Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Walter John Whiting and the Battle of Chillianwala (1849)

The British people – around the world -- needed a hero after the shock of Chillianwala. For a brief moment, the role was filled by a clergyman happily packaged as "Whiting of Magdalen".

The battle against the Sikhs, on 13 January 1849, left the East India Company's army so badly mauled that there were no obvious military candidates to inspire the nation. An enthusiastic tribute to a clergyman in a specialist ecclesiastical magazine was seized upon not just by The Times in London, but also by newspapers in Australia and New Zealand to encapsulate the imperial spirit. Although his spelling of Walter Whiting's college, "Magdalen", was thirty years out of date, the anonymous author wrote as if he had been the hero's student contemporary. His decision to "anchor" Whiting within the ancient walls of Magdalene College Cambridge helped project a reassuring sense of eternal Englishness at a moment of crisis and doubt.[1]

        The Second Sikh War of 1848-9 was the product of interaction between an expansionist British Indian empire and an unstable Sikh state whose equilibrium had been disrupted by the death of its powerful leader Ranjit in 1839. "The Sikhs are a troublesome, not a dangerous enemy," remarked the Spectator in 1846.[2] After the brief and bloody encounter of the First Sikh War of 1845-6, the British proconsul Sir Henry Lawrence attempted to establish a client state in the Punjab. This compromise solution collapsed in 1848, leaving the governor-general, Lord Dalhousie, with the virtuous feeling that the British were victims of aggression who were entitled to respond with massive force. This sense of moral outrage culminated in outright annexation of the Punjab after the Second Sikh War, an act of aggrandisement that formed part of the prelude to the 1857-8 Mutiny. The confiscation of the Koh-i-Noor diamond would create even longer-lasting friction between Britain and India, that persists to modern times.

Unfortunately for the British, the suppression of Sikh power involved something more than a mere punitive expedition. The Sikh army was equipped with both cavalry and artillery. The British commander, Lord Gough, had begun his military career in the Peninsular War in 1809. His critics alleged that, at Chillianwala, he failed to conduct effective reconnaissance, so that he was unaware of the strength and, more crucially, the proximity of the Sikh guns. Realising that his troops were at risk of devastating bombardment, he launched an attack through thick scrub, tough terrain especially for a regiment of British regulars, the 24th Foot, which had only recently arrived in India. Gough's natural preference was for frontal assault, and the Sikhs had adopted defensive positions designed to block any flanking attack. The Times, in a searing denunciation of British tactics, described most of the engagement as "a confused melée of detached and unconcerted conflicts", fought in jungle country on the whim of "an obstinate old man".[3] Chillianwala was claimed as a victory only because the Sikhs withdrew leaving Gough in possession of the battlefield. Over 800 East India Company soldiers were killed or missing, with twice as many wounded. Casualties among European troops were especially severe, causing an outcry at home that brought about Gough's supersession. In fact, he managed to win the War before he could be replaced.[4] The fortuitous retention of the battlefield meant that the British could at least bury their dead, which provided the stage for a clergyman-hero. In addition, although there was something close to total ignorance about the nature of Sikh beliefs among the British elite, there was some general awareness that they were defined as a religious rather than a tribal or linguistic group, a perception that may also have favoured the elevation of an Anglican clergyman as an imperial counterpart.[5]

Walter John Whiting was admitted to Magdalene College Cambridge on 13 October 1830, and matriculated (i.e. formally enrolled) in that same Michaelmas Term.[6] Described as privately educated and from London, he was already 21, which suggests that he had required specially coaching for Cambridge to make up for deficiencies in his schooling. He took until 1835 to graduate – whether because he had difficulty in passing examinations, or he could not afford continuous residence cannot now be established. The 1849 tribute in the Church and State Gazette indicates that he was popular. "We have no doubt that to many of our readers who have sojourned by the banks of the Cam, and particularly to those who have cultivated learned leisure beneath the roof of old Magdalen, the name of Walter John Whiting will be as familiar as a household word." (The assumption that Magdalene was a place for the cultivation of "learned leisure" is interesting: in the decades that followed, the adjective did not always apply.) The Church and State Gazette exaggerated in claiming that Whiting was a student "who honoured and was honoured by his College", and whose studies were "conducted and terminated with repute". Whiting did not take an honours degree, and he was never a Scholar of Magdalene.

The date of Whiting's ordination has not been discovered, but the account in the Church and State Gazette implies that it happened soon after his graduation. His five years in Cambridge coincided with the halcyon epilogue to Charles Simeon's ministry at Holy Trinity. Once-violent opposition to his Evangelical preaching had died away, and he exercised enormous influence over the minds of many serious young men. Simeon was especially interested in India as a field for missionary activity, and his influence upon Whiting may be suspected from the fact that he was appointed as assistant chaplain at Umballa (now Ambala), 120 miles north of Delhi, in 1841.[7] (He shared responsibilities at Ambala with a young clergyman from Oxford, Charles Garbett, who – much later – became the father of the future Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett.) Ambala was a frontier town, bordering the Punjab. "The city of Amballa, which is in the Sikh protected States, is large; and surrounded with a wall, the streets are good and regular," wrote a British officer who marched through in 1842, on his way to Afghanistan.[8] Whiting first displayed his organisational skills in raising a relief fund for widows of soldiers killed in that disastrous campaign. But for the British in Ambala, the primary concern was not the distant Afghans but the all-too-neighbouring Sikhs. As noted, Whiting arrived two years after the death of Ranjit, at just the point where the Sikh polity was descending into instability. Ambala was the headquarters of the East India Company's political agent responsible for relations with the Sikhs. When Gough prepared to invade the Sikh lands late in 1848, Whiting had no doubt that his place was with the troops, and volunteered to join them. "He considered that he had no right to comparatively inglorious ease, as one of the Company's chaplains, when death was likely soon to be abroad, and thousands might need ghostly comfort to prepare them for the battle or its consequences."

When Gough's army went into action at Chillianwala, Whiting was behind the lines, helping to prepare a field hospital to receive the wounded, and readying himself to provide spiritual comfort as required. There must have been early indications that the engagement was not going well, and soon the "gallant soldier priest" felt compelled to intervene. A report reached the hospital that the 14th Dragoons "were hurrying from the field of blood with their backs to the enemy".  This was serious: Dragoons were heavily armed mounted soldiers, the Victorian forerunners of a regiment of tanks. Whiting instantly leaped on his horse, pistol in hand, and encountered a party of Dragoons "with their chargers' heads turned in the direction of safety". He "rallied them — upbraided them for their want of firmness; reminded them of home and honour; and, finally, led them back to where blows were ringing." Lord Dalhousie, Britain's governor-general in India, was "ashamed" to report to the Duke of Wellington that not only the Dragoons but the more mobile Lancers had "galloped to the rear as fast as they could ride. They galloped over own artillery, and upset them, they galloped on to the field hospital, among the wounded, and were stopped by the chaplain, pistol in hand, who had been assisting the surgeons, and who swore he would shoot the first man who passed him by." Dalhousie's biographer confirmed that Whiting was the armed padre, tartly adding that "his exploit did not lose force in the later editions through which the story went."[9] One example of this process of elaboration may have been the detail that Whiting was on horseback, confronting cavalry while mounted himself. In Dalhousie's account, he would hardly have had time. This manifestation of the Church Militant was widely welcomed by the British minority in India. A Calcutta (Kolkata) newspaper, The Englishman, hoped that the Church would make him an archdeacon at least, if not a bishop. But, in returning to the wounded behind the lines, Whiting of Magdalen had not concluded his contribution of courage and commitment on the battlefield of Chillianwala.

Another newspaper, the Bombay Times, took up the story.[10] A few days later, Whiting decided to take the lead in burying the British dead who had fallen in the hotly contested scrubland. He secured a party of one hundred pioneers to dig trenches, along with two companies of European infantry and a detachment of cavalry to provide protection. Oddly enough, no officers accompanied them. Since padres ranked as Majors in the Army, Whiting had adequate theoretical authority to command troops (and had shown himself ready to issue orders). Gough may have reasoned that the Sikhs would be unlikely to interfere with a fatigues party under clerical leadership, a tacit tribute to the enemy's respect for the dead. The result was a further enhancement in Whiting's prestige. "Under the very eyes of the Sikhs he had open trenches dug; and as each was filled in succession, he stood over the bodies of the brave ... and performed no maimed rites, but the entire ceremony of Christian burial, as it is contained in the Book of Common Prayer."  The pioneers dug seven long common graves, and 197 British dead, "mangled, mutilated and stripped at they were", were laid to rest. "The sight was sad and solemn, but the effect was consoling to all who survived."

The following Sunday was a busy one for the hero-padre. At half past seven in the morning, two European regiments were summoned to Church Parade. At eleven o'clock Whiting celebrated Holy Communion in Lord Gough's tent, which was large enough to accommodate a sizeable congregation. A false alarm of an approaching Sikh force led to the silent departure of around one third of those present, presumably officers. Even so, there were over one hundred communicants. One observer thought it "a solemn and affecting sight, to see the bravest spirits in our noble army kneeling humbly before their God, and imploring, for the sake of Christ, His healing mercy and protection." At this service, a large collection was taken for a relief fund to provide emergency help to widows and orphans, a repeat of Whiting's earlier charitable venture at the time of the Afghan campaign. A third service followed, at which the no doubt crestfallen Dragoons were among those paraded. The padre's "Sabbath labours were closed by the performance of his not light duties at the Field Hospital, and his committing to the earth one more heir of its mortality."

The writer in the Church and State Gazette closed by invoking the unlikely parallel of Alexander the Great's conquest of the Punjab at the battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC. British arms had been notably less triumphant at Chillianwala, but "the voice of the English Church has been uttered ... where Alexander invoked his hundred deities, and the barbarian his countless idols, there British captains have knelt and acknowledged no god but God – the Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." Here, again, it might have been appropriate, even generous, to acknowledge the sophistication of Sikh beliefs: Sikhs were not barbarians reverencing innumberable idols.

Walter Whiting was to find his fame less enduring than that of Alexander. He was briefly honoured, appointed chaplain to the governor-general, Lord Dalhousie, and transferred to Simla (now Shimla) and Dagshie (now Dagshai), in the cooler hill country of Himachal Pradesh. In 1851, he revisited Britain, moving in for a time (according to the March 30 census) with his brother Frederick, a solicitor, who lived in Trafalgar Square. In August, Whiting was married in a fashionable London church, St James' Paddington, to Mary Elizabeth Harvey of Brighton. Their only child, Henry Harvey Whiting, was born in May 1852. It would not have been surprising if the new Mrs Whiting found the sub-continent hard to endure. At any rate, in 1854 Whiting resigned from the East India Company's service, and returned to England. He arranged to have himself admitted ad eundem at Oxford, suggesting that he intended to reside nearby. There is no suggestion that he established a college identification in Oxford.[11]

By the early eighteen-sixties, the couple were established in Bristol, where Mary Whiting died in 1862. In 1881, Whiting was living in Gloucester Row, in the smart suburb of Clifton – in an elegant three-storey Georgian terraced house, looking out across the open space of Clifton Down. In 1881, he employed a housekeeper, a cook and two maids, all living-in servants. He seems never to have held any formal position in the Church, and was specifically noted in the 1871 census as a clergyman "Without Cure of Souls". Whiting died there on 5 July 1885, leaving an estate of just under £2,400 – comfortable, if hardly wealthy. It is possible that he had already transferred capital to his son, who was his sole heir. Henry Harvey Whiting had entered Clare College Cambridge in 1871, formally graduating with a Pass degree in 1875. Walter Whiting perhaps steered his son away from Magdalene, which had become a "fast" college, noted for expensive lifestyles. Henry was keen on soldiering even as an undergraduate. The London Gazette reported a temporary commission as a lieutenant "supernumary" in the Middlesex militia in 1873, which was converted to a regular lieutenancy the following year.  He served with the 23rd Regiment (from 1881, the Royal Welch Fusiliers), and was promoted to captain in 1884. In 1885, at the time of his father's death, he was stationed at Fermoy Barracks in County Cork. It is possible that he then retired from the Army to enjoy his inheritance. 

The now-forgotten Walter John Whiting seems to have been a precursor of Andy Warhol's prediction that people could be famous for fifteen minutes. The enthusiastic portrait in the obscure Church and State Gazette struck a brief chord, as can be seen by its widespread reprinting. The writer's happy device of hailing the hero as "Whiting of Magdalen" neatly invoked the reassuring image of an ancient collegiate institution as a background to a traumatic battle on a distant continent.  While its context suggests that the article was probably the work of a Cambridge contemporary, it is hard not to suspect that Whiting himself was the ultimate source of the information, a speculation that does not redound to his credit. Its claims were in any case cloyingly exaggerated: for instance, the assertion that Whiting's decision to volunteer was "highly agreeable to Lord Gough and to the troops generally" were inherently implausible.[12] The account of the mass funeral service is interesting, since battlefield narratives rarely dwell upon the subsequent disposal of corpses, a hard physical challenge that must also have been emotionally draining. But, essentially, Whiting buried the dead, and conducted religious services, which is what padres are supposed to do. His ecclesiastical superiors were unlikely to have been charmed by calls to elevate him to a bishopric. Military opinion would equally have resented the story of a pistol-wielding clergyman browbeating regulars back into action: vaunting irregular clerical intervention pointed to a failure of leadership among regular officers. The Church and State Gazette also managed to convey the impression that Whiting was the only padre to accompany a force of 15,000 soldiers. This seems unlikely. His achievement in burying 197 dead was impressive, but represented a mere quarter of the East India Company's army death toll. Either there were other clergy conducting funerals – or, more distastefully, Whiting's jungle fatigues party only conveyed European corpses to their final resting place, leaving unstated the fate of sepoy casualties. Overall, there was simply not content enough in this transient panegyric to generate an enduring legend.

In the event, Gough drove his forces on to smash Sikh power at the battle of Gujarat six weeks later, which made possible the outright British annexation of the Punjab. Chillianwala could now be consigned to oblivion, tacitly interpreted as a necessary stage in wearing down a ferocious enemy. When the two houses of parliament debated formal resolutions of congratulation in April 1849, there were no allusions to the bloody encounter at all.

The Church and State Gazette confidently predicted that Whiting would be toasted "when Magdalen next sends round a social cup in honour of her celebrities." No doubt he was thought to merit such celebration at the time. However, in hindsight, it seems regrettable that he could have operated on a sensitive cultural frontier for eight years of his life apparently without developing any comprehension of Sikh beliefs, or appreciation of Sikh spirituality. In the twenty-first century, it would be more appropriate to recall Walter John Whiting and his role at Chillianwala by supporting Sikh studies in Cambridge and building links with Sikh communities in Britain and around the world.


[1] "Whiting of Magdalen" originally appeared in the Church and State Gazette (undated). It was reprinted in The Times, 10 April 1849, and can be traced through the National Library of Australia's Trove website to newspapers such the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August 1849, and through the National Library of New Zealand's Paperspast website to e.g. the New Zealander, 17 October 1849. Chillianwala is today part of Pakistan.  The College seems to have encouraged its modern spelling of "Magdalene", with the final e-, from sometime before 1820. F.R. Salter, "Magdalene College," Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, iii, 450-6. The earlier spelling, without the –e, remained in frequent use.

[2]Spectator, 14 February 1846, 14.

[3]The Times, 5 March 1849.

[4] The ODNB has recent accounts of three leading British participants: T. R. Moreman, ‘Lawrence, Sir Henry Montgomery (1806–1857)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 10 July 2017]; David J. Howlett, ‘Ramsay, James Andrew Broun, first marquess of Dalhousie (1812–1860)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [, accessed 10 July 2017] and H. M. Chichester, ‘Gough, Hugh, first Viscount Gough (1779–1869)’, rev. James Lunt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [, accessed 10 July 2017].

[5] A key-word survey of three sources, The Times, the Spectator and Hansard, suggested near-total ignorance of the nature of the Sikh religion in the 1840s. A Scottish MP, complaining at allegedly unfair treatment of the recently formed Free Church, incidentally referred to them as "a sort of degenerate Hindoos", while adding that their tolerance of rival faiths was superior to that of the Church of Scotland. A correspondent of The Times in 1856 also made dismissive allusion to Hindu origins, and claimed that "the Sikh religion is expiring." P.M. Stewart in Hansard, 25 July 1845; The Times, 30 July 1856. There seemed no awareness of basic facts. e.g. that the Sikh faith was monotheistic, and based on Scriptures.

[6] Biographical information from Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses, consulted 11 July 2017 via:

[7] F.Clark, comp., The East-India Register and Army List, for 1846, 41. Ambala is situated in the far north of the state of Haryana. Modern-day population is about 200,000. It is the location of a major Indian Air Force base. Whiting arrived two years before the establishment of a formal British Cantonment. An earlier member of Magdalene, Thomas Thomason, had gone to Bengal as a missionary in 1808, also under Simeon's influence. It is likely that Whiting would have read a devotional biography of Thomason, by J. Sargent, published in 1833. Whiting's apparent lack of interest in Sikh theology may suggest that, by the 1840s, the primary role of an Anglican clergyman in India was to serve the European population rather than to make converts.

[8] E.W. Bray, Journal of the Afghan War in 1842 (London, 1865), 14-15.

[9] W. Lee-Warner, The Life of the Marquis of Dalhousie (2 vols, London, 1924), i, 206-8.

[10] Both newspapers were quoted in the Church and State Gazette.

[11]The Times, 11 October 1854. Census information kindly supplied by Gail Wood. 

[12] The colours of the 24th Regiment were lost on the battlefield, and the body of the officer carrying them was never recovered. Since the Sikhs made no claim to have captured them (and, as a martial people, they would have appreciated the humiliation of such a loss to their enemies), there was speculation that the colours had been buried among the shattered remains. This suggests an innuendo that Whiting did not do his job properly.

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