Sunday, 12 January 2014

Happy New Year! Working in the missionary archives has introduced me to some fascinating individuals. Let's begin 2014 by putting one remarkable woman in the spotlight... 

WOMAN OF THE WEEK: Miss Eva Fiennes

Eva Fiennes in November 1954
Archives of St Stephen's Community, Delhi
Miss Eva Fiennes was a handful. Stubborn, self-denying, tireless, and fiercely-independent, she was at once an exceptionally effective missionary, an extremely generous philanthropist, and an extraordinarily difficult colleague. Her companions in St Stephen’s Community in Delhi (an association of single women missionaries allied with the high-Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) regarded her with a mixture of frustration, admiration, bewilderment, and awe. ‘I, for one, always felt rather breathless and inadequate when from time to time, I shared some piece of work with her,’ admitted Cecilia Norris, a former Head of the Community, when writing Eva’s obituary for the Delhi mission news in 1963.[1] 

For the vast part of her missionary career, which began in 1904 when she was thirty-one and finished with her retirement in 1961 at the age of eighty-eight, Eva Fiennes worked as an evangelist in remote Indian villages surrounding Delhi. Quite often, she lived in a ramshackle Indian house alongside a smelly buffalo, and spent her days trekking through the fields to teach Indian village women and children. Her energy, intrepidness, and personal austerity were infamous. ‘She worked and lived utterly regardless of physical ease or comfort and drove herself to the limit of human endurance, sometimes beyond it,’ Miss Norris recalled.[2]

To the villagers of Rohtak and Gurgaon, Fathepur and Shahabad, Miss Fiennes must have seemed an extraordinary specimen! Certainly, her first appearance in an unknown village could be a tremendous shock. On one occasion, Cecilia Norris recounted that Eva’s ‘large, khaki solar topi, her deep voice and manly stride’ sent the village women scattering, covering their faces in terror. “Main log’ai hum, log nahin” cried Eva (“I am a woman, not a man”)! Panic over, the village women gathered round the missionaries and she began to teach, singing bhajans and explaining their Christian message.[3] Indeed, once initial introductions had been made, Miss Fiennes appears to have been outstandingly effective at winning villagers’ trust, attention, and affection. She had a keen memory, becoming familiar with the intricacies of their family histories and their educational progress. She prepared many villagers for Baptism and Confirmation, and helped them to find work. They called her the ‘Bari Missahib’ and constantly asked of her whereabouts on the rare occasions when she was absent from a preaching visit.[4]

While the Indian villagers grew accustomed to Miss Fiennes, however, the members of St Stephen’s Community found her a continuously tricky co-worker! A much younger colleague, Violet Hayes wrote at length of her experiences of preaching expeditions alongside the indefatigable Eva in her autobiography, Sent Out To Serve. At the time, Violet was twenty-seven, and Eva, sixty-six:

‘‘What are you running for?’ she would shout back over her shoulder. ‘Only to keep up with you,’ I would pant... Lunch did not happen at all... As the hot weather approached, I asked Eva if we could take a flask of water with us... But only after many pleadings would she agree to such pandering to the flesh and she stopped on the long and baking hot walk back to the car, only just long enough to take a sip.’

Poor Miss Hayes was so famished after a few days’ itineration with Eva that she instructed her colleagues to raid the larder of St Stephen’s Home upon her return to Delhi![5] Into her late seventies, Eva continued to walk 4 ½ miles from Mehrauli to Fathepur, and back again, in one day to visit and teach the villagers.[6]

The humble, self-sacrificing manner of Eva’s existence in India was in stark contrast to her origins. She was not the typical missionary recruit: daughter of a middle-class cleric. Instead, she came from a large aristocratic family with a long tradition of clerical and military service, whose present-day descendents (including the explorer, Ranulph, and the actor, Ralph Fiennes) continue to populate the pages of Burke’s peerage and Who’s Who. She was born, The Honourable Eva Caroline Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, in July 1873 in London to Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Ivo de Vesci Edward Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes of the 9th Lancers, and his wife, Isabella Emily Gregg. Her father was the third son of the 10th Baron Saye and Sele of Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire. He died when she was just two years old.[7]

I know almost nothing of Eva’s childhood. She had an older brother, Bertram (who died aged twenty-one), an older sister, Dorothy, and a younger brother, Nathaniel. She was educated at private schools in Ipswich and Bournemouth, and trained for the mission field at St Denys’ Deaconess House in Warminster. Interestingly, shortly before she began her training, her mother had married Eugene Stock, the hugely-influential editor, mission historian, and administrator of the Church Missionary Society.[8] Of the foundational experiences which might have inspired Eva to offer for missionary service, however, we know little. Her letters in the archives of the SPG are characteristically practical and direct – devoid of reflection and reminiscence.[9] She seems, however, to have been determined to use her personal wealth for the well-being of others.

Rather than receiving a stipend from the SPG like the majority of her colleagues, Eva’s personal wealth enabled her to offer for missionary service as an ‘honorary’ missionary. She financed her entire missionary career, paying for her outfit, passages, and daily maintenance.  As her colleague, Barbara Goucher recalled, ‘she could not bear to spend any money on herself,’ and would spend long train journeys sleeping upright on a hard wooden seat in third class. She devoted the rest of her money to sponsoring the schooling of Indian children at the mission’s village schools and helping the destitute, even giving away her own clothes and blankets.[10] In 1920, feeling very strongly the shortage of missionary evangelists in the Rohtak district, she also offered to pay for SPG to send out an additional worker to help.[11]

Eva’s disregard for herself and her independent nature made her very difficult to control. To those in authority in the Community of St Stephen, she could be a nightmare! On one fateful preaching expedition with Violet Hayes, she collapsed by the roadside, unable due to illness and exhaustion to continue. She refused to let Violet fetch help, however, insisting that her colleague continue to the village of Bagroula to take the lesson. After struggling back to her house, she also forced Violet to promise not to inform any of the Community in Delhi of her condition. Although Violet did her best to avoid her colleagues on her return, the Head of the Community noticed something was up. She and another senior member caught the next train to Gurgaon, determined to bring Eva to be treated in hospital. They returned empty-handed, however, as the formidable Miss Fiennes refused to admit defeat![12]

Eva with her St Stephen's colleagues in the early 1950s (she is second from the right in the second row)
Archives of St Stephen's Community, Delhi

On some occasions, the Community tried actively to restrain her, feeling she was more a hindrance than a help. In 1947, amidst the violence and chaos of Independence and Partition in Delhi, the Head of the Community, Evelyn Ashdown, informed the SPG: ‘We hope Nora and Barne and Ruth will have the pluck to come, we need reinforcements, but not Eva.’[13] In another letter, she explained, ‘The Bishop is determined to send her [Miss Fiennes] as far as possible from Delhi, and wisely I think. I am sorry for her, but at her age [seventy-four] she is not likely to change her methods, and she will be a real danger if she goes on as she did.’[14]

Ultimately, Eva Fiennes was a maverick! She was a wealthy English woman, who chose to live in poverty, far from home. She was difficult to work with, yet extraordinarily generous towards those amongst whom she worked. She was a highly-effective missionary, yet broke all the rules in the book. A woman to be reckoned with – to be feared and yet, admired.    

[1] Delhi. 1963. p.10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. pp.10-11.
[5] USPG, Rhodes House. X1254. Sent out to Serve by V.M. Hayes. p.13.
[6] Delhi. 1963. p.10.
[7] Author’s biographical database of women missionaries. Compiled from, The Times Digital Archive, Who’s Who etc.
[8] Ibid.
[9] USPG, Rhodes House. See papers of the Committee for Women’s Work (CWW).
[10] Delhi. 1963. p.11.
[11] USPG, Rhodes House. CWW 142. Original Letters Received: Assam, Bombay, Calcutta, Chota Nagpur, Lahore, Lucknow, Madras, Nagpur, Rangoon, Tinnevelly. 1920. p.74. 
[12] USPG, Rhodes House. X1254. Sent out to Serve by V.M. Hayes. pp.13-14.
[13] USPG, Rhodes House. E95/5. Delhi. 18th September 1947.
[14] USPG, Rhodes House. CMD 106: Letters received from Delhi during the 1947 disturbances. October 18th 1947.


  1. Fascinating. By the way are copies of your thesis available for sale? I'd love to be able to read it in full.

    1. Hi Margaret. I'm really pleased you enjoyed it. I'm just working on the next entry at the moment. Alas, my thesis is not in published form yet. I'd love to bring it out as a book but sadly work does not leave much time for writing these days. I could send you a PDF of the thesis if you would like, however. Just send me an email with you email address. My email address is

  2. Hello. I am Jennifer Hashmi aged 76. My maiden name was Thorpe. I joined St Stephen's Community in 1965 when memories of Eva Feinnes were still well etched. Fr Ian Weathrall of the Cambridge Brotherhood as it was then had many reminiscences. He got on well with her because he had a sharp tongue when he needed it and could stand up to her. The Community remembered her with affection and some exasperation. I have seen also on the internet an account of Evelyn Ashdown, head of the Community for a period, whose ship was torpedoed in1943, and she and another Community member spent 15 days in an open boat. Every one of those women was remarkable in her own way. Ruth Roseveare passed away only last year. Economy was not only Miss Feinnes' watchword. Miss Ashdown allowed only 15 watt bulbs throughout St Stephen's Home. Helen Jerwood went to live in St Martin's Church vestry as she considered the Home too luxurious. Its doors were never locked because everyone knew there was nothing in it to steal. Miss Jerwood I believe was not actually a member of the Community but in practise was part if it. There was a grand piano in the sitting-room which Evelyn Ashdown played. Nora Pedder was frugal in the extreme. She ran the St Elizabeth's home orphanage and St Mary's Home for old ladies. These were both in the Home compound as well as Victoria School Senior Secondary School.

    1. Hi Jennifer. It's wonderful to hear from you and how amazing that you were a member of St Stephen's. Thank you for your comments. It's great to hear further tales of the missionaries I encountered in my research. I was fortunate enough to meet Ruth Roseveare and to interview her for my thesis back in 2009. I also was fortunate to meet Fr Ian Weathrall when I stayed with the Brotherhood in Delhi in 2010. I'd be extremely interested to hear more of your own memories of the Community in the 1960s. How long were you in India?