by John Strivens
It was a warm summer evening in 1892, and I was visiting an old friend who lived in the ancient town of Lancaster. As he was engaged in a meeting with a glass merchants located on Castle Hill I had decided to take a stroll around the walls of the grim castle and magnificent priory which topped the hill dominating the old town. Wandering into the cool shade of the Priory Church, I was idly perusing the plaques on the wall of the nave and my attention rested on simple marble slab which commemorated George Hansbrow, the son of the Governor of Lancaster Castle Prison, James Hansbrow. The plaque stated that he had died at the age of 35, “heroically sacrificing himself to his duty” in Bareilly on 1 June 1857, “one of the first sufferers in the Indian Mutiny”. I was musing on the strange coincidence that linked the events of that bloody uprising, of which my father had so often spoken, with the peace and solitude of the venerable church when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Turning, I saw an old man standing behind me. As far as I could judge he was in his sixties and his bearing and luxuriant white moustache suggested to me a military man.
“I knew him you know, Dr Hansbrow,” said the man in a cultivated tone with a trace of an accent I could not identify. “A fine young fellow.”
“Really,” I replied, my interest piqued. “So how does it come about that he died under such circumstances so far from home?”
“If you have half an hour,” he said, “I will tell you the story of George Hansbrow. Let us walk outside.” We left the church and, between the gravestones of the priory and the looming towers of the castle, he told me this tale.
“I joined the army at 18,” he began. “I was posted to India in 1845 and ordered to Bareilly in Rohilcund Province, in late summer 1856. I was a subaltern with the 8th Irregular Cavalry under Captain MacKenzie. They were an entirely native regiment, not a European amongst them except the officers. Fearsome fighters and proud men, but loyal. Or so we thought. Bareilly was a dreadful place, a huge dusty city with over 100,000 inhabitants and a mere handful of Europeans to try to maintain order. We lived in bungalows in the barracks and the rest of the Europeans lived in a cantonment nearby. They were the usual crowd: tax collectors, civil servants, teachers and officials of John Company, as we referred to the old East India Company then. George was one of those. A medical man, he had been appointed Assistant Surgeon and, because Judge Robertson liked him, he was put in charge of Bareilly Jail; not a job I would have relished. 1400 scoundrels imprisoned for every crime under the sun and the only armed men around, apart from we few officers and my sohars, were the 18th and 68th Native Infantry and a native artillery regiment.
George was a very pleasant young chap and ran the jail as well as could be expected under the circumstances. His mother was from Kirkham and his father hailed from Dublin, but they had settled here in Lancaster. It’s odd that his father too ran a local prison.” He paused for a moment and seemed lost in his thoughts.
“Go on,” I prompted. “What happened in ’57?”
His face clouded. “It was a terrible time,” he continued. “In the months leading up to May of that year the whole country was awash with rumours and stories about the goings-on in Barrackpore, Meerut and Delhi. It was hard to tell what was true and what wasn’t, but there was enough to make us very worried indeed. We knew that whole regiments of sepoys had refused to bite open the cartridges they were issued with because some agitators had told the Hindus that they were greased with beef fat and the Muslims that they were greased with pig fat. It wasn’t handled well, and then we heard that the a number of the 34th Native Infantry and the Bengal Light Cavalry had been severely punished and humiliated in front of the their regiments for refusing to bite the cartridges. Unrest spread, and when a sepoy shot two British officers in Barrackpore he was hanged, which didn’t improve the general mood. There were all sorts of strange tales. Mysterious strangers were said to have appeared in the cantonment and handed out chapattis containing secret messages. In May, Brigadier Sibbald, the commanding officer at Bareilly, ordered the transfer of the ladies and children to Nynce Tal, 70 miles away in the hills, up by the Nepalese border. Not all the women went of course. Some of the humbler sort of women remained in town with their families and children.” Once again his face clouded as if a dark shadow had passed across his memory, then he resumed his story.
“The European garrison was in a state of great excitement, I can tell you. We all slept fully clothed, with loaded pistols to hand and our horses ready saddled. Brigadier Sibbald and Colonel Troup were convinced that our sepoys would remain loyal and Captain MacKenzie said that he would stake his life on our sohars. Unfortunately, he was forced to put this to the test all too soon. On May 29th Brigadier Sibbald received a report that members of the 18th and 68th Native Infantry had been overheard plotting an uprising whilst bathing in the river. Extra patrols were ordered that night and, whether it was this, or the fact that we seemed ready for them, nothing happened. However, next day, a deputation of sohars from my regiment went to see Colonel Troup and informed him that they would not fire on their fellow countrymen if ordered to do so, although they gave an undertaking that they themselves would not harm their officers. Much alarmed by this, Colonel Troup send a message to all his officers, warning us that trouble might be expected next day but, owing to the treachery of some of his messengers, not all the officers received this note, and many of us that did refused to believe it.
The next day was a Sunday and we were preparing ourselves for church when, at 11 o’clock, a cannon sounded. This seemed to be a signal because it was followed immediately by yelling and musket fire from the sepoy barracks. The sound of cannon fire confirmed our fear that the Native Artillery had also joined the mutineers. The 8th were ordered to attack the rebel sepoys, but refused to do so. Things happened very fast after that. Brigadier Sibbald was shot in his bungalow by one of his own troops and Colonel Troup only escaped with his life because his servants bundled him out of a side door and enabled him to get away. Mr Alexander, the District Commissioner, was ill in bed when the mutiny began but his servants helped him onto a horse. He was too weak to ride properly but the horse bolted when it heard the sound of approaching gunfire and he managed to hang on. The horse galloped past the sepoys that the rebels had stationed on the road to Nynce Tal but the Commissioner survived this, along with a volley of grapeshot from a cannon, to reach safety. Many others were not so lucky. I myself escaped with Captain MacKenzie and 19 of his sohars who had remained loyal. We managed to fight our way to Nynce Tall where Colonel Troup had assumed command of the 66th Ghurka Regiment, who had no love for the mutineers. With their help and the assistance of a motley bunch of irregular cavalry raised amongst the remaining civilians, we defended the hill town for 3 months until we were relieved.”
“So what happened to George Hansbrow?” I asked, somewhat impatiently.
The old soldier frowned. ”Only 25 of us escaped,” he said at last, “and the sufferings of those who could not get out were terrible. A vile and despicable old man named Khan Babadoor Khan set himself up as the leader of the mutineers. He had been a trusted official of the British and was actually drawing two pensions from us as a tribal chieftain and a judge in the native courts. He had often protested his loyalty to the crown and John Company and had often spoken out against the actions of the mutineers in Delhi. However, when the rebellion broke out he ordered the mutineers to round up any Europeans they could find in the town. One family had been hidden by their servants but they were betrayed and handed over to Khan Babadoor Khan, who had the whole family beheaded. The jail was broken open and the prisoners joined the mutineers in looting and burning the houses of the Europeans. They also killed a good few of their fellows who were not of their own particular religion whilst arguing over the treasure they had stolen. George Hansbrow managed to hide in a cell when the prison was broken open but he was eventually captured and brought before Khan Babadoor Khan along with four other Europeans: Mr Robertson, the District Judge, two college professors and another medical man. Khan Babadoor Khan subjected all five men to a mock trial and the next day, June 1st, George Hansbrow was dragged into Kotwal Square and hanged before a jeering crowd of mutineers.”
We both fell silent as the evening shadows began to lengthen across the green space in front of the castle. “Thank you,” I said. “That was a fascinating story.”
“Fascinating?” my companion murmured. “Yes, fascinating.” And with that he strode off down the hill towards the Covell Cross, leaving me to reflect on the dark events that linked his colourful and violent tale to the quiet church on the hill above Lancaster.