A Civilian in the Mutiny

Should I be remembered when the records of centuries are condensed for the instruction of youth? Should I be honoured with a statue, and would every Englishman subscribe the cost of a day’s food to reward me?

T.H. Kavanagh, upon reaching his destination
Thomas Henry Kavanagh, V.C.

My readers might feel I have been woefully neglectful in my treatment of the Lucknow portraits as I have omitted the one man that surely everyone has heard of. My actions however were deliberate as I feel he deserves a much larger stage than the one history provided him.
The man I speak of, if you have not already guessed, is Lucknow Kavanagh.

It is seldom to find photographs of the people of Lucknow, I am ecstatic every time I see another one. However, there is no getting away from Thomas Henry Kavanagh. His picture turns up everywhere. And not just one likeness, I have to date unearthed 12, which include some truly fantastical drawings.

Every time in history has its heroes; 1857 is no exception. Some men, like John Nicholson were born to take charge in conflict and excelled where others failed. Whether we can agree on Nicholson as a hero in the context of our times is a completely different conversation. For his century he checked all of the boxes. Henry Lawrence was a hero in his own right however it is uncertain if he would have seen himself as particularly heroic, being a man who believed that duty was a matter of course. Then there are men like Captain Moore of Cawnpore – his heroism was in facing impossible odds, being aware of hopelessness and yet never allowing it to defeat him. We have other, lesser men, like Private Murphy who swam away from Satichaura Ghat – unfortunately he swam away with a better author than himself – while Private Murphy became the caretaker of the Bibighar Memorial and eventually died of drunkenness, Mowbray Thomson would retire as a general. Then you have Thomas Henry Kavanagh.

Born in 1821, to Bandmaster Thomas Kavanagh of the 3rd Regiment (Buffs) and his wife Catherine Murphy, Thomas Henry probably spent his formative years in Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland. The Buffs were sent to Australia in 1823 – his father’s renown as musician in that far off land can be ascertained by the very flattering words of Mr. Graeme Skinner of the University of Sydney.

However as this article concerns itself with Thomas Henry and not his esteemed father, we must leave the bandmaster aside. The 3rd Regiment was moved to India in 1834 and Thomas Henry was with his father, stationed in Meerut.

Thomas Henry would later write he had begun his service to the government at the age of 14. He took employment as a clerk in the office the Commissioner of Meerut. At 18 he left this position and joined a merchant’s counting house in Mussoorie. It was a slow a steady rise for the young civilian, in 1843 he became head clerk to the Government Treasury at Ambala, then it was off to Lahore as head clerk to the Board of Administration (where he met Henry Lawrence), and finally off to Jullundur as assistant magistrate. Although Thomas Henry appears to have had no problems managing the finances of others, his own were a shambles. Nearly fired from his job in Multan after the revelation of how seriously his debts really were, it took the influence of Lord Dalhousie to secure a position for Kavanagh in Lucknow as Superintendent of the Office of the Chief Commissioner.

In 1857, Thomas and his wife Agnes (incidentally his sister, Mary Ann, was married to Alexander Bryson, the best friend of L.E.Ruutz Rees, who so lamented his death) and 4 children were living in Cawnpore, intending to stay there until the end of the summer as accommodation in Lucknow was difficult to find. But “Providence willed that my wife should differ with friends under the same roof, which changed her plans, and saved my family from massacre.” How different their fate might have been if his wife had not quarrelled! So off they went to Lucknow.
Once again his wife takes her place in history – distressed by the murder of a relative of hers during the uprising in Meerut, the endearing Agnes now beseeched her husband to find them accommodation in the Residency. He “yielded to her entreaties to abandon our new house for couple of rooms in the Post Office..” and here the Kavanaghs stayed until November. Unfortunately, we do not hear too much more from Agnes. She now returns to her role of wife and mother, and fades into the background of history but not before she is shot during the siege (she recovers) and suffers the loss of her youngest daughter.

In 1860, Kavanagh published a little book (at only 219 pages, it is a delight to read), called “How I Won the Victoria Cross.” Although encouraged by his friends to write it, the book ruffled more than few feathers after it appeared, and Kavanagh was liberally criticised, and accused of self-aggrandisement. It is interesting to note that other mutiny authors were not similarly blandished
( although Rees was forced to re-write certain passages in later editions of his tome as he was about to be sued by a very irate family, whose relative he had accused of siding with the enemy). If self aggrandisement was a crime, there would very little mutiny literature to read!

Reading his book, it becomes quite clear Kavanagh was not a man of simple words. It might not be his boasting that irritated his audience, but more likely his unfashionable opinions. For a start, he blames the mutiny not just on the cartridges, but on the pig-headed attitude of the British towards the Indians.

“Foreign rule is perpetuated by the respect of the subjected. Alas! after two hundred years we were still without it. The white and black men are dissimilar as day and night. There is no communion of feeling and little of thought. The European, conscious of his superiority, is proud and disdainful, and spurns the advances of the dark man. He applauds by silence and upbraids with a loud voice. He is feared by everyone and loved by few. The white man arrogantly dwells in a strange land as if it was his, unmindful that force subdues but cannot attach a people; which is the only security for peace and prosperity. Europeans in India know little of the country in which they dwell and less of the peculiarities of the people. Haughtiness alike alienates the wise and the simple; and was one of the simulating causes of the troubles of 1857.”

These were not words which would sit very well with the victors and much less with his compatriots, many of whom believed it was just the issue with the cartridges that had started the whole uprising of 1857 in the first place. He continues,

“There was…a spirit of justice. No government was ever actuated by better intentions, or had more talented servants. But it made a mistake, (and will go on doing so till another rebellion) of endevouring to govern an immense empire by very few and almost irresponsible subordinates. There was too much to do, and nobody to complain if imperfectly done; and the close of every year saw most of the administrators, great and small, blowing their own trumpets. There was no public opinion to warn the indoment and none to encourage the clever and industrious, official praise and dispraise were not independent…Worst of all, there was too little supervision; and as a matter of course, shameful corruption in the native subordinates, who, being poorly paid and remorselessly overworked, seized every opportunity of selling their services….

Done with dragging the company and it’s civilians over the coals, Kavanagh turned his attention to the army. Interestingly enough, he blames the officers for emboldening the sepoys – “increase their pride in the belief it would make them better soldiers.” He then went on to explain how this created a conceited army rather than a loyal one and the British, absolutely convinced their regiments were staunch just because they were, did nothing to actually foster good relations with their men, instead leaving them to their own devices.

“A fanatic army fought for its conscience, and ignorant peasants against the foreigner; without disturbing their might masters they uprooted long-cherished theories and systems founded on ignorance and impudence. Opinions once obstinately defended and enforced were now unowned and unhonored; officials who prided themselves on superior tact are silent, for astonishing events have depreciated, if not wholly extinguished, their policy and their conceited knowledge.”

Beyond this scathing attacks on the government and the army, Kavanagh had a thing or two to say about the Englishmen themselves, calling them in their turn, lazy, small minded and greedy. He further felt that the caste prejudice that the English blamed as the main problem of India, was “more fictitious than real” and if the English would just get over their own prejuidices and treat the Indians as equals, then this so called problem could be trodden down. By refusing to allow Indians the the same rights and privileges as they themselves enjoyed (for example, equal pay and promotion in the army), they were actually perpetuating the very inequality amongst Indians that they professed to abhor.

And this, my dear reader, is only the Introduction.

He starts the first chapter of his book with possibly the best evaluation of 1857 ever written:

“Europeans in the East occupied so lofty a position, that they disregarded these early signs of the approaching crisis (the refusal of the cartridges in early 1857) and considered them merely as ridiculous indications of religious fervour, which would soon vanish of themselves. They saw nothing that they had ever done to provoke hostility. Theirs was a just and a generous rule…So the Anglo-Saxon reasoned, and fearless pursued his usual course…He is a noble creature; but it is a pity that he lives so isolated from the people of India that it will always require violent demonstrations of disaffection to awake him to a sense of danger. He there regards popular feeling as unstable; and public wrongs as altogether unfounded. Because he means to be just and generous, he thinks that he is so…”

From here onwards Kavanagh does tend to put himself in the middle of most things, whether it is entreating other civilians to leave their homes in May and come to the residency for their safety, engaging in then forming the uncovenanted into an efficient fighting unit (bearing up bravely against the laughter of some military officers who thought the whole exercise was quite ridiculous) and taking part in some of the smaller events that were cropping up, he is a one man hub of non-stop activity. Whether chasing a group of rebellious policemen, bringing in the refugees of Sitapur and Secrora and attending both infantry and artillery drill, Kavanagh is everywhere. In between his narratives of his own deeds, he takes time to scoff at the foolish ideas that were circulating such as defending Martiniere College with a 8 volunteers to assist the masters and boys, or at the very defences being built up in the Residency compound.

“As another instance of our ignorance, I may mention we began to fortify our positions as if they were to be separately defended and to attack each other..Most persons inexperienced in war, which cannot be learned from books, would have done no better, and it is really no reproach to confess that we were bewildered, what the engineers may now say of having ” completed a fortification which turned every house to advantage, and secured as much flanking defence as possible..”

This was direct attack on Captain George Hutchinson, whose book, “Narrative of the Mutinies in Oudh, Kavanagh deemed as “badly written.”

By the end of June our stalwart hero is exhausted and his health fails him on the morning of the Battle of Chinhut. Kavanagh , too ill to rise, witnesses the aftermath, and spends the rest of the day with his face buried in his hands, fretting at his own sense of helplessness, “when action was so much needed.” An attack of erysipelas and feverish delirium, and suffering from such severe pain, it wouldn’t be until the middle of July that Kavanagh would even be truly aware of the state of the garrison. It was on the 20th of the month that his fighting spirit suddenly jolted awake. “An intense eagerness to know all that went on seized upon my mind..and every success effected almost to frenzy…Good and gallant deeds have always greatly touched me; and the news of the first sortie…filled my heart with such violent emotions that it would have burst, had not Mr. Dorrett forcibly leant on my chest to keep down its convulsions…” Above all Kavanagh thanked Heaven he had not missed the war.

I could not and did not attempt to conceal the pleasure which the contemplation of the future now afforded, and I resolved to die in the struggle rather than survive it with no better fame than I took into it. Some persons are born with moderate desires, and others with high aspirations, which they endeavour to realize; and he who walks in a straight course to the pinnacle of his hopes the world will applaud – when he has got there.

His observations of the siege in general probably did not endear him to the other veterans, when he describes his compatriots as greedily plundering the provisions stored by the merchants in the garrison, while private stores were “wastefully used” noting that the stimulants which later would have been useful for the sick and wounded were the first to go. He reserves a special scorn for the ladies who later received a special mention in the Report of the Defence for the work in the hospital, stating flatly that in the early days the only woman he saw was the young wife of a Sargeant-Major “whose soothing kindness has found no voice in the memories of her superiors.” “Mesdames Parry, Erith and Alone..these ladies too, have found no one generous enough to record their compassionate services.” But he himself could not remember the name of the soldiers’ wife. The other ladies who were undoubtedly in the hospital after a time, and received the recognition (Mesdames Polhampton, Barbor, Birch and Gall) – all ladies of higher standing than civilians wives were thought all the more heroic that they would stoop to something as menial as nursing. Even in war, there was no such thing as an “impartial record.”

Kavanagh, by all accounts, appears now to be enjoying the siege. He revels in his duties and ceaselessly looks for opportunities to prove himself. The arrival of Havelock’s force in September sets off a frenzy of activities and Kavanagh is once again everywhere, blowing up guns, taking part in sorties and finding a particular passion for sitting in wait in mine shafts. It was however, not enough. Kavanagh was determined to be destined for greatness.

Lucknow Kavanagh is born

Thomas Henry Kavanagh (1821-1882), VC, Being Disguised as a Native, Having Volunteered to Guide the Relief Force, Siege of Lucknow, Indian Mutiny, 9 November 1857;

The above painting depicts a seemingly ludicrous scene, a man well above average height with red hair being dressed up in Indian clothes, and his skin smeared with lamp black -an idea so audacious it very nearly feels surreal. When Kavanagh first proposed to lead Campbells force to the Residency, Colonel Napier “regarded the proposal as most absurd.” But Kavanagh would not be refused. He had the perfect plan for his path to glory. Bringing the plan to Sir James Outram, who was no less astonished than Napier had been, Kavanagh managed to convince the general that this really was the only thing to do. He would leave the residency, disguised as a native and bring in the relieving army through the streets of Lucknow.
His resolve unbroken (although lying to his wife seems to have momentarily unnerved him) Kavanagh collected random clothes from various natives, and with the help of Kanoji Lal and F. Quieros whom he sworn to secrecy, he transformed himself into a what can best be guessed at as a white man impersonating an Indian. Kanoji Lal found the whole charade funny – though internally he must have been grateful they were setting off in the dark. The disguise fooled Outram and the other officers, so much so Kavanagh risked a thrashing for setting foot in a European house with his shoes on, and obviously uninvited. Realising finally it was Kavanagh, they joined in on the fun and helped him with t the final touches.
No one actually believed Kavanagh would make it and the parting words of Captain Harding, “Noble Fellow! You will never be forgotten!” say it all.

Dressed like a character from a pantomime, on the 9th of November at 8.30pm, Kavanagh set off with Kanoji Lal, in what they both seemed to hope was the direction of Campbell’s encampment. They crossed a stream, the cold water “chilled my courage immensely” but it didn’t extinguish it completely. They managed to get over the iron bridge, evade any complicated questions by a native officer, pass unnoticed by soldiers and matchlock men, and jostle their way through the crowds in the bazaar. So far so good.
Leaving the populated portion of the city, the pair made their way into the countryside and ambled on for 5 miles enjoying the scenery before realising they were going in the wrong direction.

“It was now about midnight. Near a village we saw a cultivator watching his crop, and endevouring to persuade him to show us the way for a short distance, he urged old age and lameness, Another whom I peremptorily told to come with us ran off screaming, and alarmed the dogs in the village which made us run quickly into the canal flowing under the Charr Bagh..”
Canal traversed, they stumbled into a village, Kavanagh entering a hut and while groping his way in the dark endeavouring to find a occupant he “pressed the soft thigh of a woman, who started, but heeded my earnest whisper to be quiet.” The girl had enough presence of mind to awaken her mother who soon put the two men on the right road, probably heaving a sigh of relief to see the back of these uninvited visitors.
Within an hour of leaving the women, they were asking for directions from an advanced piquet of Sepoys who Kavanagh could not help noticing were executing their duty “most clumsily and carelessly.” Kavanagh by now, emboldened by his good fortune wanted to head straight for the Alum Bagh. Kanoji Lal, probably quite exasperated by this annoying companion of his, begged Kavanagh to reconsider going to the piquet and on into the Alum Bagh, a walled enclosure containing some 5000 men of the relieving force. It was much closer than Campbell’s camp, some 18 miles away, Kavanagh reasoned. But the abject fear expressed by Kanoji Lal was enough to persuade even Kavanagh that may be crossing straight through enemy lines was really not a very good idea.

Gate House of the Alumbagh

With the Alum Bagh plan abandoned, the pair set off across the countryside again.
“By three o’clock we reached a grove of mangoe trees, situated on a plain in which a man was singing at the top of his voice. I thought he was villager; but he got alarmed on hearing us approach and astonished us by calling out a guard of Sepoys all of who asked questions.”

Beset by Sepoys

At this point, Kanoji Lal lost it, and threw away the letter he was carrying for Colin Campbell, leaving Kavanagh to talk their way out of this one. Using Kanoji Lal’s obvious fear, Kavanagh begged the sepoys to not “terrify poor travellers unaccustomed to be question by so many valorous soldiers” and spun them a yarn – they were to just going to Umroula to tell a friend his brother had been killed b the British. The sepoys bought the tale and sent them off on their way, even pointing them in the direction they wanted to go.
The road led them straight into a swamp.

Kavanagh and Kanoji Lal in the Swamp

Kanoji Lal being “a little man, had occasionally to be held by the neck to keep his head above water,” the mud and the reeds clinging to them, and after two hours of swearing at “every mutineer, every weed, every bit of mud and every drop of water in the province,” they finally saw the end of it. By now, Kavanagh’s disguise was pretty much done for, the colour had disappeared from his hands and the moon was shining brightly in the sky. The plain too was busy, crowded with terrified villagers, fleeing from the English who were murdering and plundering as they advanced. No one would stop long enough to give them even more directions, so the two once again set off in the wrong one and “were only stopped going over to the enemy again by missing the bustling noise of the camp, for which we listened. “ Kavanagh now decided it was high time to take a nap – we can only guess what Kanoji Lal thought of this idea- but perhaps it was just as well. As Kavanagh rested, Kanoji Lal set off to find a guide – but stumbled instead upon the British piquet, just a few yards ahead. They had reached the camp and Kavanagh had finally earned his long sought after recognition.

Of Kanoji Lal, however,Kavanagh writes,
“I was greatly indebted to my intelligent guide, who let me peak as seldom as possible ,and throughout evinced amazing wit and courage. I would not have succeeded without the assistance of this faithful man, and I grieve to say that his good services upon this and upon several other occasions have been inadequately rewarded.”

The Relief of Lucknow, November 1857

From the Indian Government, Kavanagh received a sum of £ 2000.-, and a position in the office of the civil judge in Lucknow. He returned very reluctantly to civilian life and finally , with his health impaired, he decided to set sail for England in May 1859.

Thomas Kavanagh , wearing a sola topi, with men of the 1st European Bengal Fusiliers, Lucknow, 1858.

Kavanagh’s battle for glory would not end until 1860 – three years after his famous deed he received the Victoria Cross on the 4th of January. Even though he had been recommended for the award, the Royal Warrant made no provision for civilians, and rejected his nomination. It would take a tribute from Sir Colin Campbell and the nomination of another civilian Ross Mangles, for the Royal Warrant to be amended. By this time, Kavanagh felt the VC had only been awarded grudgingly on him, and it is a slight he never recovered from.

In 1876 he published an even shorter book, titled “Guilty or Not Guilty of Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and A Gentleman” in which he takes on the Government of India, following a report to the government by Sir George Ebenezer Couper (himself a siege veteran) of what amounts to, in their opinion, fraud and dishonourable conduct.

Sir George Couper, Chief Commissioner of the Province of Oudh

Kavanagh had never been very lucky with money and it seems his old curse of debts had found a way to haunt him even as the Deputy Commissioner of Pertabgurh. The slight upon his character was so severe, he insisted on returning the VC and the Mutiny Medal , until ” I am acquitted of dishonourable conduct, I can neither accept a pension nor wear the illustrious cross enclosed in this cover nor the medal with three clasps accompanying it, and may the agitation the surrender is causing me, and the grief I am yet to suffer, never overtake the man who did me this injury.”
The case itself could be explained away as mismanagement and carelessness on Kavanagh’s side- there was certainly no reason to go after the man with quite this much force, not allowing him to return to his position after returning from furlough and then forcing upon him retirement at a reduced pension that would not have sustained him and his rather large family of 13 children, 8 of which were still living at home. Whatever the true reason was for the government wanting to rid itself of Thomas Kavanagh, they could have found a better way of doing it. Perhaps old memories lived longer than deeds of glory and the self-aggrandising of Thomas Kavanagh had come back to haunt him after all.


Responding to an invitation by General Napier, now Governor of Gibraltar, Kavanagh set sail in 1882, for what should have been pleasant reunion between old friends. Unfortunately, his health gave way and Kavanagh became ill during the voyage. He died in hospital on the 11th of November 1882. Here on this lonely rock far away from his family, Thomas Henry Kavanagh was given a full military funeral, his medals very much intact. His grave can still be found at North Front Cemetery in Gibraltar.
Agnes survived her husband by another 10 years, and died in Mussoorie on the 4th of October1892.

All quotes from “How I Won the Victoria Cross”- T.H. Kavanagh, 1860