Battle of Dorking by Joanna Van Der Lande

Why Dorking? The Battle of Dorking and the Last Line of Defence

Joanna van der Lande

For those of you who know of Dorking, a small market town in Surrey, you might be surprised to hear of a short novel (novella) entitled, ‘The Battle of Dorking’, a work of fiction published in May 1871.  On initially hearing about this story, and having known Dorking my entire life, I felt somewhat taken aback that anyone would think Dorking could set the scene for a battle, but its author, George Tomkyns Chesney, wasn’t anyone.

Chesney was born in 1830, training at the East India Company Military Seminary at Addiscome Place in Surrey, an educational establishment for recruitment to the East India Company, with a particular emphasis on training artillery and engineering officers.

For those interested in Indian and Mutiny history, it has many notable alumnae including Sir Henry Lawrence of Lucknow fame and Sir Robert Napier who was adjutant to General Outram at the first relief of Lucknow.

Chesney joined the Bengal Engineers in 1848 and was brigade-major of engineers throughout the siege of Delhi. After the Mutiny he was appointed head of a new department in connection with the public works accounts and in 1868 published Indian Polity a very well regarded book on the subject. He was the advocator and founder of the Royal Indian Engineering College in Egham, Surrey which was bought in 1870 and opened in 1872 shortly after his novella was first published. At the time of writing “The Battle of Dorking” Chesney was a Lieutenant Colonel.

The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer was considered the first of a new genre of invasion literature. It was written by a man who was well acquainted with war, as well as sieges and all the associated privations. And with the mind and training of an engineer he knew about planning and preparation. But why write the story at all? The date of the publication provides the clue.

The rapid defeat of the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War which had led to the formation of a single German Empire had caused absolute shock well beyond the French borders. There were reports that the favourite topic of conversation among the German officers at Versailles in January 1871, after the signing of the Armistice, was the invasion of England. Much of the earlier part of the century had been concerned with an invasion by France with their superior army, but overnight the balance of power had shifted and along with it the threat to these shores. Chesney wanted to wake people up to this threat and to the inadequacies of England’s defences; the jittery population found the story all too believable.

Franco-Prussian war 1870 – 1871 – Paris after the siege

Using the medium of a popular magazine, Chesney wrote to Lord Blackwood, editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, only days after the French defeat. He published the short story in the magazine, initially anonymously and the impact on its well-heeled and conservative-minded audience was profound and immediate. It fame quickly spread beyond its usual readership to reach a national audience with the seventh edition published by the end of May. It was printed as a stand-alone booklet in June and sold 80,000 copies that month alone with a further 30,000 copies in July. It then attracted an international audience. In contemporary language – the story went viral.

It was a forthright account using Chesney’s experiences as a soldier, cleverly personalising the narrative through the eyes of a Volunteer recounting the tale to his grandchildren fifty years after the invasion.  He reflects on the pre-invasion prosperity which England enjoyed and how the country had come to expect this to continue forever. Some of his observations are unsettling even for the contemporary reader, “in our blindness we did not see that we were merely a big workshop, making up the things which came from all parts of the world; and that if other nations stopped sending us raw goods to work up, we could not produce them ourselves.”

The real thrust of his story highlights his concern that the rulers of the Land believed the Fleet and the Channel were sufficient protection. “So army reform was put off to some more convenient season, and the militia and volunteers were left untrained as before…..”

The Volunteer tells us there were an inadequate number of troops and many ships were on other duties in different parts of the world. “It was while we were in this state, with our ships all over the world, and our little bit of an army cut up into detachments, that the Secret Treaty was published, and Holland and Denmark were annexed” though we are not told by whom but he adds that:  “…only a few months before, move[d] down half a million of men on a few days’ notice, to conquer the greatest military nation in Europe”. Clearly references to the Franco-Prussian War with the German invasion of France and the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. The Government hastily declared war without adequate forces in place. To add to the drama and urgency and to build further on the fear of the reader, who believed the navy to be invincible, the Volunteer tells us, “the fleet of the two great Powers had moved out, and it was supposed were assembled in the great northern harbour, and troops were hurrying on board……It was clear that invasion was intended.”

The Volunteer was in London when the papers announced, “New edition – enemy’s fleet in sight!” The story gives us a sense of atmosphere and tension in the bustling city with people going about their usual business in a state of suspended belief.  Chesney neatly disposes of the entire navy, “the enemy’s torpedoes are doing great damage” which presumably were “the fatal engines which sent our ships, one after the other, to the bottom.”

The enemy had clearly invested heavily in the torpedo which was in reality very new technology for the time; “The Government, it appears, had received warnings of this invention: but to the nation this stunning blow was utterly unexpected.” The British Government was already showing interest in this new invention but it was only in 1871 the Admiralty invested in the development and production of the torpedo in Britain.  One wonders whether Chesney was trying to get things moving along a little more quickly.

Rumours of landings then abounded with rather chaotic scenes of volunteer and militia forces sent east when the enemy had landed in the south. The Volunteer was sent to Horsham, which was already occupied by an enemy advance guard, so he was directed to Leith Hill which has an excellent vantage point and from there to Dorking with other forces sent to Reigate and Guildford. The manner in which the Volunteer describes both the landscape and the landmarks suggests Chesney had an intimate knowledge of the area. They bivouacked along the ridge above Dorking, which can be identified as Ranmore and forms part of the North Downs ridge. While walking along this ridge he describes the situation of the town in the valley forming a break in the chalky ridge which then rises up again above the river. This chalky ridge is the steep-sided Box Hill and the river is the river Mole which wends its way north to eventually join the Thames.

The Volunteers notes that,

“The natural strength of our position was manifested at a glance, a high grassy ridge steep to the south, with a stream in front and but little to cover the sides. It seemed made for a battle-field. The weak point was the gap.” The town was emptied of people and the poorly trained volunteers and militia waited with some heated exchanges with the regulars who we are told felt that forces made the situation more difficult for them.


George Lambert, Box Hill Surrey, 1733. 

A view southwards with the Dorking in the far distance, Box Hill

on the left and Ranmore on the far right

The well trained enemy reached Dorking with little trouble, and were soon climbing the steep slopes of Box Hill to meet the defenders, with the Volunteer and his troop were waiting their turn on the other side of the valley – their advantageous position of little use against a superior enemy. He then paints detailed and vivid imagery of the chaos, confusion and brutality of hand to hand combat, all on the slopes of Ranmore. Their lines between Dorking and Guildford were breached and the troops fell back towards London with the enemy in hot pursuit. When news reached our now injured Volunteer that Woolwich with its arsenal had fallen, all hope was lost. Railway lines were ripped up but it was all too late.

To add to the emotion he finds his way to a friend’s house for refuge just as it was shelled with a small child, the Volunteer’s god-son, taking the force of the shell and dying. He passes out and on waking hears voices of the enemy in the house. They mocked the retreating volunteers and their lack of training and fitness for battle, with the nameless, but clearly German speakers, portrayed as brutish and boorish. Bearing in mind this was written during the reign of Queen Victoria, whose beloved late husband was German and whose eldest daughter, Victoria was married to a Crown Prince of Prussia, this would have caused quite a stir in itself.

The narrator goes on to tell us that as a result of the occupation, the colonies were taken and Britain’s Empire was lost, while the country was impoverished by the invaders. He lamented that while France still had its rich soil to assist them in their recovery from invasion, “….. our people could not be got to see how artificial our prosperity was – that it all rested on foreign trade and financial credit……They could not be got to see that the wealth heaped up on every side was not created in the country but in India and China and other parts of the world.”

It was a shocking account and even now somewhat unsettling. Chesney was painted in the press both as a hero for highlighting the nation’s deficiencies in defence and alarmist for further unsettling the public and building on pre-existing fears of invasion. Even Prime Minister Gladstone asked for calm in the face of such alarm and he was anxious it would make the country a laughing stock internationally. He spoke openly about it in a speech at the Whitby Working Men’s Club:

“In  Blackwood’s Magazine there has lately been a famous article, called “The Battle of Dorking.” I should not mind this “Battle of Dorking,” if we could keep it to ourselves, if we could take care that nobody belonging to any other country should know that such follies could find currency or even favour with portions of the British public, but unfortunately these things go abroad, and they make us ridiculous in the eyes of the whole world. I do not say that the writers of them are not sincere — that is another matter — but I do say that the result of these things is practically the spending of more and more of your money. Be on your guard against alarmism.”

By early June the German Press had picked up on the story in the Allgemeine Zeitung in the form of a fictitious letter from a London correspondent. It ended by saying, “our pride and satisfaction would be increased tenfold if the German Empire were made to extend from the Danube to the Shannon, and embrace India and Australia in its ample folds.” Understandably this caused further anxiety in the British Press and with the political classes. The article then spread all over the world developing a life of its own and was translated into multiple languages.

The story clearly rattled the authorities in more ways than one. In September 1871, significant and unprecedented military manoeuvres took place involving tens of thousands of regulars, reservists and non-combatant auxiliaries.  With this show of strength the fear caused to the British public turned more towards satire, with music hall songs referencing the Battle and with any small injury followed by, “weren’t you wounded at the Battle of Dorking?” It all help to defuse the situation.


Box Hill Fort

Nevertheless, it never quite went away and between 1889 – 1903 a cross-party consensus in the House of Commons agreed to fortify the North Downs along the route described by Chesney in his fictitious Battle. Forts (previously called Mobilisation Centres) formed part of the London Defence Scheme, running along a 70 mile stretch of the North Downs. A fort was constructed at Denbies on Ranmore, which was abandoned in 1905; while the Box Hill Fort remains largely intact to this day. In 1889 George Cubitt, 1st Baron Ashcombe and owner of Denbies built a Drill Hall at Dorking, which still stands.   Changes were also made to ease the pressure on Woolwich with additional munitions and goods depots built with railway-based planning taken into account.

The Battle of Dorking inevitably had a resurgence of interest at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, with Chesney’s story widely re-published, with Prefaces written decrying the nation’s lack of readiness for war and the problems with recruitment.  G.H. Powell writing the Preface of one such edition published in 1914 says how, “no English Government has ever used its power to impose any artificial restraints upon German trade…” and how the nation had spent its time enjoying life rather than preparing for war “more recent critics have dwelt on the extravagant time and expense devoted to golf. General Chesney would have branded the sensationalist effeminacy of our football-gloating crowds of thousands who might be recruits.” These sentiments are similar to those as narrated by the Volunteer in Chesney’s story over forty years earlier and with some themes familiar to the contemporary reader 150 years later.

During the First World War Dorking became a busy garrison town and many of the local landowners, including George Cubitt, encouraged men to join up while sending their own sons to war, with many never to return. Many of the concerns raised in the Battle of Dorking had to be tackled head-on during that bloody conflict.

While the Strategic location of Dorking, with Guildford to the West and Reigate to the East remained one of importance for years to come, Chesney’s novella appeared particularly prophetic nearly 70 years later when Adolf Hitler issued Führer Directive No. 16 in July 1940, when he set in motion preparations for the invasion of Britain in an operation codenamed “Seelöwe” (Sea Lion) which he prefaced: “As England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, still shows no signs of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English Motherland as a base from which the war against Germany can be continued, and, if necessary, to occupy the country completely.”

The Germans are said to have joked they knew the route the British expected them to take because of the Battle of Dorking. The defensive network built along much of the south of England remains visible to this day. It’s difficult to walk in the hills between Guildford and Dorking without stumbling across pill boxes – a visible feature of the landscape and often commanding splendid views.

What became of George Tomkyns Chesney? Was his career ruined as a result of the uproar he caused? Far from it; the debates and actions which followed show his work was not confined to the literary sphere but as a contributor to military policy. Over the years it was often referred to in both Parliamentary Houses. Chesney was a heavily decorated military officer and made a colonel in 1877, major general in 1886, lieutenant general in 1887, colonel-commandant of the Royal Engineers in 1890, and general in 1892. From 1881, he was in the government of India, and was made a Companion of Order of the Star of India (CSI) and a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE). While he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (C.B.) at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887and a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (K.C.B.) in the New Year’s Honours list in 1 January 1890. He was known as an educational and military reformer of considerable standing both in India and Great Britain, where he latterly became a Conservative Member of Parliament for Oxford a few years before he died in 1895.

As for Dorking, it remains a small market town which hasn’t been invaded since the time of William of Normandy in 1066.

The Siege of Lucknow: A brief history with some reflections and family connections by Joanna van der Lande

Lucknow and Oudh State



Lucknow is today capital of the Northern Indian State of Utter Pradesh. A tributary of the Ganges, The Gomti river runs through the city which is interwoven by canals. At the time of the Indian Rebellion, a conflict with many names, it was the capital of Oudh (now Awadh State) in the North of India. In the mid 16th Century it became part of the Mughal Empire which was run by a Nawab appointed by the Emperor. The Nawabs of Oudh were from a dynasty of Persian origin and Lucknow became Oudh’s capital. The Honorable East India Trading Company (HEIC) had a Government Colonial agent based at Lucknow from 1773; the Residency was constructed between 1780 and 1800.

Lucknow became the cultural capital and the jewel of India, while its Nawabs became known for their extravagant way of living as well as for their patronage of the arts and the construction of beautiful buildings.

When war correspondent for the The Times, the Irishman William Howard Russell went straight there from reporting the Crimean War, he was overwhelmed by what he found, even though he saw the city after its damage. He wrote of Lucknow that it was,

“A vision of  palaces, domes of azure and golden, cupolas, colonnades, long facades of fair perspective in pillar and column, terraced roofs – all rising up amid a calm still ocean of brightest verdure……..There is a city more vast than Paris, as it seems, and more brilliant.”[1]

Major General William H. Sleeman wrote “Not Rome, not Athens, not Constantinople; not any city I have seen appears to me so striking and so beautiful as this…”[2]

As Mughal power declined, Oudh became more independent and the fourth Nawab embarked on an extensive building programme whereas the fifth alienated his people as well as the British. He abdicated, providing an excuse for the British to gain a stronger foothold in Oudh by placing Saadat Ali Khan, a puppet, on the throne. By 1801 half of Oudh came under the control of the HEIC. Indian troops were disbanded and replaced by a British-run army. On 1st May 1816 a British Protectorate was agreed and while Oudh nominally continued as part of the Mughal Empire until 1819, it effectively became a vassal to the HEIC which functioned as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown.

A critical date in the history of Lucknow and ultimately the Rebellion was 7th February 1856, when the last Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, was deposed. It appears Lucknow and the region had become hard to govern and in spite of opposition to the annexation it was nevertheless sanctioned under Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse. The Nawab was pensioned off and sent to Calcutta but it led to simmering resentments and much anguish in the local population, accentuated by insensitive acts of overlordship, such as auctioning the Nawab’s personal possessions.

[1] William Howard Russell, My My Diary in India in the year 1858-9, 2vols (London 1860).

[2] William H. Sleeman,  A Journey through the Kingdom of Oude in 1849-40, 2vols (London 1858).

In 1854, Lt Col. James Outram[1] was appointed Chief Commissioner of Lucknow, a man with a considerable reputation of many heroic military feats.

The Calcutta Englishman (December 1854) describes his arrival:

“A guard of honour with the regimental colours, and accompanied by the splendid band of the 19th Regiment, were drawn up at an early hour in the Dilkusha Park, to do honour to Colonel Outram…”

His wife, Margaret Clementina Outram (née Anderson), noted the procession had;

“more than three hundred elephants and camels…all the princes and nobles in the kingdom blazing with jewels, sparkling with gems, and gorgeous in apparel, with footmen and horsemen swarming round on all sides….”[2]

Sita Ram, Lord Hastings and Nawab Ghazi al-Din enter Lucknow in state. 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4749)


Outram had been ordered to annex Oudh for the British in 1856, and became Oudh’s first Chief Commissioner before he had to return to England owing to ill health. He was then sent to command an expedition to Persia in 1857 with the rank of Lieutenant General but was recalled to India later that year when it was realised that experienced military leaders were needed in India.

A close relative of Outram’s, Lieutenant John Cumming Anderson arrived in Lucknow around the time of the annexation in February 1856, an Engineer in the Oudh Irregular Force. Although

J.C. Anderson was a Madras Engineer, his duties were not confined to the Madras army. On 29th May 1856, Anderson was appointed Superintendent of Irrigation in Oudh, responsible for the canals. Outram’s arrival in Lucknow started a re-organisation of the administration and public services along European lines which brought with it an influx of Europeans to the city.

J.C. Anderson must have been satisfied with his posting. Margaret Clementina Outram was his sister and there was a double bond because James Outram was their first cousin.

Lt. John Cumming Anderson pre-1857, family archive


Anderson’s work and living quarters lay outside the Residency and the military cantonment. The Residency was the headquarters of the Chief Commissioner and the compound comprised several substantial buildings including those for the administrative, financial and judicial departments, as well as a hospital and jail. The officers resided in other areas of the city either in separate houses or apartments.


The Residency


Leading up to the Rebellion

Many have written extensively about the causes of the Rebellion, of which the annexation of Oudh is cited as but one. The final spark which lit the bonfire appears to have been the introduction of the new Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket which required pre-greased cartridges. To load it, sepoys (Indian infantryman) had to bite cartridges to release the powder. But rumours circulated that the grease included tallow derived from beef which was offensive to Hindus; or lard derived from pork, offensive to Muslims. Whether the rumour had any grounding had became irrelevant, Indians felt that religious customs were being disregarded.

The HEIC had many roles, initially it acted as a trading company but it soon needed a military arm as well as administrators to protect its interests. The three Presidencies into which India was divided each maintained a separate army; the Bengal Army, the Madras Army and the Bombay Army, of which the Bengal army was the largest. Their sepoys were as well trained as any European soldiers and were under the command of European officers.

The caste system played a significant role, with the Bengal Army recruiting largely from high caste Hindus and Muslims who were sensitive to the possibility of caste contamination. The 1856 New Enlistment Act, which obliged new recruits to serve overseas, caused rumours that this would apply to those currently serving which would also create difficulties in the preparation of their food. There were many other factors real or imagined creating tensions.

The Rebellion begins

The flame was finally lit at the Barrackpore parade ground, near Calcutta when 29-year-old Mangal Pandey, a 34th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) sepoy, began inciting rebellion and creating unrest, later admitting he was high on opium and bhang (an edible form of cannabis). He was threatening to kill the first European officer he saw and hit Sergeant-Major Hewson who raised the alarm shooting at his adjutant Lt. Henry Baugh, hitting his horse. Other sepoys looked on but did nothing; save for a remarkably brave sepoy named Shaikh Paltu who put himself between Panday and the Europeans. He was later murdered by his own people. The 34th Bengal Native Infantry was disbanded in disgrace.

The following month unrest erupted at Meerut in April, which culminated in the shooting of British officers on 10th May.  The unrest spread to Delhi when the sepoys arrived from Meerut the following day and persuaded 81 year old Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal Emperor, to become their nominal leader and “Emperor of Hindustan”. Under his watch the Europeans in his palace were murdered, probably not on his orders but he was implicated in these brutal actions by his public support of the Rebellion.

Map highlighting principal locations of disturbances in Northern India during the Rebellion


Lucknow: preparing for trouble

The Chief Commissioner, Colville Coverley Jackson, who was responsible for Oudh after Outram, had not got off to a good start and left considerable unrest in his wake. So it was fortuitous Sir Henry Lawrence, an experienced administrator, took over from him on 29th March only a few weeks before the Rebellion started. However he had been aware difficulties were arising in the sepoy armies and knew that local disturbances within their ranks could lead to wider civil unrest.


Lawrence was sensitive to the local population and won many over in the weeks following his arrival. As M.R. Gubbins[1] says, “he thought the Europeans too apt to overvalue themselves and their own Government and to undervalue the administration of the native Governments of the country. He thought that the people had many just causes for complaint….”

[1] The Gubbins referred to here is Martin Richard Gubbins (1812-1863), who at the time of the Siege was Financial Commissioner to Oudh but took over managing the Intelligence Department.  He was also the grandfather of Colin McVean Gubbins (1896-1976) of Special Operations Executive (SOE) fame in the 2nd World War. By a quirk of fate, a direct descendant of M.R. Gubbins is married to a direct descendant of J.C. Anderson.

On his arrival Lawrence, to his dismay, found the city poorly protected and “all scattered over several miles, the infantry in one direction, the cavalry another, the artillery in a third, the magazines in a fourth and almost unprotected,”[1] laying the blame at Outram’s door in a letter to his brother-in-law. He worked to repair relations but it did not prevent general restlessness. On 30th May the Bengal troops in the Mariaon cantonment outside Lucknow mutinied which was swiftly put down by Lawrence, with some mutinous sepoys returning to join the European troops at the Residency.

On 5th October 1857, Lt J.C. Anderson[2] wrote, “The outbreak at Meerut and Delhi, and reports of general disaffection amongst the sepoys, caused Sir Henry Lawrence to take immediate measures for the defence of the place.”

Lawrence selected the Machhi Bhawan for the magazine and stores and rapidly fortified the position starting on 17th May. After the events of 30th May, J.C. Anderson notes it became evident they would not be in a position to defend both sites, so from 11th June the defence of the Residency became the priority. The Chief Engineer, Major John Anderson, unrelated to Madras Engineer J.C. Anderson, ordered defensive works round the buildings. He wrote:

“The Residency compound was first protected by a line of parapet and ditch across it, a strong battery name “Redan” was constructed in a corner of the garden, which furnished a command over the iron bridge. A battery, called “Cawnpore”, was constructed at the opposite point, enfilading the Cawnpore road, and was then designed chiefly as a barrier to the approach of the mutineers from Cawnpore. Two other batteries were partially constructed – one between Gubbins’ and Ommanney’s compounds, the other between the slaughterhouse and sheep-pen – but neither was ready at the commencement of the siege……”

[1] John Lawrence, Lawrence of Lucknow A Biography, (Hodder & Stoughton 1990).

[2] The full report is published in the Annex of Virginia van der Lande, The Life and Times of John Cumming Anderson (1825-1870).

[1] Sir James Outram. GCB, KSCI, described as ‘The Bayard of India’ by Sir Charles Napier after defending his Residency in Hyderbad. He died in 1863 and is buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey which is marked by a memorial slab. Monuments were erected to honour him in London (by Matthew Noble) and Calcutta.

[2] Virginia van der Lande, The Life and Times of John Cumming Anderson (1825-1870), p.66. This is a private family publication authored by a great granddaughter of John Cumming Anderson on her maternal side.  I am very grateful to be able to draw on my aunt’s researches for this article. She has travelled and trekked in India over a dozen times throughout her life and has carried out extensive research on our family story.

Outside, many buildings were in very close proximity to the compound, so they began removing them as quickly as they could. Several mosques were left in place, although J.C. Anderson notes this was “much to their future injury” but they did not want their removal to precipitate an attack any sooner than could be avoided. This demolition process was far from complete at the onset of hostilities

The days before the Siege

News broke of rebels approaching Lucknow at the end of June, Lawrence led a force to meet them but they found themselves hopelessly outnumbered and beat a hasty retreat and were nearly cut off by the rebels. The Battle of Chinhut, eight miles from the Residency precipitated the siege of Lucknow. J.C. Anderson had taken part in Chinhut, though he sustained an injury to his back.

Earlier in the month Lawrence had ordered the women and children to be brought inside the compound for their safety. A poignant letter from Katherine Mary Bartrum, then based in Gonda, eighty miles from Lucknow, with her husband and baby, found themselves in circumstances which were becoming more alarming by the day.  It proved to be a frightening and long journey and one repeated by many others who were hoping to find safety in Lucknow:

“…. At 4 p.m. a messenger arrived from Secrora, saying that Sir Henry Lawrence had desired that the ladies and children from the out-stations should be sent into Lucknow immediately for better security. ………… This was a sudden blow to me. Often had I contemplated death with my husband, but not separation from him; and under such terrible circumstances too, when his cheerful spirit and loved companionship were more than ever needed to raise my drooping courage at the prospect of dangers and distresses little anticipated by anyone. Most earnestly did I plead that I might be allowed to remain with him; but he convinced me that were if only for my baby’s sake I ought to go into Lucknow, and we should then both of us have more chance of escaping with our lives than by remaining at Gonda…… At six in the evening, Mrs. Clark, myself, and our two children started on elephants; Mr. Clark and my husband accompanying us as far as Secrora, sixteen miles distant, where we were to join the other ladies, and proceed together to Lucknow.”

The Residency compound covered approximately 37 acres and provided refuge for British officers and soldiers, Indians, civilian volunteers, and non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children, all amounting to over a thousand souls. The siege of Lucknow commenced on 1st July 1857, by the time it ended only one third remained from these original refugees.

J.C. Anderson notes there was, “nothing in many places separating us from the besiegers but the width of a street. The houses that remained became nests of rebels, and, besides forming secure starting-points for their mines, enabled them, from under shelter, to keep a deadly fire of musketry upon us night and day.”

While much had been removed from the Machhi Bhawan, it was still garrisoned by troops and it was imperative they evacuated without loss of life. A message was communicated to Lieutenant Innes, the officer in charge and on the night of 1st July  the garrison succeeded in reaching the Residency without any loss of life after blowing up about 240 barrels of gun powder and other ammunition, this considerably frightened the women within the walls of the Residency who assumed they were under attack.

Machhi Bhawan


The Siege

The following day a shell hit part of the Residency and Lawrence was mortally wounded. It shattered one of his legs so badly that within a few days he was dead, having been taken to Dr Joseph Fayrer’s house to be cared for. Major John Banks was appointed the acting Civil Commissioner by Lawrence shortly before he died, though he was subsequently killed by a sniper. Command was then assumed by Brigadier John Inglis who remained in charge until the First Relief. No-one was safe in the compound, injured were killed while in the hospital and others from shelling and sniper fire from the 8,000 sepoys surrounding the Residency.


The room on the right is the room where Lawrence was shelled and sustained wounds


J.C. Anderson mentions that much effort was spent in sabotaging enemy attempts to enter the compound by mines…..”we had meanwhile commenced counter-mining, and on the 5th August foiled a mine of the enemy’s against the guardhouse at Cawnpore battery; and since then, up to the arriving of the relieving force, we have been incessantly employed in mining and countermining.” J.C. Anderson had designed the Cawnpore Battery, of which he was in charge; it was one of the batteries bearing the brunt of attacks.

Two of their more successful counter-mines led first to the rebel’s guard room resulting in 20-30 enemy fatalities, while the second was to the merchant Johanne’s house where they killed about 80 of the enemy.

The civilians, many of them women and children, hid inside the compound. They had been living in fear for weeks even before many of them made the treacherous journey to assumed safety in Lucknow. The moving diary entries of Katherine Mary Bartrum, chart the mis-fortunes of the women and children with whom she shared her quarters. Women were reduced to rags and to giving birth amidst shelling, with little food and devoid of sanitation, most had lost any hope of seeing their husbands alive. Small children and babies were orphaned; many wasted away and succumbed to cholera or dysentery and there were regular outbreaks of smallpox. The situation is summed up in this evocative excerpt from a diary entry dated (8th August):

“Another has been taken away: poor Mrs. K. has lost her child, such a sweet little thing that it was petted and loved by all in the room. I helped the poor mother to wash and dress it, and Captain Greydon sent us a little box, in which we laid it: there were now only three of us left, and we looked at each other, as much as to say: “Who will be the next to go?” I felt as if I should go out of my mind if we stayed in that room any longer…..”

The First Relief Attempt

On recapturing Cawnpore on the 17th July, Major General Henry Havelock heard news of the Siege at Lucknow and attempted to relieve it but returned to Cawnpore after sustaining heavy casualties to await reinforcements. James Outram, summoned back from Persia, arrived in Cawnpore on 15th September and was made commander of both Cawnpore and Dinapur Divisions. He joined Havelock and although senior in rank he temporarily deferred his command to Havelock who led the second relief attempt.  This was successful and on 23rd September, Havelock and his troops drove the rebels from the Alambagh, a walled park four miles south of the Residency.

Alambagh Park and Palace


Two days later they prepared for the final push but rebels had damned the canal between the Charbagh and Dilkusha Bridges, which made it too high to ford, troops had to cross the Charbagh Bridge with no protection from snipers. The only viable path was then enfiladed but they reached Machhi Bhawan making slow progress through the tightly packed streets with snipers in the buildings above, they suffered several hundred casualties.

There was jubilation within the Residency at their arrival, Lady Inglis later wrote in her diary:

“At 6 p.m. tremendous cheering was heard, and it was known our relief had reached us. I was standing outside our door when Ellicock rushed in for John’s sword; he had not worn it since Chinhut, and a few moments afterwards he came to us accompanied by a short, quiet-looking, gray-haired man, who I knew at once was General Havelock. He shook hands with me, and said he feared we had suffered a great deal……… It was a sight never to be forgotten to see the hand-shaking and welcomes between the relievers and the relieved. Hirsute Sikhs and brawny Highlanders were seen taking up the children in their arms and kissing them.”

The Relief of Lucknow by Sir Henry Havelock, engraving 1858


Outram then assumed command but with heavy losses and his troops in poor shape, the decision was made to remain. It had become less of a relief operation more one of reinforcement. With several thousand now at the garrison, it was fortuitous a store of grain was discovered in a plunge-bath underneath the banqueting hall which helped to sustain them. Lawrence and other senior officers had died before telling subordinates of these supplies but questions were subsequently raised about the inequalities in the distribution of food.

The garrison expanded their line of defence but had to endure several more weeks of bombardment, with further mining and counter-mining operations. With the Alambagh remaining in British hands, messages were passed to and from the Residency, via messenger, to Cawnpore. Thomas Henry Kavanagh, a civilian, earned himself a Victoria Cross disguised as a sepoy acting as messenger from the Residency to Alambagh, aided by a man named Kananji Lal. Later a semaphore system was used for communications which was considerably less dangerous.

Thomas Henry Kavanagh, a civilian in the Bengal Civil Service being disguised as a sepoy


Major-General James Outram wrote from Lucknow on 5th October:

“’Brigadier Inglis has borne generous testimony to the bravery, vigilance, and devotedness and good conduct of all ranks; and to all ranks as the real representative of the British Indian Government the major-general tenders his warmest acknowledgments. He would fain offer his special congratulations and thanks to the European and Eurasian portion of the garrison whom Brigadier Inglis has particularly noticed; but by doing so, he would forestall the governor-general in the exercise of what the major-general is assured will be one of the most pleasing acts of his official life……. Colonel Napier’s, engineers, when he went round the works, said that ours had been the most wonderful defence ever made, and that enough could not be done for the commander.”

The Chief Engineer, Major John Anderson (no relation to J.C. Anderson) died on 11th July after months of illness and was replaced by Captain George Fulton as Chief Engineer but he had been killed on 13th September, Captain Birch describes what happened:

“’The death of this brilliant officer was occasioned by one of the most curious of wounds. He had been inspecting a new battery in a red wall opposite Mr. Gubbins’ house. He was lying at full length in one of the embrasures, with a telescope in his hand. He turned his face with a smile on it and said, “They are just going to fire”; and sure enough they did. The shot took away the whole of the back of Captain Fulton’s head, leaving his face like a mask still on his neck. When he was laid out on his back on a bed we could not see how he had been killed. His was the most important loss we sustained after that of Sir Henry Lawrence. Anyone except the brigadier could have been better spared.”

On Fulton’s death, J.C Anderson became Chief Engineer until Col. Robert Napier arrived with Outram at the First Relief.


The  Relief of Lucknow

Sir Colin Campbell the Commander-in-Chief of India led the Second Relief. A different route was taken to avoid the dangers encountered on the first attempt. On reaching the Alambagh they planned to cross the canal as close to the River Gomti as possible near La Martiniere School. Progress was swift until they reached Dilkusha Park but by midday of 18th November they had taken both Dilkusha and La Martiniere. They waited for their supply caravans to arrive before proceeding. The following morning they crossed the canal, which was dry due to the damning between the bridges. Here they met with fierce resistance at the walled gardens of Secundra Bagh leaving many hundreds of rebels dead. The recent barbarities at Cawnpore stimulated the troops to push forward with shouts heard of “Remember Cawnpore!”[1]

The Battle of Secundra Bagh


Havelock and Outram blew-up the outer walls of the garden when they could see it was in Campbell’s hands. Outram and Havelock with others, including Napier who was badly injured as a result, ran across to meet Campbell. They had to deal with pockets of resistance pushing the rebels back toward the city before Campbell was finally able to reach the Residency on 19th November.

The Evacuation

With heavy resistance remaining Campbell decided to evacuate the Residency and compound. There were thousands, many in a dreadfully weakened state both physically and emotionally. On the night of 19th November, the women and children were evacuated, led by Lady Inglis. The garrison followed, they left all their possessions behind and many hundreds of their dead including Sir Henry Havelock who had succumbed to a virulent strain of dysentery while in Dilkusha Park.

Captain Birch, the last of the staff to leave the Bailie Guard gate wrote,

“Sir James Outram waved his hand to Brigadier Inglis to precede him in departure, but the brigadier stood firm, and claimed to be the last to leave the ground which he and his gallant regiment had so stoutly defended. Sir James Outram smiled, then, extending his hand, said, “Let us go out together;” so, shaking hands, these two heroic spirits, side by side, descended the declivity outside our battered gate…”

[1] While there had been rumours of the atrocities at Cawnpore reaching Lucknow, (the Satichaura Gat and Bibighar massacres), it was only when Campbell’s troops reached Lucknow that the full extent of the massacres and violent reprisals became known to them.

Katherine Mary Bartrum wrote on the 19th November:

“We are to leave Lucknow this evening, and each person is to be allowed a camel to carry their things. Dr. —, who came up with Sir Colin Campbell, has promised to obtain a dhoolie for me: this is very kind, for I think I could scarcely carry baby five miles; one does not feel over strong after a five months’ siege. And now we must bid farewell to our little room, the scene of so much suffering and sorrow; and before night I shall pass the spot where my husband was killed, and where, perhaps, he has found a grave. Yesterday all the sick and wounded were removed to Dil Koosha [Dilkusha Park], and Dr. Darby amongst them. How much I should like to see him again.”

Like so many, the young Katherine Bartrum had endured 148 days under siege. Katherine survived to tell the tale, though she had lost her husband. Their two year old son Bobbie had survived cholera while at Lucknow as well as the long march which eventually led them to Calcutta, but sadly he died the day before their boat was due to sail for England. The grief of these survivors, like so many since, is hard to fathom. Katherine Bartrum left behind in India all those she loved best and with the death of Bobbie she declared in a letter to her father, “I am stripped of all, I am empty & desolate and all is now gone”.  Dr Joseph Fayrer, the Residency Surgeon at Lucknow from 1853, was in Calcutta on 11th  February 1958, and Bartrum writes he fastened the lid on little Bobbie’s coffin which he helped carry to its grave.                                                                                                                               

The health of many others suffered long-term damage; Lt. John Cumming Anderson left India on three years sick leave (on half-pay) and with the other sick, the women and the children he journeyed overland to Allahabad via Cawnpore, then by riverboat to Calcutta, from where he sailed to England. Lady Canning who was at Calcutta wrote, “….They still have a gaunt, hungry look and anxious expressions.” Major General Outram wrote of his cousin in his dispatch of 16th January 1858 how, “Lt J Anderson, of the eng, comandg-eng of the Lucknow garrison, though confined to his couch by illness, never ceased to exert himself to supply the eng. department with materials.”

Photo courtesy of Virginia van der Lande



During J.C. Anderson’s leave he married Annie Flora Maclean in Florence in 1859. In 1861 they sailed back to India where he became a Royal (Madras) Engineer, R(M)E[1]. John Cumming Anderson met his untimely death in Simla in 1870 at the age of only 45, five months after the announcement of his award of ‘Companion of the Star of India’ (CSI) which was granted in recognition of his public works services. He left his wife and six young children, the youngest, my great grandfather Charles Macdonnell Anderson was born in Bangalore India in 1866. He became a doctor and knew Dr Fayrer.

The scale of human loss both for Indians and Europeans is hard to appreciate but the suffering of women and children was a particularly notable and regrettable feature of the Rebellion, with the events in Lucknow forming only one part of a bigger rather dark picture. While the destruction of such a jewel of a city as Lucknow must also remain a great regret to all lovers of beauty and history, the haunting ruins are left to hint at former architectural glories. Though ruins, however they came to be, hold beauty. The memory of conflict is deeply ingrained in the masonry as a memorial to those who once lived and died there but it leaves us to imagine what Lucknow could once have looked like and what it could have been.

[1] J.C. Anderson’s post-Lucknow career was short but illustrious. He was placed in charge of the Kristna canal works in Madras Presidency and later appointed Superintendent Engineer of the 1st Division. In 1865 he became Consulting Engineer for Railways and became a member of a committee convened by the Government of India to consider schemes for remodelling the Ganges canal, with a report presented to the Government of India in February 1865. On 15th October 1867 he was appointed the first ever Chief Engineer for Irrigation for the Government of India.  A Memorial Fountain was erected in his memory, in Madras, by his brother officers with the epithet, “To the memory of John Cumming Anderson, C.S.I., R.E. who died 1870, a modest and gallant soldier, an able Engineer, and a warm and true friend; erected by  brother officers.” It was situated at the south-west approach of Government House Bridge on the Mount Road, Seventh Division. It no longer stands.