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Indian Mutiny of 1857

Siege of Lucknow

By 1857, India was all but ruled by the East India Company who traded from India on behalf of the British government, their authority was enforced by the army with some 45,000 British soldiers and another 230,000 Indian Sepoys. Even as British infrastructure expanded in India with a network of roads, railways and telegraph lines, the British also sought to convert the Hindu natives to Christianity, meeting with considerable resistance. The Hindu Sepoys were generally proud to serve in the army but were not prepared to abandon their religious beliefs and customs for the British ways.

When the Indian Mutiny began on 10 May 1857 in the north of India in the town of Meerut, the violence took the British by surprise. The Indian Sepoys had been issued with the new Enfield rifles and in order to load the new guns, they had to bite off the end of the cartridge before loading the shot into the rifle. The problem was that these new cartridges were lubricated with animal fat, both cow, sacred to the Hindus and pork, an insult to the Muslims and the Sepoys would not use them.

On the evening before the mutiny commenced, 85 Sepoys, court-martialled for refusing to touch the cartridges, were sentenced to between five and ten years in prison and were placed in goal in Meerut, about 40 miles from Delhi. The following afternoon, the Sepoy prisoners were broken out of gaol and the mob, consisting of both Sepoys and civilians, descended on the British and massacred them, hacking them to death. The rebel mob then left Meerut on horseback, making for Delhi, some 40 miles distant. The hostilities, which came to be known as the Indian Mutiny to the British but as the First War of Independence to the Indians, would continue for more than two years before ending with the fall of Gwalior on 20 June 1858.

For the wives of the British officers who were stationed in India, the initial reports from Meerut inspired absolute terror. It was reported that few were spared in the savage attack and that the victims of the rebels included Mrs. Chambers, a pregnant woman whose unborn baby was ripped from her womb and Mrs. Dawson, who was burnt to death. After the massacre at Meerut, large numbers of British civilians began to make their way to the Residency in Lucknow. Under the leadership of Sir Henry Lawrence, the British Commissioner, the Residence was fortified, and supplies were stockpiled in preparation for a possible siege of Lucknow.

Mrs. Maria Vincent Germon, wife of one of the commanders of an outpost at Lucknow, first heard of the horrible news from Meerut when she dined at the home of the Brigade-Major of Lucknow. On Friday, 15 May 1857, she wrote in her diary:

..it was rather alarming for one living alone as I was, my husband being on city duty. Mr. B— walked home with me about half-past 8, at 9 I went to bed, taking good care to have a shawl and dressing gown close to the bed. Charlie’s orderly slept in the verandah with the servants, as he had done all the week; the B—-‘s had kindly offered me a bed, but I had declined it. I had one door, as usual, open close to the bedroom at which the punkah-wallah pulled the punkah 1The punkah-wallah was a servant whose job it was to operate the pulley system that rotated a type of ceiling fan called a punkah the other two were sleeping by him; the watchman, bearer, orderly, and two doggies, forming quite a guard around the door; the Ayah and her child slept in a room adjoining; and, not withstanding the alarm, I think I never slept sounder in my life.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

The following morning, Maria Germon dispatched her husband’s meals for the day as usual, the fare consisting of bread and butter, quail, mango-fool 2chopped mango with sugar and lime juice, blended with whipped cream and some vegetables and sat in the garden to enjoy her coffee, despite the news of the prior day. That morning, she went into the city, visiting with other families and found that everyone was much distressed at the recent news and that the Residency in the city was being transformed into a sanctuary for ladies and the sick. Becoming increasingly nervous, Maria visited her husband and asked if she could remain with him but he sent her home after calming her. That night when she retired, she armed herself with a dagger which she called an Affghan knife but eventually drifted to sleep.

The next morning, she arose as usual and set off for church after dispatching her husband’s provisions and observed seven companies of the 32nd Queens entering the military camp. There was much activity that day with troops coming and going and rumours flew back and forth amongst the families. Maria was invited to spend the night with friends but eventually declined. Her husband’s Subadar 3A rank in the Indian Army otherwise equivalent to a British lieutenant had sent his salaam and two Sepoys to guard her house and the idea of having Sepoys as guards unnerved her a little but after checking with the Adjutant, she acquiesced to the guards and rested well that night.

By the following day, Monday, the houses around the Germon residence had been given over to the European soldiers that had recently arrived, forming a guard and the night again passed without incident. Tuesday, reports of atrocities at Meerut and Delhi began to arrive and residents were in quite a state of excitement and unease but that afternoon Maria and Charlie took their usual drive and saw the band playing at the band-stand but few others were driving about. They retired for the evening, Charlie with his double-barrelled gun loaded with shot and Maria with her Affghan dagger.

On Thursday, their Doctor arrived in a buggy with his wife and child, requesting that they be taken in for the night since he feared that there would be a rise. With the guests settled, an alarm of fire was raised and they ran outside to see that flames engulfed the bungalow two doors away. Charlie sent their servants to soak the thatched roof of their bungalow so the sparks would not set it alight and armed himself with his shotgun, telling Maria to run for the Residency should their be a rise but after a time, the flames subsided and nothing more happened. They retired for the night, the danger seemingly past.

The lull continued until Monday, 25 May 1857 when Charlie was summoned at 3 AM by Sir Henry Lawrence, the Commander, who ordered that all ladies should leave the cantonments and go to the Residency for protection. Maria gathered her belongings, taking her valuables and coffee and provisions, and clambered aboard the carriage of friends. They passed many other carriages filled with ladies and children all heading for the Residence.

On arrival, the Residency was crowded with ladies and children and they went to see if they could lodge with Doctor Frayrer, whose house was in the grounds of the Residency. Maria, along another lady shared their hostess’s room; three beds under one punkah. The heat was intense and they could not sleep well. During the days, they met at breakfast, then amused themselves with work, reading or music, lunched at 2 and dined at half-past 7. The Padre gave a reading in the evening, they prayed and then retired for the night. Although they shared a room at the Frayrer’s, it was much better than at the Residency where each room was filled with six or eight ladies and their children, their servants crowded onto the verandas.

On Saturday, 30 May, Maria went to Cantonments and enjoyed both some time with her husband and a luxurious bath, although Charlie fretted that she remained in Cantonments longer than was allowed, but finally she departed and the evening was spent as usual until at about 9 pm, the servants came running in with reports of firing coming from the direction of Cantonments. Rushing outside, they could indeed hear gunfire and could see several fires blazing. Doctor Frayrer ordered the ladies to don their bonnets and to go to the Residency. They gathered what belongings they could carry and met in the dining room to await further orders but finally word was received that although there had been a rising, the rebels had been defeated and fled. They all went to lie down, still dressed in their clothes with their bundles ready, in case of further alarm.

It was with a great relief that Maria learned that Charlie was all right. He had ridden up with a despatch from Sir Henry. Although his trousers were soaked in blood to the knee, it was not his but his horse who had been shot in the nose.

It was the following day, Sunday 31 May, when an order came again for all the ladies to proceed to safety for a rising was expected in the city. They collected their bundles once again and walked in the blazing sun to the crowded Residency where they remained in a miserable state all day: crowded, hot, thirsty and hungry for much of the day. The heat and crowding were so intense in the house that at nightfall, Maria and several other ladies took their bedding up on the roof to sleep in the cool of the night. In the moonlight, they could see the great guns of the compound immediately below them and the moon and stars were in stark contrast to the scene below.

On Monday, just as Maria was trying to decide where she might find a small corner in which to dress herself, Dr. Frayrer sent word that they might go back to his house which he thought safer than the residency with its overcrowding. Maria took a bath and slept that night in a thick dressing gown until awakened by a slight alarm. She partially dressed and lay down again until morning. The following day passed quietly but on Wednesday they heard that the Commander-in-Chief had died of cholera at Umballah and that Dr. Frayrer’s brother had been killed by insurgents. Two husbands of the women had also been killed. One left a widow and seven children; another a new bride. Reports continued to come in of other Sepoy regiments who had joined the mutiny and it was reported that Colonel Birch, the commandant of the 41st had been shot by his men, his daughter captured by the fugitives.

One of the women that Maria visited lost her baby and she described her narrow escape on the night of the mutiny in the Cantonments:

…she was down there with all her children, although Sir H L had forbidden ladies to be there at night. She told me, she and the Major were in bed when a Havildar came rushing in, begging her to fly, for the Sepoys were up in the Lines, and immediately after the mutineers came to the house and asked for the Sahib and Mem-Sahib; she fled with her five children, escorted by three friendly Sepoys, first into the servants’ houses, but the bullets came whistling so thick that the Sepoys cut a hole in the mudwall for her to escape at the back. They fled to a village, but the villagers came out and threatened to take their lives if they remained, so they went and took refuge in a dry nullah (a bed of a stream); it was about fifteen or twenty feet deep, so that they had to sit and slide down the bank; the Sepoys lay down on the bank and watched; her poor baby had dysentery, and had nothing on but its night-clothes: no wonder it died a day or two after; but then, she ought not to have been in Cantonments.

As the days went on, more reports of atrocities too ‘barbarous and inhuman to be mentioned’ reached Lucknow. The doggies that had lived at their house in Cantonments were without anyone to care for them and it was agreed that they had to be put down which made Maria feel quite wretched and Charlie drowned them in the river. As the horrific reports of massacres and death continued, the defenses at Lucknow were strengthened. Several mortars and two 18-pounders were placed at Cawnpore road. Rumours and alerts of imminent attack continued but came to nothing. Smallpox broke out in the crowded Residency and Maria was relieved to be away from there. On Sunday 21 June, came the first fall of rain and it was welcomed.

I went down with Mrs. F—- to her go-down (store-room) and saw all her stores in case of a siege – rice and flour – all in large earthen jars, that reminded one of the jars the thieves were put into in Ali Baba. Certain new reached us today that the enemy are closing around us; there are eight regiments with six guns at Nawab-Gunge, twenty miles from here; it is said that they intend coming here, and encamping in the Dil Koosha.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

On Tuesday, 30 June, Maria wrote:

The siege now commenced, the enemy began firing on us as they followed the retreating party. Our gates were closed, we got a cup of tea and something for breakfast as best we could, sitting behind the walls to escape the balls; not that I fancy any of us had very much appetite. At last the balls came so thick that we were all ordered down into the Tye Khana (underground room), and kept there.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

It was Thursday, 2 July when word came that Sir Henry Lawrence had been mortally wounded. A shell had burst in his room at the Residency and he had a fearful wound in his hip. He survived long enough to be given the last Sacrament at Dr. Frayrer’s house where he lingered for another two days. Shelling intensified. When they awoke in the Tye Khana on Friday morning, they found that all of the servants but a few had deserted and were obliged to do the chores themselves even washing plates and dishes, which at least had the fortune of distracting them from their misery.

On Saturday, 11 July, Maria slipped down some steps and sprained her ankle. Funerals continued for those killed by the shelling and those who died of the cholera and smallpox. By the 13 July, Maria’s face broke out in boils as were the faces of the others, from the effects of scurvy. On the 15 July they gathered on the veranda and sang, but Maria felt the melancholy with the ‘round shots whizzing overhead, and no one could tell but that the next might bring death with it!

A letter arrived from the Quartermaster-General on 26 July, saying that two-thirds of the relieving force had crossed the Ganges and would soon come to the relief of those under siege in Lucknow.

I was awoke by a mouse running over my neck, scratching me with its horrid little feet. Still no news!Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

On Thursday, 6 August an order came to vacate the Residency since it was now unsafe and on Tuesday 11 August, they heard a rumbling noise and found out that one wing of the Residency had fallen, burying six men. Two had been dug out alive but only one survived.

We passed the night without an accident, though the roof was hit by round shots. Mrs. F—-‘s little boy Bobby very ill. he looks a perfect skeleton: as for Mrs. D—–‘s youngest boy, you can count his bones; they are only just covered with skin. it is a terrible time for poor children; they pine for fresh air.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

On Wednesday, 19 August, one of the children died.

After breakfast Mrs. D—-‘s poor baby was sewed up by Mrs.—– in a clean table cloth, she having first dressed it in a clean night-dress and lace cap, and crossed its little arms on its breast; the little thing was carried to the hospital to await its burial, at night.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

Attacks came day and night and they never knew when a shell would land in the house, killing them. They suffered on, doing their own cooking with their meagre rations and laundry when they could get enough water.

Saturday, September 5…In this day’s attack 10,000 men were said to be around us; still they did not get in, and we had only two Natives killed, and two Europeans wounded; one losing an arm, and the other a leg.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

Prices for supplies were rising with sugar demanding twenty rupees for 2 pounds and one rupee per leaf of tobacco. By mid-September their provisions were running low and rumours circulated that they would run out of beef by the middle of October. The siege had been going on for eighty days. Finally on 24 September they heard guns about ten or twelve miles off and knew that their reinforcements had arrived.

The guns of our force heard approaching nearer and nearer. Oh! the thankfulness one feels at the certainty of relief now! I think, if I were stronger, I should be more joyous. The smoke of the guns seen from the top of the Residency! Oh joy! they say they are only four or five miles off! but they have to fight their way in!Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

At about 5 o’clock that evening, they heard cheering and immediately the troops began rushing in and the compound was filled with men from the 78th Highlanders. The news they brought from the outside was heartrending and far more horrible than imagined.

At Jhansi the brutes had burnt the children before their poor mothers’ eyes, and then killed the wives, and then the husbands. At Cawnpore they found only two living beings and a heap of dead women and children, being those who escaped the massacre at the boats. They say the place where the murders were committed was a most heart-rending sight; not a soldier left it with a dry eye. We heard also of the B—-s’ of our regiment having been murdered at Hissar. Ever one was trying to get news of his friends; scarcely one but heard bad news.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

Maria was dismayed to find that the relief troops brought no new provisions with them, but their numbers made it possible to make sorties against the enemy again and the discovery and destruction of three rebel mines boosted everyone’s confidence. The troops gained ground daily in the City against the rebels, blowing up some of the guns that had been bombarding them with shells.  But the unvaried diet was taking its toll on the group.

Dear Charlie came quite lame – the doctors say we must all get scurvy, living on the same food, and so long without vegetables.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

Wednesday, October 7 marked the anniversary of Maria’s arrival in Calcutta and although the relief troops were pushing back the rebels, an 18-pound shot came in to mark the day. Shots still reached the house daily, sometimes two or three, keeping them all on edge. Two days later a report was received from Cawnpore with the great news that Delhi had been taken by their forces but with a warning that several regiments of the rebels and escaped with guns and were headed to Lucknow, pursued by a large force intent on intercepting them. By the 11th, they had overtaken the mutineers, killing some and dispersing the rest. The new reinforcements were expected to reach Lucknow in less than two weeks, but six days later, new intelligence was received that although the 93rd were to be at Cawnpore on the 23rd, the 23rd were not to arrive until the 2nd of November. Maria worried:

I trust they will not delay it too long; for, famine is too horrible to contemplate. Our daily rations of meat are now 12 oz. for a man, 6 oz. for a woman, and 2 oz. for a child and this is bone inclusive, which is sometimes nearly half; and we have had 9 lbs. (the ration for our party for one day) of which 5 lbs. was actually bone. Then seventeen of us (some choosing to have their rations separate) have 15 lbs. of unsifted flour for our chuppatties, 6 lbs. of grain to be made into dal (this private store food, generally given to horses), 1 lb. 12 oz. of rice, and a little salt. We generally make a stew of the meat and rice and a few chuppatties, as it goes further; but I think the gentlemen generally get up from the table hungry. We have still a little tea, but neither sugar, milk, wine, nor beer; our beverage is toast and water, a large jug of which is always placed on the centre of the table; it is made of the old chuppatties, if an are left of the previous day.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

Wednesday, 21 October marked Maria and Charles’ anniversary and despite the circumstances, they contrived a few hours together in the evening. Charlie had managed a pint bottle of champagne and with some milk begged from one place, some sugar from another and a little cocoa that had been saved, Maria made a cup of hot chocolate to celebrate the occasion.

Finally on Monday, 26 October they heard the news they had been waiting for. The Delhi column had defeated the Mhow mutineers and 6000 troops were on their way, and should arrive by the 15 November. Maria noted that they had to cut their rations yet again, and hoped that the three weeks would pass quickly.

On Thursday, 12 November, Maria spent the day with Charlie, arranging and packing all their belongings, in case the troops arrived and they needed to depart in a hurry. On Saturday, 14 November, the reinforcements took possession of the Kil Doosha and Martiniere. They were almost at the house. On Monday, 16 November, Maria and Charlie and a group of spectators watched from the roof of Charlie’s house as the Cavalry and the Artillery took two enemy guns. The battle raged through the day as they watched their troops advance.

In the evening on Tuesday, 17 November, Dr. Frayrer came and told them:

All ladies, and the sick and wounded, are to be out of the garrison before tomorrow night, and can only take what they can carry in their hands.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.

With the end suddenly in sight, Maria felt panicked and after a sleepless night, she rushed over to tell Charlie the news. She stitches her valuables into her clothes and by dinner time, Charlie had found two old men who could carry a bundle of bedding and Maria’s dressing-case. At the last, Charlie sent word that she was to have the Subadar’s mare to ride. On Thursday, their departure delayed, preparations continued and Maria dressed in all the clothes that she could.

I put on three of each kind of under garments – a pink flannel dressing-gown, and plaid jacket, and then over all my cloth dress and jacket made out of my habit. I then tied my Cashmere shawl round my waist, and also Charlie’s silver mug, and put on a a worsted cap and hat, and had my cloak placed on the saddle; in my pink dressing gown, I stitched dear mamma’s last present to me, and I filled several pockets with valuables also; in two under ones I had all my little stock of jewelry, and my journal, and some valuable papers. I also wore a bustle, in which I had stitched my Honiton lace wedding dress, veil, &c and two black and white lace shawls; so that I was a pretty good size.Germon, R. C. 'A Lady's Diary During the Siege of Lucknow.' Google Books. 1870.
And then finally, 188 days after first hearing the horrific news from Meerut, Maria rode out of Lucknow.

More about Richard Charles and Maria Vincent Germon

Maria Garratt, daughter of John Garratt, married Richard Charles Germon on 21 October 1851 in Calcutta, Bengal, India. 4Ancestry.com. India, Select Marriages, 1792-1948 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. FHL Film 498989

Maria Vincent Germon of Gortlee Dawlish Devonshire, wife of Richard Charles Germon, died 9 February 1898, probate London 25 February to the said Richard Charles Germon retired colonel in the Bengal-staff-corps. Effects £10195 2s. 8d. 5Ancestry.com. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.

Richard Charles Germon of Gortlee Dawlish Devonshire retired colonel in the Bengal-staff-corps died 3 March 1902, probate London 18 April to Arthur Clampitt Loveys estate-agent and Elizabeth Loveys (wife of the said Arthur Clampitt Loveys) Effects £27452 7s. 6d. 6Ancestry.com. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.

Other Accounts of the Siege of Lucknow

References   [ + ]

1.The punkah-wallah was a servant whose job it was to operate the pulley system that rotated a type of ceiling fan called a punkah
2.chopped mango with sugar and lime juice, blended with whipped cream
3.A rank in the Indian Army otherwise equivalent to a British lieutenant
4.Ancestry.com. India, Select Marriages, 1792-1948 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. FHL Film 498989
5, 6.Ancestry.com. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.
    1. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed! Social history gives me an excuse to fall down any rabbit hole that takes my fancy!

      1. I didnt include my great grandfather’s name : John Smith was losted on 1861 census aged 37yrs & Serj Major. District : St Martins of the Fields Charing Cross.
        1871 census listed as 2nd Master Active Duty. 2nd Batt Scots Guards. What battle would he have been involved in. He wasnt listed on the 1881 census only his wife Hannah nee Land was listed as Anniulant. I cannot find where or when he died. Dont know if you are able to asist me. Kind regards Lyn Peucker

  1. So interesting. My great grandfather was a Sergeant Major stationed at St George ‘s Barracks, St Martins ‘in the Fields in 1861. He was serving with one of the regiments of foot guards. Between 1861 and 1871 he was commissioned as a Quartermaster. I am wonderingif he would have been involved in the siege of Lucknow.
    Thank you for your interesting reports.
    Cheers Lyn Peucker. pikeslynnie@gmail.com

  2. My GG grandmother Elizabeth Gabell stated she had a brother ( or brother in law ) a Bandmaster killed with his family during the Sikh Wars in India ? , some parts of the story say they were thrown into a pit , whether that was added later is unknown but could this have been Lucknow ? .

    1. The Sikh wars were 1845-1846 and 1848-1849 whereas Lucknow was in 1857 but in my experience, many family stories lose some details in the retelling. Searching the newspapers, I do find a few bandmasters who were reported killed in India during the period of the mid-nineteenth century and during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 there appears to be a bandmaster killed at Shahjahanpur but I’ve been unable to find a name. “Captain Orr’s list shows that there were eleven commissioned officers from Shahjahanpur: a quartermaster-sergeant, a band-master and a drummer. There were eight women and four children of the party.” In his account, Orr said: “With the exception of the drummer-boy, every one of the [Shahjahanpur party] was killed.”

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