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A Glimpse of Mission Work in Chota Nagpur (1910–1939) from the Collections of the Revd Gerald Dickson

By Dr Hia Sen

This piece represents the Library’s positive collaboration with Dr Hia Sen, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her current research relates to colonial India through the lens of the archives of various missionary societies. Dr Sen had visited the RCB Library in 2018, after being alerted to items deposited in the Library that might be of interest to her research.

The diary of the Revd Gerald Dickson and a collection of his lantern slides bring alive a world and a time of which little is otherwise known. Gerald Dickson spent most of his tenure in the diocese of Chota Nagpur in and around Manoharpur, the station which is the subject of most of the images. The Chota Nagpur region (now in the State of Jharkhand) with its hills, dense forests, and vast tribal population of Uraons and Mundas, was a far cry from other regions of India. The station of Manoharpur, which is now in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand was even more of a mission outpost, compared to the better known centres like Ranchi and Hazaribagh. The images and the diary entries are from 1910 to 1939, a time which is historically significant not only for missionary activities overseas, but also for the reverberations of the First World War, which were felt in India, and for the intensification of nationalist sentiments among the Indian people. A substantial collection of some 67 lantern slides of India, and a copy of the Gerald Dickson’s diary, held in the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin reveal a glimpse of this period from the lens of everyday life within the diocese of Chota Nagpur.

Portrait of the Revd Gerald Dickson in India
Portrait of the Revd Gerald Dickson in India


The slides form part of a collection of a larger collection of some 165 lantern slides which (with Dickson’s diary) were generously donated to the RCB Library by his son, Professor David Dickson. Having been digitized by the Library, the Indian images are now being shared for the first time with a worldwide audience. These provide an amazing lens of everyday life within the diocese of Chota Nagpur in the early 20th century which will undoubtedly benefit the research community and indeed anyone interested in India.

Gerald Dickson travelled extensively within the Anglican diocese of Chota Nagpur, often camping for the night in the forests or in remote villages on his way to lecture tours or confirm remote parishes and much of his travels owed in part to the shortage of workers in the diocese. The setting up of a school was one of Gerald Dickson’s main projects in Manoharpur. He toured schools in Chakradharpur, Kamdara and Sode among others.

His diary also contains records of confirmations he conducted and the numbers of the baptized, thereby demonstrating the challenges of evangelical work in the region. Much of these involved the students of the school in Manoharpur and those from the neighbouring villages. Scenes of school and educational life are frequent subjects of the images. A number of lantern slides show him next to a tent, accompanied by native catechists, or capture the rhythm of life among the people he encountered in course of his travels. People from Munda, Uraon and Routiya tribes are often featured in the slides, with artifacts and weapons traditional to the communites. However, many of the images capture lighter moments, or everyday scenes from the region. Presumably in 1913, Gerald Dickson was entrusted with building up the missionary station of Manoharpur, newly acquired by the Chota Nagpur diocese. Although he continued with extensive lecture tours, Manoharpur was the centre of his work for the next 26 years. Many of the slides are a testament to the progress of various constructions he supervised, in particular the St Augustine Church in Manoharpur, built in 1922. The diary entries reveal the agonizing details he dwelt on, pertaining to funds, the measurement of the apse foundations, and the construction of arches. Some of the slides are of the marble altar of the Church, which was built with the funds given by Dame Monica Wills of Bristol. An entry in his diary from 1922 records that the altar was designed by the school of art in Jaipur.

The Revd Gerald Dickson's diary entries for March 1927
The Revd Gerald Dickson's diary entries for March 1927

The geographical peculiarity of Chota Nagpur is depicted with great affection in Gerald Dickson’s experiences of mission work and thus also the lens with which the region is regarded. Most of the slides capture landscapes of the Saranda forests and hilly tracts that he trekked through in the absence of permanent roads. Rivers embroider his impressions of mission work both in his visual and textual records. A number of slides are of river baptisms in the Koel and Koina, adjoining the Manoharpur Compound, which show candidates lined up for immersion. There are some images of the Revd Gerald Dickson perched precariously on a rock jutting out from the river, as he appears to lean forward in order to place his hand atop the candidate’s bowed head. His diary elaborates the pragmatism of this gesture, where according to him, the powerful currents of the Koel made it expedient that candidates be held by the hair when they were in danger of being swept away during baptism. According to the Bihar District Gazetteers of 1958, the Koel flooded on two rare occasions – once in 1920 destroying 20 villages, and again in 1927 – events that were witnessed by the Revd Gerald Dickson. But he appears to have constantly innovated to reckon with the irrepressible Koel. In an entry from 1927 he speaks of his waterproof attire for river baptisms: ‘No exception was taken to my unconventional garb. An aquascutum (under the surplice) had to do duty for a cassock’. Some of the slides also show him crossing rivers with his bicycle, an activity which was common during his tours to neighbouring villages.

Wading across river (probably River Koel) near Manoharpur, carrying bicycles. This slide shows possibly Bishop Kennedy on the left and the Revd Gerald Dickson on the right
Wading across river (probably River Koel) near Manoharpur, carrying bicycles. This slide shows possibly Bishop Kennedy on the left and the Revd Gerald Dickson on the right
Couple welcoming the Revd Gerald Dickson (?) to their home by washing his hands
Couple welcoming the Revd Gerald Dickson (?) to their home by washing his hands
Man, cooking pot on open fire, beside thatched dwelling.  This man features in some of the other lantern slides
Man, cooking pot on open fire, beside thatched dwelling. This man features in some of the other lantern slides
Man carrying two young children in balanced cane baskets
Man carrying two young children in balanced cane baskets

The slides when viewed in conjunction with the diary reveal certain specificities of overseas evangelical work in the war years, within and between various mission societies, which were active in the region. With the onset of the War, German Lutheran missionaries of the region were first interned and then deported by the British Government. Under Bishop Westcott, the Anglican missionaries stationed in Chota Nagpur worked closely with the Gossner Evangelical Lutherans (GEL) from 1914, taking over or supervising some of the Lutheran schools, where German missionaries had left. Some of the landscapes as well as images of people – sometimes of Gerald Dickson with native catechists in front of tents – are from his trips to the Lutheran stations. In his diary he mentions the GEL, and the Roman Catholic missionaries of Chota Nagpur. In one entry he narrates his experience of being hosted by the Jesuits of Rengadih for a night, on his way to Kinkel, a Lutheran station. His descriptions are textured and rich: ‘I have pleasant memories of Rengadih and not least the wonderful baked meats and trifle of ten eggs, made especially by the Sisters’.

Matters of administration are recorded in his diary as well as anecdotes of a lighter nature. His dry humour is entwined in his anecdotes of Bishop Wood as well as his uneven acclimatization to Chota Nagpur. Gerald Dickson’s close working relationship Bishop Kennedy, with whom he often travelled across villages visiting households and, showing the magic lanterns, is evident from his entries. Bishop Kennedy, who formerly belonged to the DUMCN, is also present in some images. The anecdotes of the mission compound pulsate with life. For example, the native deacon Sanatan upon arriving in Manoharpur discovers the previous occupant of his room bred white mice. Gerald Dickson records:

‘Sanatan is not favourably impressed. “Black or white” he said, “they will destroy clothes”’.

Gerald Dickson was also witness to various events of historical significance. An entry from 7 March 1921 documents the visit of the renowned James Moore Hickson of the healing mission to Ranchi. The stirrings of Mahatma Gandhi’s Non–Cooperation Movement are also captured in his diary, particularly in descriptions of liquor stores being picketed in the 1920s.

The collection of slides reflects a quiet appreciation of a different way of life. Gerald Dickson appears to have a pulse on the ways of the local inhabitants of the region. He spoke Hindi fluently, and by the 1930s was conversant in Mundari. His involvement in the lives of his parishioners often led him to mitigate land or tax related disputes, and was once even summoned to court when he and his gardener from Manoharpur alerted the police to a murder committed by the latter’s cousin. Something of this familiarity is shown in a number of the images where villagers appear to know him well. In numerous places their voices, demeanour and actions as people are emphasised more than tribal or religious identities. The school and the St Augustine church still exist and the name of “Dickson sahib” is remembered among some of the older clergy of the Chota Nagpur diocese, Church of North India, almost a hundred years after.

The Revd Gerald Dickson’s collection is valuable not only for what it records by way of events, but also as the textured, rich, aural–visual quality captures the intricacies and the rhythm of life of missionary work in an outpost of the British Empire.

This article neatly compliments the Chota Nagpur archive (RCB Library MS 166) previously featured here: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/news/6410/scenes-from-north-india-in. Canon Billy Marshall, who has written for the Archive of the Month previously with regards to lantern slides in North India during this period, worked on captioning the glass slides for this particular article. There was some additional work on captioning the slides by Dr Hia Sen. You can see these lantern slides through the following link:


The Revd Dickson worked very closely with Dublin University Mission to the diocese of Chota Nagpur (DUMCN). The RCB Library contains a substantial amount of deposited material pertaining to the DUMCN. You can see a detailed handlist of this collection here: https://www.ireland.anglican.org/cmsfiles/images/aboutus/AOFTM/Updates/2012/RCBLIBRARY-MS-166-Chota-Nagpur-FINAL.pdf

Signature of Revd Gerald Dickson
Signature of Revd Gerald Dickson





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