Two Very Different Flights

The Chambal River near Dhaulpur (Dholpur): © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The story of Gwalior can only be brought to its conclusion with the escape of the British and how they reached Agra.

There are two tales to tell. One of Major Macpherson and his party that left Gwalior in palanquins and buggies provided by Scindia and surrounded by his bodyguard, and that of Ruth Coopland, travelling in a group of women and children, all hoping no one would cut their throats. The ultimate goal of both parties was Agra.

In order to get to Agra, they would have to cross the Chambal River, the other side of which was in the territory of the Raja of Dholpur. He was friendly to the European cause and had expressed himself, without doubt, to assist any which way he could, had any fugitives who would happen to pass through any area under his control. Dinkar Rao had already intimated to Dohlpur Raja that some were on their way, thus preparing the way for Macpherson and any other party on the way. It was a stroke of luck having an ally so close by and yet it was getting to Dholpur territory that was the problem.

Major Macpherson’s Journey to Agra

With mixed feelings, Major Samuel Charters Macpherson turned his back on Gwalior and set off on the road to Agra.
At daybreak on the 15th of June, Macpherson and a small party of Europeans who had fortunately found refuge there the night before, started their trek out of Gwalior, picking up on the way more fugitives who had managed to remain hidden through the long night. In all, 30 people, mainly women and children were now facing the march to Agra under an unforgiving June sun.

We hav already seen, in “The Contingent Speaks”, how, by the 15th of June, the rebels were no longer interested in killing fugitives – their leaders within the Contingent had tried their level best to stop the bloodshed in Gwalior – the deathtoll, though tragic, was compared to other stations, mercifully small. What they could not control completely were the roving bands of Ghaznis who had been reinforced by men who had split off from the Contingent. However, when he met them at Hingonah, a village some 12 miles from the river, one of the leaders, Jahangir Khan, although dressed in all the accroutements of a ghazni, protested he did not wish to harm any Europeans. With 30 people in his party, including many women and children, Macpherson was not particularily confident that Khan was being completely honest. Here, Scindia’s bodyguard deserted the party, refusing to go any further – they had no wish to enter the territory of the Dholpur Rana on the other side of the river. Macpherson was forced to let them go and the Europeans spent the night at the village, bedding down as best they could in their carriages or on the grass.
On the banks of the river, plunderers and men of Jahangir Khan’s ghaznis had amassed and were quite obviously waiting for the fugitives to cross at Kaintri Ghat.
Macpherson insisted they proceed at midnight – to make it somewhat easier, in case they needed speed, Macpherson transferred the women and children out of their carriages and onto horseback; he then took them along the bridle path towards Rajghat, lower down on the river. He was hoping they could escape those 12 last miles and ford the river under cover of darkness.

“But deliverance was at hand. Soon after midnight the glitter of torches was seen in the distance, and a growing murmur of voices and the measured tread of an advancing force were heard. The hearts of many of the fugitives sank within them. But to their intense relief the advancing force proved to be the following of a friendly chief.”

What Macpherson seems to have forgotten was Dinkar Rao.The Dewan, anticipating there would be trouble at the river had summoned the aid of Thakur Baldeo Singh the chief of the Dandautia Brahmins. This rather robust and warlike tribe had been reminded by the Dewan that Macpherson had interceded on his behalf for certain tanks and wells for his people, a favour that the Thakur would be loath to forget. and “ The minister’s policy of ” dealing fairly with the subordinate races ” had thus borne fruit.” Proclaiming Macpherson’s life was in their hands and they would defend the Europeans to the death, the Thakur placed one body of his men to watch Jahnghir Khan while the rest surrounded Macpherson and his party.

On the far bank of the river, opposite one of the two paths that meet at the ghat, elephants and escort of the loyal Raja of Dholpur was waiting. A party of Jahagir Khan’s men had taken stealthily taken their posts during the night in the ravines over the path – but Buldeo Singh, cleverly had sent out his spies earlier. Alerted of the presences of the ghaznis, he quickly changed their route. Macpherson and his party were able to cross the river safely, straight into Dholpur territory.

“The services of Baldeo Singh and those of the Dholpur chief were not forgotten. The former re- ceived a grant of land in British territory ; and a jdgir or assignment of the revenues of certain villages from Sindhia ; and 100 of his tribesmen, under the command of Gopal Singh,1 the chiefs brother, were selected to form a troop in a cavalry regiment, subsequently raised by Captain Meade, and known during the mutiny as ” Meade’s Horse.” The latter received the honour of K.C.S.”

Sir Bhagwant Singh, Maharaj Rana of Dholpur

Dholpur [Dhaulpur], located in Rajasthan, was ruled by the Maharaj Ranas who belonged to the Bamraolia Jat clan. Bhagwant Singh succeeded his father, Kirat Singh the first Maharaj rana of Dholpur. Like Scindia, Bhagwant Singh was a minor when his father died. He reigned under a Council of Regency until 1836 when he came of age, upon which he was invested with full powers of authority. In 1857, he raised a contingent of his own and sent 1,500 foot, some horse and artillery for service under the British at Agra.

The rest of the journey proceeded without incident – after resting under the Rana’s protectiong for a few days, he provided the fugitives with carriages, elephants and a strong escort and saw them safely to Agra.

A few days later, he would do the same for Ruth Coopland, but her story was quite different from Macpherson’s.

Eight Miserable Women

We left Ruth Coopland with other bewildered, terrifed women and their crying children in the lines of the 4th Regiment. Sitting under a tree on a charpoy, they could see their horses and carriages drawn up near by under some trees; the beautiful Arab of Mrs Raikes lay in the middle of the road shot dead. Hundreds of sepoys thronged around the women, not causing them any physical harm; their only intention was to mock them.
“…and reviled us with the most bitter language, saying : ” Why don’t you go home to your houses? Don’t you think it is very hot here? Would you like to see your sahibs now?” We said we wished to go to Agra; they replied, “Oh ! Agra is burnt to the ground, and all the Feringhis are killed.”

The sepoys gradually tired of their sport, the abuse died down and they said the women could go where they liked. When Ruth asked how did the sepoys propose they should leave – she asked them as politely as she could, if they could have a carriage. After a heated discussion amongst the sepoys, a few more merciful than the rest, demurred and gave the party a carriage – Mrs Blake’s large landau.

Landau carriage, 1855 model

Into it, piled Ruth, Mrs Blake, Mrs Raikes with her baby (it had survived the attack on the hut and had not been killed) and ayah, Mrs Kirke with her little boy and Mrs Campbell. Muza, Mrs Blake’s faithful kitmatghar took the reigns but the horses were almost unmanageable, plunging and rearing at turns, tearing at their traces. As they moved off from the lines, the sepoys threw two bottles of beer and a bottle of camphor water into the carriage. Muza, struggling to control the horses, could not stop them from running down a bank and crossing a small nullah. Here a few sergeant’s wives joined them and they clung to the sides of the carriage.

Along the way, they picked up a syce, but he soon tired of leading the horses and fell back. As they got a little distance out of the cantonments, the carriage pulled to a halt to pick up some more sergeants’ wives and their children, Ruth was shocked by their deportment, writing, “some of them nearly naked, and in great distress, having seen their husbands shot, and dragged about, and others not knowing the fate of their husbands. Poor things, their distress was very pitiable; their feelings being less under control than ours.”

The horses continued trying to run away, restless and agitated by the noise and by Muza, who could not manage them. He finally managed to reign them as they came up to a small staging house – the sepoys lounging outside did not try to stop them, but told Ruth that Mrs Hennessey and Captain Murray had been killed escaping. It would be noon, a full 4 hours after leaving cantonments that they reached the palace, hoping to beg help from Scindia. The party gathered solemnly in front of the palace. They would be disappointed and Ruth bitterly so.

“The palace was surrounded by a crowd of horsemen, soldiers and natives, all most insolent in their manner to us, calling out, ‘your Raj is over now.’ The Maharajah refused to see us: though we en- treated some of the Rajah’s servants to be allowed to speak to him, we were roughly refused. Some say he was looking at us from a balcony all the time. Why were we so heartlessly treated by him, when he had been so kind to Major Macpherson and his party, even lending them carriages and a guard, and facilitating their escape in every way? Did he shelter Major Macpherson in his political capacity and the brigadier as a man of importance? Perhaps he thought that helpless woman could never be of any use to him. This is a mystery that no one can explain to the Rajah’s credit. We felt it keenly, to be thus driven from his palace gate with contempt.
We proceeded on our way, the people yelling and shouting after us, and we expecting every instant to be stopped and torn out of our carriage and given up to be killed by them; for nothing could exceed their savage looks and language. At the outskirts of the Lushkur, we were obliged to stop, as the horses kept breaking the traces as fast as we tied them together again; moreover, they were much exhausted, having been in harness the whole night before, for Mrs Blake’s escape.”

A Gate at Gwalior Fort

Ruth was wrong in her estimation of Scindia. The fact was, he could not be seen helping them and it was all he could do to ensure they were not killed in the streets of Gwalior. Scindia ordered one of his men to go with the women, who, and after settling them into a few native carts pulled by bullocks – perhaps not the quickest mode of transport but certainly better than an overfilled, unmanageable landau – the chaprassie led them to a large house, some distance from the palace. In one of the rooms, they found a European man, attached to the telegraph department with his Indian wife, and small child. Ruth was not very impressed.
..”…they were disguised in native dresses. The weak childish conduct of this man was sickening; he almost cried, and kept saying, “O we shall all be killed:” instead of trying to help, he only proved a burden to us.” Not everyone it seems could be as stoic as Ruth.

In this moment of relative safety, the full impact of the situation suddenly became horribly clear. None of them had had any food, water or rest since the night before, “our minds were on the rack, tortured by grief and suspense. Here we were, about eight miserable women, alone and unprotected, without food or proper clothing, exhausted by fatigue, and not knowing what to do; some had no shoes or covering for their heads.” Mrs Campbell broke open one of the bottles of beer; after it was shared and the alcohol had at least soothed their nerves, Muza said they needed to push on.

For the rest of the long, hot, dusty afternoon, the party moved further and further away from Gwalior, the cries and shouts from the city slowly fading in the distance. Muza ran ahead, always checking the road was safe, and whenever possible, bringing them water from any well he happened to find. Finally, with dusk approaching, they approached another staging house where previously, dak carriages and horses had been kept. Muza said they were being pursued by some sowars, he could see the dust of their horses in the distance, and they would need to hide here. The sowars, Muza said, were undoubtedly coming to kill them all.

“Here were some wild, savage-looking men cooking food round a fire. Muza spoke to them and then told us to get out of our carts and hide here. We all sat on the ground and Muza said, ” Only pretend to go to sleep: but I fear I cannot save you, as they are bent on killing you.” We waited, with our carts drawn up. It was nearly dark, and we heard the horsemen coming quickly on. At last five sowars appeared, armed with matchlocks and tulwahs, and as soon as they saw the carts they stopped and dismounted, Muza went towards them and began talking to them. We heard him say, “See how tired they are; they have had no rest. Let them sleep tonight; you can kill them tomorrow: only let them sleep now.”

The sowars consented but it was not for long. As soon as it was dark, Ruth heard them loading their matchlocks and unsheathing their tulwars. Muza sprang up and begged the women to give up whatever ornaments they had, he was going to try and bribe the men in exchange for their lives. Mrs Blake was the only one who had any; Ruth took off her wedding ring but decided instead to save it and tied it around her waist. Mrs Campbell and Mrs Kirke had already been stripped of their jewellery in Gwalior. Unhesitatingly, Mrs Blake handed over her rings, her jewellery and some money to Muza who handed it to sowars. A quarrel broke out among the men, one holding a pistol to Muza’s chest to make him swear there was nothing else – they would not believe him. He turned around and begged Mrs Blake and Mrs Campbell, who both spoke Hindustani, to talk to them. The women offered the sowars Rs 40 if they would take a note to Captain Campbell in Agra and ask for a guard. At first, the sowars said they would comply and asked one of the syces for a piece of paper but they presently returned and swore at Mrs Campbell, saying she meant to betray them! Remonstrations were proving futile and the women realised they might soon be killed.

Stay of Execution

Just then we heard in the distance the tramp of a large body of horse and the clang of arms: this rather startled the sowars and gave us some hope. When the cavalry came nearer, we saw that they were part of the Rajah’s bodyguard, returning from escorting Major Macpherson and his party. They stopped, and we all ran towards them; and Mrs Campbell. whose husband had had the temporary command of them, entreated their native officer (who was dressed in an English officer’s uniform) to guard us, and let some of his men go with us. She offered them a large sum of money if they would. The Maharajah owed Captain Campbell long arrears of pay, and this also I believe she offered them, but to no purpose. She then entreated for the protection of only one or two of his men. As they had escorted Major Macpherson, why could they not escort us? The Rajah might have given orders for them to protect any helpless refugees from Gwalior. They refused, saying they had not the Maharajah’s ” hukum.” (order). So we had the bitter disappointment of watching them ride off. Whether the sowars were frightened, I know not; but, so far as I remember, they did not again molest us. We then lay down, and some of us went to sleep: the poor children did, at least.”

During the night, the sowars had lost their murderous zeal and had moved off – in the morning, they were gone. Muza found some parched grain which the women mixed with some of the camphor water; this eaten, the party commenced their march.

At noon they reached a dak bungalow on the road to Agra. Here they halted for an hour or two while the servants of the bungalow, with some relish, reported that Major Macpherson and his party had been cut up by villagers as soon as they had reached the Chambal river as Scindia’s bodyguard had abandoned them. They even told them the names of everyone who had been thus killed – with nothing to dispute this, for the moment, the women felt they were the only survivors of Gwalior. Adding a little more to their misery, the men then told the women the Rana of Dholpur had taken control of all the river crossings and was not allowing anyone over.
The servants continued to press the party to stay, saying they would certainly be killed if they moved on, but wary of their earnestness, Ruth felt they were only stalling them until enough villagers could be gathered together to dispose of the party once and for all. Ruth sent for the dak book in which travellers write their names, and Mrs Campbell added those of the party to it, in the vain hope that anyone passing would see they had, at least to this point, escaped. The only recent name was that of Major Macpherson, but he had not written down the names of his party.
They then partook in a little dal and rice but maddened with sunburn and prickly heat, Ruth and the others found they were not very hungry; only the children ate with any appetite. Ruth had cut her foot and her boots were destroyed; she tied a handkerchief around her inflamed foot and tried to put it back in the shoe.
Crowds of people, many armed pushed their way into the room to take a look at the women, some staring through the windows and laughing. Suddenly in burst Mrs Proctor, Mrs Gilbert, her nurse and child in tow. They too had been turned away from the palace and had struggled on through the night alone, at one point a group of men had held a tulwar to Mrs Proctor’s throat as they robbed them of everything they had.

In the evening, Muza came back; he had procured some large sheets with which the women could wrap themselves. He then arranged the carts and settling the women in them, prodded the bullocks and their drivers into moving on. The crowds, suddenly silent, let them go.
“We met five or six large carriages returning from conveying Major Macpherson and his party to Agra. We stopped them and vainly entreated the drivers to take us only as far as the Chumbul; but this they scornfully refused to do, saying they had not the Rajah’s ‘hukum.” Oh, how our hearts swelled with indignation at this second refusal! It was very hard to see them drive past our miserable carts. Mrs Quick was a very large woman — for corpulency becomes a disease in India, and her weight was such she had already broken down one cart, a small frail one, and now, toiling slowly along on foot, she implored us to take her in or she should die: her expressions and language were violent and dreadful, but we felt for her, and she was at last taken into one of the carts.”
The harrowing journey continued.
Their next stop, later that night was at a large village, but the villagers refused them any help. When Ruth asked for water, they said she could get it herself. The ever energetic Muza quickly drew up the water and gave them all drink. The women got out of the carts and huddled together on the ground, whilst the villagers collected in groups to stare at them.

..they even brought torches to aid their scrutiny, as it was now getting dark. The drivers of the carts made a fire and cooked some food they had got for themselves. The natives were very insolent; they looked at us all in succession, and said, ” Well, they are not worth a pice (worth a farthing in 1857) each; but to Mrs Campbell they said, “You are worth an anna (about three halfpence): ” they said she was (burra kubsoorut) very handsome. She was a very beautiful woman and had formerly been called the ” Rose of Gibraltar,” when she was there with her father. They pulled aside her chudda, with which she tried to conceal herself and said, ” We will look at you.”

The next morning they passed through the town of Dholpur, situated on both banks of the river. At the river crossing, they were rudely turned away and a large party of men, all armed, assembled on the river bank to watch them. Muza advised the women to stay in the carts – the men, he said, belonged to Scindia, and as long as they thought they were under his protection, they would not hurt them. He then left the women to look for a boat.
In the afternoon he came back, saying he had found one. The women left their carts and walked down the hill to the ford – they had to wade through the water to reach the boat. As soon as they had all climbed in and were preparing to push off, some villagers ran into the water; one of them tore a plank out of the side of the craft and the water poured in.
“The sergeants’ wives and children began shrieking out, “They are going to drown us: they are pulling the boat to pieces.” I don’t know whether this stopped them: but they then gave over; though some of them continued swimming after the boat...” Although the river was broad, it had not yet swelled up to full strength with monsoon rain fortunately for them – and they reached the other side as the boat began to sink in earnest. The party jumped out and scrambled through the shallow water, the wet sand clinging to their dresses.

As the carts were left on the other side of the river, they were now obliged to walk. It was only a short way to the next staging house – it was filled with “at least twenty horrid savage-looking men, armed with rusty old matchlocks and tulwahs..” and one of them made a point of drawing his sword and polished it with his fingers as if testing it for sharpness. By now the women were beyond caring – they let the men stare and whet their swords, it no longer mattered to them if they would be shot, or cut to pieces.

At last, a sowar, mounted on a camel came up and handed Mrs Campbell a note. It was from her husband in Agra but meant for the eyes of Scindia. In it, he pleaded with the Raja to bury all the Europeans killed in Gwalior and particularly, if he could find her, his own wife.
The sowar entreated Mrs Campbell to come with him – her husband was camped a few miles out of Agra at the dak bungalow in Munnia. Captain Campbell could not move any closer to Gwalior fearing an ambush but had asked the sowar to bring any fugitives to him and deliver the note to Scindia. Mrs Campbell was unwilling to go with the man but she persuaded him instead to take a note to her husband.
With a pin, she pricked a short message on the back of the note the sowar had brought her,” We are here, more than a dozen women and children: send us help.” The sowar left and Captain Campbell, they would later find out, received it.

Muza told them they had to move on – it was no longer safe to stay and they must walk until he could procure some more carts.

“Some of the women had no shoes or stockings; and one tore off pieces of her dress to wrap round her bleeding feet, Mrs. Kirke and Mrs Campbell, who had no bonnets, put part of their dresses over their heads, to protect them from the burning rays of the sun. Mrs Gilbert could hardly walk, but some of the women helped her along, and others carried the children. At last Mrs Quick fell down in an apoplectic fit, and became black in the face; some of the ladies kindly stayed with her, but in a quarter of an hour she died.”

A few villagers gathered around, laughing at her immense size and mocked her corpse. Ruth asked them if they would bury her but she never found out if they did.

They walked on a little further, finally stopping in a lane with high banks on each side which sheltered them a little from the sun, and waited for Muza to come back with carts.
To their surprise, it was not Muza who came back but a mounted policeman, attached to Captain Campbell’s force, riding as if to assure them, Campbell’s horse. The captain had sent instructions they should rest at the next dak bungalow where they would be provided with food. The man then rode off to the Rana of Dholpur to arrange for some carts. “It seemed strange to see this man and hear him speak so kindly to us. He alone remained faithful when all the other mounted policemen afterwards mutinied at Agra”
The worst was over.


The policeman soon returned with carts and an elephant sent by the Rana and he escorted them to the bungalow. It was the same one Ruth had stayed in with her husband 6 months before on their trip to Gwalior – with mixed feelings, she stepped inside. The policeman provided them with biscuits, bread and beer, all sent by Captain Campbell. After eating, the fugitives lay on the floor and slept. At four in the morning – it was Thursday now and they had left Gwalior on Monday – they set out again in the carts, although uncomfortable it was better than the elephant. Without a howdah, they would have had to clamber up and hold on to some ropes – the few sergeants’ wives who tried soon begged to be allowed into the carts, they were too exhausted to hold on.

At noon they arrived at the dak bungalow in Munnia where Captain Campbell eagerly awaited their arrival. He had sent out a buggy for his wife and Mrs Gilbert so they preceded the rest of the party – fortunately so, for barely having arrived, Mrs Gilbert went into labour – within hours, her baby was born.

“We soon arrived, and never shall I forget Captain Campbell’s kindness: he was truly a good Samaritan; he bathed our heads, fanned us, and procured us fowls and rice; for we were by this time utterly worn out with fatigue and exhaustion.”

They could not stay in the bungalow, however. Captain Campbell wanted them to go to Agra with all haste. He organised a charpoy and bearers for Mrs Gilbert and her newborn infant and a small escort, including Sergeant Quick who was now told his wife was dead.
At 4 pm they started again, travelling all night through side roads. The darkness protected them and they avoided being ambushed by sepoys who were gathering on the main road, looking for fugitives.

At 6 the next morning they arrived in Agra.

The siege of Agra had not yet commenced and although the city was in a great state of alarm, the troops were still holding fast and the women could be sent to various houses in the cantonments. Their first stop was Captain Stevenson’s ( a cousin of Captain Campbell) where after tea, they were billeted to different houses. Mrs Blake with faithful Muza went to her friend Mrs Griffith, Mrs Kirke to another friend, Mrs Raikes to her uncle Mr Raikes (whose daughter, Mrs Christian, was killed in Sitapur); Ruth was sent to the house appointed for the Gwalior refugees where she found Major Macpherson and his sister. Mrs Gilbert heard here that her husband was expected at any moment, news which must have cheered her immensely. As for Ruth, she was taken to a room where, after bathing, she laid down and slept, not waking until evening.

For her, and indeed the other women, Gwalior had only been the beginning. On the 29th of June, they would all be sent into Agra Fort and here would begin the next chapter of Ruth’s mutiny history, a part of the siege that would be, unlike Lucknow, months of anxiety and boredom for 6000 people trapped behind stone walls. Muza, ever faithful to Mrs Blake would accompany her into this strange asylum and Ruth would have, for comfort, a baby who would be born in a tumultuous hall in Agra Fort.

A Lady’s Escape from Gwalior and Life in the Fort of Agra During the Mutinies of 1857-R.M. Coopland
Memorial of Service in India, from the Correspondence of the Late Major Samuel Charters Macpherson, C.B., edited by his brother, William Macpherson (1865)
General Sir Richard Meade and the Feudatory States of Central and Southern India -Thomas Henry Thornton, C.S.I, D.C.L (1889)
The Revolt in Central India 1857-59, compiled in the Intelligence Branch – Lieutenant- Colonel W. Malleson (1908)