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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arnold, Ellen (1858–1931)

by G. B. Ball

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Ellen Arnold (1858-1931), missionary, was born on 5 July 1858 at Aston, Warwickshire, England, daughter of Alfred Arnold, commercial traveller, and his wife Ellen Jane, née Seager. The family migrated to Adelaide in 1879 and joined the Flinders Street Baptist Church where Ellen was influenced by Rev. Silas Mead. She became a teacher and after brief medical training, left in October 1882 for Furreedpore, India, backed by the South Australian Baptist Missionary Society. Practical and ascetic, she expected 'hard work, discouragements, fever, ague, cholera, disagreeableness, privations'. In fact she was invalided back to Australia to convalesce in 1884 when she toured most of the colonies and New Zealand.

This 'crusade of Ellen Arnold' fixed East Bengal as the mission field for Australasian Baptists. She enlisted four women who returned to Bengal with her in 1885; the group was know as 'the five barley loaves'. A 'fine, impulsive, carry-all-before-you sort of woman' who travelled widely by boat and pony, Arnold helped initiate medical and educational work at Furreedpore. A building project she supervised ran the mission into debt so, to save the expense of her support, she transferred in 1886 to the New South Wales Baptist Missionary Society and pioneered its work in Comilla. With some difficulty she secured land and began building a mission house in 1889. In 1892 she went to Pabna, where most of the rest of her life was spent preaching and establishing schools and dispensaries, mainly in the villages of Bera and Ataikola. In 1905 she reminisced: 'At one time they hooted me out of the village [Ataikola]; now they growl when I go away, and rush for me when I come! What has done it? My poor blundering attempts at medical work …'.

Ellen Arnold's strong will sometimes made co-operation with her colleagues difficult, especially in 1913 when she was almost forced to retire. But the Bengalis, in whose language she was fluent, loved her and she was a driving force in the establishment of the East Bengal Baptist Union. She urged intercolonial co-operation long before the federation of Australian Baptist mission work occurred in 1913. In 1919 she was awarded, but declined to accept, the Kaisar-I-Hind medal for public service in India. She served seven terms in Bengal, spending all but one (England, 1909) of her furloughs in Australia rallying support for missionary work.

In March 1930 on the eve of her expected retirement, the East Bengal Baptist Union took over her work, but after a few months in Australia Arnold returned to India against the wishes of the home board and her colleagues. Settled at Ataikola, she became a voluntary worker until she died there on 9 July 1931 after refusing surgery for a malignant growth. Donations financed the building of the Ellen Arnold Memorial Dispensary at Ataikola. The Bangladesh Baptist Union observes the anniversary of her death as 'Ellen Arnold Day'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. F. Mitchell, Ellen Arnold (Adel, 1932)
  • Truth and Progress, Nov, Dec 1892
  • Our Indian Field, Aug 1931
  • Furreedpore Mission Committee, Minute-books (Burleigh College, Adelaide)
  • Log-books of Comilla and of Pabna Zenana work (Australian Baptist Missionary Society Archives, Melbourne).

Citation details

G. B. Ball, 'Arnold, Ellen (1858–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


5 July 1858
Aston, Warwickshire, England


9 July 1931
Ataikola, Bengal, Bangladesh

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence