Born in London in 1906, Barbara Bruce was a member of the Society of Friends and a sculptor. She was the daughter of Leonard and Dorothy Hartland, and had a younger brother, Cedric. In the early 1930s she moved to South Wales to assist fellow Quaker John Dennithorne in his work amongst the unemployed in Merthyr Tydfil. She then returned to London to train as a nurse at the London Hospital, qualifying in 1936.
Through the Friends Service Council, she volunteered to work for a year at the Friends' Mission Hospital in Itarsi, Central Provinces (now the state of Madhya Pradesh), in India. She arrived in the country in January 1939. In this role she replaced Edith Bevan as a second nursing sister, alongside Lucille Fischer. Edith Bevan, a Methodist, had spent the best part of a decade at the hospital and returned to England on extended leave.
There is evidence in Barbara's letters to suggest that prior to going to India, she had been involved in the Friends' medical relief effort in Spain during the Civil War and that through this work she began her friendship with Donald Groom. George Jones and Herbert Fischer were also relief workers in Spain, but it is not clear whether they knew Barbara at that point.
The situation that Barbara found at the hospital in Itarsi was far from ideal. Tensions had developed between the traditional view of the Christian mission in India (articulated by Edith Bevan) and more radical and egalitarian ideas about living and working with Indian people, held by Drs Bill and Molly Tandy, and Dr Herbert Fischer (Lucille's husband). Bill Tandy, with the aid of a dispensary van funded by the Cadbury family, took the work of the hospital out into the surrounding villages. He also visited Gandhi in 1937, at his ashram in Sevagram, to discuss how issues of caste, custom and prejudice were affecting the operation of the hospital. There he met Herbert Fischer and Jogneshwar Gogoi, who were both persuaded to move to Itarsi where they began a series of co-operative ventures in the local community. George Jones, whose wife Margaret became a close friend of Barbara, arrived in India from Spain in 1938 and worked exhaustively with the Gond people, an aboriginal tribe who lived in the jungle and were considered outside the Hindu caste system.
This was the network of people and commitments which Barbara entered into in Itarsi. Already influenced by Gandhi and with a liberal, ecumenical approach, Barbara never saw herself in the missionary role. Her letters home to her family express an early commitment to adapting to the Indian way of life and immersing herself in Indian culture. This included wearing handwoven clothes, eating a vegetarian diet, learning the Hindi language and adopting an Indian name, Vasanti Ben. She developed close friendships with many Indian people, including Sukumar Pagare, a member of the Congress Party in Itarsi, who regarded her as his sister and kept in contact with Barbara until a few years before her death.
Alongside her nursing work, Barbara often spent weekends and longer periods of leave travelling around India. Her interests in art, archaeology and religion prompted visits to view the Buddhist monuments at Sanchi, and prehistoric cave paintings near Hoshangabad and Pachmarhi, amongst other sites. She was deeply influenced by attending the All India Congress held in Tripuri in March 1939 and by regular gatherings of Indian and European friends at her hospital bungalow where discussions were held on the unity of all religions. These discussions led, in 1949, to the formation of the Fellowship of Friends of Truth, described by Margaret Jones as a fellowship for those 'seeking after the Truth underlying all things and trying to live towards the spirit shed abroad by Gandhiji' (letter of 17 February 1949).
Against this background, Barbara wrote to Amy Montford at Friends House in London, attempting to persuade her of the importance of the developments at Itarsi. However in June 1939, the India Committee of the Friends Service Council made the decision to remove the Tandys and the Fischers from their positions at the hospital. Bill Tandy was replaced firstly by Dr Matthew, an Indian doctor, and then in October 1940, by Dr Martin Ludlam, another English Quaker. The Ludlam family arrived in the country with Donald and Erica Groom, who were appointed to take over the running of the Friends' Settlement in Rasulia. The situation of the Fischers was complicated by the outbreak of the Second World War. Herbert Fischer, a German national, was interned at a camp in Purandhar, and after giving birth to their first child, Karl, Lucille joined him in early 1940. They were not released until after the end of the war, when they left India and settled in East Germany.
Divisions persisted at the hospital however, as the roots lay deeper than a clash of personalities. Barbara continued working at Itarsi until April 1941, when she joined Marjorie Sykes at the ashram and university at Santiniketan, in Bengal, founded by the Tagore family. Barbara remained there, nursing Rabindranath Tagore until his death on 7 August 1941. Friends of Barbara's, including Sukumar Pagare, were imprisoned for acts of satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) during this period. Her own health suffered and after a brief stay with Leonard Schiff at the Bishop's House in Calcutta, she returned to work at the hospital in Itarsi.
She did so as an independent volunteer, rather than through the Friends Service Council, and made the decision to live outside the hospital amongst Indian people. During this period she spent time living and working at various rural spinning centres, and was involved in discussions led by Donald Groom to initiate emergency and constructive work in the Central Provinces. The charka (spinning wheel) and khadi (handspun, handwoven cloth) were symbolic of the Gandhian Constructive Programme, itself an integral part of the satyagraha movement.
In June 1943 she left Itarsi for good, spending several months with the Tagore family at their home in Kalimpong, near the border with Nepal. She then returned to work formally for the Friends Ambulance Unit in Contai, as part of the famine relief effort in Bengal in the wake of a devastating cyclone. Between November 1943 and December 1944, she took part in milk distribution, ran the children's hospital in Contai, and organised dispensaries in local villages.
However her most important work was undertaken at the ashram and village community created by Gandhi at Sevagram, in the state of Maharashtra. She first visited Sevagram in January 1939 at the invitation of Asha Devi Aryanayakam and her husband, and then again in November 1940, when she met Gandhi. But she did not settle there until January 1945. Barbara lived outside the ashram to avoid some of the strictures imposed on daily life by Gandhi, such as the ban on drinking tea. She was based initially at the Hindustani Talimi Sangh (All India Education Board), which took forward Gandhi's Basic Education programme. Her work involved running the village dispensary, and later, a maternity and child welfare centre in Sevagram. To ensure that this became sustainable, she also collaborated with Dr Sushila Nayar to develop a training scheme for local women to run such institutions themselves.
After a period of leave spent at the Friends' Settlement in Rasulia with Donald and Erica Groom, Barbara returned to Sevagram to take on the role of nursing superintendent at the newly established Kasturba Hospital. This was named in memory of Gandhi's wife Kasturba who died in prison in 1944. Barbara continued to undertake a combination of hospital management, nursing and midwifery training, adult education, and work in the village dispensary and health centre, throughout her time at Sevagram. She worked closely not only with Sushila Nayar and Asha Devi Aryanayakam, but also with Prabhakar, who was resident in Gandhi's ashram and closely involved with the hospital, and Manimala Roy Choudhary, the head nurse.
In February 1947, Barbara sailed to England from Bombay for a year's leave. This was the first time she had seen her family for over eight years. Towards the end of her stay, she spent three months at the Trewern community, set up in Dowlais by John Dennithorne. When she arrived back in India, in the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination, she turned down a request from Leslie Cross to join Margaret Jones in working for the Friends Service Unit in Pakistan. Instead she returned to her commitments in Sevagram and remained there until her decision to return home in early 1950. This was despite a serious proposal made by Margaret Jones in July 1949 that Barbara come to Chittagong, in East Bengal, to assist her as a midwife at the Jameson Maternity Hospital. Before sailing from Bombay in March 1950, she spent a brief period working with Asha Devi Aryanayakam in a refugee camp in Faridabad.
Barbara married Harry Bruce in September 1950 and settled at Woodland Cottage, Longdon, Upton-on-Severn. The Bruces lived there for the rest of their lives. A cousin of Miraben (Gandhi's English disciple, Madeleine Slade) and a nuclear physicist, Harry Bruce had by all accounts waited many years to marry Barbara.
After her marriage, Barbara did not return to India, despite promises and plans to do so. She remained in contact with many of her friends and co-workers from India, notably Margaret and Mary Barr, Manimala Roy Choudhary, Donald and Erica Groom, Margaret Jones, Sushila Nayar, Sukumar Pagare, Prabhakar, Marjorie Sykes, Molly Tandy and Ranganayaki Thatham. In this way she continued to exert some influence on the development of Kasturba Hospital. Her correspondence also gave her insights into the development of Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan (land gift) movement and of Gandhian Basic Education and other constructive work in India after independence.
Barbara's links with David Hoggett, the founder of the Commonweal Collection, developed through the Fellowship of Friends of Truth after it was established in Britain in 1956. David's voluntary work in India during 1952-1955 brought him into contact with people Barbara had known there, such as Margaret and Mary Barr. A proposal was made at the FFT conference in 1957 to set up a centre based on Gandhi's concept of sarvodaya (commonweal). John Dennithorne offered a property in Merthyr Tydfil, known as Garthnewydd, as a base for the community. Meetings about how the community would operate took place amongst a mixed group of people with experience of working in India, International Voluntary Service for Peace volunteers and members of the FFT. Barbara was involved in these discussions, as were Molly Tandy and her daughter Mary, David Hoggett and Alfred Heselgrave.
There is evidence in her letters that Barbara took part in the first Aldermaston March in 1958. In the 1960s, she was behind an initiative to raise funds for the Bhoodan movement, through a War on Want campaign which paired Upton-on-Severn with the village of Shrikrishnapura in Rajasthan.
Barbara died in 1976 and after her husband's death, Woodland Cottage was inherited by Harry's nephew, Robert Hubbard. He later granted use of the cottage to Alfred Heselgrave.