The tragic story of Mrs Lindsay and her daughters

I have been trying to discover more about life for a 19th century soldier’s wife and children to fill out the account of my great-grandfather in Gibraltar, Nova Scotia and Barbados, so I recently read, “On the Strength” by Veronica Bamfield, who was a soldier’s daughter and a soldier’s wife.  Both Veronica’s life and her book, which describes military families from the 17th century to the 1940s, are fascinating but what most caught my attention were the testimonies about the Lindsay family in Cawnpore in 1857.
Northern India
Recently on “Who do you think you are,” Billy Connolly discovered that his ancestor John O’Brien served with the First Madras Fusiliers when they discovered the massacre of women and children in Cawnpore.  These included Mrs Catherine Jemima Lindsay and her 3 daughters, Caroline, Alice and Frances.  Mrs Lindsay, whose family called her Kate, was the widow of George Lindsay who had been a senior civil servant in Benares and was appointed a Judge in Delhi before he retired to Rochester in Kent.  Kate Lindsay had thoroughly enjoyed her life in India and found Kent rather humdrum so after the death of her husband she was keen to return to India where she planned to stay with her brother-in-law Major William Lindsay who was married to Kate’s sister Lilly.  Despite objections raised by her family, Mrs Lindsay took her youngest child, Fanny, out of school and travelled out to India in 1856 with her protesting daughters.  She also hoped to be reunited with her son, George Lindsay, who was an Ensign in Cawnpore.

Most of what we now know of the family comes from the long letters which Caroline wrote to her relatives at home.  In November 1856 she wrote of meeting her Lindsay cousins in Barrackpore, Calcutta.  She mentioned the, “very nice house,” and a ball given for them by the officers, “the room hung with flowers and the colours of the regiment; two bands and supper laid out in a tent.”  They didn't retire until 2.30 am but were up at 9 to catch the train to Ramnagar, 130 miles away.

On the following day they set out at 5 pm by carriages to a river.  As there were no boats the carriages were pulled across by coolies which took 2 hours in the moonlight.  They were relieved to reach a Dak bungalow at 9 pm to spend the night.  Dak bungalows were provided every 15 miles along the main roads.  But their problems were not over.  The new horses provided had not been in harness before so they reared and bolted.  The weary girls and their mother climbed back into the carriages and set off again.   By now they had been joined by brother George but once again a horse bolted and one of the gharris (carriages) was upset.  The family crossed three more rivers, this time dragged through low water and sand by 8 bullocks.  Finally they arrived at Cawnpore, an important garrison town for the East India Company lying both on the Grand Trunk Road and the River Ganges.

On November 11th they gratefully arrived in Benares where they rested for four days.  Colonel Cotton, an old friend of Mrs Lindsay, arranged, “a very nice dance,” for the girls but George, “would not go.”  They travelled on to Mirzapur, where they stayed for three days, going to dinner parties, dances and the races.  Alice was looking forward to reaching Cawnpore. “I shall be very glad to be settled for some time, for moving about and stopping first at one place and then another is not pleasant.”
The Lindsay sisters  a) Caroline  b) Fanny  c) Alice

The winter in Cawnpore passed with parties, dancing and concerts.  It is easy to see why Kate Lindsay found it more stimulating than Rochester and there were plenty of young officers as beaux for Caroline, Alice and Fanny.  But as it grew warmer rumours reached them of unrest among the native sepoys and of mutiny and murder in Meerut.  Although Mrs Lindsay wanted to send her daughters to a safer place, she wished to stay with her son George.  Colonel William Lindsay insisted that she and his wife Lilly should also depart, at least for Calcutta, but in fact they all stayed in Cawnpore.

In a letter of May 19th to her sister Mary Jane Droge, wife of the vicar of St Mary’s Rochester, Kate wrote over nine pages of horrifying events in the vicinity, including her friend, Mrs Chalmers, murdered “by a butcher.  If our three native corps were to rise, which I pray to God to avert, we must all I am afraid perish.”  She was relieved to hear that Queen’s Troops were marching on Cawnpore which, “gave us a more cheering feeling and we all went to church at half past 6 in the evening and I think we all felt our minds sustained and comforted and trusted that God would not quite forsake us.”

On May 31st all the women and children moved to the barracks at 2.30 am along with all the other British women.  Caroline wrote, “You may imagine we were all in a fright, the scene of confusion and fright everybody was in was past description.” They had to share a room with seven other women, which was cooled slightly by the well watered tatties (grass curtains) and punkahs (fans) going.  Their food was still cooked at home then delivered by the servants. “We are still quite in an uncertain state of mind as to what is to be our fate, we only hope and trust we may be defended from all evil,” wrote Alice.  
General Hugh Wheeler
General Hugh Wheeler, Commander of the garrison believed that his sepoys would be loyal so when two companies of the 84th battalion arrived on June 2nd he dispatched one of the companies to the besieged town of Lucknow.  But Wheeler had not allowed for the disaffection for the British felt by a man known as Nana Sahib, the adopted son of former local Prince, Baji Rao.  The generous pension and honours awarded by the East India Company to Baji Rao, were denied to his adopted son, on his death.
Nana Sahib
Mutiny began from among the 2nd Bengal cavalry by Indian soldiers who already believed that they were about to be killed by the British while on parade.  After the first shots were fired on June 6th, sepoys who remained loyal were also fired upon so they all fled.  During the confusion, Nana Sahib entered the garrison and assumed leadership of the mutineers.  He caught up with those who had fled and persuaded them to besiege the city on behalf of the Mughal Empire.

In the increasing heat, the British under siege began to succumb to dysentery, smallpox and cholera.  There was news that Major General Havelock was advancing from Allahabad but how long would it take him?  On June 25th June, against the wishes of General Wheeler the garrison accepted an offer from Nana Sahib of a safe passage for the women and children to Allahabad by boat along the Ganges. 

Either by misunderstanding or planning, a great many of the party were shot in the boats or drowned when they capsized and the remaining women or children were taken to the Bibighar (Ladies’ House) in Cawnpore where they were supervised by a prostitute called Begum Hussaini Khanum.

When Nana Sahib heard that the approaching British soldiers were indulging in violence towards Indian villagers, he was advised to execute the British women.  The women of his own household protested against this and went on hunger strike but to no avail.  On July 15th an order went out that all the British women and children should be murdered.  Nana Sahib had left the town.  The women tied the door handles of their room with clothing and at first many of the rebel sepoys fired into the air.  Begum Hussaini Khanum called them cowards, and butchers were hired to murder the captives with cleavers.  Next morning the bodies were thrown down a well including 3 women and 3 children who were still alive.

The last testimony from the Lindsay family was a scrap of paper found in a long low building in which the women were later imprisoned by the mutineers.  It was in Caroline’s handwriting.
Entered the barracks May 31st
Cavalry left June 5th
First shot fired June 6th
Aunt Lilly died June 17th
Uncle Willy died June 18th
Left Barracks June 27th
George died June 27th
Alice died July 9th
Mam died July 12th
Caroline and Fanny must have perished in the Bibighar between 4 pm on July 15th and 9 am on July 16th.  The news was sent to Mrs Mary Jane Drage, the sister of Mrs Kate Lindsay and Mrs Lilly Lindsay by Captain Moorsom of the 52nd Regiment, a friend, who had come with the force which had arrived too late.  Mary Jane and her husband Rev. William Drage were already looking after Lilly’s 3 young children and they now had considerable difficulty proving that the orphans were the only living relatives of Major William Lindsay and entitled to the Bengal Military Orphans Fund.

In Cawnpore a memorial was erected over the well but after Independence in 1948 this was moved to an enclosure to the east of All Souls Church.

"On the Strength" by Veronica Bamfield

Clan Lindsay Society


  1. Thank you for posting this. I also have an interest in the tragic story of Kate Lindsay and her family.

    If you're interested a glass negative still showing Kate Lindsay and her daughters can be found in Zoe Yalland's The British in Cawnpore 1775 - 1857. This website also gives more general information on the 'Lindsay Clan' including Kate Lindsay & family. Interestingly Caroline had been the only one of her siblings not to have been born in India. She was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1834 and Kate Lindsay had lost two other children in infancy.

  2. Thank you so much for this extra information. It was such a sad end to a lively vibrant family.

  3. I've added a link to this to my review of Tom Williams' book, Liz - meant so much more after I'd read it. Well done, such a good piece x

  4. Thanks, Terry, I felt as if I knew the family, so what happened to them seemed even more horrifying.

  5. Enjoyed reading also. I have travelled twice to Cawnpore in the last 4 years from New Zealand and heading back in January 2017 for further documenting the trials of the small garrison and those from Fatteghur. Is worth the journey if you have family there as I do. The 2 burial Wells still contain their dead. The one across the road from the entrenchment on Military land and of course the Bibighar Well in Nana Rao Park. The latter is unmarked, yet easy to find. The former on Military land is permanently off limits to foreigners. Hoping to make a small documentary this time and seeing a photo of the Lindsay sisters is simply grand. Thank you for posting.

  6. Thank you, Mark. It is only by finding out personal details of the people who were there that the horror of what happened to them really strikes home.