Margaret Noble to Sister Nivedita, from Wimbledon to Calcutta

The Story of a Teacher, Socialist, Reformer and Indian Nationalist

Sri Sarada Devi (left) with Margaret Noble, now Sister Nivedita (right) in Kolkata, India
Courtesy Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, Kolkata

Margaret Elizabeth Noble was born in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, Ireland on 28 October 1867 and died in Darjeeling on 13 October 1911 aged just 43. Her ashes are buried in the family grave at Great Torrington, Devon. Her considerable achievements were as a social and charity worker, educationalist, writer, promoter of Indian arts and crafts, reformer and passionate Indian nationalist. She is particularly known for campaigning for the education of Indian women and raising money for scientific research in India by travelling around the world.  The long voyages gave her plenty of time to write prodigiously. Margaret Noble was a complex, driven, even controversial person, often much revered and loved, but very much an interesting character with some troubled times in her life.[1] Much can be learnt about her from the thousands of letters she wrote to friends and many others.

Early life

Statuette of Sister Nivedita Museum of Wimbledon Collections LDWIM 2018.19.1 

Margaret was the elder daughter of the Revd Samuel Noble, and Mary Hamilton. Her father, initially a linen-draper, later trained as a Methodist minister and moved to England. She was brought up as a devout Christian. Both her grandfathers were said to be keen campaigners for Irish home-rule. Margaret’s background would have considerably influenced her later life. After training as a teacher in Halifax, she took her first job in Keswick in 1884, at the age of 17. Her early teaching experience was in orphanages and mining towns. The educational theories of Froebel and Pestalozzi and their innovative methods which centred on the child strongly influenced her teaching in both Wimbledon and India.

Schools in Wimbledon

The Blue Plaque on 21 Wimbledon High Street, Museum of Wimbledon 2017

Margaret Noble came to Wimbledon in 1890 as a teacher and partner in the Kingsley Gate School, 10 Berkeley Place, just off the Ridgway. It was an early Froebel school founded by Madame de Leeuw for boarders and day pupils. Initially Margaret both lived and worked there.

Some press notices give a flavour of the teaching and of Margaret’s character:

18 January 1890: ‘Kingsley Gate School. – In Research, a monthly illustrated journal, there recently appeared an article on “The Higher Education of Girls,” from the pen of Miss Noble. The article showed that at Kingsley Gate School, which promises to enjoy a useful and successful career, there was given a social and practical turn much needed to education. Miss Noble’s partner, Madame de Leeuw is a distinguished linguist. She is the sister of Mr Logeman, L.R.C. of Newton School, Rock Ferry, a report of whose lecture on the “Science of Language” appeared in the Advertiser. Mr Logeman has some ten or twelve languages at his command, and his name is a familiar one at Liverpool. As Miss Noble, when residing at Wrexham, was ever ready to assist any good cause, her friends here will be pleased to learn of the success she is achieving at Wimbledon.’[2]

11 January 1890: ‘The Kingsley School, Kingsley Gate. Wimbledon, London, S.W. — Principals: MADAME DE LEEUW and MISS NOBLE (Late of Kingston House, Wrexham.) — The Girls Boarding School will commence work January 21st, 1890. A special feature in this School is the attention paid to modern languages. Healthy Situation. Gravel Soil. Prospectus immediately on application. 2472a’.[3]

8 March 1890: ‘The Kingsley School, Kingsley Gate, Wimbledon, London, S.W. – Principals: MADAME DE LEEUW and MISS NOBLE, (Late of Kingston House, Wrexham.) – The system pursued in this School is carried out by means of a thorough KINDERGARTEN, with Transition and Senior School Classes. A prominent feature is made of Modern Languages, and the Physical Education is careful and complete. 2472a.’[4]

Margaret Noble then moved to a property in Merton Hall Road in 1892 to establish her own school, the ‘Kingsley Mead School’. This also followed what was described as the ‘New Education’ [5] of Pestalozzi and Froebel. Next in 1896 she founded ‘The Ruskin School’ for children and adults at ‘Brantwood’, 84 Worple Road (now 184).  This is mentioned in 1898 in the Surrey Comet as: ‘Ruskin School, Brantwood, Worple Road, Wimbledon. Kindergarten, Transition and Preparatory Classes. A few Boarders taken. Introduction and references required before admission. Prospectus on application to Miss Noble.’[6]

She made 21 Wimbledon High Street her family home with her mother and brother. Here you can see the Blue Plaque dedicated to her erected in November 2017 as part of the events celebrating the 150th anniversary of her birth.

Talks, writing and becoming ‘Nivedita’

Wimbledon Literary Society Archive, Museum of Wimbledon

Margaret Noble was also active in the local literary scene. In October 1893 she hosted the first meeting of the winter session of the Wimbledon Literary Society at Kingsley Mead School, then described as her residence. It was a very successful event.[7] We have in the Wimbledon Museum Collections a flyer of advertising the Wimbledon Literary Society’s conversazione in March 1897, a mix of songs, music and short talks held in the Lingfield Hall, evening dress to be worn. Margaret Noble was one of the speakers.  Another piece is recorded in the Surrey Comet in November 1898: ‘Collegiate Hall, Wimbledon: Meeting of the Wimbledon Literary Society; Mary Noble read a paper by Margaret Noble, “England and India: a Comparison and a Contrast.”’[8]

While in Wimbledon Margaret Noble joined the Sesame Club in London and began giving lectures, writing articles and meeting intellectuals such as Bernard Shaw and Thomas Huxley. In 1895 the Bengali Indian philosopher Narendranath Dutta, better known as Swami Vivekananda, was invited to speak at the home of Lady Margesson, a member of the Club. Margaret was one of those invited along with Ebenezer Cooke, the art education reformer who also taught art at her school.

Margaret Noble became Vivekananda’s disciple in 1895 and learnt about the lack of education for women in India.  Inspired by him, she set out for India arriving on 21 January 1898. Here she was given the name ‘Nivedita’ which means ‘The Dedicated’ and then spent the rest of her life educating Indian women, working for the poor, campaigning and travelling around the world to raise funds. The Friend of India records her arrival:

Colombo: “Among the passengers on board the S.S. Mombasa, which arrived at Colombo from London on Friday, the 21st ultimo, was Miss Margaret Noble, of Wimbledon, en route to Calcutta, to join the mission of Swami Vivekananda in India. She will work, says a correspondent of the Times of Ceylon, with Miss Muller, in Calcutta, in an institution which will soon be founded there, to educate Bengalee young ladies and form a class of Hindu nuns or Yoginis from among them.’[9]

Nivedita in India: women’s education and Indian nationalism

Courtesy Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, Kolkata

Although not initially a supporter, even opposing Indian nationalism, Sister Nivedita eventually became an ardent Indian nationalist from 1902 – 1906. She was bitterly critical of the British administration and the partition of Bengal in 1905, becoming extremely active in the Indian Freedom and Swadeshi movements.[10] After partition, Nivedita became focussed on the cultural identity of India, writing about arts and crafts, and promoting a national art movement for India.

Her book The Web of Indian Life, published in 1904, is a collection of essays that caused a sensation. It was described as ‘almost the first attempt to present the ethical and social ideals embodied in Indian women and family’,[11] the beginning of the revealing of the inner side of Eastern society to those in the West. She was not entirely progressive – Ratcliffe recalls that she supported child marriage, purdah and perpetual widowhood as part of Indian tradition.

At her school in Baghbazar, Kolkata, which began as a kindergarten for girls and soon expanded, she taught girls history, geography, natural sciences, some English, and sewing and handicrafts, as well as providing some education for older women. Nivedita wrote articles and books and gave lectures to raise funds for the school. The school formed the foundation of a new order of Women Monastics engaged mainly in spreading modern education for Indian women.

Nivedita worked tirelessly helping the poor of Kolkata and Bengal during plague epidemics, famine and floods, becoming ill herself. Nevertheless, there was some confusion in Wimbledon about her as described in the Surrey Comet in 1903:

FORMER RESIDENT BUDDHISTS. – A short time ago a statement was printed in several of the London newspapers that Miss Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita), who was once a well-known resident in Wimbledon, had become a Buddhist, and had been received into an Indian religious order with certain rites. Mr J. C. Hudson, the honorary secretary of the Nivedita Guild of Help, writes to us as follows: — “I now have the authority of Miss Noble herself to give a direct, full, and complete contradiction to such a report, for which there never was, and never is likely to be, the slightest foundation. Miss Noble says in a recent letter: ‘You may rely upon it that if I made any definite change to my position, I should inform you of the fact. I cannot at this moment imagine that I shall ever make a change.’ Miss Noble’s work amongst Hindu women and children is of a purely educational and social character, and to this she had wholly devoted her life and all her powers.’[12]

A National Flag for India

The ‘Vajra’ or Thunderbolt symbol
Courtesy Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, Kolkata
Pendant with the ‘Vajra’ or ‘Thunderbolt symbol designed by Sister Nivedita
Museum of Wimbledon LDWIM 2018.16.1

The Indian National Congress wanted a flag to celebrate self-rule.  Sister Nivedita designed one depicting the Vajra or Thunderbolt surrounded by 108 oil lamps and presented it to the Congress in 1906.  The inscription says ‘I salute the Motherland’ and ‘Wherever there is righteousness, there is victory’. Red stands for struggle and yellow for victory. In the event Mahatma Gandhi presented a different flag, similar to the current one, in 1921.

The ‘Vajra’ or ‘Thunderbolt’ symbol, was devised by Sister Nivedita as a possible Indian national emblem. This divine symbol, formed of the bones of Rishi Dadhichi to ‘smite evil and exalt righteousness’, also symbolizes self-sacrifice.

Sister Nivedita’s contribution to science

Statue of Sister Nivedita, Bengal Engineering and Science University
Photograph by Biswarup Ganguly
(GNU Free Documentation License)

While touring Europe, the eminent Indian scientist Jagadish Bose FRS stayed at 21 Wimbledon High Street in 1901 as the guest of Margaret’s mother.  Professor Bose was an extremely important pioneer in the field of radio transmission and wireless waves, but also a controversial figure.

Although remembered for many achievements, Sister Nivedita’s contribution to science through her support for Professor Bose is often overlooked. She was both a motivator and fundraiser for his research, which had received little support and suffered from discrimination.

Aided by Clara Bull, the American wife of a Swedish violinist, and Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita raised enough funds to enable Bose’s research to continue and build the Bose Institute for inter-disciplinary research in physics and biology in Kolkata, so fulfilling a dream of hers.

Our Margaret Noble and Sister Nivedita Collection

The Museum has a small collection of items relating to Sister Nivedita, including a statuette, a pendant designed by her and two books donated by the Sri Sarada Math and Ramakrishna Sarada Mission and their friends. We are grateful to Sarada Sarkar for much information about Nivedita and the Mission.

Pamela Greenwood with newspaper and further record research by Liz Janovsky

References

[1] This piece originated in the research for a temporary exhibition at the Museum celebrating Sister Nivedita in 2017 –2018. Some sources are: https://irelandxo.com/ireland-xo/history-and-genealogy/ancestor-database/margaret-elizabeth-noble-sister-nivedita

https://www.ria.ie/news/dictionary-irish-biography/irish-educators-abroad-margaret-noble-sister-nivedita

http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/margaret-noble.

Census and electoral role records and passenger lists chart Margaret Noble’s time in Wimbledon and elsewhere. Much has been written about her character over the years with many different opinions, e.g. S.K. Ratcliffe –  he and his wife were her close friends, Ratcliffe S.K. 1913, ‘Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita)’, The Sociological Review 1913, vol 6 issue 3:242 –252; O’ Doherty M., ‘Sister Nivedita –, A psychological reassessment’, History Ireland 2018 vol. 26.1:26 –29.

[2] Kingsley Gate School. Wrexham Advertiser. January 18th, 1890:.5

[3] The Kingsley School. Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser and Cheshire Shropshire and North Wales Register. January 11th, 1890: 4.

[4] The Kingsley School. Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser and Cheshire Shropshire and North Wales Register. March 8th, 1890: 1.

[5] Ratcliffe S.K. 1913, ‘Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita)’, The Sociological Review 1913, vol 6 issue 3: 242.

[6] Ruskin School. Surrey Comet. May 7th, 1898: 8.

[7] The Literary Society. Surrey Comet. October 14th, 1893:7.

[8] Wimbledon Literary Society. Surrey Comet. November 26th, 1898:7.

[9] Among the passengers on board the S.S. Mombasa… The Friend of India. February 3rd, 1898: 18.

[10] https://www.ria.ie/news/dictionary-irish-biography/irish-educators-abroad-margaret-noble-sister-nivedita

[11]S.K. Ratcliffe, ‘Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita’, The Sociological Review, 1913:242 – 252. Margaret Noble was a member of The Sociological Society.

[12] ‘Former Resident Buddhists’, Surrey Comet. January 24th, 1903: 9.