
The school also taught girls to be tough. Puja Bahri, renowned artist and spokesperson of the Delhi Congress, of the 1990 batch says, “We were well-versed with etiquettes, but were far from dainty. There used to be chronic water shortage in Shimla. A tanker used to come from Chandigarh and we would fill buckets and store them under our beds.”
“Treks and nature camps were encouraged. We learnt to cook food at camp sites and washing our dirty utensils with soil from the earth in the stream at Piplu ghat. Nowadays, students go for such fancy trips. We learned to toughen up at school,” she says.
Chibba, gets nostalgic while remembering the basketball competitions with Chelsea school, “We were called the bumble-bees due to our brown and yellow uniforms and we used to call them Convent of Jealous Monsters. We’d return from matches, which would often be declared a draw, with an assortment of injuries.”
Lord Aucky’s day
With a history spanning centuries, is it any surprise that Auckland House has its own ghost stories that have been passed down from generations. Lord Aucky’s Day is celebrated on Halloween. It is believed that his wooden leg can be heard clonking on the floors of the dormitory at night as he takes a round of
his former property. At midnight, 13 pianos of the school inexplicably begin playing long-forgotten tunes, a favourite tune of the British Lord, perhaps. A brave student or two, who have peeped from the windows at night, have reportedly seen a white horse in the campus ground.
Not all ghosts that roam the hallways are immortal or translucent. Traditionally, the senior girls take it upon themselves to prank the younger students.
“I remember, being asked to sit on my senior’s shoulders, who then covered us in a white sheet we would go from dormitory to dormitory scaring the living lights out of the girls who got up to use the bogs,” laughs Chibba. Other midnight shenanigans included, having midnight feasts of tikkis and samosas, brought from the tuck guy, who came to sell little knick-knacks and was bestowed the name “tucky.” Reading Mills and Boons and Sidney Sheldons, secretly, under the blanket with a torchlight was also a source of delight.
Principal Sunita John says, “I remember feeling very insignificant, when I first entered the school 20 years ago. The school was over a century old then and had an enviable legacy. We are now adding to the legacy by trying to make education more inclusive by fully funding underprivileged children.”
For most alumnae, Auckland is not just a place but a feeling, where they spent some of the best days of their lives.