THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

85 posts categorized "South Asia"

12 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who became famous for his research on plants

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In the last blog post we left our fictional hero, the astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and his real-life counterpart, Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, on the fringes of Western sciences. The former fails to get international recognition for his discovery of the Little Prince’s asteroid because of his traditional Turkish clothes, the latter fails to get international recognition for his invention of a coherer that would enable wireless telegraphy because of his reluctance to patent his invention. It is now the year 1920, and things are about to change for both our heroes.

Eleven years after the astronomer’s disappointment at the International Astronomical Congress in 1909, a Turkish dictator passes a law that requires all Turkish citizens to dress in European clothes. So the astronomer returns to the congress in 1920 and repeats his demonstration, but this time “dressed with impressive style and elegance”; and this time round, “everybody accepted his report”. Also in 1920, Bose becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society. Eleven years after he was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention that paved the way for the radio, Bose has now arrived at the heart of Western scientific institutions.

Burlington_House_ILN_1873Burlington House, which housed the Royal Society 1873-1967. Via Wikimedia commons.

As Patrick Geddes writes, this “formal acceptance and recognition by his European peers” came to Bose as “the culmination of a series of discussions and incidents spread over two decades”. One such incident happened in 1901, when Bose presented his results on “Responses in the Living and Non-living”, which he published as a book in 1902, to the Royal Society. In his talk, Bose showed that external stimuli, such as poison or electricity, have a similar effect on living tissue, such as plants or muscle, and inorganic matter, such as iron oxide or tin. Bose recorded response curves for muscle, plant, and metal and was thus able to show comparable effects of external stimuli on animals, plants, and metals alike.

This was not only revolutionary, but also unacceptable to parts of his audience. Bose, the physicist, was crossing disciplinary boundaries to chemistry, biology, and physiology, and neither the chemists, nor the biologists nor, particularly, the physiologists were happy. He was asked to revise his paper and negate his own results about the electric response of plants, not because his experiments were scientifically unsound, but because Sir John Burdon Sanderson, a famous professor of physiology, did not believe what he had seen with his own eyes. After all, he had tried to obtain these results in his experiments, but never managed. How could a physicist from India possibly achieve what he had not?

PlantNice plant image, nothing to do with the text. Via the British Library Flickr Commons.

At this point of the story, it might come as no surprise that Bose refused to alter his paper, which was consequently not published in the Royal Society’s “Proceedings”. As before, Bose had to rely on time (and his colleagues) to catch up with him; and they did. Eventually. As Geddes writes about Bose’s award of the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1920: his experiments, which were “questioned and belittled in the first stage, have since added a marvellous new province to the empire of human knowledge”.

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

08 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who (almost) invented the radio

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The story of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose’s life and achievements reads somewhat like that of the Turkish astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, who discovers the asteroid from which the little prince comes. The astronomer presents his findings to the International Astronomical Congress “in a great demonstration”, but also “in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said”.

J.C.BoseThe Birth Centenary Committee, printed by P.C. Ray. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJ.C.Bose.JPG  

Like his fictional counterpart, Bose (1858 – 1937) for a long time found himself at the edges of Western sciences. He was born in India, came to England in the 1880s to study at University College, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and returned to Calcutta in 1885, where he was appointed Professor of Physics at Presidency College. Here Bose conducted experiments that would lead him to almost invent the radio – something for which his contemporaries Guglielmo Marconi (1874 – 1937) and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850 – 1918) won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909. Neither Marconi nor Braun mentioned Bose in their Nobel Lectures; despite the fact that Bose’s invention of a specific coherer, which turned out to be a crucial component for wireless telegraphy, predated Marconi’s experiments by 21 months.

However, Bose never patented his invention. Quite to the contrary: he openly displayed the construction and workings of an earlier version of his coherer when he was invited by the Royal Institution to give the prestigious Friday Evening Discourse on 29 January 1897. Afterwards, The Electric Engineer noted with “surprise that no secret was at any time made as to its construction, so that it has been open to all the world to adopt it for practical and possibly money-making purposes”. Bose’s biographer and contemporary Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932) notes that Bose was “criticised as unpractical for making no profit from his inventions”, but that it fit both his character and his conviction to seek “no personal advantage from his inventions”.

Jagadish_Chandra_Bose_microwave_apparatusDiagram of Bose's microwave spectrometer apparatus, built between 1894 and 1897. By Jagadish Chandra Bose [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Marconi had less scruples. On 12 December 1901, Marconi used Bose’s 1899 improved version of the coherer to receive the first transatlantic wireless signal. Marconi also applied for a British patent on the device that was not his, in which he did not even mention Bose’s name. Marconi deliberately muddied the waters when presenting “his” invention at a lecture at the Royal Institution on 13 June 1902. As Probir K Bondyopadhyay writes: “By the time Marconi gave his lecture at the Royal Institution, he was already under attack by his own countryman, and Marconi, through his careful choice of words, caused deliberated confusions and, using clear diversionary tactics, shifted attention to works of Hughes, who was already dead at that time”.

Bondyopadhyay’s article was published in 1998. It took almost a century to unveil the true origins of the device that brought us wireless telegraphy and the radio and to give due credit to Bose. Like the astronomer in The Little Prince, Bose did not play by the rules of Western science, and therefore nobody listened. But also like his fictional counterpart, Bose changed garb. And suddenly, people did listen. 

Keen to learn more? Head over to part two!

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

Further reading:

Bose's legacy and his contributions to the invention of wireless telegraphy are still a contested issue. For a differing account on the “Boseian myth”, see Subrata Dasgupta's book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western science, particularly pages 76-83 and pages 250-254.

01 February 2018

'A Prospect of Fort St.George and Plan of the city of Madras'

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The 'Prospect of Fort St.George’  was commissioned by  Thomas Pitt, governor 1698-1709, but was only completed after his death in 1726. The sheet consists of both a prospect (a bird’s eye view sketch of the civic buildings) and an urban plan. The map represents west at the top rather than the left of the sheet, is superbly detailed and very large - over 1 metre wide and ⅔ metre high.

Fort St George 1

All images are taken from Bodleian Library Gough Maps 41 No. 138 – ‘A prospect of Fort St. George and Plan of the City of Madras actually surveyed by order of the late Governr. T. Pitt ...’ c.1730. Reproduced here with the kind permission of the Bodleian Library.

Fort St. George was, in origin, essentially a fort. The inner citadel was built in 1640, the outer wall and four bastions by 1659, primarily as protection from the ‘inland Enemy’, variously Mughal generals, nawabs, and the rulers of Golconda.  Visitors approved of the fortifications’ height and thickness, although Andrew Cogan was summoned to explain why he had ‘extravagantly and irresponsibly built Fort St George when the Company’s stock was so small’.

The English population in Madras was very small: under 200 at the end of 1699 with 30 servants of the Company, 35 free merchants, and 38 seafaring men not constant inhabitants of the town. There were 14 widows, 10 single young women and 22 wives. The ‘native’ population of the Presidency was however estimated at 300,000 and their influx for work made Madras  a rapidly expanding town. The street names reflect the very active commerce in cloths: Comatee is the Telugu for ‘trader’, and Chitee was a member of any one of the trading castes in southern India.

Let's take a look at some of the features of the plan:

Fort St George 2Anchorage at Madras for large ocean-going Indiamen was always problematic.  Ships had to anchor some way from shore, and narrow lighters beat the ferocious surf. 
 

Fort St George 3White Town

Fort St George 4Black Town

Each community had its own space with a burying ground.  The most basic division of social space was that between Black Town and White Town (reserved for Europeans). Workers such as weavers were actively sought after by the town’s governor, but others came by themselves to avoid the arbitrary rule of the sultans of Golconda.

 Fort St George 5
The Inner and Outer Gardens were complemented by the New Gardens in the 1680s, complete with ceremonial garden houses and a pavilion. Pitt was a keen horticulturist. Visitors commented on the variety and healthiness of the guavas, oranges, mangos, grapes, lemons and coconuts grown. 

 Fort St George 6


Governor’s House, on three storeys, crenelated into a three-part façade including a central projection, was built in 1693 close on the seaboard walls.

 

Fort St George 7The northern neighbourhood of Muttial Peta was a spillover area populated by urban artisans, such as goldsmiths and blacksmiths, which developed as New Black Town (George Town) in the 1750s.
 

Fort St George 8Choultry Street (outside the Choultry Gate) was a place for transacting public business, and included the courts of law.

Fort St George 9

St Mary's 

 

Fort St George 10St Andrew's

St Mary’s was the chief Anglican church, sometimes jokingly called Westminster Abbey in the East. It was consecrated in 1680 but only received a spire in 1710. Capuchin friars ministered to the Roman Catholic ‘Portuguese’ population in St. Andrew's church until it was torn down after the Treaty of Aix La Chapelle (1748).

   

Fort St George 11The hospital was purpose built in 1692 and rebuilt in 1710. It was later demolished for defensive reasons because its height was considered excessive.

 Fort St George 12The Mint. Madras’ production of its own coins has prompted discussion about the nature of its sovereignty some time before the idea of empire was consciously put into action by the British.

 Fort St George 13The Sea Gate. Here the keys of the town were handed to the French after the infamous surrender of 1746; here too, returning ships and cargoes were sold at packed, pre-announced auctions.
 
Stefan Halikowski Smith
Department of History, Swansea University

Further reading:
University of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Gough Maps 41 No.138 – ‘A prospect of Fort St. George and Plan of the City of Madras actually surveyed by order of the late Governor T. Pitt ...’ c.1730.
British Library Maps 54570.(27.) is a collotype reduction from the original document in the Bodleian Library.
British Library - P2524 John Harris, Original copper plate for engraving 'A Prospect of Fort St George', Madras, used in Thomas Pitt's prospect and map of Madras in the Bodleian Library. c 1710. Also P363 - a modern printing of the Prospect  taken in July 1970.

Brimnes, Niels. Constructing the colonial encounter: Right and left-hand castes in early colonial South India (Richmond, 1999).
Fryer, John.  A new account of East-Indian and Persia, in eight letters. Being nine years travels, begun 1672. And finished 1681 (London, 1698).
Hamilton, Alexander. A new Account of the East Indies, (Edinburgh, 1727), 2 vols.
Lockyer, Charles. An account of the trade in India, containing rules for good government in trade, … with descriptions of Fort St. George, …, Malacca, Condore, Canton, Anjengo, …, Gombroon, Surat, Goa, Carwar, Telichery, Panola, Calicut, the Cape of Good-Hope, and St. Helena. Their inhabitants, customs, religion, government, animals, fruits, &c. To which is added, an account of the management of the Dutch in their affairs in India (London, 1711).
Love, Henry. Vestiges of Old Madras, 1600-1800, 4 vols. (London, 1913).
Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume, ed. Rao Srinivasachari, (O.U.P. 1939)
Muthiah, Subbiah. Madras discovered: A historical guide to looking around (Madras, 1981)
Srinivasachari, C.S. History of the city of Madras (Madras, 1939)
Stern, Philip J.  The company-state : corporate sovereignty and the early modern foundation of the British Empire in India, O.U.P. 2011.

 

18 January 2018

When it’s Not Rude to Point: Manicules in Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogue

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We’ve all been taught that it’s rude to point.  But did you know that a pointing finger was quite a popular symbol in early manuscripts?

KitchenerLord Kitchener's pointing finger demands Britons enlist for the First World War (Wikicommons)

First used in medieval times, the manicule became a firm favourite of the Renaissance humanists.  Many a margin would be graced by these tiny fists with an extended finger or two, pointing out notable areas in a book.  Predictably enough, the term "manicule" is taken from the Latin maniculum, or "little hand".
 Manicule blog 1

Extract from Sir Hans Sloane's catalogue, volume one.  Manicules can be seen along the left hand margin.

The library of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a physician and collector whose collections would form the foundation of the British Museum and British Library, is no exception.  These curious little scribbled fists with elongated index fingers are often encountered along the margins of volume one of his eight volume catalogue, pointing out particular works. Although the exact reason for their use by Sloane is uncertain, the manicule was traditionally used to highlight points of interest, and it is likely that they served the same purpose for Sloane.
 Manicule blog 2

Extract from Sir Hans Sloane's catalogue, volume one.  Manicules can be seen along the left hand margin.

What is more interesting is the manicules almost exclusively point to travel literature.  Sloane the armchair traveller was keen on the wider world, although he didn’t make a great deal of effort to see it in person.  As such, his materials on travel are substantial; in fact the manicules only point out selected works from quite a broad range.

These maniculed works encompass literature on numerous countries and continents, including India, China, Japan, Peru, the Americas, North Africa and Persia.  Their topics include accounts of voyages to China [566.g.5.], piracy and buccaneering in the West Indies [1197.h.2./ C.32.h.14.], sugar plantations in America [816.m.13.(156.)], the history and geography of Barbados [796.ff.20.], diplomacy in Tartaria [568.g.6.], the Berber Jewish community of North Africa [860.a.13.], and Botany and medicine in New Spain [546.g.14.].

Manicule blog 3

Illustration from The Present State of the Jews [860.a.13.]

  Manicule blog 4Title page of Diuers Voyages de la Chine, et Autres Royaumes de l'Orient [566.g.5.]

Whatever the exact reasons for Sloane’s use of manicules, the little pointing fists peppered across his catalogue makes for a fascinating exploration of his incredible collection and the materials he deemed worthy, quite literally, of pointing out.  If you would like to explore some of these works then head over to the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue and pop ‘manicule’ into the search bar.  Following Sloane’s own guiding hands, it will open a door into the varied and rich world of the travel-minded collector.

Lubaaba Al-Azami
Sloane Printed Books Catalogue

 

See an example of a manicule from the East India Company archives.

 

16 January 2018

Indian Army Peace Contingent’s visit to Britain 1919

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On 19 July 1919, there was a large Victory Parade through the streets of London to mark the end of the First World War. Around 15,000 troops led by the Allied commanders marched to the cheers of thousands of spectators. Bands played in London’s parks, and a memorial to those killed and wounded was unveiled in Whitehall.  The Indian Army had been invited to send a representative contingent to take part in the parade, but problems with shipping and an outbreak of influenza, prevented the contingent from arriving in time. Instead, it was decided that the Indian contingent would have its own Victory March through London as an acknowledgement of the vital role the Indian Armed Forces had played during the War.

Indian Contingent 1919 © IWM (Q 14954)Indian Contingent (Sikhs) passing along the Mall © IWM (Q 14954)

The India Office Records has a number of files on the arrangements for the Peace Contingent’s visit to England, which make fascinating reading. The Contingent consisted of a British detachment of 11 officers and 270 men, an Indian Army detachment of 27 British officers, 465 Indian officers and 985 Indian other ranks, and 34 Imperial Service troops of the Indian Native States. The Contingent arrived in the camp at Hampton Court on 26 July. 

Camp Orders  IOR L MIL 7 5873IOR/L/MIL/7/5873 Noc

Camp Passes IOR L MIL 7 5873IOR/L/MIL/7/5873 Noc

The procession on 2 August started at Waterloo Station, continued across Westminster Bridge, along Whitehall, and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. The King inspected the Contingent on the East lawn of the Palace, and presented some awards, including the Victoria Cross to Naik Karanbahadur Rana of the 2nd/3rd Gurkha Rifles. The King then gave a speech thanking the men for their service during the War, which was repeated in Urdu by General Sir Frederick Campbell. The troops were then given tea before returning to their camp.

Diary of Tours IOR L MIL 7 5873IOR/L/MIL/7/5873Noc

After the King’s inspection the British troops were demobilised, but the Indian troops stayed for several weeks camped at Hampton Court. The troops were entertained with outdoor games and sports and in the evenings lectures were given, and a cinema was established by the Young Men’s Christian Association. Groups of officers and men were taken on day trips to London and other parts of Britain. These trips included a bombing display by the Royal Air Force, the steel works of Vickers Ltd in Sheffield, the shipyards of John Brown and the Fairfield Engineering Works on the Clyde and Portsmouth Dockyard. In London trips were organised to the Houses of Parliament, Tower of London, Kew Gardens, St Paul's Cathedral, and also to some schools. There were also regular shopping trips to the West End.

Bombing Display IOR L MIL 7 5873IOR/L/MIL/7/5873 Noc

 

London Bus Guide for 1919 IOR L MIL 7 5873London Bus Guide 1919 IOR/L/MIL/7/5873 Noc

The Peace Contingent left for India in the middle of September 1919, and the India Office marked the occasion by issuing a souvenir book, beautifully illustrated by the artist W Luker Jnr. 

Souvenir Book IOR L MIL 17 5 2420NocIOR/L/MIL/17/5/2420

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Our Indian Army. A record of the Peace Contingent's visit to England, 1919 (India Office, 1919): IOR/L/MIL/17/5/2420
India Office Military Department files on the Peace Contingent’s visit: IOR/L/MIL/7/5872-5876

 

11 January 2018

The fascinating life of Stella Alexander

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In 2016 the British Library acquired the papers of Stella Alexander, a Quaker and scholar of Yugoslav history. She lived a long and fascinating life, and her papers are a rich resource for a wide variety of research subjects. Her letters and draft unpublished memoir give first-hand accounts of diplomatic and expat life in 1920s and 1930s China, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and Chinese customs and society. The reports she wrote for the Quakers on her visits to Yugoslavia give rare eye-witness reports of life in eastern Europe during the Cold War. Her work for the Quakers and her travels round India, where she met Gandhian educationalists at Sevagram, are also covered thoroughly by the papers.

SA 1929Stella Alexander née Tucker in Shanghai, 1929 - British Library Add MS 89279

Stella Tucker was born a “privileged alien” in Shanghai in 1912, the daughter of an American bullion broker. She was educated in Shanghai, the United States, and Oxford. After graduation she married John Alexander, a British diplomat, and returned to China in the midst of a tempestuous time in the country’s history. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and occupied Shanghai in 1932.

The life of a diplomat’s wife involved seemingly non-stop entertaining of diplomats, politicians, and journalists, but it was not all glamour; it was also peripatetic and the family (including their two children) moved frequently with John’s postings, with each move necessitating setting up home anew.

It would have been easy for Stella to settle into the “the narrow, shallow-rooted life” of the diplomatic community, but instead she took the trouble to learn Chinese, spoke Chinese not pidgin English to her staff, made Chinese friends, and ensured her children played with local children.

This comfortable life changed dramatically in December 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. Foreign diplomats in China were interned, in the case of the Alexanders in the Cathay Hotel, “in adequate comfort… like a prolonged ocean cruise”, according to Stella. It was a far cry from the conditions that the thousands of internees without diplomatic status had to endure.

In September 1942 the family was among approximately 1500 Allied citizens who were exchanged for a similar number of Japanese civilians who had been interned in the United States and Stella returned to the US.

It became increasingly difficult for Stella to follow John’s postings, and his frequent secondments and moves between Paris, New York, and Geneva, and the lengthy separations these occasioned, eventually took their toll and they divorced amicably in 1950.

After her divorce Stella worked for the United Nations Association, travelled round India for a year, and became increasingly involved in the Quakers, representing the London Yearly Meeting at the UN General Assembly in 1957. It was through her work for the Quakers that Stella developed her other great interest. After meeting three young Yugoslavs at a seminar in 1957 she became enthralled by the country. She visited almost annually from 1961 into the 1970s, travelling round by bus and train, often alone, learned Serbo-Croat, and wrote academic tomes on Yugoslav subjects.

Alexander  Stella 2Stella Alexander in later life - photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Anthony Upton.  © Anthony Upton

Stella remained active in Quaker affairs, even after being received into the Catholic Church in 1991, and lived out her long and active life in London, surrounded by children and grandchildren. She died, aged 85, in 1998. The phrase ‘a life well lived’ could have been written for her.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager

Further reading:
British Library Add MS 89279
Stella Alexander, Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945 (Cambridge: University Press, 1979).
Stella Alexander, The Triple Myth: A Life of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1987).

 

09 January 2018

Charles Kingsley’s grandfather in the East India Company Army

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Ensign Charles Kingsley (grandfather of the author of The Water-Babies) was born in 1743. In March 1769 he sailed to Calcutta as a Practitioner Engineer to work on the construction of the new Fort William on a salary of 107 Rupees per month, on the recommendation of Anselm Beaumont, his father’s first cousin. Copies of letters written in 1771-72 show that he was unhappy, having not received the promotion that he had been promised, accidentally losing an eye, and in poor health.

Fort William CalcuttaDetail of handcoloured etching with aquatint of the south west view of Fort William in Calcutta by William Baillie (1752/3-1799) from Twelve views of Calcutta (1794) Online Gallery

In April 1772 he wrote: “Mr Pinman and I have hired a small house about a mile & a half from the Fort in the Country, there is a Garden containing an Acre of Ground, and a fish Pond in it – The house contains a hall & two rooms, and we propose adding two more with such out-houses and conveniences as may be wanting, which will cost me nothing. I shall here have an opportunity of raising my own Poultry feeding Sheep &c which with the fish Pond & produce of the Garden will enable me to live very reasonably, and I shall be out of the way of that number of people who are always calling in upon you in the Fort, besides this I can put 30 Rupees amount of my allowances of rent into my pocket which will [make] some addition to my present small income”.

  Kingsley - Mother's LetterLetter sent to Kingsley by his mother 6 April 1771 – Author’s collection

Two months later he wrote: “The comfortable way of living is already at an end, as I am in orders to proceed the 20 [June] to take the command of the Fort at Budge Budge [about 12 miles down-river from Fort William] – The Garrison consists of 3 Officers, one of Sepoys, a Gentleman to assist me and myself, there are 50 Invalids, 100 Sepoys and 100 Artillery Lascars besides the workmen belonging to the Forts”. In July he wrote: “I am now fixed at Budge Budge as Commanding Officer, Doctor and Parson – I administer Medicines, but neither bleed or amputate, I baptise & bury, but do not read prayers, unless I can get an allowance for it”.
 

Kingsley Letter 9 July 1772Kingsley’s letter to his mother 9 July 1772 including a description of the garden at Budge Budge – Author’s collection

Also in July he wrote “I am very pleasantly situated in this place, have a good house to live in (of which I am Master) & a garden, two fishponds supplied with very fine fish, some of them 5 or 6 feet long – I have also a good breed of Geese, Ducks, Rabbits, Fowls and Pidgeons, I keep Sheep, Goats & Kids with a Cow & Calf – my unnecessarys are a Monkey, Mongoose, Civet Cats and a young Crocodile – Excepting the Climate you I dare say could spend some time very agreeably here”. In August he wrote “My situation is very disagreeable here as at present the Country for many miles around is under water, & will be so for at least a month – the air is hot moist & putrid”.

Charles was made a Lieutenant in September 1773 and he resigned in September 1775. He returned to England in 1776 and died in 1786 aged 43, having received over £20,000 as residuary legatee in Anselm Beaumont’s will.

Peter Covey-Crump
Independent researcher

Further reading:
More on Anselm Beaumont - English Nabob amasses a fortune from salt in Bengal 
PAK Covey-Crump, Letters from India to his family in England from Charles Kingsley, East India Company, Calcutta MSS Eur F562
Major V. C. P. Hodson, List of Officers of the Bengal Army 1758-1834

 

02 January 2018

Forfeiting a Victoria Cross

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Documents in the India Office Records shed some light on the story of a flawed Victorian military hero.

The man in question is Edward James Collis, who was serving as a Gunner with the Royal Horse Artillery during the Second Afghan War when an act of near-suicidal bravery gained him the country's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. The citation in the London Gazette of 17 May 1881 gives brief details of his feat:

' ... during the retreat from Maiwand to Kandahar, on the 28th July 1880, when the officer commanding the battery was endeavouring to bring in a limber [part of a gun carriage], with wounded men, under a cross-fire, in running forward and drawing the enemy's fire on himself, thus taking off their attention from the limber'.

Battle of MaiwandBattle of Maiwand - from Archibald Forbes and Major Arthur Griffiths, Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century (1895) BL flickr

The battle of Maiwand, fought on the previous day, had been a disaster for the British, who lost almost 1,000 officers and men killed in action. As it was deemed impractical to travel back to the UK for the purpose, Collis was presented with the medal at Poona on 11 July 1881 by Sir Frederick Roberts, who had himself won the Victoria Cross during the Indian ‘Mutiny’.

Collis later joined the Bombay Police, marrying a widow, Adela Skuse, on 14 March 1882 and fathering four children in quick succession - Arthur (born on 5 January 1883), Elsie (born 5 May 1884), William (born 11 December 1885) and finally Robert (born 7 October 1887). By the time of Robert’s birth, he was working as a railway engine driver.

Unfortunately the domestic bliss of the family was not to last. Eight years later, on 6 August 1895, the Assistant Commissioner of Police at New Scotland Yard wrote to the Chief of Police in Bombay. He requested assistance in tracing Mrs Collis, as part of an investigation into a charge of bigamy. Collis had left India and married again in Wandsworth on 26 February 1893, his hapless bride having no inkling that he already had a wife and family in far-off Bombay. The un-divorced and still living first Mrs Collis having been located, in November 1895 her errant husband was sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour.

Contemporary regulations dictated that he was also obliged to forfeit his precious medal which, in a further sad twist, poverty had driven him to pawn. He is thought to be one of only eight individuals who came to be deprived of their Victoria Cross through subsequent dishonourable behaviour.

Collis Evening Star 26 Nov 1895Evening Star 26 November 1895 British Newspaper Archive 

Collis Worcester Journal 30 Nov 1895Worcester Journal 30 November 1895 British Newspaper Archive

Collis died aged 62 in June 1918, and was buried with full military honours. His medal, which had no doubt brought him both pride and pain, can be seen in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services

Further reading:
The Victoria Cross, 1856 – 1920, edited by Sir O'Moore Creagh and E.M. Humphris, - shelfmark OIA355.134.
Correspondence on the Collis bigamy case is in files 2057 & 2081 of the volume IOR/L/PJ/6/409 and press reports can be found in the British Newspaper Archive
Collis’s marriage to Adela and the baptisms of their children can be viewed on the Find My Past website, free of charge in any British Library Reading Room.