Before she became famous in Hollywood’s The King and I, Canada’s most famous governess, Anna Leonowens spent four years as governess to the children at the Court of Siam (parent-day Thailand), where she is said to have persuaded the Siamese King to liberate one million slaves.
She was born Anna Harriette Crawford in Wales in 1834 and was raised in the Far East, where she married Maj. Thomas Leonowens of the Indian Army. They had two children and were living in Singapore when Leonowens died in 1858. Two years later, King Somdetch P’hra Paramendr Mongkut invited her to tutor his 64 children, and she spent the next four years at his court. She wrote two books about the experience: The English Governess at the Siamese Court and Siamese Harem Life. When she left Siam, she moved to New York and then to Halifax to live with her daughter and son-in-law Thomas Fyshe. In Halifax, where she lived from 1876 to 1897, Leonowens worked to improve conditions for women prisoners and helped to found what is now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. In 1897, the family moved to Montreal where Fyshe was the manager at the Merchants Bank.
Leonowens died in 1959. The inscription on her grave marked by a Celtic cross in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetary reads:
“Duty was the guide of her life and the love of her heart. To her life was beautiful and good. She was a benediction to all who knew her, a breath of the spirit of God.”