In the Hills, May 1857

Simla in 1865, photograph by Samuel Bourne
A view of the Mall
The Mall, Simla

In the mountains of India is a hill station, called Simla. Situated in the southwestern ranges of the Himalayas at an altitude of 7238 feet above sea level, it has long been coveted for its bracing climate and is beloved for its beautiful scenery. The EICo who acquired Simla as a part of the Treaty of Segauli in 1816 wasted no time in setting up cottages ( the first pucca house was built in 1822 by Captain Kennedy, a Scottish Civil Servant who aptly named his home Kennedy Cottage which still exists today as part of the Central Public Works Department of Simla) and looking to Simla as their summer retreat from the blazing heat in the Plains.
In 1830, another acquisition took place, in which the EICo, when the chiefs of Keonthal and Patiala gave them land surrounding Simla in exchange for the Rawin pargana and parts of the Bharauli pargana (when we consider Bombay was a wedding gift, this small bargain should not come as much surprise – transactions of this kind were not uncommon during the EICo time).
From 1832 onwards, Simla would grow exponentially and gain the attention of the Governors-General and Commanders-in-Chief, who with an invitation in hand from Nawab Kumar Ghosal of Bally who effectively ran the town, regularly ascended the Himalayan heights. Officers, wishing an audience with the “higher-ups” would follow in their footsteps, while ladies, hoping to secure that perfect marriage alliance for their daughters would follow the officers. As such, Simla soon became known for its balls and parties, for gossip and flirtations. Boarding schools allowed upper-class families to send their children to Simla instead of England (though the prestige of an English education often out-weighed the practicality of an Indian hill-station) andhill station grew, so did the population of Parsi and Sood merchants, catering for the wants and needs of the growing European population. In 1844 the foundations of Christ Church and several roads were widened and the construction of the Hindustan-Tibet road with the 560-foot-long Dhalli Tunnel was completed in 1852.
Although Simla did not gain the title of India’s summer capital until 1863, it was, in 1857 unofficially at least, already that. Those who could afford it (Simla was the most expensive of the hill stations) fled the heat in May and descended back to the Plains in September.

Vceregal Lodge 1880

A Word on Hill Stations

The new Hill Station of Ranikhet, 1875

Simla was not the only hill station in India but it was considered the most prestigious, a “see and be seen” station where the closest British India came to an upper crust met and mingled. This too was reflected in the architecture, such as Peterhoff or the Viceroy’s Residence in the 1880s (it was destroyed by fire in1981) and the Viceregal Lodge (today, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, also called Rashtrapati Niwas) and many opulent bungalows.

View new Kasauli Hill Station, 1858

“When are you going to the Hills?” was a question asked the length and breadth of India when the balmy days started to give way to the relentless march of the unstoppable heat. A visit to the hills, however short, was considered beneficial to the health; it was practically unthinkable for a woman and her children to stay in the Plains after April and any woman who remained after June was considered practically remiss in her duty as a wife. Should she insist on remaining in the Plains after the rains set in, she was, according to several renowned health specialists of the day, risking not just her health but that of her children. Sickness caused worry to her husband and thus made him less of an effective administrator – the logic, though perhaps flawed in our minds today, served some purpose. A quick visit to the Hills to save the constitution was infinitely cheaper than several years’ stay in England and a wife could still manage her home from a Hill station by sending her husband the weekly bill of fares and a list of the servant’s wages.

A pass in the hills

Not everyone could travel to Simla, much less wanted to – as such there were hill stations to serve every province in India. Added in brackets is the advice left to us by that stalwart housewife, Flora Annie Steele and her equally formidable friend, Grace Gardiner.
Bombay – Mahabaleshwar and Matheran, and to a lesser degree, Bhandala (which could hardly be called a hill station at just 2000 feet above sea level!)
Madras – Ootacamund /Ooty and Coonor (recommended for invalids who would find the Ooty climate trying) and later Kodai Kanal was added as being particularly beneficial to those with children

Bengal – Darjeeling (very damp, society gay but the leeches and ticks are a perfect pest)
Upper India – Naini Tal (for the North West Provinces – a nice station but somewhat shut-in), Ranikhet, Landour, Mussoorie (a well-established military sanitorium, however, the distance to the Bazar is great and your cook will require a pony), Kasauli (most accessible for invalids who cannot face a long fatiguing journey), Simla (only advisable for those with bags of rupees and many pretty frocks), Dharmsala, Dalhousie (both difficult to access and not very gay, but very healthy) and Murree (convenient for residents of Lahore and the starting point for journies to Kashmir). Except for Ooty, Steele and Gardiner considered Murree the most “English place in India.”
Pachmarhi served as the summer capital of the Central Provinces during the British Raj while Mount Abu, as the only hill station in Rajasthan was a popular retreat for those stationed in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The British built the hill stations with a single thought in mind – to create a piece of home, far away from home. A place where plants did not die at the advent of the hot season and the perfect English garden would thrive, where they could build cottages and give them names like Windemere and Rokeby and Pinewood. The hotels were called Charleville and the Savoy. Every hill station had a Mall and a very English-looking church, there were reading rooms and tea rooms and ballrooms.
In light of this, these sanctuaries were held most sacred to the European heart – it would simply not do to have a mutiny in one.

On to Dagshaie!

Dagshai Army Barracks

On the 15th of May, a curious incident happened in Simla. All of a sudden, men were seen fleeing helter-skelter through the streets, barely a hat in hand, scurrying down cliffs verily like mountain goats, as the ladies, some barefoot, others hardly dressed, screaming at their servants to bring the children ran senselessly down the Simla roads as if the very devil was chasing them. “On to Dagshai!” was the cry and “As fast as you can to Kasauli!” Ladies who were feigning to walk a mile due to their delicate health were suddenly walking fifteen, thirty miles and more, nearly faster than those valetudinarian gentlemen of ill health who had preceded them.

They Are Looting the Bazaar!

Simla bazaar ca 1890
Lower bazaar, Simla

Mrs Augusta Becher received a note from Colonel Young on the 15th of May, that simply stated, “They are looting the Bazaar; go!” The wife of an army officer, she quietly prepared herself for just such an emergency – the doolie was ready for the children and a horse waited saddled in case of just such a moment. With 30 rupees in her pocket and a bonnet on her head, she called for the servants. Two horses were brought around, one for herself and one for her husband but hers had no saddle as she had left it at a neighbour’s house: barely discomfited by this change of arrangements, Mrs Becher settled the children in their dhoolie and then herself with the baby on lap in the janpan and off they went.
Her husband, Septimus sent word to their neighbours to assemble: Mrs Norman who could barely move but came along helped by 2 servants, her children in a doolie – Mrs Becher settled the woman in her janpan but to save the bearers to extra strain, she walked. Along came Mrs Olpherts, a bedridden invalid – her jampan overtook the Bechers as her own sister Isabella trotted along beside her.

Augusta Becher

And where were the men?
All the brave talk did not come to much- Captain Seymour and Colonel Congreve, both bachelors who had promised Septimus Becher their assistance should there be a disturbance only Colonel Congreve put in a brief appearance. He overtook the Becher’s party with several horses and all his servants, crying out that the Bechers were too slow, he was going ahead! Captain Seymour was long gone.
So Septimus Becher trudged on alone with 2 faithful attendants, Ganesh and Juggeroo, the only protectors of this rather straggling party of women and children. He helped them cross the river; and then recross it, only to cross it again – his wife was dressed in the thinnest muslin dress with flounces neither decent nor practical for which she had to hear a few choice words from her rather irritated husband. The arrangements as far as transport had been satisfactory but no one had thought to bring any food or water.
When it became too dark to see, the party halted for the night. Septimus dug a hole in the sand for Mrs Norman to sleep in while his wife took her place back on the jampan. Everyone fell into an uneasy silence. Septimus set the two servants as lookouts, while he, his gun cradled in his arms, crouched next to his wife.
Two khitmutgars suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere – Septimus recognised them; they were after all in his employ. The men came bearing a half-empty decanter of wine, some biscuits wrapped up in a cloth and some bread – they had had much more food, but some Sahibs had stopped them and eaten up all the children’s food.

General Septimus Harding Becher

“All was still and dark…Ganesh stole softly from his look-out and whispered,”There are lights and a crowd and a hulla far away in the Khud…”Sep went with him to see, and we began to hear shouts in the distance, and he returned having seen a crowd of natives in the distance. They woke Jugeroo, and the three stood watch…By and bye Ganesh could shout and ask who they were, and after some delay – oh relief! – they were a great crowd of coolies carrying Mrs Brind and her family. They had plenty of men, but could not spare one to our request for help and they and their torches passed on.”

As soon as it was light the party plodded on to Dagshai, arriving in the afternoon only to find it was besieged by every European soul from Simla. They crowded into bungalows, sat on verandahs, and scurried from house to house, scrambling for space, a corner a room – Augusta Becher knocked on doors only to be turned away. Her only acquaintance in the station, Mr Sloggett, the clergyman sent her “a kind note of welcome to his over full house!” All he could offer them was a share of his floor.
In the morning things looked a little better – Septimus requisitioned a house belonging to one of the younger officers who had marched off to Delhi with their regiment and arranged a nice woman from the Barracks to help his wife with the children.
This little bout of normalcy however was short-lived. By evening the European population of Dagshai was ordered into barracks – a rumour had it, Simla had fallen and Dagshai was next. All the men were told off for picket duty while the women were best left to shift for themselves. Augusta Becher found herself as one of 35 ladies in the band room, which had thoughtfully been filled with charpoys for them to rest on.
For 12 days they remained in Dagshai – Sep sent Ganesh back to Simla to collect necessities like crockery, cutlery and clothes for his family and Augusta Becher for the first time in her life had to wash plates which she did not like at all. The whole siege affair rather scarred the poor woman – it turned her hair grey from fear. Life in the barracks was far from pleasant, crowded as they were, disease soon showed its ugly head and three children died of cholera followed by the young wife of a civilian. Then, just as suddenly as they had fled, Septimus ordered his family back to Simla.
Over the next few days, people began to return – some had gone to a hill raja, and others had cowered in distant garden houses. They had met with adventures and accidents, one lady was kicked by an unshod horse which crushed and gouged out her eye.

So, What Had Happened?

On the 13th of May news of the massacres in Meerut and Delhi reached Simla. As we have already seen, the Commander-in-Chief, Anson, was in his summer residence in those very hills and started as soon as practicable, his slow march to Delhi.
Orders were sent to move the Gurkha Regiment at the Jutogh Cantonment to the plains as soon as possible and the Deputy Commissioner Lord William Hay lost no time in making arrangements for the relief of all their guards in all cantonments, including Simla.
It was Hay’s Kotwal (chief police officer) who brought him the news, shortly after Anson had left Simla, that not all was well with Anson’s guard. They had used questionable language and had “hissed” at a Mr Peake as they passed him the bazaar, something Mr Peake confirmed and further elaborated, stating they all appeared much excited.
From other quarters Hays then heard that the men of the regiment “had used language of a very insubordinate and mutinous character and that several had declared their determination not to move a step from Jutogh.”
These men happened to be Gurkhas of the Nasiri Battalion.

This of course added to the already panicked state of Simla. The residents called a meeting on the 14th of May and sent a request to Colonel Chester for a supply of muskets and ammunition, something Hay was quick to sanction. The rest of the day was spent establishing a protocol in the case of mutiny – the residents set up a Committee of Safety, a sort of Militia had been organised which was armed with what munitions could be procured, pickets and patrols told off and a place of rendezvous arranged. Hay in the meantime had to arrange for 700 coolies to carry the regiment’s baggage and see to ” a thousand other matters connected with the emergency.” His objective was to get the Nasiri Battalion out of the hills as soon as possible. He let the civilians sort themselves out.

On the 15th of May, Hays went again to Jutogh. The coolies were arriving and the regiment was to march in the afternoon. However as he approached the station, he was met with the “unexpected sound of shouting and violent altercations…I observed natives flying in every direction; some, chiefly coolies, to the tops of the neighbouring heights; others, mostly bunyas and tradespeople towards Simla,” Those he managed to question all told him just as the baggage of the regiment was about to be moved, one of the men had cried out, “They are taking away our magazine. What shall we do without our magazine?” The coolies were ordered to leave the baggage and were driven “with blows” out of the station. Unwilling to believe the Nasiri Battalion had risen, Hay continued to Jutogh.
What he would find was not a mutiny – it was a heated debate about genuine professional grievances and some strange stories.
Some of the Gurkhas believed Anson had not marched at all – he was hiding they said, with his beard shaved off, in the house of Major Bagot. They demanded he be given up to them to answer for the rumours they had heard about tainted flour in the bazaar. No amount of persuasion could convince the Gurkhas he had actually left – one declared quite openly Anson would never reach Ambala alive (there was some conjecture that Anson was poisoned and the cholera story was a ruse; however another story claims Anson committed suicide – the truth, however, is lost in time and neither tale has ever been disproved. Officially it was cholera that did him in).
Hay quickly rode back to Simla to tell the residents what was happening however he still did not believe in a mutiny. He delivered his hasty message and returned to Jutogh.

On reaching the station he found the European officers of the regiment still remonstrating with their men, trying to bring them to order but the Gurkhas were having none of it. They were angry and insubordinate; a few hotheads threatened to burn down Simla, and others insisted on plundering the station – but no one had done anything. Hay decided the best thing to do was wait, yet under no circumstances did he want to step in between the Gurkhas and their officers. As such, Hay waited outside.
He dispatched Miya Ruttun Singh, uncle to the Raja of Mundee (who happened to be with Hay at the time) to deliver a message to the Gurkhas in the cantonment that “I was close at hand and both ready and willing to hear what they had to say and as far as lay in my power to redress their grievances.” However as soon he left, Hay quickly wrote another note, dispatched by a coolie and addressed to Major Bagot to come outside.

After some more shouting, Major Bagot appeared, pale and exhausted with 2 Gurkhas at his side deputed to accompany Bagot to this impromptu meeting.

“The two men at once commenced a detail of their alleged grievances. Their language and demeanour were respectful but they were evidently in a state of the greatest excitement. They complained that by relieving their guard over the Treasury, by taking their arms and ammunition, by establishing patrols, the European residents had shown a want of confidence in them which was not deserved; they went on to say that the introduction of the greased cartridge, the distribution of attah adulterated with bone dust, the establishment of tolls, and the promulgation of certain orders relative to their pay were an indication of a change of policy which boded nothing but evil to them and their religion.”

Hay quickly pointed out that the greased cartridges and bone dust rumours were malicious bazaar stories; that the Government had no intention of destroying the Gurkha’s religion; and if they would remember when the previous Nasiri Regiment, now the 66th, had been ordered to the plains during the 1st Sikh War their guard over the Treasury had been likewise relieved and their being ordered down now was “an additional and special mark of the trust reposed on them; and that their guards had been relieved with no other object than that to swell to the utmost our force of soldiers on which we could place complete reliance.”
The Gurkhas were not convinced.
They now said the magazines at Phillour were probably in the hands of the mutineers by now – what good would it do, sending them to fight? Hay countered, reminding them their brothers of the Sirmur and Kumaon Regiments and the men of the 66th had marched without question and as for the magazines at Phillour Fort these were still safe in British hands. Hay ended by saying he would restore to them their guards, their muskets and ammunition and give them the advanced pay they demanded.

Taking Major Bagot with them, the men returned to the cantonment.
Not long after the major was sent out to report the men had “expressed themselves satisfied” and had quietly returned to their lines.

Not so the European residents. They were by now in a nearly complete state of panic.
Hay had pacified the Gurkhas but he was unable to stop the Europeans.
As he was leaving Jutogh he was beset by Sir Edward Campbell and several gentlemen who demanded to know what, pray tell, was Hay doing and what line of policy he meant to adopt. Hay told them what had happened and what he had done but the only one who agreed with him was Sir Edward. The rest “had made up their minds to resist to the last and grant no concessions.”
Hay went with them to their hastily prepared rendezvous point- the Bank – and again explained his actions to all those assembled there. They were at least willing to listen to reason – when Hay further pointed out that a house full of women and children in the defenceless and isolated Bank House with hardly any food and practically no water with the added problem of being so close to the bazaar was hardly the circumstance or place to make a stand of any kind.
Reassured the Gurkhas were not coming to cut their throats, most of the ladies and children went home; a further 90 people stayed talking with Hay late into the night. At dawn, Hay went back to Jutogh. To his surprise, Major Bagot was leading a large party of his men to Simla – he said he was going to make over the Bank to a guard and asked Hay to say a few words to the men. Hay obliged and returned to Simla.
This had not been part of the original agreement and Hay felt it was Bagot now who did not trust his men. However before Hay could say anything to the residents of Simla, they had upped and left. Someone had told them the Gurkhas were marching to take Simla.

The panic was started by rumours that the bazaar was being looted but no one bothered to enquire by whom. There were stories of dead Europeans in the streets – but everyone was accounted for. It was presumed by one and all they were in imminent peril for their lives and flight was the only answer. Hay had said it might be prudent to send the ladies and children somewhere safe; he did not anticipate the entire population would scarper. There was truly nothing he could have said or done to make them stay.

As for the Gurkhas, they marched peacefully to the Plains and took their place in the lines with the Europeans and fought bravely at their side throughout the Mutiny and beyond.

The Nasiri Battalion, probably around 1857 – the earliest known photograph of a Gurkha Regiment.
The officer in the picture is Major A. Bagot.

As for the brave men of Simla who had left the station in terror for their personal safety and those who had taken the food meant for Augusta Becher’s children, a rather caustic note appeared in the local Simla newspaper,

On Wednesday, the 15th of July, the ladies of Simlah will hold a meeting at Rose Castle, for the purpose of consulting about the best measures to be taken for the protection of the gentlemen.
“The ladies beg to inform those who sleep in the khuds that they are sincerely compassionate to their sufferings are now preparing pillows for them stuffed with the the purest white feathers. Should they feel inclined to attend the meeting, these will then be presented to them.
Rest, warrior, rest.
Clementina Bricks. 4th July 1857.”

It is not noted if any of those gentlemen attended.

There would however be more serious problems in Kasauli.

The Mutiny in Inda to the Fall of Delhi – compiled by a Former Editor of the Delhi Gazette (1857)
Mutiny Records Part 1 -Reports (
A History of the Indian Mutiny – T.R.E. Holmes, fourth edition (1891)
The History of the Indian Mutiny Vol I – Charles Ball (1912)
Personal Reminiscences in India and Europe of Augusta Becher 1830-1888, edited by H.G.Rawlinson, Principal of Deccan College at Poona (1930)
The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook – Flora Annie Steele and Grace Gardiner (Oxford University Press 2010)

Khud: a deep ravine or steep hillside.
Jampan: a mode of conveyance common at the time in the Hills, consisting of a chair suspended between 2 bamboo poles and carried, not to be confused with a dhoolie or a palanquin

A jampan or also called a janpan. Not exactly the best way to escape a mutiny