Volume: 14, No: 05 ; May-2020
Indian uprising of 1857 had earned quite a few Victoria Cross (VC) and understandably so, as this was the toughest situation British ever faced anywhere in their empire. Only a miracle could have bailed them out of it and crushing the rebellion was indeed one.
One amongst these was VC to a civilian (there are in all five VCs awarded to civilians), Thomas Henry Kavanagh in the siege of Lucknow for showing exemplary courage, beyond the call of his duty. Thomas was an Irish man born in 1821 and one of three siblings. His father was a bandmaster in the 3rd (Buffs) Regiment.
Kavanaghs moved to India in 1834 when Thomas’ father was transferred to Meerut (now a business town in today’s state of Uttar Pradesh, about 115 km from Delhi that had witnessed the siege too). Thomas landed a job of a desk clerk in Meerut Commissionerate, where he worked till 1839. Later till 1843 Thomas worked in Mussoorie for a trader and went on to become a head clerk in the treasury of government in Ambala (Punjab). Moving on from here Thomas went to Lahore (now in Punjab of Pakistan) to join the Board of Administration and further on he worked as Asst Magistrate at Jalandhar (Punjab). Of course Thomas was well employed and also was advancing well in his career; still he was under great financial stress due to debts. After working in Jalandhar he went to Multan (now in Punjab of Pakistan) where he almost lost his job for excessive debts on him but just then, Lord Dalhousie came to his rescue and got him a job of a Superintendent at the Office of the Chief Commissioner in Lucknow.
In 1857 when Lucknow came under threat, Thomas Henry Kavanagh was stationed in Lucknow with his wife and four of his ten children. Thomas (referred as Kavanagh, his surname with which he was rather popular) was then given the charge to organise the male civilian population into war units and his primary work was to issue arms to the civilian population in Lucknow. In fact he found this work silly and was not too comfortable with this idea. In the end of July 1857 when Lucknow’s humid summers were at peak the larger issue was the widespread epidemic of smallpox and cholera to which Kavanagh had lost Cecil, his eldest son and was quite worried for the rest of his family here. After all Thomas Henry Kavanagh was a simple family man.
Much awaited relief forces led by General Henry Havelock entered Lucknow after freeing Cawnpore (now Kanpur) of the rebels and it was then that Kavanagh’s role came into prominence. In October of 1857 he was made an Asst Engineer and given the work of detecting land mines that were laid by the rebels and clearing the route for the relief forces to make their way. It was not an easy job and that too for a civilian. It involved moving through dark tunnels that were now cold as winter was setting in, being in them for the rebels to come and shoot them off to secure the area. In fact on one such mission Kavanagh went far into the tunnel to capture mining tools of the rebel forces and ended up in an encounter with the rebels, who challenged Kavanagh to capture the tools if he dared which surprisingly, with no military background he did. Kavanagh so swiftly like an eagle took away the tolls in front of the rebels, before the rebels could realise what had happened or could react. Sikh soldiers nicknamed Kavanagh as “Barda Surang Walla” (the Great Miner) for his swift, timely and daring actions.
Kavanagh came to know on 9th November 1857 that an Indian messenger, Kunoujee Lal, had reached Lucknow Residency with a plan from Colin Campbell, who by then had entered Cawnpore and was confident of relieving Lucknow within a week. Kavanagh was not happy with this plan and insisted that local knowledge was of utmost importance here. Just then a plan was made to help Campbell enter and relive Lucknow. Having met Kunoujee Lal he explained his side of plan and wanted to accompany him on his return journey and meet Colin Campbell. The messenger was not willing as that could have meant an added risk. Colonel Napier was then approached by Kavanagh. Napier too initially thought the idea of Kavanagh accompanying Kunoujee Lal was just not good as it was impossible for a red haired, white European to dodge enemy eyes. Reluctantly, Napier told James Outram of this idea, and as expected he too did not accept it. Kavanagh was determined and then he himself convinced Outram by applying black colour on his face and entering a meeting where Outram himself was there. No one could actually recognise him and was rather asked to be thrown out of the meeting venue, just then, Kavanagh revealed his identity which convinced Outram immediately.
Kunoujee Lal, the messenger of Colin Campbell and Thomas Henry Kavanagh then travelled in the night to meet Sir Colin Campbell reaching him at 0500 hrs next day. Kavanagh took out Outram’s plan from his turban and handed it over to Colin Campbell. In the breakfast meeting Kavanagh told Campbell of his journey to reach him which did impress Campbell.
Relief forces then left for Lucknow the next day. By now the information of Thomas Kavanagh having reached Campbell successfully with the plan, had reached Lucknow Residency. This did bring hope in despair among the British under siege here. Forces led by Colin Campbell attacked Lucknow on the 14th day of November 1857, though the advance was temporarily stopped at the bridge which was unexpectedly well defended by the rebels.
Another daring act was when Thomas Kavanagh tried to travel all alone back to the Residency to meet James Outram. He very bravely, all by himself, without any cover just ran through the streets amidst continued firing by the rebels all through. Kavanagh successfully did meet James Outram. Further on, Kavanagh now accompanied both Havelock and Outram, escorting them through rebel fire to a point where, Havelock, Outram and Campbell met. Such a daring man Kavanagh, a non-military person really surprised Campbell once again.
Later, Thomas Kavanagh became a mediator to manage the surrender of the rebel forces to the British. Finally the uprising was crushed and Lucknow, rather rest of the country too was free of rebels. In 1859 Thomas Henry Kavanagh with his family went back to England. By now he was a hero and the news of his heroic deeds were famous in Britain. For his daring services beyond the call of his duty in Lucknow, the Indian government gave him a cash prize of £2,000 (which was too much in those times).
Back in England, Thomas Henry Kavanagh’s name was forwarded for the Victoria Cross but was unfortunately not considered; citing that he was a civilian and this award could only be decorated on a military person. Another civilian, Ross Mangles’ name too was among the deserving candidates for VC and many acknowledged the fact that both rightly deserved it. Then a special letter written by Sir Colin Campbell was sent, which changed the Royal Warrant, now allowing a civilian to receive it. Finally on 6th July 1859 it was declared that even the civilians who took up arms voluntarily in wars could receive Victoria Cross. On 8th July 1859 the London Gazette published Thomas Henry Kavanagh’s citation.
On 4th January 1860 Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself in the Windsor Castle presented the medal to the two civilians, Thomas Henry Kavanagh and Ross Mangles. Kavanagh was additionally also awarded the Indian Mutiny Medal for the defence of Lucknow.
Thomas Henry Kavanagh was of course a daring personality but was also quite a self-respecting man. Probably, he was not too happy with all the controversies that initially surrounded his award of VC. Kavanagh later came back to India and got a book published here titled, ‘How I Won the Victoria Cross’ where he mentioned about his displeasure, for which he was extensively criticised.
His good friend from Lucknow, Gen Napier who was now the Governor of Gibraltar invited him in 1882. Accepting the invite, Thomas Henry Kavanagh sailed to be with him but unfortunately he fell quite ill on the ship and immediately upon arrival, he was admitted to the hospital where he died on 11th November. His daring acts and valour were still fresh in the minds of people thus on his death he was accorded full military honours. Two hundred men of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment carried his coffin to the North Front Cemetery and the Victoria Cross medal awarded to Thomas Henry Kavanagh is now placed in the National Army Museum in Chelsea.
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