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21 April 2023

Misbehaviour in the Bombay Army

‘He had countenanced intemperance and unbecoming conduct among the Officers of the Regiment under his Command by permitting, unchecked and unpunished, […] instances of drunkenness and impropriety, degrading to gentlemen, and ruinous to discipline.’

In February 1854, Lt Col Thomas Gidley was found guilty of gross dereliction of duty during the previous year whilst the Commanding Officer of the East India Company’s 15th Bombay Native Infantry stationed at Bhooj.  Between January and August 1853, Gidley had allowed his officers imbibe to excess both inside and outside the Regimental confines.  He was court-martialled and struck off the strength of the Army.

The ‘Bhooj Revellers’ were Lieutenants Lewis Bingley Comyn and Robert Laurie; Ensigns Frederick James Loft, George Scrope Hammond and Thomas Degennes Fraser; and Surgeon Henry Rodney Elliot.  Their indiscretions were:
• Elliott being drunk and using indecent language at a dinner party given by the Political Agent in Cutch.
• Comyn being drunk when attending the Durbar of His Highness the Rao of Cutch.
• Loft being drunk at a dinner party given by the Political Agent of Cutch.
• Elliott, Loft and Hammond being drunk at a nautch.
• Elliott being drunk, attending Ensign Cole in a medical capacity, having come from Gidley’s house.
• Laurie being drunk in the billiard room.
• Loft being drunk at Gidley’s house whilst Duty Officer.
• Two instances at the billiard room involving inappropriate behaviour.

Photograph of the durbar hall in the palace at Bhuj  GujaratPhotograph of the durbar hall in the palace at Bhooj [Bhuj ]in Gujarat taken by an unknown photographer during the late 1870s -British Library Photo 125/3(10)

The whistleblower reporting these breaches of military discipline was Lt Frederick Alexander Campbell Kane who had joined the 15th Bombay Native Infantry in 1839.  In May 1850 he was appointed as Assistant Magistrate in Khandeish Collectorate.  There he pursued criminals with ‘commendable zeal’.  Two years later he was relieved of these duties because, according to the Bombay Gazette, ‘he had the misfortune to bring down the displeasure of the Government on him’.  Kane rejoined his regiment in March 1853 as Adjutant, the administrative right-hand man to the Commander.  Kane proceeded over the next six months to note the indiscretions of his Commander and fellow officers.

Surgeon Elliot died before he could be disciplined.  Bombay General Orders dated 27 September 1853 recorded that Elliot was indisposed and temporarily relieved of his duties.  He died on 17 October.  By 11 November, Gidley was under arrest, and on 15 November Kane was promoted to Captain.

At Gidley’s court-martial in February 1854, Comyn, Laurie, Loft, Hammond and Fraser all perjured themselves in giving evidence supporting Gidley.  They subsequently each faced a court-martial.  All were found guilty and cashiered in May 1854 except Fraser, whose sentence was commuted for reasons which are unclear.

East India Register 1855 - Bombay Army casualitiesEast India Register 1855 – Bombay Army Casualties

Six weeks later, Lt Albert George Thompson was also cashiered.  At his court-martial he was charged with insubordination and insulting behaviour for declaring to Kane, who was in command of the firing party at Elliot’s funeral, ‘You, sir, are partly the cause of the doctor’s death’.

Gidley, in allowing a culture of excessive drinking and personal approbation, and Kane, seemingly pursuing some sort of moral crusade perhaps to regain personal standing, had brought about the downfall of five young officers. One of them suffered an untimely death: Robert Laurie returned to England and died in 1856 at the age of 32 at his parents' home in Bristol.

Mark Williams
Independent researcher

Creative Commons Attribution licence

Further reading:
Bombay Gazette via British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast)
Bombay Army General Orders 1853-1854 IOR/L/MIL/17/4/423-424.


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