Category Archives: 1857

These letters from 1857 from James Johnston show an insight into the lives of ordinary people, but in the vanished world of the British Raj.

(date unsure) circa Sept 1857

Meerut, India

My Dear Mother,
I received your kind and welcome letter, and am truly happy to hear you are in the enjoyment of good health as, thank God, this leaves ourselves with our dear little boy, quite well. Of course you must have got the news of his birth long before this, although by your last (letter), I see you had not received the news.
Dear mother, I am much pleased with the lock of hair you sent me, also the engraving of Auld Reekie ( Editors note: an affectionate name for Edinburgh).
Beccy is going to have a ring made for the hair; she is so taken with it. She wishes she could only get alongside the head that it came off and wouldn’t there be a kirlin match (Editors note: Scots for ‘a commotion’). But, dear mother, keep up your spirits, we must all look forward to better days; do not think you are forgotten although far away from you.

Dear Mother, the country about here is very quiet; they (Indian sepoy mutineers) have got more than they bargained for I guess, for there is scarcely a village standing round about this part of the country. There are very few depredations committed now, although there is a night or morning but there are a few hung. I was down that way a few nights ago at a funeral, and I saw six of them hanging up drying. We think nothing of it, but rather glory in it. They have the likeness of men, but their actions have made them worse than the wild beasts of the forest.
We have just received the news here, about Major General WILSON, the hero of Delhi, being knighted-no man deserves it better than he did, for he is an Officer and a Gentleman in every sense of the word; he is Commandant of Artillery.
If he had had command on the night of the 10th of May, very few of the mutineers would ever have seen Delhi. But in one sense it was a good job our troops did not leave the Station that night (as) it was thought there were about 50,000 Gaugers (Editors note: Gurjars-an ethnic group found in northern India,particularly the Gujarat, which is named after them) round the station, but the brutes will not stand like men; they do not like the Top-Khana-Wallahs (Artillerymen)-they do not like Long Bowling. They are a tribe I think that never were heard of before. All the country between Cawnpore and someway above this (Meerut) is infested with them; they are a people that will not work, they mostly live by plunder. There are another tribe, named Ghants-they are mostly the tillers of the the soil; the two are always at enmity with one another. We used to get the Ghants to bring us information about those fellows, and we would go and burn their villages; the order was to spare women and children.
Dear Mother, I have received another letter since I commenced this. I see you have got the news about little Jamie. Dear mother, he is such a dear little chap; Bec and I are so fond of him, he almost drags the whiskers off me every day. When he laughs, I very often see a great resemblance in little Georgy (PATERSON)-poor chap, he must be growing a fine fellow now. I suppose he almost forgets his uncle by this time.

Dear Mother you mention about the dreadful things that have occurred, but you only see the best side of it (the worst is hidden from public knowledge). I will mention a thing that occurred here on the night of the 10th May. You would see the name of a Mrs Captain CHAMBERS , mentioned among those that were murdered, she was very near confinement. At the time they opened her womb, took out the child, placed it on her breast and put her hands in it’s place. Her murderer was the first that was hung here, and I thought he would  have been torn to pieces before they got him strung up. He was a Mussalman (Muslim), and the butcher of the Regiment that Captain CHAMBERS belonged to. Before hanging him, they shaved all his head and face and rubbed him over with pigs fat- which is worse than taking his life they think, and then strung him up to a tree, there being no gallows at the time. There are many others that I cannot mention, it is too horrible.
Bye the bye, try and see Robert PATON, my old chum Mrs (?)  BURNESS; give him my best respects and tell him to tell John MACKENZIE (pressman), that his nephew Alexander MACPHEE was murdered on the night of the 10th of May. There were six murdered in the same bungalow. He was a Sapper (engineer) and was stationed in Meerut. At the time there were two other sappers passing through the Station and they all went to bid a person, the name of BROOKES, good-bye, when they were pounced upon by the innocent peaceful and harmless Sepoyand murdered; six in all, 4 males and 2 females. Mrs BROOKES expected to be confined that night, or the next day;  they cut her breasts off and nailed them on the doors and then set fire to the bungalow. It will only hurt your feelings to hear those things enumerated dear mother. My heart sickened at some of the sights I saw. My dear mother, you say you want some news. I always see more news in the home papers than we hear out here. The road is open to Calcutta (but) everything is very dear here for all the winter supplies were destroyed on the road. Dear Mother, you must not be angry at me not writing sooner; I am very busy just now. I am scarcely evr at home before gun-fire 8 o’clock, and then I am tired out. Beccy has her hands full, so you must look over our past neglect in writing to you before now. Beccy is busy getting little Jamie’s short clothes made.
My Dear Mother, give my best respects to Aunt Agness in Auchterarder, and Uncle James in Drummond, and Alexander and the little ones. Remember me kindly to all enquiring friends and let them know I am well. Tell some of them to write; you don’t know what it is to get a letter or a newspaper from home. Little Jamie and Beccy joins in kind love to your own dear self. Beccy will send an epistle soon with a bit each of our hair.

So good bye at present from
Your affectionate son and daughter

James and Rebecca Johnston

P.S: I send a sketch of Delhi. It is the same as was sent to the Illustrated London News by a person the name of Sergt CROYDON. Belonging to the school, they gave him a great fuss, but he only copied it. He has cheek enough to take the credit of doing it! This is a later one, it has the advanced batteries that breached the walls before storming. Since commencing this, the invalids of the 60th Rifles left Delhi for home. Two or three strayed away from the remainder and were found murdered at a place called Subzee Mundee (all Mussalma’s graves). It caused a search and they found about 600 Mussalmans concealed. They have been hanging them so many every day until they finish them.

Editors Note: James Charles Johnston was born 14th September 1857

21st November 1857

My Dear Mother

I received your welcome and wished for letter today. I have been looking out every mail for one, and was wondering if it if it had been lost, for there a(re) strange times here at present although, thank God, they are getting better.

My Dear Mother, I am happy to announce to you the birth of a son. Beccy was taken ill on Sunday night, the 13th inst, about half-past eleven, and gave birth to a beautiful boy at twenty minutes past two on Monday afternoon the 14th; the very day on which our troops entered Delhi. Dear mother, I was very near losing dear Beccy through it, if she had not a skilful doctor and a good nurse she would never been spared to me; poor lass, she had a sore trial but with the help of God she got over it.

We cannot be too thankful for all his mercies towards us, for, dear mother, it has been a fearful time in this country since the Mutiny commenced. It would make your blood run cold if you heard of the atrocities that have been committed from one end of the country to the other. They seem to have picked upon the poor helpless women and children to vent their spite upon. They are cowardly scoundrels, but they showed themselves to be blood-thirsty villains and not as they used to be termed (honest Jack Sepoy).

I am happy to inform you dear mother, that the news came today that the whole of Delhi is in our hands; the king is hid in a large tomb where we expect soon to find him if he does not give himself up. What remains of the Sepoys have bolted in different directions. Our loss has been very severe, but there’s have been immense. They fought like madmen, for of course they knew there was no chance for them; there are fifty rupees for every Sepoy bearing arms and thirty rupees for everyone without arms.

When they are caught, it is a rope round their neck, or blown away from a gun, whatever is handiest; and how would you like to see a dozen of fellows tied together and placed in front of a gun and blown to atoms? You, I have no doubt, think it cruel, but if you were here, you would go yourself and see them. It is a mild death to what some poor Europeans have got from them. There is scarcely a day but one is brought in. I just saw by the last Lahore Extra’s, of 325 of the Sialkot and Jhelum mutineers being brought into Lahore. They were no sooner in, than they were blown away from the guns, so there is not much time lost with them (so much for  Jack Sepoy).

As I mentioned, that Beccy had a good doctor and a good nurse in her confinement. I must let you know that it was through the kindness of Mrs HOGGE, my Commanding Officer’s lady, and Commissioner WILLIAMS lady, who had taken quite a fancy to Beccy, and had been very kind indeed. I had no right to have a doctor a few days before Beccy was confined, Mrs HOGGE sent a note to Beccy inquiring if she was prepared for her approaching confinement, (or) if she was not, she was to say what she wanted, (for dear mother, it is different here to what it is at home; you cant go to shop here and get what you want). She would get it for her at the same time asking if she was going to stay at home. She advised her to stay at home, what Beccy had made up her mind to do previous. So Beccy answered her note and she got Dr CANNON to promise to attend her, and also send her own nurse.
I may mention that Beccy had engaged a black midwife, who I believe is very skilful, but neither Mrs HOGGE or Mrs WILLIAMS would tell of it and Beccy was very thankful to have a European nurse-such a nice old body-something like your dear self! Mrs HOGGE made Beccy a present of a beautiful woollen cap of her own working, and some little shoes, also of her own working. Mrs WILLIAMS has been very kind too; she has given Beccy some small clothes of every description and is going to make her a present of the christening robe, likewise a goat for to give her good milk. She kindly came to see Beccy on Saturday afternoon and I happened to be at home. She is such a kind lady, so dear mother, we have not wanted for friends. Beccy will write you herself when she gets well she ill give you all the particulars herself.

Dear mother, let me know how all Alexander’s (1) children are-Ann, George and Agnes; wouldn’t I like to see them. They must be grown a good deal since I saw them and little Jamie; I hope he will be a better boy than his uncle; and little Ellen?-I hope will be spared to her father. Be sure to remember me to Uncle ADIE and all the people about there; also to Aunt IMRIE and Ann IMRIE; where is she? You mentioned she was married, but I could not make out who to; give her my best respects. Remember me kindly to Aunt Agnes; let her know all the news. Remember me kindly to Mrs BOYD, Mrs BRUCE, Rev JOHNSTON and all enquiring friends.
You mentioned that you sent a newspaper; I have not received one; the letter was registered; I should like to hear the news at home. Now dear mother, I hope this will find you enjoying good health as it leaves me at present do write soon and believe me, to remain

Your affectionate son

Jas Johnston

NB I will send another copy next letter. I forgot to mention what I am going to call my little chap. It is going to be JAMES CHARLES JOHNSTON, after her father and me.

Goodbye for the present