Personal account of Thomas Henry Kavanagh



While passing through the entrenchments of Lucknow about 10 o’clock a.m. on the 9th instant, I learnt that a spy had come in from Cawnpore, and that he was going back in the night as far as Alum Bagh with despatches to His Excellency Sir Colin Cambell, the Commander–in-Chief, who it is said was approaching Lucknow with five or six thousand men.

Thomas Henry Kavanagh & Kunoujee Lall

I sought out the spy, shoe name was Kunoujee Lall, and who was a nazir in the court of the Deputy Commissioner of Durriabad before the outbreak in Oudh. He had taken letters from the entrenchments before; but I had never seen him till now. I found him intelligent, and imparted to him my desire to venture in disguise to Alum Bagh in his company. He hesitated a great deal at acting as my guide, but made to attempt to exaggerate the danger of the road. He merely urged that we should take different roads, and meet outside the city; to which I objected. I left him to transact some business, my mind dwelling all the time on the means of accomplishing my object.

I had some days previously witnessed the preparation of plans which were being made by direction of Sir James Outram to assist the Commander-in-Chief in his march into Lucknow for the relief of the besieged, and it the occurred to me that some one with the requisite local knowledge ought to attempt to reach His Excellency’s camp beyond or at Alum Bagh. The news of Sir Colin Cambell’s advance revived the idea, and I made up my mind to go myself.

At 2 o’clock after finishing the business I was engaged upon, I mentioned to Colonel R. Napier, Chief of Sir James Outram’s Staff, that I was willing to proceed through the enemy to Alum Bagh, if the General thought my doing so would be of service to the Commander-in-Chief. He was surprised at the offer, and seemed to regard the enterprise as fraught with too much danger to be assented to; but did me the favour of communicating the offer to Sir James Outram, because he considered that my zeal deserved to be brought to his notice.

Sir James did not encourage me to undertake the journey, declaring that he thought it so dangerous that he would not himself have asked any officer to attempt it. I, however, spoke so confidently of success, and treated the danger so lightly, that he at last yielded, and did me the honour of adding that if I succeeded in reaching the Commander-in-Chief my knowledge would be of great help to him.

I secretly arranged for a disguise so that my departure might not be known to my wife, as she was not well enough to bear the prospect of an external separation. When I left home about seven o’clock in the evening, she thought I was gone on duty for the night to the mines; for I was working as an Assistant Field Engineer, by order of Sir James Outram.

Thomas Henry prepares his disguise

By 7.30 o’clock my disguise was completed and when I entered the room of Colonel Napier no on it it recognized me. I was dressed as a bud mash, or as an irregular soldier of the city, with sort and shield, native-made shoes, tight trousers, a yellow silk Koortag (Coat) over a tight-fitting white muslin shirt, a yellow-coloured chintz sheet thrown round my shoulders a cream-coloured turban, and a white waist-band or kummerbund. My face, down to the shoulders, and my hands to the wrists, were coloured with lamp-black, the cork used being dipped in oil, to cause the colour to adhere a little; I could get nothing better. I had little confidence in the disguise of my features, and I trusted more to the darkness of the night; but Sir James Outram and his staff seemed satisfied, and after being provided with a small double barrelled pistol and a pair of broad pyjamahs over the tight drawers, I proceeded with Kunoujee Lall to the right bank of the River Goompty, running north of our entrenchments, accompanied by Captain Harding of the Irregular Cavalry.

Here we undressed, and quietly forded the river, which was only about four and a half feet deep, and about a hundred yards wide at this point. My courage failed me while in the water, and if my guide had been within reach I should, perhaps, have pulled him back and abandoned the enterprise. But he waded quickly through the stream, and, reaching the opposite bank, went crouching up a ditch for three hundred yards to a grove of low trees on the edge of a pond, where we stopped to dress. While we were here a man came down to the pond to wash, and went away again without observing us.

My confidence now returned to me, and with my tulwar (Sword) resting on my shoulder, we advanced into the huts in front, where I accosted a match-lockman, who answered my remark (that the night was cold): “It is very cold; in fact it is a cold night.” I passed him, adding that it would be colder bye-and-bye.

After going six hundred yards further, we reached the iron bridge over the Goompty, where we were stopped and called over by a native officer who was in an upper-storied house, and seemed to be in command of a cavalry picquet, whose horses were near the place - saddled. My guide advanced to the light, and I stayed a little back in the shade. After being told that we had come from Mundeon (our old cantonment, and then in possession of the enemy) and that we were going into the city to our homes, he let us proceed. We continued on along the left bank of the river to the stone bridge, which is about eight or nine hundred yards from the iron bridge; passing unnoticed through a number of Sepoys and matchlockmen, some of whom were escorting persons of rank in palankeens (litters) preceded by torches.

Recrossing the Goompty by the stone bridge, we went by a sentry unobserved, who was closely questioning a dirtily dressed native, and into the Chouk, or principal street of the city of Lucknow, which was not illuminated so much as it used to be previous to the siege; nor was it so crowded. I jostled against several armed men in the street without being spoken to; and only met one guard of seven Sepoys, who were amusing themselves with some women of pleasure.

When issuing from the city into the country, we were challenged by a chokeydar or watchman, who, without stopping us, merely asked who we were. The part of the city traversed by me that night seemed to have been deserted by at least a third of its inhabitants.

I was in great spirits when we reached the green fields, into which I had not been for five months. Everything around me smelt sweet, and a carrot I took from the roadside was the most delicious I had ever tasted. I gave vent to my feelings in a conversation with Kunoujee Lall, who joined me in my admiration of the province of Oudh, and lamented that it was now in the hands of wretches whose misgovernment and rapacity was ruining it. A further walk of a few miles was accomplished in high spirits.. But there was trouble before us. We had taken the wrong road, and were now quite out of our way – in the Dilkoosha Park, which was occupied by the enemy. I went within twenty yards of two guns, to see what strength they were, and returned to the guide, who was in great alarm and begged I would not distrust him because of the mistake, as it was caused by his anxiety to take me away from the picquet of the enemy. I bade him not be frightened of me, for I was not annoyed, as such accidents were not unfrequent, even when there was no danger to be avoided. It was now about midnight. We endeavoured to persuade a cultivator, who was watching his crop to show us the way for a short distance, but he urged old age and lameness; and another, whom I peremptorily told to come with us, ran off screaming, and alarmed the whole village. We walked quickly away into the canal running under the Char Bagh, in which I fell several times, owing to my shoes being wet and slippery and my feet sore. The shoes were hard and tight, and had rubbed the skin off my toes, and cut the flesh above the heels.

In two hours more we were again in the right direction, two women in a village we passed having kindly helped us to find it. About 1 o’clock reached an advanced picquet of Sepoys, who told us the way, after asking where we had come from, and whither we were going. I thought it safest to go up to the picquet than to try and pass them unobserved. Kunoujee Lall now begged I would not press him to take me to Alum Bagh, as he did not know the way in, and the enemy were strongly posted around the place. I was tired, and in pain from the shoes, and would therefore have preferred going into Alum Bagh but as the guide feared attempting it, I desired him to go on to the camp of the Commander-in-Chief, which he said was near Bunnee upon the Cawnpore road. The moon had risen by this time, and we could see well ahead.

By 3 o’clock we arrived at a grove of mango trees, situated on a plain, in which a man was singing at the top of his voice; I thought he was a villager, but he got alarmed on hearing us approach, and astonished us too by calling out a guard of twenty-five Sepoys, all of whom asked questions. Kunoujee Lall here lost heart for the first time and threw away the letter entrusted to him for Sir Colin Cambell. I kept mine safe in my turban. We satisfied the guard that we were poor men travelling to Umroula, a village two miles this side of the Commander-in-Chief’s camp, to inform a friend of the death of his brother by a shot from the British entrenchment at Lucknow, and they told us the road. They appeared to be greatly relieved that it was not their terrible foe who was only a few miles in advance of them. We went in the direction indicated by them, and after walking for half-an-hour we got into a jheel or swamp, which are numerous and large In Oudh. We had to wade through it for two hours, up to our waists in water, and through weeds; for before we found out that we were in a jheel we had gone too far to recede. I was nearly exhausted on getting out of the water, having made great exertions to force our way through the weeds, and to prevent the colour from being washed off my face – it was nearly gone from my hands.

I now rested for fifteen minutes, despite the remonstrances of the guide, and went forward, passing two picquets of the enemy, who had no sentries thrown out. It was near 4 o’clock in the morning when I stopped at the corner of a tope, or grove of trees, to sleep for an hour, which Kunoujee Lall entreated I would not do; but I thought he over-rated the danger, and, lying down, I told him to see if there was any one in the grove who would tell him where we then were.
He had not gone far when I heard the English challenge, “Who goes there ?” with a native accent : we had reached a British cavalry outpost! My eyes filled with joyful tears; I Shook the Sikh officer in charge of the picquet by the hand; the old soldier was as pleased as myself when he heard from whence I had come, and he was good enough to send two of his men to conduct me to the camp of the advance guard.

An officer of H.M.’s 9th Lancers, who was visiting his picquets, met me on the way, and took me to his tent, where I got dry stockings and trousers, and –what I much needed- a glass of brandy, a liquor I had not tasted for nearly two months.

I thanked god for having safely conducted me through this dangerous enterprise; and Kunoujee Lall for the courage and intelligence with which he had conducted himself during this trying night. When we were questioned he let me speak as little as possible; he always had a ready answer, and I feel that I am indebted to him n a great measure more than to myself for my escape. It would give me great satisfaction to hear that he had been suitably rewarded.

In undertaking this enterprise, I was actuated by a sense of duty, believing that I could be of use to His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief when approaching for the relief of the besieged garrison, which had heroically resisted the attack of thirty times its own number for nearly five months within a weak and irregular entrenchment; and secondly, because I was anxious to perform some service which would ensure to me the honour of wearing our Most Gracious Majesty’s Cross.

My reception by Sir Colin Cambell and his Staff was cordial and kind to the utmost degree, and if I never have more than the remembrance of their condescension and of the heartfelt congratulations of Sir James Outram and of all officers of his garrison on my safe return to them, I should not repine; though –to be sure- having the Victoria Cross would make me a prouder and happier man.

Signed - Thomas Henry Kavanagh

Alum Bagh, Novemeber 24, 1857


Thomas Henry Kavanagh in helmet, seated front row.
Thomas Henry in helmet, seated front row.

A lot of the information and photographs on Thomas Henry appear courtesy of Richard Arman.