Category Archives: 1861

These letters from 1861 from James Johnston show an insight into the lives of ordinary people, but in the vanished world of the British Raj.

14th Jan 1861


14th January 1861

My Dear Mother,

I have no doubt you think me a very ungrateful son in never writing to you for so long, and that you think “out of sight is out of mind” with me; but dear mother, I often wonder how you are and if you are well. Becky is always at me for not writing, but somehow or other, the time always slips by; although I am always upbraiding myself with being so negligent. But, dear mother, you just only give me a chance; answer this and tell us how you have been and how you are, and see if I don’t give you one regular for the future; bye the bye-did you receive a letter from Becky while she was in the Hills, as we didn’t get an answer.

My dear Mother-about myself. I am jolly and as big as the side of a house. I am still in the same place but expect to leave it soon as I have got another appointment at Roorkee as Head Printer of the Roorkee College press, and I am just waiting till my name appears in the governor Generals Orders before I leave. Colonel Hogge, my Commanding Officer, gave me a very good recommendation for the situation. I will have more pay and (be) my own master. I will be struck off the strength of the regiment and will be placed on what is called the “Unattached List”. Roorkee , I believe, is a very pretty place; it is about half way between the Landour Hills and here. Captain MacLagan of the Engineers, a brother of Dr Maclagan of Edinburgh, was Principal of the College when I applied for the situation, but he has got a better appointment and left last month, so every day I expect the Order to be off.

Now dear mother, about Becky; poor lass. She has had a good deal of trouble one way and another, what with mishaps and fever. They have completely pulled her down, but I trust she will have better health when she gets to Roorkee. She is going to write to you but will delay it till we get settled. Now- about Master James Johnston. He is getting on first rate and it would make you laugh to hear him talking Hindoostanee; he is 3 years and 4 months today.

And now, dear mother, what do you think? I have been the Precentor in the Scotch Church here since it was formed, and have just given it up and am leaving the Station. This is the first Scotch Kirk in Upper India, and it is so different to the English Service, that it required all the cheek I could muster to carry it out. But I got used to it and I have often thought of an expression that old Cromby, the Precentor in ‘Frenches’(?) used to say when he wanted any one to sing for the first time, “to think that you were in a kale yard; that they were all cabbages”. Mr Thomson, the Minister is a very nice man; he is from Alloa, I think.

There are a great number of the natives dying from starvation here; there is quite a famine in this part of the country for want of rain. Everything is frightfully dear. There was one native woman found on the plain one morning, dead and when she was opened, her intestines were full of grass. But although they are so dreadfully pushed, they will not eat anything from our table as it breaks their caste, (which in my opinion is all humbug). The authorities are doing everything they can for them; they are building a poor-house for them, and those able to work are sent to the works above Roorkee, but hundreds of them refuse to work; they would sooner beg.

The weather is very cold at present, but we will soon be looking forward for another grilling match when the hot winds commence. The Commander in Chief is expected here this week so I expect we will have plenty to do.

Dear Mother, let us know how little George, Ann and Agnes and two more (but I forget their names) are. My little chap is very like what Georgie used to be when I last saw him. Let me know how Alexander is if you can see him. How is uncle Adie and the family getting on; and Aunt Agnes-let them know I am getting on and doing well. I will send you 3 likenesses of Becky and myself, one for your dear old self and one for uncle Adie and one for Aunt Agness at Durham; ask her to drop me a line. You can tell her where to write and how to address it. i.e:-

Sergt James Johnston
Artillery School of Instruction

And I will let you know my other address in my next.

Let us know how everybody is getting on. Is Dr Johnston still in Nicholson Street (Edinburgh), and how does he look now.

My Dear Mother, we often wish you were not so far away, that you might be with us. Talk of your son being a soldier; you would not think so if you could drop in and take a peep, for nobady would ever dream of my being such. I am never in Regimentals, except on Sunday when I go to church, and then it is optional. And I know there are many that would turn up their nose at a soldier. Who would just like to be as well off? My pay now comes to £8 – 2s – 2d a month; about £100 a year, and a free house (and there is not much coals wanted here) so that’s not bad for a “soldier”, so don’t look down on a fellow. I only wish you could join us. Wouldn’t we make it you jolly, and give you rooms to yourself, and a servant to attend on you. I have had one or two offers to leave the service, but declined them as I would rather be under Governments as I am, as before long I intend to look out for another step in promotion. I am in my 6th year, a Sergeant on the Staff of the Regiment-so that’s not bad out of eight years service; and bye the bye-we got 2 years service given us for remaining when so many of the chaps went home at the time when Jack Company was done up. So that makes me an old soldier now, as the saying is; but as hearty and jolly as ever. Don’t know what ill is and that is a blessing, so if I get the next step-a Warrant Officer-it will give me a pretty good pension- about £80 a year; but you shall hear from me before then.

Now my dear mother, you must drop me a line as soon as you can and give us all the news. What you think of the likenesses? They are not first rate, but I could not get them done at the time any better. It was just after Becky’s last illness. Dear Mother, I must say good-bye for the present.
Trusting this will find you enjoying good health as it leaves us here. Give my regards to all enquiring friends and Becky joins me in best love to your old dear self and remain

Your affectionate son

James Johnston

NB-Not forgetting best love and kisses from little Jamie

My dear Mother direct to me:-

Mr J. Johnston
Thomason College Press
East Indies

I have just received the order to go and am up to eyes packing.


1st Febuary 1861

My Dear Mother.
Since I wrote to you I have changed my place of abode from Meerut to Roorkee, and the very day my letter left for England. On the 19th of January I arrived in this station and a very nice little place; it is more like home than anything I have seen in India. We are quite close to the Himalaya Mountains, the lowest range (the Sewaliks) is only 14 miles from here, and it is such a sight to see the snowy range. We can see the highest peak fine from our door and the place where the Ganges leaves the hills close to Hurdwar.

I belong to Roorkee College now. I am Head Printer of the college press and have 41 men under me. My pay is better than it was; it is 120 rupees (£12) a month and free quarters. I expect to have a rise of 30 rupees a month more (£3) shortly; so what do you think of that? I am just the same as a civilian for I never put on regimentals. I have dropped the Sergt and am only “Mr J”; now we are very aristocratic! There are very large workshops here, just the same as home of course. Native workmen, but European overseers; they (the workshops) stand on the banks of the canal. The canal itself is a fine sight; it is more like a river, both as regards its breadth and its strong current. Just at the end of the workshops there is an aqua duct where the canal crosses a river- a splendid piece of workmanship, and a little further up there is a river (which) flows over it. The canal leaves the Ganges up at Hurdwar and joins it again at Cawnpore. It is used both for traffic and irrigation. This place is not so large as Meerut, but I like it a great deal better; it is a very healthy station and not so hot as Meerut. It is very cold in the morning here just now.
Now my dear mother, I have said enough about myself and Roorkee. How is your own dear self? I trust well, and don’t I expect a jolly blowing up when I receive your letter for being so negligent. But give us a chance and you won’t have to blow me up any more. Becky is well and quite delighted about the change. Little Jamie is well and has lots of room to run about her. Bye the bye, there is a large garden in front of my door on a slope with three terraces across it, with steps leading down from them for the use of us benighted individuals-so aint that first rate?
There are a great number of natives dying with starvation just now; it would make your blood run cold to see the objects that are moving about; more skin and bone. And yet, those are the wretches that would have murdered man, woman and child of us if they could, that are now going around begging. It is something like a judgement on them for it is only in the districts that the mutiny was worst in, that the famine is so bad. In Rohilcuree (?) there is no cultivation and last year no rain all over the Meerut district, and it is a very large one. Gram ( a kind of pea that is given to horses) is only 8 seers (a seer is 2 pounds) for 1 rupee (2 shillings), and before you would get 60 seers for 1 rupee- that will let you know how prices have rose.
My dear mother, I send you a drawing of Roorkee College that is the front of it, and the building at the back is the printing office, in my charge. I will send you as many copies as you like. I will send one every mail.

Now my dear mother-goodbye!
I have just come out of church and the mail closes today, so I am anxious to get it posted in time.

Becky and Jamie’s love and the same from your

Affectionate son

James Johnston

2nd May 1861

My dearest Mother
I received your kind and welcome letter yesterday the 1st of May and glad was I to see it and hear you were well and in good health; I have missed a couple of mails but quite unintentional I assure you. I was not aware of the date of the departure of the mails till it was too late: this will leave here tomorrow for Bombay. I was glad you were pleased with the likeness I sent, they are not first rate but it was only a amateur that done them; the first chance I get of having a good one done I will send you a copy.
Becky I am happy to say is keeping well and little Jamie is quite jolly, they have both been much better since we came to Roorkee; it is a nice healthy station, and where I am living now is such a fine position in having a fine view, and of getting all the wind that is going which is great thing to look at this time of year, this being the time we get grilled and almost ready for eating:- it is pretty hot here just now but I dont feel the heat here as bad as I did at Meerut; the evenings are beautiful even now, and through the day we have what we call Tatties placed at the door, the side that the wind is blowing. They are made of Bamboo frame work covered with a kind of reed that grows on the bank of rivers, and I have a native always throwing water on them; you would be astonished the good they do; outside the wind is as hot as if you were standing at a furnace  with the doors open, still inside the is lovely and cool. I have also what we call punkahs, that is a framework of wood covered with cloth suspended from the roof and pulled backwards and forwards by a native, which causes a circulation of air through the room: but I can’t say I like them although you can’t do without them at this time.
There is a great deal here about the Amalgamation at present, I really don’t know what to do for the best. If I volunteer for general service I will get 2 Pounds bounty which I am sorry to let slip if possible, and if I don’t I will be placed in some local corps; the thing is I don’t know how it will affect me in my situation. I have only 1 year and 9 months to serve to complete my time and I would almost as soon leave the Service as lose  my present billet, but whatever I do I will do for the best;  as for the soldiering part of the business I will leave that to those that likes it better, everything smells too much of pipeclay and red tape since the Royals came in the country.
I was sorry to hear about Bob HUTCHISON, I saw him in Dinapore in 1854 when I was marching up country; he did not know me until I told him who I was. I have always thought it was poor Bob that told you where I was as I never could find out how you got my address or even knew that I had enlisted. You remember Zack, the Elder in the church? I wonder if he knew his son John was here, poor fellow he is dead too; he tried hard to get into the Artillery along with me, but it was not allowed; we were going to go as cousins, he belonged to the infantry. I was Corporal on the gate in Warby depot when he marched in (as) a recruit; wasn’t I astonished to see him and he me, but he told me not to mention it in case it might get to his fathers ears.
I am glad that Aunt Agnes was pleased with my likeness. I should like very much to hear from her. How is poor Uncle ADIE?, he must be getting very frail now; and Jamie and Kate?, but I suppose they are married by this time. I should like to hear from them and I wuld give them all the news that is going in this part of the world. What is Alexander doing now? I am glad to hear the children are well; and little Georgie, how old is he now? My little Jamie often puts me in mind of him before I left home; he often talks of his grandma.
My old wifie is trying to scribble a line to you and is grunting and groaning all the while. I suppose you know what with.  I have no news to send you this time but I have been thinking of getting you to ask Mr BOYD about a book on printing, like Savage’s but a late edition. I would also like to know what books are requisite to be in a printing office as the style here is very bad and I would like to better it if possible.
Now my dear Mother for the present good-bye. Give us all the news you can as it is quite cheering to hear from home so bye bye till next mail. Becky sends her best love to you and little Jamie ditto. He is singing away just now so pretty. Expecting to hear from you soon.
I remain your affectionate
Jamie Johnston

16th May 1861

My dear Mother,
It is with pleasure I sit down to write you a few lines as the mail leaves here today for England. News I have none as there is nothing fresh stirring in this part of the world with the exception of small pox. It don’t seem to very fatal, although a good number have had it.

I told you in my last letter about the ‘volunteering’. I did not volunteer, but stayed as I was, but on second thoughts I was aware that when my 12 years were up, if I took on again I would have to take on for ‘General Service’, so my case has been referred to the Commander in Chief by the Principal of the College and as yet no answer has arrived, and of course cannot say how it has been decided. I do not want to leave where I am and do not care much which service I am in, so long as they let me stay (where I am), but if not, I will take my discharge, although I should like to stay for the sake of my pension, for in a short time I intend to apply for promotion to a Warrant Officer. I have broached the subject to the Principal and he says he will forward my application, but I must wait a little first. It will be a first rate thing for me as it would give me a pension of about £60 a year, more than a pound a week, so there is something to look out for. I was promised the rank if I would only stay in my last place, but I would have had a great deal of knocking about and that would not have answered for Becky; besides my pay is better here £12 a month (120 rupees) and my hours are from 6 in the morning ’till 1pm, with an hour for breakfast.
Becky has been complaining for sometime back with face ache and has got her head tied up now and is not able to write to you. Little Jamie is singing away like a lintie; he has such an ear for music. I can’t hum a tune but he’ll have it off by heart in no time. I am happy to say he is keeping first rate since he came here and also Becky.
We had an awful day yesterday of wind and dust. It was awful, you could do nothing; everything was smothered in dust, a good inch thick. It would amuse you to see the sand storms we have occasionally.
Now my dear mother, I will try and get some news before I write to you again, but everything is very dull here, but I like it all the better for that, so goodbye for the present.
To all enquiring friends, give my best respects and when you write to Aunt Agnes or Uncle ADIE, give my best love to them and tell them I often think of them. Be sure and write as I am always anxious and glad to hear from you, and believe me still

your affectionate Son

James Johnston

18th June 1861

June 18th 1861

My dear Mother,

Tomorrow is the last safe date for the English Mail. James has just returned from the College and is busy with his books-so I have the pleasure of writing a few lines to you this time, instead of your dear Son, trusting you (are) enjoying good health, as I am happy to say, we are all well.

I am wondering if you are down by the beautiful seaside. I do not forget the lovely breezes, we have had very warm weather here for some time….but not nearly so warm as Meerut but we are so refreshed this past day or two we have had some beautiful rain and we expect about the end of this month the rains will let in for about two months and then this Climate here is beautiful-we shall be very thankful for the heat is very trying-

I hope dear Mother, you have heard again from us long time before this, as three letters have been posted to you since you got our likenesses. Family are all well and the little babe thriving.

Give us all the news when you write about our little Niece and Nephews, and all relations. James will endeavour to write next Mail, he is at present up to his Eyes in buisiness(sic).

Little Jemmie (sic) is sleeping or else he would want to be writing to his Grandma. He is a great boy for pen and ink and full of buisiness (sic), just like his father up to all things. We are trying to make him speak English, he knows everything we say but he speaks all Hindostanee (sic) and questions every native that comes near the place, and he will give any message and he will just let them see he wishes them to understand him-he very often puzzles us in the language.

At this time dear Jame’s (sic) has early hours in the College and little Jemmie (sic) generally takes himself over before breakfast and brings his papa home as he calls him. All the children just like the native in their tongue.

Now dear Mother I have no news to tell you this time, but hope to hear from you soon and to hear that all’s well.
Dear James and little Jemmie (sic) join me in fond love and kisses to you and believe me

My dear Mother

Your Ever Affectionate Daughter

Rebecca Johnston

Thomason College, Roorkee

4th August 1861

4th August 1861

My dear Mother,

I trust this will find you as it leaves us enjoying the best of health.

Thank God, both Becky and I are rather anxious about you as we have received no letter from you for about four months before now. There is nothing new in this part of the world only lots of rain. You ought to see it raining here. It comes down pell-mell and has no respect of persons. There has been a fall of rain about 25 inches in Roorkee, and in the hills at Landour up to last Thursday fortnight, there had been 61 inches. I suppose that rather astonishes you, upwards of 5 feet of rain, but you would think sometimes that heaven and earth were coming together.
Cholera is very bad in some stations. In Meerut it is bad among the Europeans, a great number of whom have died. The clergyman of the English Church was visiting a Hospital the other day and as he was leaving the Bungalow to get into his buggy, he dropped down and died there. That is only one instance. We have no cases here with one or two exceptions among the natives, but it is to be hoped it will soon leave. The Station at Roorkee is a most healthy one. We have beautiful weather here just now.

My Dear Mother, I trust soon to get a letter from you before I write you again.

I expect there will be an addition to the clan of “Johnston” and hope everything will go well. Becky sends you her best love to you and hopes to hear from you soon. She will give you an account of the whole affair after it is over. Little Jamie is getting such a chatter-box and up to all sorts of Mischief.

Now I have nothing more to say –the Mail goes to-day so I must wind up my scroll and wait patiently till I hear from you which I trust will not be long. To all enquiring friends my best regards, and to your dear self, my fond love.
From your Affectionate Son

Jamie Johnston

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rebecca Johnston (nee Kirkham) died on the 16th August 1861 at Roorkee and also buried there the following day. The cause of death was not recorded but possibly as a result of either giving birth or cholera. The intimation of her death was by Rev J.B.D’Aquilan, Chaplain at Roorkee.
(Ref: India Office – N/190 Vol.100 Folio 158)