b. 15/07/1821 Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland. d. 13/11/1882 Gibraltar
Thomas Henry Kavanagh (1821-1882) was one of the most celebrated VCs of the Indian Mutiny. He also caught the British public’s imagination as one of the only five (to date) civilian VCs. Born on 15th July 1821 in Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland, he was the third son of the bandmaster of the 3rd (Buffs) Regiment.
The family moved with their father when he was posted to India in 1834 where the 3rd Regiment were stationed at Meerut. When he was old enough, young Thomas was employed as a clerk in the office of the Commissioner for Meerut until 1839. He then worked in a Counting House for a merchant at Mussoree until 1843 before becoming head clerk to the Government Treasury at Ambala. Another move found him appointed head clerk at the Board of Administration at Lahore and then assistant magistrate at Jullindur. Despite being constantly in employment and gradually moving up the civil service ladder, he was struggling financially. He then transferred to Mooltan, but was almost fired for his mounting debts. He had to be saved by Lord Dalhousie who secured him a job of Superintendent of the Office of the Chief Commissioner in Lucknow.
When the siege of Lucknow began, Kavanagh had his wife, Agnes, and four of his ten children with him. He was in charge of the male civilians and set about organising them into a fighting unit. He issued arms, but some felt it was a foolish move. By the end of July 1857, the bigger threat was disease particularly cholera, fever and smallpox. Thomas lost his eldest son, Cecil, to sickness and was worried it would happen to more of his children.
Relief finally came with the arrival of Havelock’s column, and Kavanagh was determined to play a prominent role. By the end of October 1857, he was appointed assistant field engineer. Kavanagh’s responsibility was to discover mines being dug by the rebels and destroy them with countermining. It involved crawling through cold, dark tunnels and lying in wait for a rebel miner, and shooting him. On one occasion, he had crawled too far in order to retrieve the enemy miner’s tools, and alerted the rebels. He was challenged to get tools if he was daring enough. Kavanagh leapt into the tunnel and retrieved the tools before they could react. He was nicknamed “Burra Surungwalla” (the Great Miner) for his actions by the Sikh soldiers.
On 29th November 1857, he learned that Kunoujee Lal, an Indian messenger, had managed to get into the Residency. He carried with him a despatch from Sir Colin Campbell who had reached Cawnpore and hoped to break the siege in a week. A plan was drawn up to help Campbell, but Kavanagh realised that the plan was useless, unless someone with local knowledge could explain it. Kavanagh met with the messenger and outlined his plan to accompany him on his return journey. Lal was not keen due to the added risk. Kavanagh approached Colonel Napier, who initially thought the chances of success were poor, especially as the chances of a white European with red hair slipping through enemy patrols seemed absurd. Napier, despite his initial thoughts, told Sir James Outram of the idea, and he declined the offer.
Kavanagh persisted and eventually persuaded Outram to let him try. He then disguised himself with black colouring to his face, and tested it by walking into a meeting in the quarters of Outram. No one seemed to recognise him, and calls were made for the insolent wretch to be thrown out. Thomas then revealed himself and the plan was agreed to go ahead. Kavanagh and Lal then proceeded throughout the night to reach Sir Colin Campbell’s camp. They reached it by 5am and Kavanagh passed Outram’s plans from his turban to Campbell. Over breakfast, Lal and Kavanagh told Campbell of their journey to get to him. The relief force set out for Lucknow the following day, and word reached the Residency that Kavanagh had succeeded in his mission. On the 14th November, the assault on Lucknow began, but the advance was held up by an stone bridge which was heavily defended.
They continued the following morning, and Kavanagh decided to try and reach Sir James Outram alone. He ran through the streets dodging enemy fire until he reached the “Steam Engine House” and was shown through to Outram. He then escorted Outram and Havelock back through the enemy fire to Campbell. Campbell was astonished by Kavanagh’s audacity.
Kavanagh then acted as a mediator between the surrendering rebels and the British. By 1859, the last remnants of the Mutiny had been quashed, and in May, Kavanagh and his family travelled to England. He was now famous, and in return for his services in Lucknow, the Indian government had awarded him £2,000. When Kavanagh was nominated for the VC, the application was refused on the grounds that the Royal Warrant stated that it could only be conferred on military personnel. A second civilian, Ross Mangles, had also been nominated and many thought both fully deserved the award. A tribute from Sir Colin Campbell was also submitted and the Royal Warrant was amended. In a despatch on 6th July 1859 from the War Office, it was declared that Non-Military persons who as volunteers bore arms in conflict shall be considered eligible for the VC. Two days later, Kavanagh’s citation was published in the London Gazette.
Kavanagh and Mangles were presented with their medals by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 4th January 1860. He also received the Indian Mutiny Medal with clasps for the Relief and Defence of Lucknow. Despite the honour and public adulation, Kavanagh felt that the VC had only been awarded grudgingly to him. He then returned to India, and then courted controversy by publishing a book “How I Won the Victoria Cross”. He was criticised by many for profiting from his deed and for his self-aggrandisement.
In 1882, at the invitation of the Governor of Gibraltar, his old friend from Lucknow, General Napier, he sailed on the Khedive but was taken ill on the voyage. On arrival, he was immediately taken to hospital, where he died on 11th November. In demonstration of the esteem in which he was held, he was given a full military funeral and his coffin was taken to the North Front Cemetery by 200 men of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Kavanagh’s medals are held by the National Army Museum, Chelsea.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM, CHELSEA, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: NORTH FRONT CEMETERY, GIBRALTAR. GRAVE 4567.
Kavanagh's Tulwar in the National Army Museum archives
National Army Museum (April 2017)