Monday, October 9, 2017

Elizabeth Mitchell, child of the regiment and a last survivor of the Mutiny

When Elizabeth Ring (nee Mitchell) died aged 90 in 1935, she was one of the last women to have witnessed the first outbreak of the Indian Mutiny.

Her life story is typical of that of a woman who had close connections to a particular battalion and regiment in the army during the mid-19th Century, in this case the 1st Battalion of the 60th Regiment, also known as the King's Royal Rifles.

Her father was George Mitchell, a regimental Master Tailor who would have been in charge of looking after the uniforms, and who had the good fortune to be allowed to take his family with him when he was posted to India.

Although the exact date of Elizabeth's birth is unknown, it was c. 1845-46 that she was born at sea on HMS Neptune. In that era before the construction of the Suez Canal, sailing ship voyages to India could take anything up to six months (Newspaper reports of the time confirm the 1st Battalion of the 60th Regiment sailed in HMS Neptune from Cork in July 1845.)

Elizabeth Mitchell was born on HMS Neptune (Illustrated London News)

When Elizabeth was just three years old her mother died - under what circumstances are unknown but the death rate for Europeans in India was notoriously high from diseases and infections - and so she became "a child of the regiment" which in 1857 was stationed at the cantonment of Meerut.

Child of the Regiment, c. 1854-55, John Everett Millais

Meerut had been established in 1804 and was one of the better places in India, with many delightful bungalows and well-established gardens and although its climate was marginally better than many other military towns, it could still turn hellish in the blistering Indian summer months.

On Sunday 10 May 1857, Elizabeth was about twelve years old. In the morning she may well have attended the 7 a.m. service at the local church, St. John's, one of the biggest and finest churches in all of India. * 

St John's Church, Meerut

In May, the temperature can often be well in excess of 40 degrees C for many days at a time, so it is unlikely the soldiers and their families would have been particularly active on that particular Sunday.

Meanwhile, unrest had been growing for some time in the sepoy ranks. Two months earlier, the sepoy known as Mangal Pandey went crazy and shot at two Europeans and was hanged at Barrackpore. He had many supporters who were angry that the new cartridges for their Enfield rifles were rumoured to be greased with beef and pork fat. As the men were required to bite off one end in order to use them, this was unacceptable, the cow being a holy animal to Hindus and the pig an unclean one to Muslims. 

Enfield cartridges c. 1858

On 24 April, the commander of the 3rd Bengal Light Calvary at Meerut, Lieut. Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, who had been warned about the problem with the cartridges but chose to ignore it, ordered the sepoys to use them. When 85 men out of a company of 90 refused, Smyth stripped them of their uniforms, shackled them and ordered their imprisonment for 10 years. This humiliation was the last straw, the men mutinied and the police chief Dhan Singh Gurjar was faced with rampaging chaos. He joined with the rebels and released the imprisoned sepoys from the local gaol. And so began the revenge on the European officers of the East India Company. 

They were cut down wherever the mob found them. Some were just relaxing in the local bazaar at a "pop shop" drinking ginger beer and lemonade when they were set upon, shot, or hacked to pieces, with little time to raise the alarm, not helped by the fact the extreme heat kept many of the senior Europeans officers indoors and in an indolent state, completely unaware of what was happening.

From Illustrated London News, The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut, 1857

Even when told by their servants of the rampaging mob, they didn't believe them and it was only in the late afternoon and evening that the true and awful extent of what was happening was discovered, and with several more officers and civilians being killed by marauding sepoys and their followers when they ventured out to evening service at the church. Officers' quarters were looted and set alight.

Illustrated London News. Preparing defences at Meerut.
The women and children, most likely including Elizabeth, stayed in the building on the right.

In addition to army officers and their wives and children, several civilians were also killed in random acts of savagery. The large number of loyal Indians who tried to defend or hide their employers but were also murdered by the sepoys remains unknown.

It was a young regimental bugler called George Ring who was said to be the first to sound the alarm that the sepoys had mutinied. A few years later, Elizabeth would marry George and accompany him on other postings throughout the Empire.

Born in Corfu in 1838, George must have been a 60th Regiment child as well. He attested for the 1st Battalion at Limerick in 1853 at the age of 14 years 9 months. During his time in the army, he served in the East Indies (India) for 6 years 4 months, in Malta for 1 year 6 months, and in Canada for 9 years 3 months.

George left the army in 1877, aged 39. The varied birth places shown in the UK Census Returns for 1881 and 1891 for the children of George and Elizabeth, reflect the time they were based in Ottawa and New Brunswick. George retired as a Serjeant with good conduct badges, an Indian Mutiny medal and a 2nd class certificate of education, but he had suffered a number of demotions to episodes of drunkenness, not uncommon in soldiers' records of that time. As well as being a Chelsea Pensioner, George also worked as a Messenger for the War Office. He died in 1897.

In the Census of 1911, Elizabeth Ring, aged 65, was a widow, living at 37 Handforth road, Brixton, London S.W. She had given birth to 10 children, 3 of which had died. Living with her was one son, Henry, and two grandchildren, also a boarder, Henry Ellerington, aged 64, widower, who had the very modern job of a Licensed Motor Cab Driver, in other words, a taxi driver. 

(What Elizabeth's connection was to Henry Ellerington raises some interesting questions, as Henry was on trial at the Old Bailey for embezzlement the previous year 1910 and by 1913 he was reduced to living in the Lambeth Workhouse!) 

This article is from the Lancashire Evening Post of 27 May 1930:
Mutiny Memories of a Woman
In a quiet street off the Brixton road, a gentle, grey-haired old lady who lives with her daughter, spends much of her time gazing over the 85 years of her life to the thrilling days of her childhood.
She is Mrs. George Ring, who claims to be one of the few women survivors of the Indian Mutiny, in this country.Mrs. Ring was the daughter of Master-Tailor George Mitchell, of the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles, and was born on H.M.S. Neptune while the ship was on the high seas carrying the battalion to India.
Travelling to India was very different in those days from what it is now,” she said, to-day. “It took us over six months, and I remember on the return journey we were days without any water. My mother died when I was three years old, and I was brought up with the battalion. I was 12 years old when the Indian Mutiny broke out, and my father was stationed with the battalion at Meerut. I remember it all as clearly as if it were only yesterday. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, and the alarm was given by Sergeant George Ring, who was the bugler of the Quarter-Guard.” 
Mrs. Ring broke off here and left the most romantic part of her story for her daughter to tell. That little English girl who stood thrilled while Sergeant Ring sounded his call, afterwards became his bride.
During those weeks of the mutiny Mrs. Ring remained at Meerut assisting the nurses and even helping to carry the wounded and dead. Hanging on the wall of her bedroom in her Brixton home are the medals won by her father and her husband during the mutiny.

The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of 15 May 1935 reports the death of Elizabeth:

Indian Mutiny Heroine Dead
Last woman survivor of the Indian Mutiny 78 years ago, Mrs. George Ring, of Handforth-road, Brixton, has died at the age of 90.
Mrs. Ring, who was at Meerut, later married the bugler who sounded the alarm for the rising.

* Click here for present day images of the churchyard, including some of the graves of the victims of Meerut, including that of Charlotte Chambers, the wife of a Captain in the 11th Native Infantry. The many conflicting versions of her death will be related in a subsequent blog post.

No comments: