Known by his men as ‘Little Bobs’, Frederick Roberts was, unusually for a soldier, short, frail and partially sighted in one eye. Born in Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in India on 30 September 1832, Frederick Sleigh Roberts spent forty-one years on active service in India before transferring to South Africa.
Joining the army of the British East India Company aged nineteen in 1851, the following year he was appointed aide to his father. The two men were strangers to one another, having met only the once, when Roberts Sr was on leave in England.
Frederick Roberts first saw action during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and was involved in the capture of Delhi following a 106-day siege and the relief of Lucknow and Cawnpore. The following year he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his “marked gallantry”.
In 1878, now a Major-General in the British Army proper, Roberts led the occupation of Kabul during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
On 27 July 1880, news arrived that 300 miles from Kabul, outside the city of Kandahar, near a village called Maiwand, the British had fought and suffered a humiliating defeat to a force of Afghans. 969 British and Indian soldiers had been killed and almost 200 wounded. (Today Afghans still raise a toast to the victors of Maiwand.) Chased back to Kandahar, the British survivors from the Battle of Maiwand came under a sustained siege.
Kabul to Kandahar
On 10 May 1857, the Indian Mutiny, as it became known, erupted in the town of Meerut in northern India. Discontent among the native Indian soldiers, the sepoys, had been simmering for months if not decades but the violence, when it came, took the British completely by surprise. History In An Hour looks at the causes of the Indian Mutiny.*
By 1857, the East India Company, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government, ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third was overseen by Indian princes who paid tribute to the British. That the East India Company could maintain its authority was down to the might of its huge army, consisting of 45,000 Europeans and 230,000 Indian sepoys. While most sepoys were glad and even proud to serve in the army, their loyalty to it always took second place to their religion
Sepoys of all faiths were concerned for their respective religions. The prospect of being made to serve overseas, for example, alarmed Hindu sepoys as travelling over water was a compromise of caste. (Similar grievances led to a much smaller rebellion, the Vellore Mutiny, in 1806).
Their fears were not without foundation – there was among the British an evangelical element keen on converting the Indian masses to Christianity and to persuade them to turn their backs on the ‘monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness and cruelty’, to use William Wilberforce (1759-1833)’s phrase to describe Hindu divinities. In the early nineteenth century, the British had outlawed various religious traditions, and were now spreading their influence, building Christian schools and snatching orphaned Indian children to be brought up as Christians. (A Western education, the British believed, would eventually lead to greater responsibility and equip the Indian for eventual self-rule.)
The Irish famine was without doubt the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the Victorian world. Over a million people starved to death whilst two million more fled the Irish shores forever creating the beginnings of the huge Irish diasporas which still exist in today North America, Canada, Australia and also, of course, London.
A Land of Poverty
Ireland by the middle of the Nineteenth Century was a land of tenant farmers, agricultural labourers and small holders known as cottiers. Many cottiers were “bound” tenant farmers, who in return for working other farms, would be “paid” by being allowed to grow potatoes on tiny strips of land known as conacres. The diet of these people, who spoke Gaelic and worshipped a Catholic God, consisted almost solely of potatoes with a tiny bit of milk, buttermilk or sometimes fish as their only other source of nourishment. It was estimated that the average cottier or labourer ate around twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. The diet was boring but it was also filling and nutritious, and until the 1840s, reliable but then blight arrived on Irish shores having already swept across Europe devastating potato crops in its wake.
Historians aren’t certain where the blight that caused the Irish famine came from but it’s believed this new fungus probably arrived on ships from Peru or even North America. The blight – Phytophthora infestans – grew on the under surface of the potato leaves and consisted of an extremely fine filament ending in thousands of minute spores. Ireland’s climate of endless rains and strong winds, meant the fungus was able to spread extremely rapidly devastating the potato crops, season after season, causing a humanitarian catastrophe on an epic scale. But its effects were severely worsened by the actions (or perhaps we should say, inactions) of the British government, headed by Lord John Russell, in the crucial years from 1846 to 1852.
One million dead, another two million fled
‘Necessity is the mother of Invention’. If ever there was a phrase which summed up the London of the Victorian era, surely this one would be it. Certainly, given the many problems which confronted it during this time, it is little wonder that the 19th century city responded by becoming a febrile hub of creativity and innovation – it could hardly have been otherwise if the metropolis was to avoid falling victim to its own success.
The ever-expanding city
The root of city’s problems lay in the fact that the population of Greater London had, quite simply, exploded. From 1801 to 1850, the number of people living in the city more than doubled from one million to 2.5 million, and by the turn of the century, that number would increase to an extraordinary 6.5 million inhabitants.
Unsurprisingly, such a rapid increase put London’s already poor infrastructure under severe strain, with the most obvious problem being transport, or more precisely, the lack of it. Continuous urban sprawl had seen the city’s boundaries move ever outwards, and by the mid-1800s, once rural villages like Hampstead and Highgate had been voraciously swallowed up. As such, improved transport links became a necessity – the increased distances and the sheer volume of demand meant that traditional modes of conveyance like stagecoaches and hackney carriages would no longer suffice.
19 December 1843 witnessed the publication of one of Charles Dickens’ most popular and well-loved stories, A Christmas Carol. Published by Chapman and Hall, its initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out within days and within three months the story had been adapted for the theatre at least eight times.
In 1822, the Dickens family had lived at 16 Bayham Street in London. Situated in the less genteel suburb of Camden Town, Dickens described it as having a ‘basement, two ground floor rooms, two on the first floor, a garret and an outside wash-house.’ When describing the Cratchit family home in A Christmas Carol, it was to Bayham Street that Dickens looked for inspiration. Home to his parents, four siblings, his relative through marriage, James Lamert, and an orphan brought from the Chatham Workhouse, the house must have felt extremely cramped and considerably less comfortable than any previous family home.
It was not, however, a love of Christmas that inspired A Christmas Carol. The true inspiration came from the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842. This expose shocked the nation with its graphic depictions of the poverty and cruelty faced by children employed in factories and mines.
A Christmas Carol was followed by a further four Christmas tales in the 1840s: The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846),and The Haunted Man (1848). These stories became instant favourites among the public and created a link between Charles Dickens and Christmas that endures to this day.
The history of the Great Game, writes Tim Hannigan, offers a fine stock of ripping yarns.
At the start of the 19th century some 2,000 miles of turbulent Central Asian territory – deserts, mountains and unstable Muslim khanates – separated Britain’s Indian territories from the edge of the Russian Empire; a hundred years later these same frontiers were just a few miles apart. The “Great Game” was the cold war of exploration and espionage, fought out in the ever-contracting space between.
Every foreigner who stepped into Central Asia during this period was playing the Great Game, whether he wanted to or not. There was no such thing as an apolitical expedition, and men who went to survey mountains and map passes found that the charts they drew were handled like dynamite by politicians in Calcutta, London and St Petersburg. There was derring-do, endurance, betrayal, triumph and tragedy. This is the stuff that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s tales, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King
The players of the Great Game were a motley crew of spies, soldiers and charlatans, running the gamut from bristling imperial archetypes to unhinged Anglican missionaries, and over the subsequent decades many of their tales have been told in books by authors such as Fitzroy MacLean, John Keay and Peter Hopkirk.
But there was one Great Gamer who always seemed to stand a little apart from the crowd, a gaunt and ill-omened young man by the name of George Hayward. Continue reading
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, “A Study in Scarlett,” published in 1887, Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson “I have found a reagent which is precipitated by haemoglobin and nothing else.”
And so, writes DE Meredith, began the brilliant stories of Sherlock Homes which, almost single-handedly, introduced the British public to the idea that science could be used to solve even the most heinous of crimes.
Forensic science is now common parlance and despite a number of technical flaws along the way and the occasional, terrible miscarriage of justice, on the whole we believe in this science and because of programmes like “CSI” and “Waking the Dead” we are also hugely entertained by it.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Death and all his hideous crew
Here is a description of a nineteenth century morgue by the composer Hector Berlioz:
When I entered that fearful human charnel-house, littered with fragments of limbs, and saw the ghastly faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we stood, with its reeking atmosphere, the swarms of sparrows fighting for scraps, and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window, and fled home as though Death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. It was twenty-four hours before I recovered from the shock of this first impression, utterly refusing to hear that words anatomy, dissection, or medicine, and firmly resolved to die rather than enter the career which had been forced upon me.
This is how the story goes… Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in 1805, in Kingston, Jamaica to a Jamaican mother and a Scottish soldier: ‘I have good Scots blood coursing through my veins,’ as she wrote on page one of her memoir. Her mother, a freed black woman, kept a home, or a boarding house, for wounded soldiers (many of them British soldiers suffering from yellow fever) and installed in Mary a love of nursing and medicine.
A keen traveller, the young Mary journeyed widely with her parents, including two trips to Britain, expanding her medical knowledge.
In 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a former guest at her mother’s boarding house. Edwin Seacole was believed, without substance, to have been either an illegitimate offspring of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton, or Nelson’s godson. A sickly man, he died eight years later in 1844. Despite several offers, Mary never married again. As a couple, the Seacoles had maintained the boarding house established by Mary’s mother and, as a widow, Mary Seacole’s work intensified in 1850 when a cholera epidemic struck Jamaica, killing over 30,000 inhabitants.
The light is subdued in the Blue Room. He lies in his bed, plumped up with pillows. His breath is slow and laboured, his skin terribly white, his hair stuck down by sweat. Kneeling on the floor, trembling, his wife – the queen. Holding his limp hand, she knows he is dying. Beside her, five of her children, their faces pinched with fear. Standing awkwardly, near by, ladies in waiting, equerries, doctors, a minister or two. But she has eyes only for her darling prince. The time is almost eleven in the evening. As he slips away, she mutters, ‘Oh, this is death, I know it.’ On his passing, the queen lets rip a scream that tears down the walls of Windsor.
On the 14 December 1861, Albert, the Prince Consort, died. He was only 42. His unexpected death plunged Queen Victoria into grief so overwhelming that it endured for the rest of her life. Her pain was shared by the nation in an outpouring of grief that would not be seen again until the death, 136 years later, of Princess Diana. But after a while, public and politicians alike began to ask whether the Queen’s period of mourning would ever end?
Prince Albert and Princess Victoria meet
The 16-year-old Princess was immediately smitten – on meeting Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha for the first time, she confided in her diary that her German cousin was ‘extremely good looking’. It was 18 May 1836. They would not meet again for another 3½ years by which time, October 1839, Victoria had become queen. This time, her praise went even further – ‘It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful’. Albert had the teenage queen’s heart ‘quite going’.
‘British diplomat hacked to death in Afghanistan’ – it would make a shocking headline. Yet on 2 November 1841, this is exactly what happened.
Britain was entrenched in Afghanistan, much as it is today, but the situation was seemingly stable. The British had just defeated the Afghans in the First Anglo-Afghan War, ousted a ruler they considered anti-British and replaced him with one more compliant to their needs. All was well. But on 2 November 1841, a mob of Afghans murdered the British political envoy living in Kabul, Sir Alexander Burnes. It was the start of an ignominious end to Britain’s foray in Afghanistan.
The Dandy Scot
Alexander Burnes, born in Montrose on 16 May 1805, was the epitome of a nineteenth century adventurer cum dandy – dashing, intelligent and courageous.
In 1831, the British government in Delhi ordered a survey of the Indus River, unchartered since the time of Alexander the Great. The man they entrusted this mission to was Alexander Burnes. A journey of over 1,000 miles, Burnes, a natural linguist, charmed the usually antagonistic tribal leaders he came upon, and eventually reached Lahore, his reputation greatly enhanced.
His next adventure took him to Afghanistan, dressed as a native having discarded, in his words, ‘the useless paraphernalia of civilization; we threw away all our European clothes, and adopted, without reserve, the costume of the Asiatic… groaning under ponderous turbans.’