Humble Beginnings

Benares, 4th of June 1857

The 3 VCs at Benares were awarded to men who, when the opportunity presented itself, just once rose to the occasion, all linked together by one incident for the rest of time.

Although the uprising has already been explored in greater detail in “A Most Indifferent Regiment” , it was caused by the disarming parade of the 37th NI. The affair rapidly turned chaotic – with only 250 European troops to disarm a native regiment nearly 1000 strong, no one was sure how to go about it from the start. As the men of the 37th formed up in front of their lines, the men of the artillery, a few of the 10th Regiment and the Madras Fusiliers took up their positions to their right, while the Sikhs and cavalry were ordered to the left of the lines. The order was then given to the 37th to place their weapons in their company’s bell of arms. While some obeyed, a cry was raised the Europeans were coming to shoot them down as soon as they were unarmed. Panic seized the sepoys and some turned and shot at the 10th, eight of whom were shot down before the Europeans could respond. The artillery opened fire, raking the lines with grapeshot. At the same time, a few shells fell among the Sikhs who in their bewilderment, started shooting indiscriminately, leading the Europeans to believe they too had mutinied – the situation went from bad to worse when Captain William Olpherts turned his guns on the Sikhs, scattering the men, who now ran, quite understandably to save their lives.
When the firing finally ceased, it was found the Irregular Cavalry had not risen, and most of the Sikhs had remained – they recovered from the shock and went back to their duty. Most of the 37th however, escaped with their weapons and rampaged through Benares.

Once the uprising began, it followed a similar pattern as at other stations. While most of the Europeans had managed to find their way to the Mint, which had previously been fortified and provisioned by Messrs Gubbins and Lind. Unfortunately, Pensions Paymaster Captain Brown with his wife and daughter lived on the edge of the cantonment – they were taken by surprise and found to their horror, their bungalow was surrounded by sepoys, brandishing torches and bent on murder. They, and the few other Europeans who had managed to find refuge with Brown, all ran to stables in the rear of the house, without much hope, to wait for a grisly death. When the moment presented itself, Captain Brown valiantly stood outside, brandishing his revolver, shooting anyone who came within range.

Fortunately, three men who had already had a terrible day were not going to allow Brown to die.

Victoria Cross, without bar

The Three VCs

“Such courage was never displayed by Europeans I think before; everyone seemed to vie with the other, civilians and Europeans. A braver man never drew a sword than Sergeant-Major Gill, of the Seikhs; he came into camp covered with blood and his sword spoke volumes. he was the first man to give me any news of my wife, who had a narrow escape; at the time that the party left my house under Major Barrett, they had forgotten her; when Major Barrett wanted to go back for her—no, no, said a sepoy of No. 1, I’ll fetch her, and ran back and tucked her under his arm, and midst grape and balls, he succeeded in saving her life. After affairs had subsided a little, we withdrew to the artillery barrack where we made preparation for the night. At about 2 o’clock in the morning, I heard that my wife was with Captain Brown, Pension Master’s bungalow. I, Serjeant Major Gill, and a man of the 10th went and found my wife. Captain Brown and his lady and infant all safely hid in the stable; we brought them safe to barracks. Be it said to their credit, the mutineers did not harm a lady or child; the treasure also was safe; but they looted their regimental treasure.” (Account of Sergeant Matthew Rosamond, Annals of the Indian Rebellion, p. 382)

Three men volunteered to save the Brown family and others from their predicament –

– Sergeant-Major Peter Gill of the Ludhiana Sikhs
– Sergeant Matthew Rosamond of the 37th BNI
– Private John Kirk, 10th Regiment

Peter Gill had already had some close shaves. He had come under fire when Olpherts turned his guns on his men and had had his work cut out, persuading the Sikhs to stand firm and very likely cursing the ground Olpherts stood on. He managed to persuade most of his men to return to duty – but there was more to Gill on the 4th of June.
Early in the uprising, Gill sliced off the head of a sepoy who had bayonetted the Quartermaster Sergeant of the 25th BNI and would then face off 27 mutineers armed with just his sergeant’s sword; he then extricated Major Barrett of the 37th when his men set their sights on his head; twice Gill intervened, and twice saved the Major.
Matthew Rosamond was on the parade ground with his men when the chaos commenced. He was suddenly surrounded by men out for his blood – Rosamond stood his ground and volunteered to accompany Lieutenant-Colonel Spottiswoode, Commanding the 37th N. I., to the right of the lines, in order to set them on fire and drive out the sepoys. he also saved the life of Major Barrett, of the 37th Native Infantry, who appeared to require much saving, when a Sepoy tried to bayonet him. Rosamond also conveyed a message from Major Barrett through a terrific shower of grape, and a cross-fire from the rebels, to the Brigadier.
As for John Kirk, he set out to save the Brown family on his own. No one from his regiment volunteered to join him. How Kirk meant to rescue them is left to his own mind – but as he approached the bungalow, he met Gill and Rosamond, who fortunately had a plan of sorts. It was night, the darkness shielded them from the mob besieged Captain Brown and they could take them in the rear, by surprise. On approaching the compound, they saw Brown was barely holding his own. The three men opened fire and, seeing an opening, they charged. Gathering the Browns and others, they did the same thing again in reverse, shooting at the crowd until they pulled back enough for them to dash through, back to the British lines.

So, who were these three reckless men?

Sergeant-Major Peter Gill, Tailor

Born in Dublin in 1816, Peter Gill had trained as a tailor, however, in 1842, we find him in London. He enlisted in the EICo army – records show he was 26 years old, 5ft 11 1/8 inches tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He joined the service on the 12th of February for unlimited service and sailed in the Henry to India, under Captain Murray. The remarks point out he had a wife, but it is not mentioned if she travelled to India with him. Interestingly enough, he married in India in 1856 to Sophia Stallard and is registered as a parent of a pupil boarding at La Martiniere College, Lucknow, in 1868. So much is known of his private life.

Gill was posted as a gunner in the Bengal Artillery in 1842. He fought his way through both Sikh wars before enlisting in the Ludhiana Regiment of Sikhs as Sergeant Major in 1850. The regiment remained in Benares throughout the rebellion, but not so Gill. In 1858, he was commissioned as an ensign in the newly raised Moradabad Infantry Levy and fought his way through until the end of hostilities in Oudh. Following the mutiny, Gill remained in India. Promoted to lieutenant in 1863 and appointed Barrack Master at Lucknow where he remained for four years, Gill then transferred, in the same position to Meerut. He met his death on the 24th of October, 1868 at Morar, killed in action. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Artillery Lines Cemetery in Gwalior. His VC remains in private ownership. A memorial plaque was erected in the Old Garrison Church (Christ Church) in Morar. He is also named on a memorial at the Royal Artillery Chapel at Woolwich, London along with 20 other VC winners of the Indian Mutiny, including Captain William Olpherts.

Christ Church, Morar

Sergeant Matthew Rosamond, Servant

Matthew Rosamond was the son and grandson of soldiers- he enlisted as a private soldier in the EICo army in 1841 following his father George’s death, stating his profession as a servant. He was 18 years old.
Attached to the 2nd Fusiliers, Rosamond served in the Scinde Campaign and against the Hill Tribes in Beloochistan, under Sir Charles Napier. He then served in the Punjab Campaign under Lord Gough and was present not only at the Battle of Ramnagar but at the passage of the Chenah, Chillianwallah and Goojerat, for which he received the campaign medal and 2 clasps. He was shortly after promoted to Sergeant-Major of the 37th BNI. Like Gill, he was commissioned as an ensign in the Moradabad Infantry Levy, and both men received their VCs in February 1859. However, Rosamond returned to England. In 1860, he had been introduced to Queen Victoria by Sir Charles Wood and 1861 finds him living in Seaton Socon, near St. Neots. A year later he was back in India, in Barrackpore, serving as Barrack Master. Promoted to lieutenant in 1864, Rosamond took up the same position at Fort William in Calcutta. His history, unfortunately, ends soon after – 43-year-old Matthew Rosamond died on board ship in 1866 on his way home and was buried at sea. His VC was sold at a private auction in 1903 for £54.- and to date, its location is unknown. A blue plaque commemorating Matthew Rosamond exists at St. Neots, Cambridgeshire.
As for his private life, he married twice – in 1851 at Agra to Bridget Mahoney in Agra in 1851 who died at Fort William, Calcutta in 1865. Matthew wasted little time and remarried the same year to Alice Maude Mary Haskins in Serampore.

John Kirk, Farm Servant

The son of a bottler, John Kirk was born in Liverpool in 1827, with some evidence purporting his birthplace as the Liverpool Workhouse. Sent out to work at an early age, Kirk enlisted in the 10th Regiment of Foot in 1846, stating his profession as “farm servant”. He served in the Second Sikh War including the Siege of Multan and the Battle of Goojerat.
Gallantry, however, was not the mainstay of Kirk’s career, but a problem with alcohol certainly was. A reluctant soldier at best and a bad one at worse, by the time 1857 rolled about, Kirk had been mentioned in the defaulter’s book 56 times and appeared before a court-martial on 12 separate occasions. His record shows imprisonment for up to a month for offences including drunkness on duty, being drunk on march, habitual drunkenness and for making improper replies. He also made visits to the local brothels, contracting syphilis which gave him a prolonged hospital stay. Barely 2 months before the uprising at Benares, Kirk was sentenced to 50 lashes for being drunk on parade. There was little for soldiers to do during peacetime however Kirk’s behaviour is astonishing, considering he had only been in the service for 11 years.
Kirk was awarded the VC in 1860, recommended by his regiment, and on the 9th of November of the same year, he attended the investiture from Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. In 1864, while stationed at Kilkenny in Ireland, Kirk was discharged at the age of 37, his medical certificate stating he was suffering from chronic syphilitic rheumatism, apparently aggravated by his continued use of alcohol. He quickly set his compass for home, returning the Liverpool; his life, however, did not improve.
Kirk found work as a labourer and for a time appears to have kept himself out of trouble – had he been arrested, his VC would have been forfeited but his time to improve was too short. He entered the workhouse at Brownlow Hill in 1865 and died on August 31st of the same year of tuberculosis, just 38 years old.
Private James Kirk was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave with five others in Anfield Cemetery. In 1989, a headstone was finally placed over his remains. His medal remains with the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, at Lincoln. He is also named on the Liverpool VC Memorial.

Attribution: By Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 & GFDL

Annals of the Indian Rebellion – Noah Alfred Chick (1859)
The Victoria Crosses that Saved the Empire – Brian Best (2016)
The Complete Victoria Cross – Kevin Brazier (2015)

Online Sources: