In 1863, Jane Walker–Arnott, the eldest daughter of a Glasgow University professor, founded the school to give the girls of Jaffa a measure of dignity and independence in an oppressive society.
Jane, accompanied by her sister Emilia, left Scotland for the Holy Land in 1858 for the benefit of her delicate health and worked with the German Basel Mission in the Port of Jaffa, a run-down community of Christian and Muslim Arabs under Turkish rule. She returned to Scotland in 1860, but, having concern for the plight of the girls and women she had seen in the Holy Land, was drawn back to Jaffa.
Tabeetha, named after Tabitha, a woman of good works, in the Acts of the Apostles, admitted its first pupils; fourteen Christian, Jewish and Moslem girls on 16 March 1863 to a room in Jane Walker-Arnott’s house. The girls were taught to read and write, to study the Bible and to become skilled at sewing and lace-making. The lace was sold in Scotland to raise money for the school.
Such was the demand from the local community that, within ten years Jane Walker-Arnott, with the generous help of Mr Thomas Cook, purchased a plot outside the walls of the old city of Jaffa in 1874.He, who led pilgrimages to the Holy Land, laid the cornerstone on 10 March 1875 and the new school building opened its doors on November 1st 1875.Many of the stones used to build the school are said to have come from the breached wall of the ancient City of Jaffa (previously known as Joppa) as the town expanded.
In 1879, an account in the first volume of the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work, written by Jane’s sister, Emilia, tells how, by then the school numbered some 50 to 60 girls who attended as boarders, and that day pupils attended two day schools in the old city of Jaffa.
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The school building is typical of the Turkish Ottoman architecture of the mid-nineteenth century. The original wooden balcony above the entrance door has long been replaced by one of concrete with metal railings. The building is entered through sturdy cedar wood doors above which is an image of the open Bible with the inscription, ‘Thy Word is Truth’. The wide entrance hall is dominated by Italian marble pillars supporting three arches. The lettering over the arches, discovered in April 1996 is from Psalm 28v7, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in whom my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults”.
The ground floor plan is typical of the style of the period, three rooms on either side of the hall which replaces what is usually an open courtyard. The end room (now the secondary library and study room) we know to have been the dining-room with kitchens beyond. The lettering over the door to the dining-room ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want’ is particularly significant as we know that Jane Walker-Arnott was proactive in the relief of suffering from starvation which afflicted the town in the 1870’s.
The lettering over the dining room, together with that over the side arch at the bottom right of the hall, ‘Thy God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in Glory by Christ Jesus’, was a surprised discovery from the time of the Gulf war. During the war, buildings had to have plastic sealed rooms as a defence against chemical attacks. After the war, when the plastic sheeting was removed, it took with it much of the concealing paint and plaster. Further renovations exposed the beautiful scriptures, a very special legacy.
The staircase to the right of the entrance hall leads to the upper hall, now the primary school. Over the arch at the top of the first flight of stairs is a lozenge incised with the delicate interlaced, ”JWA”.
The upper floor was once the boarding accommodation. The teachers’ rooms were in the four corners with the rest of the rooms being given over to dormitories. The large cupboards were used to store clothing. The headmistress’s accommodation was to the rear of this floor overlooking orange –groves. A staircase leads to the roof and an old print, circa 1880, shows a wooden parapet at roof level with figures of ladies taking the air and enjoying the view of Tabeetha Church, a Russian Orthodox Church renovated in 1995 and reputed to house the final resting place of Tabitha (Dorcas in Greek), a Jaffa woman ‘of good works’ in the Acts of the Apostles whom Peter raised from the dead and who gives her name to the school.
Outside are a number of ancillary buildings. The Walker–Arnott building was erected in 1912 in memory of the school’s founder who died the previous year after 48 years of headship. On the ground floor is the Rosie room, named after Jean Rosie MBE, a distinguished and much loved teacher and head teacher at Tabeetha for 40 years. Upstairs are the chemistry and biology laboratories established in 1994 thanks to the generosity of the Church of Scotland Women’s Guild ‘SOS’ (Strengthen Our School) appeal.
The gardens and grounds are not extensive but are attractive. The original plot was purchased through negotiations undertaken by Thomas Cook’s son, John. Later a further plot consisting of an orange–grove (the bottom yard) was purchased. The grove was dug up to provide a netball court in the 1920’s. Today only three orange trees survive together with olive trees, palms and conifers. The bottom of the yard is fenced to provide a secure play area for the youngest children, whilst over the wall on the left, is the small Christian cemetery where Jane Walker–Arnott was buried in June 7th 1911, along with Dr. Thomas Hodgkin who was the first to describe Hodgkin’s disease. Bessie Mangan, founder and head of the Medical Mission and English Hospital in Jaffa is also buried there.