Fanny Hill Φανή Χίλλ
Born in New York 1799 Died in Athens 1884
In the Protestant Section of the First Cemetery (Q2)
Fanny Hill was a Philhellene with a capital P. She, along with her husband, operated a school in Athens for over 50 years. The Hill Memorial School, as it is called today, is still going strong at Thoukididou 9, in the Plaka. It is the oldest continuously operating school in Greece and is now run by the sixth generation of Hill descendants.
Fanny and her husband John arrived in Greece so early in the saga of modern Greece that the Turks still held the Acropolis. They spent some time on Tinos learning Greek before they arrived in Athens in 1831 and began their school three years before it became the capital. Even more amazing: they were Protestants! Funded by their American church, they joined a mission in aid of an Orthodox nation that was so suspicious of any religious denomination proselytizing that the activity was strictly forbidden by law.
Google her and you most often get this formal picture that is just a tad forbidding. With only this, it is hard to imagine what the young Fanny must have been like. Remember, when she and John joined the reverend John Robertson and his wife Julia (1) on the very first Episcopal mission to Greece, Fanny was an attractive young matron whose looks could have assured her a place in any Jane Austen novel and who, until their departure in 1830, had led a very comfortable middle class life in lower Manhattan.
Fanny as a young woman
Frances Maria Milligan was born in New York (the eldest of 9) to a well to do Irish family living in a comfortable mansion on Cedar Street close to Broadway, Battery Park, and the Trinity Episcopal Church where the family worshipped. In 1821, she met and married John Henry Hill, a successful banker, Sunday school superintendent, and fellow Episcopalian. They were young, energetic, religious, and, as members of the American Philhellene Committee, very sympathetic to the Greek cause. They might have remained armchair sympathizers but, in 1829, John changed the trajectory of their lives when he entered the Protestant Episcopal Seminary in Virginia and was ordained. Almost immediately, they left for Greece.
The plan was to provide opportunities for education which had been denied so many Greeks living in poverty under the Turks. While conversion was not part of their program, a suitably vague proposal to ‘raise the standard of religious life’ was. Many other Protestant Evangelicals had arrived in Greece at the same time and some felt differently. Jonas King, for example, a Congregational minister who became their neighbour in the Plaka, did want converts and, as a result got himself into constant hot water with the Greek Church. But at the time, any Protestant effort to help in educating the populace was welcomed by the new state which had a woeful lack of resources, not just of teachers, but of printing presses and printers who could produce suitable texts for learning. The Hill expedition included Mr. Brigham, a printer by trade.
The Hills found their first home in an Old Turkish tower in the Roman agora. There were not many choices in Athens back then. The fighting had left much of the small town in ruins.
Their first home and school
They began with 20 pupils in the basement of their home. Two months later, the enrollment was 167, so great was the need. John ran the boys school while Fanny and Julia had charge of the girls. At the time, it was the only educational institution for girls in the entire country. Julia taught practical skills like knitting while Fanny attended to reading and recitation. Apparently the Bible was the main available text although geography, spelling, writing, and mathematics were also taught. The Hills must have had to walk a very careful line in the Bible texts chosen given that the Orthodox Church was extremely leery of private Bible study.(2)
In the beginning, the girls were divided into an Industrial school, an elementary school, and, soon after, a teacher training school. It was obvious to the Hills that teacher training was a necessity if education were to spread. Julia Robertson left early on for another mission and teachers would have to be trained. The permission to include a teacher training facility was granted in 1834. Apparently it was an idea lauded by King Othon himself. The Episcopalian Church also sent teachers, and some of them were Fanny’s relatives. Luckily for the future of the school, she had a large extended family although she would never have children of their own.
Almost immediately the School moved into a large two storey building which had been newly erected in 1830 by architect and city planner Stamatis Kleanthis (1802-1860 ). It was in the middle of the Roman Agora alongside of the Fethiye Mosque (still there) and just west of the famous Tower of the Winds.
Photo from the Benaki Museum: Athens 1839 to 1900.These buildings would be razed along with many other buildings of the 19th century, when archaeologists decided to excavate the Roman forum.
But the Hills had, early on, purchased property for a school of their own. The new building was on the corner of Navarchou Nikodimou and Thoukididou Street, at the same address (but not the same building) as today’s school. One text says the early building was designed by Danish architect Christian Hansen. (3)
The school in the 1830s. It would alter over time as need arose.
In 1837, the Hills started something new: a boarding school for paying students. Athens was attracting a small but wealthy middle class and an elite; they wanted their girls educated as did well off families living in cities and towns outside of Athens. This move had some repercussions because some supporters in America were not entirely happy to see the mission placed on a business footing. By the early 1840s there were other rumblings as well. Fervent Evangelicals like Jonas King became targets of the Church and the yellow press. Both tended to lump all Protestants together and so the Hills too came in for criticism, even hatred. (The 40s were a turbulent period in Greek history. The Greeks had not even decided which Greeks would be considered citizens, let alone defined their national identity.) Fanny was so distraught by the attacks that she closed the school for a few months in 1842.
But because of their personal popularity and their service, the government (after an investigation) came to their support. The parents of the girls boarding with her aided both morally and financially. (Fanny’s student roster reads like a Who’s Who of the Athenian elite: the Botsaris, Trikoupis, Skouze, Miaoulis, Mavromichalis, and Kriezi families all boasted family members under the tutelage of the Hills. Sevasti Kallisperi, who would become the first Greek woman to graduate from university, was also a Hill School graduate.)
When the dust settled, a diminished school re-opened - a kindergarten, an elementary school for girls only as well as the school offering industrial training for girls. The boys’ school was eliminated as was the teacher training school. John went on to other duties (He was the chaplain of the British Legation for 30 years.) and Fanny carried on, heading the school until 1869, at which point she also inaugurated “The Hill Institute”, a teacher training school for upper class students – because there was such a demand.
Fanny with her students in 1865
What Was She Like?
Unlike the Fanny Hill of novel fame, Fanny did not write her memoires, but many visitors in the early days of the school were lyrical about her and did write their assessments.
John Lloyd Stephens who visited in the late 1830s was filled with admiration, for her teaching, the student’s abilities, the teachers’ grasp of English, and especially of Mrs. Hill’s tact. He noted that, in the classroom, a large slogan was written in Greek: Fear God, honour the king”. And to quell any potential Orthodox backlash, Fanny welcomed any locals visiting the school to observe. (4) Stephens went on to say that the girls all left the school “purified from the follies, absurdities, and abominations of the Greek faith.”(5) One assumes Fanny never put it quite that way.
Another Fanny fan was Florence Nightingale who visited Athens in 1849-50 and was especially impressed by the Turkish baths and Fanny Hill. She called her ‘an ideal woman’ and went on to say this about husband and wife:
“Where they come from, I don’t know. I never saw anything like them here before for, in my eyes, their greatest glory is that they have not converted in 20 years, one single soul. …That is what I call a missionary - the rest are only theologians” (6)
That wonderful observation would have made a fitting epitaph but it is not the one they got. The City paid for the marble monument marking John’s grave when he died in 1882. Written in large letters under his name are these heartfelt and much deserved words: WITH EVERLASTING GRATITUDE FROM THE CITY OF ATHENS. Fanny’s name was added in 1884.
Her name is just under that incised horizontal line on the stele
Fanny Hill may be writ small in the cemetery, but her contribution to Greece was monumental. By the time she retired, over 5,000 girls had received instruction from her.
The Hill school now operates as a private kindergarten and primary school and the elite still attend. It was the choice of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for his sons.
The Hill School today
Second aisle to the left as you enter the Protestant Section. Other family members are buried here as well.
(1)The society appointed Robertson and his wife; the Rev. John H. Hill and his wife, Frances Maria; and Solomon Bingham, a printer, as missionaries to Greece. Robertson served until 1842, when he returned to the United States and became rector of St. Luke's Church, Mattawan, New York.
(2)The Protestant penchant for Bible study and interpretation has never been the Orthodox way.
(3)This information is from: Dream and Reality: Danish Antiquaries, Architects, and Artisans by Ida Haugsted
(4) After 1850, the school would use a version of the New Testament written by Neophytos Vamvas, a cleric teaching at the University of Athens, the same version that was used in all Greek schools.
(5)From Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland by John Lloyd Stephens, p.67.
(6)From Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions” Michael D. Calabria