Letter home, 1857

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St Peter’s College
Sept. 9 1857

My dear Parents

                                          I hope that you will excuse our not writing to you by the last mail when you hear how it happened.  We [were] just going out to spend the day at a gentleman’s house the other side of Oxford, and our ponies were at the door when we remembered that it was the day for writing and so Charley just wrote a line like you told us to say that we were well.  To your question about having a watch, I shall answer no because I should never keep it in order.  All the names of all the people who are in danger out in India are put up by the Warden on the chapel.  I hope that we shall stop here next holiday for then we shall be able to ride.  I suppose that the rainy season will begin soon, it seems as if we were going to have a rainy season here for we have had nothing but rain for the last two or three days.  We do much harder work in our form now such as Caesar and Ovid which are both rather harder Latin than we used to do.  I must now say good-bye with love to you both,


                         I remain

                                                                 Your affectionate son

                                                G.H. Talbot

 PS. Charley told me to tell you that he has not had time to write.

A standard letter home from the younger of two brothers.  It includes everything two loving parents could expect from a thirteen year-old: excuses about not writing, obsession with ponies, answer to a question about what he wants for his birthday (on 25th September), talk about the weather, academic progress, more excuses from his fifteen year-old older brother.  But this letter home will travel by overland mail, as will their reply, and although Gerald Talbot writes home every two weeks (whenever he is not too busy) it will take nearly a month to arrive, and another month before he receives a reply.  That is, if he ever does receive a reply. For Gerald’s father is stationed in Calcutta as Secretary to Lord Canning, Governor-General of India, and news about the Sepoy Rebellion which started at Meerut on 10th May 1857 has been filtering through to Britain since June 9th.

In 1857 Radley College celebrated its tenth anniversary.  The school had grown from three boys and four Dons under the Wardenship of Robert Singleton in August 1847, until in September 1857 it contained 150 boys and eleven Dons under the Wardenship of Singleton’s co-founder, William Sewell.  Including the current 150 pupils, more than 300 boys had attended the school during the previous decade.  Many of the earliest Radleians had now reached adulthood, and been succeeded at the school by younger brothers and cousins. The Dons were following their adult careers with interest.

Twenty-six of those 300 boys had parents who were stationed overseas. These included the sons of William Sewell’s brother, Henry, who was appointed the first Prime Minister of New Zealand; the two sons of Wilson Jacobs, based in Buenos Aires, and Frederick Derbyshire whose father was also based in South America; and the Austin brothers, Frederick Lipscombe, and John Xavier Merriman (later Prime Minister of the Cape Province) whose fathers were respectively the Bishops of Guiana and Jamaica and Archdeacon of the Cape of Good Hope.  The majority of the others had parents who were connected with India, such as Stanley Bullock, whose father was Commissioner for Hyderabad District; William and Robert Jennings, whose father was the Chaplain in Delhi; Henry Siddons, son of a captain in the Bengal Native Infantry; Edward Molloy, son of a businessman in Calcutta (now Kolkata); John Pinhey, whose father was the Surgeon-General to the Bombay Army; and Malcolm Gray, Edward Raleigh and John Cocks, whose fathers had all served in the army or civil service in Bengal and Bombay (now Mumbai).

Charles Alexander Price Talbot

The Talbot brothers, Charles and Gerald, were members of a family who had close connections with William Sewell.  Their father, the Hon. Gerald Chetwynd Talbot, became a Trustee of Radley College in 1862, and his brother, John Talbot, was one of the first supporters of the fledging College.  Charles and Gerald were placed under the guardianship of William Sewell whilst they were at school.  Their younger sisters, Cecil (aged 11 in 1857) and Margaret (aged 8 or 9), who were also left in England under the care of a governess, joined them at Radley during the school holidays. None of the four children travelled to India during their schooldays.  Their parents spent most of their time together in Calcutta, with occasional trips to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by Mrs Talbot for her health, often accompanied by her mother, the children’s grandmother.  There were infrequent trips back to England.  Charles mentions only one meeting in his letters:

Gerald Henry Talbot

‘October 8th [1856] … I forgot to mention that this very day (ie. Oct 3rd) last year was the very day that I went home to see you after you had come home from India.’

The family’s only means of communication was by letter.

The two boys started at Radley in September 1854, aged 12 ½ and 11. The earliest surviving letter in the correspondence is from Charles, dated May 25th 1856, when he was 14 ½ and takes the form of a daily journal.  It is clear that he had been using this form of letter writing for some months.  His letter of 20th September 1856 contains short entries for every day from Saturday 20th September until Friday 3rd October.  He writes about sport, leisure activities, the book he is reading, the weather, in a very easy style, constantly addressing his readers in an on-going conversation:

‘there was nothing particular done after that, so I shan’t say more for today’, ‘After dinner I came into the Library and read Valentine Vox which is a jolly book. Have you ever read it?’ ‘ [Merriman] got the prize – which I think was very well got, don’t you?’ ‘You can imagine my horror when I put on my jacket that I had only worn once before … to find to find a great hole in it which the mice had eaten.’  ‘Raikes (the fat boy who you said was just like a ball and who I invited one evening to dinner if you remember)’, ‘At nine o’clock we all went to bed, so I shall say Goodnight.’

Despite the distance and the time lag between letters the sense of closeness and affection within the family is very great – ‘I must end here … so I send you a thousand loves and kisses.’  There is also an appreciation by this eldest child of his parents’ concern for his siblings:

‘Thursday 25th [September 1856].  This is Gerry’s birthday and it did seem odd that there were no letters for him (as yet, but there may be some this afternoon for him) and I being the only one to wish him many happy returns.  This afternoon there were even no letters for Gerry and he seemed to expect one very much indeed.’ ‘Saturday 27th [September 1856]. I wrote to Peg and Cis as it was my intention to do.’

Both Charles and Gerald keep their parents informed of academic progress. This makes the Talbot Letters the primary source for the curriculum at Radley at this early period. They seem to be equally honest about their failures, punishments and praise:

‘Tuesday Oct. 7 [1856] This afternoon we had Grecian History to do and I happened not to answer 4 questions so Mr Norman got very angry and that he should put me down in the Black Book and that he should put me down twice if I did not know my Latin Grammar … We went in with our Xenophon to the Warden and on on pretty well with it.’ Charles

‘Wednesday Oct. 8 [1856] This morning we went up with our Roman History to Mr Norman and he stopped me after it to tell me to cheer up as I was doing better since he had spoken to me yesterday.’  Charles

June 10th Wednesday [1857] Today we went into the Warden with languages (you know that we have Bibles of different languages viz Italian, Spanish and German … and we find the derivations of the different words). We took in Spanish and Mr Gordon who you know has travelled a great deal in Spain read us the right pronunciation which the Warden can’t do and he read it just as he was a native…’ Charles

Thursday 30th [October 1856] I am beginning now to detest drawing as it is being made compulsory and having to stand Mr Hutchisson’s jaws and scoldings every time I go up, it’s no encouragement to me to learn it I can tell you.’ Charles

Charles also mentions studying Homer, Virgil and Livy, music lessons (both singing and piano), drawing classes, Greek New Testament, arithmetic, algebra, Euclid, and exams.  Examinations are given as a reason for not writing, or for shorter letters:

‘Friday 21th November [1856] … I am afraid I cannot go on with my journal as fagging for the examination.’ Charles; Friday 12th [June 1857] ‘My dear Papa and Mama, I have had to work every spare moment that I had for examination so I hope you will excuse my not keeping my journal.’ Charles; [2nd July 1857] ‘I must beg you a thousand pardons for not writing … but I am sure that you will excuse when you hear that it was because it was examination time…’ Gerald.

Sport, play and other leisure activities feature largely, particularly rowing, swimming (in the River Thames), jumping and racing (in the Cloisters), playing ‘Prisoner’s Base’, walking, shooting, riding, play-acting (‘some very grand theatricals… They acted ‘The merchant of Venice.’), football, punting, pets, reading, astronomy, and friendships: ‘after Prisoner’s Base I went on the flypole and a jolly go on it.  There are four of us who when we get on together can go the highest jump on it. The four are Holland, Biscoe mi, myself and Orme mi and we are a sort of crew of the flypole and go an enormous height on the flypole I should think at a rough guess about 7 foot.’ Charles.

Also called a Giant’s stride. a gymnastic apparatus, consisting of an upright pole with a revolving head, to which ropes are attached, by holding which, one is able to take gigantic strides round the pole (OED) The two tall poles on the left of this picture are the flypoles. They and the other gymnastic equipment are shown outside Long Dormitory, Radley College in this 1859 photograph

There is also gossip, such as the de-prefecting of Lipscombe ‘that boy named Lipscombe who had lost his tassel in that affair on Friday’; descriptions of the countryside: ‘This place if really delightful now; the foliage is particularly abundant…’ Henry West, Maths teacher, writing to Mrs Talbot; ‘A good many primroses and violets are out and make the place look very gay…’Gerald; ‘This is Good Friday and a most lovely day all the birds are singing in the hedges and a great many buttercups are out and also violets and wood anemones which scent the air so nicely…’ Charles; notices about health: ‘I should say that nearly thirty boys have gone home this term for illness, a great many for coughs and colds…’ Gerald; ‘I have had a very troublesome boil on my neck … and Ge has had a little cold…’ Charles; and food: ‘While we were having luncheon Terrier was eating away very vigorously when he made a great pull at the turkey and over goes his plate into his lap and the turkey and all which set us all laughing…’ Charles.

Despite the length of time each individual letter took to travel between Radley and Calcutta, the frequency of the letters allowed a continuous dialogue between the boys and their parents.  Both boys wrote regularly, only occasionally is a letter signed jointly, and both wrote to their parents as joint-recipients.  When Mrs Talbot was in Ceylon, both boys wrote a nearly identical letter to both mother and father.  The love and concern for their parents’ feelings and the closeness of the entire family expressed through the letters belies the popular myth that Victorian boarding school education indicated a lack of concern for the child.  Indeed, the Talbot Letters are suffused with a sense that the boys were very happy in their school life, and shared all their experiences openly with both parents.  Although they looked forward to a time when the family would be reunited under one roof, the sense is one of hopeful anticipation and planning:  July 3rd 1857 ‘I and Ge are making a collection of birds eggs so as to have a cabinet of them when you come home from India to make your drawing room look nice…’ Charles

The impression of the carefree life of happy, privileged schoolboys suffuses the letters until July 3rd 1857.  Even in that long letter Charles writes about the birds eggs collection, about a new canoe instead of a pony, how he has failed Italian in the exams, and the telling line ‘when you come home from India.’

The family’s letters travelled by overland courier as part of the diplomatic bag. In 1857 this was still the most reliable means of communication between Britain and India and was used by families, businesses, the army and journalists.  Within India itself communication between the towns and the military was carried out by telegraph.  The first submarine cable to carry telegraph wires was laid under the Atlantic in 1850.  In 1857 John Watkins Brett formed The Mediterranean Extension Telegraph Company with the intention of linking Malta into the French and Italian land systems via a cable from Sardinia to Malta. Messages could reach Malta by ship or overland courier from India, and then be relayed by telegraph to London.  The time delay was still considerable.

A group of boys photographed outside the Markets, Radley College in 1859. Charles Talbot is labelled in the centre.

On 10th May 1857 the series of grievances and injustices which were fermenting among the Hindu and Moslem Sepoy troops of the Bengal Cavalry erupted at Meerut, resulting in the massacre of the British families and Christian converts in the city.  On 11th May the violence spread to Delhi, centred around the Red Fort, the palace of the Mughal.  After days of looting and the murder of entire families, including young children and pregnant women, the violence spread throughout the region.  In Britain the first intimation of the disaster to reach the general public and all those with friends and family stationed in India was at breakfast on Tuesday June 9th: a news article on page 10 of The Times


[The following appeared in our second edition of yesterday] By the arrival of the overland mail we have received our private correspondence and papers from Bombay to 11th

May; Calcutta the 2nd of May; and Hong Kong, the 26th of April.

The following is the letter of our Bombay correspondent: –

Bombay, May 11th ‘It is but 10 days since I last wrote to you… I have nothing of any moment to communicate.  Peace, … and somnolent tranquillity … broods over India…. As I write there arrives from Meerut, in the North-West Provinces, or rather from Agra, a telegraphic message containing intelligence which rather mars that profound tranquillity … It runs thus: – “The 3d [Bengal] Cavalry are in open mutiny.  They have burnt down the lines and the officers’ bungalows.  Several officers and men are killed and wounded.” This, if true, is startling news indeed.  We may hope that it is exaggerated, but that it has a foundation at least of truth can hardly be doubted…’
(The Times, Tuesday June 9th, 1857)

At breakfast at Radley there must have been sickening anxiety.  Six of the boys currently at the school had parents based in the North-West Provinces, and twelve old boys were serving in the army, including William Jennings who had only left the school the previous term. In addition, the brother of one of the Dons, Robert Gibbings, who also served as the Vicar of Radley parish church, was also on active service in India.

There followed eighteen days of uncertainty before the next news arrived and was published in The Times on Saturday June 27th:


(by submarine and British telegraph)


The steamer America arrived at noon on the 26th of June at Trieste, in 121 hours from Alexandria.


… The dates from India are – Bombay, May 27; Calcutta, May 18; Madras, May 25.

The mutiny in the Bengal army had spread in a most alarming manner from Meerut.

The 11th and 20th Native Infantry had united with the 3d Light Cavalry in open revolt; after some bloodshed they had been dispersed by European troops, but they fled to Delhi, where they were joined by the 38th, 54th and 74th Native Infantry.

Delhi was in possession of the mutineers, who had massacred all the Europeans without regard to age or sex, plundered the bank, and proclaimed the son of the late Moghul Emperor as king.

Disturbances had also broken out at Ferozepore, but had been suppressed.
(The Times, Saturday June 27, 1857)

As yet, there were no details. But on Monday June 29th The Times had enough material to publish a lengthy article on the political situation, beginning: ‘The details of the Indian mutiny as given by our correspondents at Bombay and Calcutta, from the number of compensating incidents seem somewhat less alarming than the bare telegraphic despatch…’ This may have striven to reassure the anxious readers back in Britain, but the words ‘murder’ and ‘retribution’ were already being used:

Nor will the severest retribution which it is in the power of military law to inflict be too severe for the treacherous hands which have thus added murder to mutiny and rebellion.  At Meerut the 11th and 20th Regiments of Native Infantry and the 3d Cavalry murdered every officer on whom they could lay hands.  At Delhi it is supposed that Mr Fraser, the Commissioner has fallen, with many others, men, women and children.  The list of fugitives is given in another place…’
(The Times, Monday June 29, 1857)

How eagerly (frenziedly?) the readers at Radley must have rushed from the political commentary to that ‘list of fugitives.’  Further down page 8 was that ‘bare telegraphic despatch’ from our own correspondent, dated Bombay, May 27th, which had not reached England until June 27th.  And there it was – the first confirmation of personal tragedy:

Many are already known to have escaped, as will be seen from the list already referred to and which I now subjoin.  But it is feared to be only too certain that Mr Fraser, the Commissioner has fallen, and Captain Douglas, Commandant of the Palace Guard, and Mr Jennings, chaplain of the station, with his daughter and many others of all degrees…
(The Times, Monday June 29, 1857)

Robert Jennnings still had no news of his brother William, but it was now confirmed that his father, Rev Midgley Jennings and his twenty-one year sister, Annie, had been among the first to be massacred in Delhi. It later emerged that they had been killed after they took refuge in the Red Fort, whilst Annie and her friend Miss Clifford were tending the wounded Captain Douglas. William Jennings, in fact, had not yet reached India and heard about his family’s fate at Malta.  On September 22nd William Sewell wrote to Mr Talbot appealing for money to help support William.

The school broke up on 2nd July.  The Talbot brothers stayed at Radley in the care of William Sewell.  They were joined there by their sisters, Cecil and Margaret. Charles’ first letter home after June 27th was dated July 3rd.  It is full of the usual family chatter, and then turns to the news from India:

What awful news have come from India about the Sepoys mutiny, and the father and sister of one of the boys here have been killed at Delhi named Jennings and his brother has only just gone out in a regiment bound there.  I am very glad indeed that they are not near you and I hope they will get well peppered…

The brothers’ worries must have been somewhat allayed when letters arrived from their parents on July 6th. William Sewell commented on the relief in his own reply to Mr Talbot:

Your kind and most acceptable letter came to me while I was sitting at breakfast with Maggie and Cecil, Charles and Gerald … I opened the letter with fear and trembling for since the news reached England I have never had out of my mind poor Mrs Jennings whose husband and daughter (by our accounts) perished at Delhi under circumstances which one dares not think of.  Mother and daughter were both here before the latter sailed for India.  The father I had been corresponding with.  The two sons had both been here.  You can understand how one feels…

How those awaiting news felt when they received it is conveyed by eleven year-old Cecil, writing on July 14th:

I received your nice letters telling me about the insurrection this morning, via Marseilles.  What a relief they were!  I could scarcely fancy that the slight disaffection in the Bengal army could be all you would say about that dreadful insurrection, unless you thought that perhaps I might not have heard and said so little in order that I might not be frightened; but I still was a little anxious … Maggie and I were walking on the roof… and when I went into the house for a minute I heard that there was an Indian letter for me in the drawing room… your letter put everything else out of my head so down I rushed, went into the drawing room and as quickly rushed out again on the sight of some ladies, and there was my Indian letter and I not able to get it! Well, after about 20 minutes impatience I took possession of my letter, returned to the roof in great delight [to read it]…

Two days after the news of the Jennings’ deaths reached England, the Massacre of Cawnpore (now Kanpur) took place on June 29th.  Throughout July and August The Times carried fortnightly updates of the situation.  Stories of miraculous escapes were reported, but the list of confirmed dead continued to grow.  One such miraculous escape was the story of Lieutenant Charles Tucker of the 15th Irregular Cavalry – the only survivor of an attack upon his troop at Sultanpore – reported in a letter from his wife and printed in The Times on Tuesday August 18th:

‘I will tell you all about Charlie as it happened … one of the coolies I had sent with a letter to Sultanpore, returned with it, and one of our grooms with him, saying that on 9th the troops at Sultanpore had mutinied, that Colonel Fisher, Captain Gibbings and others had been killed, but that Charlie had escaped … About 8 o’clock on the Tuesday morning poor Colonel Fisher was shot through the body by the native police. Charlie directly went to him… He said he was dying; but Charlie took out the ball and gave him some water. He then tried to persuade the Regiment to come near their Colonel, but no one would obey any order. They were all under some trees near our house. A party of them then made a rush at Captain Gibbings, who was on horseback at a little distance and killed him; and then the men shouted at Charlie to go away.’
(The Times, Tuesday August 18, 1857)

Thus Rev. Robert Gibbings, Don at Radley, learned of his brother’s death, an event reported by William Sewell in a letter to Mr Talbot on September 22nd:

We talk of you constantly and I was commissioned this morning to join the Common Room in an expression of deep hearty sympathy.  Alas! You see I cannot speak seriously without coming to sorrow.  Poor Gibbings has lost his brother in India.  Every family seems to have suffered more or less…

The Times also reported the retribution being meted out by the British on those they believed to have committed particular murders.  Those closely involved on the ground were overcome by anger and grief, and committed atrocities in their turn, including William Jennings and the brother of Annie Jennings’ friend Miss Clifford, both believing (erroneously as it was later proved) that the girls had been raped before their deaths.  The case of Annie Jennings was raised in Parliament to stir up anti-Hindu and Moslem feeling in a speech by Mr RB Osborne, MP:

I for one shall not be satisfied until I hear that Delhi, on which I look as a modern Gomorrah, has been razed to the ground. The punishment, I think should be commensurate with the crime.  Sure I am that as long as one stone of that city is left upon another, so long will the Hindoo and the Mahomedan point to the spot where Miss Jennings was cut to pieces amid the fiendish exultation of the brutal Asiatic…  [Mr Bernal Osborne, MP, on the Indian Crisis, reported in The Times, Saturday September 26, 1857]

How would her young brother and her grieving mother respond to such manipulation of her memory and her terrible death?

In India, the survivors on both sides and the civilians caught up in the riots were suffering terribly.  The cause of the rebellion has been variously described as a mutiny, as India’s first war of independence, as ethnic cleansing, as a jihad, as a religious war, as inter-caste warfare, as a rebellion against the British and/or against the Mughal of Delhi.  The complexity of the situation as a historic event was mirrored on the ground.  Entire districts of Delhi were looted, violent prisoners were released from the jails and sent on the rampage, food shops were ransacked, peasant villages decimated, there was widespread famine, and cholera and typhoid raged unchecked among the refugees.  An example of the terrible conditions was the story of Harriet Tytler who escaped from Delhi on foot whilst seven months pregnant. She later gave birth in a cart, the only living space she had in the army camp outside Delhi, to a son who was already suffering from dysentery.  Fever also took its toll on the army. On October 21st Gerald Talbot wrote to tell his father:

We have had a collection here for people who are in trouble in India, in which there was collected about 12 guineas which I think is very well for a school of about a hundred and fifty boys…

Commemorative plaque to Melville Balfour.

On October 16th the list of the casualties of Cawnpore was published in The Times.  Among then was Lieutenant Melville Balfour, Old Radleian.  Balfour is commemorated on the massacre memorial at All Souls’ Church, Kanpur, and on a brass erected by Sewell in Radley College chapel: it is the earliest war memorial in the school.  He was first old boy to die, but was followed by others: in 1858 Herbert Irons, having served in four engagements, died of fever and William Thynne died of wounds received in the relief of Lucknow; in 1859 William Dalrymple Sewell (no relation to the Sewell family) was invalided out of the army and died off St Helena on the voyage home.

Hon. Gerald Chetwynd Talbot

The effect on the children left behind in England can perhaps be seen in the astonishing maturity of the letters from the elder boy and girl, Charles and Cecil.  Cecil’s letter of July 14th, quoted earlier, not only shows an attempt by her parents to spare her the bad news, but also her own concern for her younger sister: after getting possession of the letter and retreating back to the Mansion roof to read it in privacy, she noticed that Margaret was not with her and again controlled her impatience to go search for her sister so that they could share the letter.  Charles shall have the final word, also a long way in tone and maturity from his jolly, chatty letters earlier in the year. As the year drew to a close recriminations and political blame took the place of war-mongering in the news.

Charles Talbot was filled with loyal anger at blame being cast at his father’s close associate and immediate superior, Lord Canning.  He discusses this in a letter to his father dated November 22nd 1857:

I read in the papers that some people had asked for the recall of Lord Canning saying that all the calamities the result of the spread of the mutiny was all owing to the blindness and incapacity of the government in India and for the conduct of whom the Governor General is responsible, being the head. The first part of this is a beastly lie but the second is of course a matter of fact …

I remain ever

                                          Your most affectionate son

                      Charles Talbot

Clare Sargent. 10 May 2012

Further reading:  the Talbot Brothers letters, 1856-57, including letters from William Sewell to Hon. G.C. Talbot, are in Radley College Archives

The papers of the Jennings family are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford

Reports from The Times accessed via the Times Digital Archive

William Dalrymple, 2006.  The last Mughal. Bloomsbury. A comprehensive and balanced account of the uprising and its victims

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