The End of the East India Company in India

The Indian ‘Mutiny’, or Rebellion, started on 10 May 1857 and lasted until about mid-June 1858. By then, the mutineers were a spent force. For the British, having brought in reinforcements from overseas, it remained only to launch a series of mop-up operations to quash every last pocket of resistance. Revenge was very much the motivating force. The Times demanded that, ‘every tree and gable end in the place should have its burden in the shape of a mutineer’s carcass’. The avengers needed no encouragement – thousands of Indians were killed indiscriminately, whether they had been involved in the rebellion or not; and whole villages set ablaze.

Two years and two months on from the initial outbreak in Meerut, Lord Canning, the first viceroy of India, who served from 1858 to 1862, was able to issue on 8 July 1859 a proclamation declaring: ‘War is at an end; [the] rebellion is put down.’ 11,000 Britons had died, 75 per cent from disease, while the number of Indian casualties, be it sepoy or civilian, remains unknown but numbered many thousands more.

Post-mutiny: the British Raj

East India Company coat of armsLord Canning then managed to quell the bloodthirsty British, earning the contemptuous name ‘Clemency Canning’ from his revenge-driven soldiers. The rebellion may have been dealt with but now the questions were asked – namely, how did it happen and how to ensure that such a catastrophe should never again occur. The East India Company, the de-facto rulers of India, blamed the British Christian evangelicals for having upset local religious sensibilities; while the evangelicals blamed the Company for hampering its efforts.

(Pictured: Coat of Arms of the East India Company).

The uprising may have been far-reaching across northern and central India but Britain’s success was ultimately down to the vast majority of Indian sepoys that had remained loyal to the British. Without their support, the conflict would have had an entirely different ending. Nevertheless, the British Army in India was reorganised so that the proportion of sepoy to British soldiers never exceeded two to one, and the handling of artillery was to be the exclusive responsibility of British-born soldiers. Local religious and linguistic groups were mixed up within regiments to avoid any one group dominating.

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Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne

On 20 June 1837, King William IV died in his sleep after a reign of seven years. His niece, the 18-year-old Princess Victoria, inherited the throne. Her accession marked the dawn of a new era in Britain’s history, which would come to represent industrial growth, scientific advances and vast imperial expansion.

On a personal level, Queen Victoria is remembered for her passionate relationship with her husband Prince Albert, the grief that engulfed her after his death, and her longevity, with a reign of over sixty-three years. However, had it not been for the infidelities of her grandfather George III’s offspring and the untimely death of her cousin Princess Charlotte, it is probable that Britain’s longest-reigning monarch (to date) may never have been born.

Born to be Queen

Queen Victoria's coronationGeorge III, commonly remembered as the ‘Mad King’, sired fifteen children, including nine sons, yet among their offspring was only one legitimate heir, Princess Charlotte. Charlotte was the daughter of George III’s oldest son, also called George, who would reign as the Prince Regent and later as King George IV. Charlotte was extremely popular with the British public and made a happy marriage with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, but she died at a tragically young age following the birth of a stillborn son in 1817.

Edward, Duke of Kent, was the fourth son of George III. Charlotte’s unforeseen death forced him (along with his other brothers) to recognise the necessity of producing an heir, since none of them had any surviving legitimate children. In the spring of 1818 he therefore wed Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, sister of the recently bereaved Leopold. It was a harmonious match and on 24 May 1819 the new Duchess of Kent gave birth to a daughter, who was named Alexandrina Victoria. Edward is reported to have said of the infant, ‘look at her well, for she will be Queen of England’. Alas, he died when she was less than a year old, but he had done his duty and the succession was secure.

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Jack the Ripper and the Suspect-Vacuum

In the autumn of 1888 a serial killer dubbed ‘Jack the Ripper’ killed and mutilated at least four prostitutes around Whitechapel, East London. He was never brought to justice and his true identity, to this day, remains unknown. These are the very basic facts, and most with an interest in the infamous Victorian killer will agree upon them. But bring any suspect into the proceedings and opinions will quickly be divided.

Jack the RipperThere exists in the Ripper case an inversely proportional relationship between the facts and the suspects: there are, in reality, very few facts, and, yet, a myriad of suspects. Because the culprit’s identity has remained a mystery for over a century and a quarter now, the case has attracted all manner of theories and theorists unto itself. It sits like a massive black hole, sucking in the impossible, the very unlikely and, only very occasionally, the plausible. Many people who fall inside this vacuum sponsor their chosen suspect with something akin to religious zeal: Mr Smith is the one true Ripper and all facts and evidence to the contrary be damned!

The ‘suspect-vacuum’

If you are new to the Ripper case – stay away from the event horizon! If you have just read one book on any single suspect and your mind is already made up, then I’m afraid it may already be too late for you: you’ve crossed over the border and you’ll find it impossible to get back out without seeking a second opinion! In all likelihood, if you read a second book on another Ripper suspect, you will see that the ‘facts’ you were fed in the first do not correlate with the latter. Repeat this several times and you’ll get several different sets of ‘facts’. At that point, if not beforehand, you should realise that something’s up – and that something are the authors’ royalties!

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Randolph Churchill – a summary

Randolph Churchill, father to Winston, exerted a profound influence on his son in a number of ways which he perhaps would not have envisaged. First, their difficult personal relationship, characterised by Randolph’s high expectations and Winston’s initial failure to meet them, clearly left its mark. Second, Randolph’s political career can be summarised as one of unmet potential. This too, coupled with Randolph’s early death, influenced his son. Close to his own death, Winston was to confide to his daughter Mary that his one regret was that his father had not seen him make a success of his life.

Randolph Churchill 2Active in the Conservative Party from a young age, Randolph Churchill entered Parliament in 1874, shortly after his marriage. Within a few years he had a reputation as a trouble-maker – sharp tongued, and as critical of his own party as he was the Liberals. He was impatient with what he saw as the elitism and naivity of the Conservatives. Randolph was anxious for change, arguing that the party needed to represent the ordinary members of society or face permanent opposition. Liberal reforms should be considered on merit, rather than rejected out of hand. This series of ideas coalesced into what he termed ‘Tory Democracy’, and initially made him few friends. Arguably, his most important legacy was to shift the party’s centre of gravity in this direction.


In 1877, however, his career was almost derailed when Churchill was implicated in a scandal involving the Royal Family. He had fallen out with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whom he threatened to expose as an adulterer. In those times, such behaviour from a public figure was completely unacceptable. He was marginalised by Prime Minister William Gladstone, being sent to work as Viceroy in Dublin for the next four years.


But by 1885 Churchill could no longer be ignored. He was brought into government as Secretary of State for India. Within a year he was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House – more or less dictating his own political terms. It seemed nothing would stop Randolph Churchill; here was a prime minister in the making.

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Victoria and Albert’s Children

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on 10 February 1840. Within weeks of their wedding, she was pregnant. Between November of that year and April 1857, the royal couple had nine children; four princes and five princesses.

Victoria and Albert and childrenAlthough she was besotted with Albert, maternal affections did not always come naturally to Victoria, who expected unswerving obedience from all her offspring in both infancy and adulthood. The family was nevertheless very close and the premature death of Albert on 11 December 1861 devastated all of them. Eight of the children went on to marry members of other prominent royal families and collectively they provided Victoria with forty grandchildren, earning her the nickname ‘The Grandmother of Europe’.

(Pictured: Victoria and Albert, and children, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846).

Victoria, Princess Royal
Born: 21 November 1840
Married: Prince Frederick William of Prussia
Died: 5 August 1901

Writing about the birth of her first child, Victoria remarked that she and Albert were ‘sadly disappointed’ to have a girl rather than a boy, though they were grateful that the child was in good health. Known as Vicky, the Princess Royal’s full name was Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise. She was highly intelligent and her father doted on her. Vicky married Frederick of Prussia (Fritz) at the age of 17, an alliance that was by no means without political motivation, though the couple were very much in love. Both Vicky and her mother were prolific letter-writers and exchanged around 8,000 letters in their lifetimes. Vicky and Fritz had eight children, the eldest of whom became Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Albert, Prince of Wales
Born: 9 November 1841
Married: Princess Alexandra of Denmark
Died: 6 May 1910

Unlike his older sister, the Prince of Wales was not endowed with superior intellect as a child and was often unfavourably compared to her. Bertie, as he was called, had a brief affair with a prostitute called Nellie Clifden in 1861, a scandalous occurrence which subsequently led his mother to blame him for the death of his father later that year. Nevertheless, a match was made with Alexandra of Denmark and the young couple married in 1863. They had six children, five of whom survived infancy. Bertie undertook numerous foreign tours as the heir apparent to the throne and was widely praised for his diplomacy. Following the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901, he ascended the throne as King Edward VII.

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Frederick Roberts – a summary

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.


Frederick RobertsJoining 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

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Indian Mutiny – a summary

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.*

Indian SepoyBy 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

Religious sensibilities

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.)

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The Irish Famine – a summary

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

Irish famineIreland 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.

The blight

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

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Victorian London – Overground, Underground

‘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

London UndergroundThe 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.

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A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

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.

Bayham Street

A Christmas CarolIn 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.

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