Anna Leonowens

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Anna Leonowens : biography

26 November 1831 – 19 January 1915

Anna Harriette Leonowens (6 November 1831 – 19 January 1915) born Anna Harriet Emma Edwards,Susan Morgan, Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess, Berkeley, University of California Press, p29 was an Anglo-Indian or Indian-born BritishMorgan, Bombay Anna, pp23–25, 240–242. travel writer, educator, and social activist.

Her experiences in Siam (Thailand) were fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s 1944 best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam, as well as films and television series based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 hit musical The King and I.

During the course of her life, Leonowens also lived in Aden, Australia, Singapore, the United States and Canada. Among other achievements, she co-founded the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.


Marriage, Western Australia, and widowhood

At the end of 1849, Anna Edwards returned with her family to India, where in Poona she married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas Leon (or Lane/Lean) Owens—he later merged his second and last names as Leonowens—over the objections of her stepfather and mother. Her husband was a civilian clerk (rather than the army officer suggested by her memoir). In 1852 the young couple, accompanied by Anna’s uncle W. V. Glasscott, sailed to Australia via Singapore, where they boarded the barque Alibi. The journey from Singapore was long and Anna gave birth to a son, Thomas,Baptism no. 150, 1 May 1853, Register of Baptims, Wesley Church, Perth, Acc. 1654A, Battye Library, Perth. This states Thomas’s date of birth as 24 January 1853. on board. On 8 March 1853, nearing the Western Australian coast, the Alibi was almost wrecked on a reef. Ten days later Anna, Thomas, their newborn son and Glasscott arrived in Perth, where Thomas quickly found employment as a clerk in the colonial administration.Habbegger, Alfred and Foley, Gerard. Anna and Thomas Leonowens in Western Australia, 1853–1857, State Records Office of Western Australia, March 2010.

In Perth, Anna, at this time going by her middle name, Harriett, tried to start a school for young ladies. In March 1854, her son died and, later that year, a daughter, Avis AnnieRegister of Births, Western Australia, no. 2583, 1854 was born. In 1855, the Leonowens family moved to Lynton, a remote convict depot north of Geraldton where Thomas was appointed the Commissariat Storekeeper and Anna gave birth to their son Louis there.Register of Births, Western Australia, no. 3469, 1856 By early 1857, the Lynton Convict Depot had closed and the Leonowens family were back in Perth, but in April 1857 sailed to Singapore.Habbegger, Alfred and Foley, Gerard. Anna and Thomas Leonowens in Western Australia, 1853–1857, State Records Office of Western Australia, March 2010, p. 24 Soon moving to Penang, Thomas found work as a hotel keeper,Loos, Tamara. , Journal of Historical Biography, vol 5 (Spring 2009), pp. 146–52 only to die of apoplexy, leaving Anna Leonowens an impoverished widow. Thomas Leonowens was buried on 7 May 1859 in the Protestant Cemetery in Penang.Cemeteries of Penang & Perak by Alan Harfield. British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, 1987. Of their four children, the two eldest had died in infancy. To support her surviving daughter Avis and son Louis, Leonowens again took up teaching, and opened a school for the children of British officers in Singapore. While the enterprise was not a financial success, it established her reputation as an educator.

Early life and family

Leonowens’ maternal grandfather, William Vawdrey (or Vaudrey) Glascott, was an English-born commissioned officer of the 4th Regiment, Bombay Native Infantry, in the Bombay Army. Glascott arrived in India in 1810,Morgan, Bombay Anna, pp20, 241. and was apparently married in 1815, although his wife’s name is not known.Morgan, Bombay Anna, pp23–24, 28. According to biographer Susan Morgan, the only viable explanation for the complete and deliberate lack of information regarding Glascott’s wife, in official British records, is that she "was not European".Morgan, Bombay Anna, p23. Morgans suggests that she was "most likely … Anglo-Indian (of mixed race) born in India." The Glascotts’ first child, Mary Anne Glascott, was born in 1815 or 1816.