1828 - 1889
Rachel Metcalf was a19th century Quaker missionary to India, first travelling there in 1866. Despite contracting smallpox, which left her confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she looked after a ‘growing family of orphans’ at Hoshangabad, the site of what would become the Friends Rural Centre at Rasulia.
Metcalf was born in Yorkshire in 1828. She attended the Friends School at Ackworth and was something of a teenage rebel, questioning her Quaker heritage. Nevertheless, when the British Friend was first published in 1843, she began reading it and was drawn to the idea of service.
When her mother died in 1845, Metcalf needed to earn her living. Rejecting the idea of becoming a piano teacher, she returned to Ackworth as a servant. When her father also died, in 1847, she and her sister became domestic servants in Quaker families. Metcalf looked after a family of six children, first in Brighouse in Yorkshire, then in Croydon, South London.
It was in Croydon, around 1855, that she received a ‘call of the Lord’ to go to India. However, it wasn’t until 1866 that she left England for Benares. She had arranged to meet a Mrs Leupolt from the Church Mission Society, who had appealed in the Friend for a donation of sewing machines for an industrial school. Metcalf was inspired to volunteer as a teacher at the school.
With minimal support from Friends, she arrived in India with her own sewing machine and was soon immersed in the life of the school. Leupolt wrote of her: “She is the right person in the right place. She has a happy knack of making herself understood and throws heart and soul into her work.”
In 1868, the Friends Foreign Mission Association (FFMA) was established. Metcalf appealed to them to support her independently, and also for a married couple to share her work. A response came from Elkanah and Irena Beard of Indiana, USA – a Quaker couple who had served during the Civil War and thereafter lived among emancipated slaves to help protect them from resentful whites.
Treated snobbishly by British missionaries in Benares, the three travelled instead to what is now Madyar Pradesh, where there were no missionaries, and where they could dwell among the people. Metcalf recorded what one Hindu priest said of Elkanah Beard. This man must be sent of God, he is so full of love.
In 1872, as a result of Irene’s ill health, the Beards left India and Rachel was joined instead by a young British Quaker called Charles Gayford. It was Gayford who first bought land at Hoshangabad, near what would later become the Friends Rural Centre at Rasulia.
Soon after this, Metcalf contracted smallpox. The illness left her partially paralysed and unable to stand without support, and during her recovery, she lived with a Quaker family in Agra.
In 1875, still confined to a wheelchair, Metcalf took charge of a girls’ school in Sohagpur, not far from Hoshangabad. Then in 1876, she joined Gayford and his wife in their new house in Hoshangabad. When she found their house too isolated from the local people, a small house was procured in the bazaar, which was used as a school during the week and as a Meeting House on Sundays.
In 1879, Gayford returned to the UK to qualify as a doctor. Metcalf again stayed on. In 1881, an orphan girl was brought to Metcalf to bring up. Metcalf’s health was deteriorating, and she hesitated, but finally agreed. Soon she had a ‘growing family of orphans’. The FFMA did not consider supporting orphans to be part of their remit, so money for their upkeep had to be raised privately.
For seven years, she looked after a dozen children. Marjorie Sykes, the chronicler of Quakers in India, wrote that, even when they had all grown up “she was always there, when anyone needed help or counsel.” During this time she translated extracts of the Bible into Hindi and put together the collection of readings in a book for children called Daily Bread.
Metcalf died of a stroke in 1889.