[ 20 September 1857 ]

On this day in 1857, after six days of fierce street fighting, British troops under General Sir Archdale Wilson finally obtained the surrender of the remaining pockets of Indian Mutineers still holding out in the city.  However they remained determined to set a bloody example that the people of Delhi would never forget.

An anonymous letter from the city, quoted at length in The Morning Chronicle, presented the subsequent orgy of killing as an understandable act of vengeance by soldiers who were “greatly annoyed, and some killed by natives, who kept up a random fire behind walls, and from the tops of houses,” in other words from people who were defending their homes.  This had provoked “an officer (who then).. got together some troops and went in search of the cowards, no less than one thousand of whom bit the dust. We may now look upon the city,” the letter concluded, “as completely cleared of ruffians.”[1]

The historian Saul David recounts how Sikh troops, under British command, “celebrated by lighting fires in the sacred mosque,” and how other troops “plundered to their hearts’ content, shooting any adult male they found.”[2]  Few in Britain ever learned about the atrocity. Queen Victoria was, however, an exception. Lady Canning, who was well informed by private letters from her husband, India’s acting Governor General, informed her that there had been an “immense slaughter of men” and that “the soldiers inflicted murderous retribution.”[3]


[ 20 September 1920 ]

On this day in 1920, Head Constable Peter Burke, a Royal Irish Constabulary officer, was brutally gunned down outside a public house in the small Irish town of Balbriggan. He was in charge of a British “Black and Tan” auxiliary police force unit which was stationed nearby.  There was no evidence as to who was responsible for the murder, and by some accounts it had been the result of a quarrel. However, that evening a large force of 150 Black and Tans descended on the community, determined to get their revenge.

They burned down 54 houses and a hosiery factory, looted four public houses, battered to death two tradesmen, Séamus Lawless and Sean Gibbons, and attacked many other residents who were entirely innocent of any involvement in the earlier murder. One traumatised witness recalled how he had seen “in a shed (the) two dead civilians, one in a nightshirt and one in a shirt and trousers, and neither with boots and socks on, looking as if they had been killed, not by human beings, but by animals.”(4)

A journalist, quoted in the left leaning Daily Herald, was convinced that such crimes could not have been the work of British troops.  Under the sub headline “Red Indian Fury of Attackers,” he described how coming across the victims he noted that “their faces were purple with bruises and their bodies battered almost beyond recognition.” and felt sure that, “No ordinary English soldier would have done such work. The prisons must have been swept for degraded criminals to do such work.”(5)

When the truth was exposed, the British press adopted a more sympathetic view of murderous violence of the auxiliary police force.  “The (original) crime not unnaturally aroused their anger,” explained an Associated Press journalist, adding that “while the wholesale reprisals taken by them are condemned, their desire to avenge the death of their former chief will be more easily understood.”(6)

Another article commented that “the discipline of the force as a whole has been splendidly maintained… (but) these recruits were much attached to their district inspector, who had himself trained the majority of them, and his murder provoked them to a state of anger in which all discipline was for the time being forgotten.”(7)

The Chief Secretary of State for Ireland, Hamar Greenwood informed parliament on 20 October that it was “impossible” to find anyone of the Black and Tans who was responsible, adding  “I have yet to find one authenticated case of a member of this Auxiliary Division being accused of anything but the highest conduct characteristic of them.”  That “highest conduct” and “splendid discipline” had left 400 men and women homeless and two families bereaving the loss of two entirely innocent civilians.(8)


  1. “How the King of Delhi was taken and his sons shot,” The Morning Chronicle, 1 December 1857, p6
  2. Saul David, (2007) “Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire,” Penguin Books, London, p332.
  3. Ibid, p346.
  4. “Balbriggan,” The Freeman’s Journal, 22 September 1920, p2, “Echo of Balbriggan,” the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 24 September 1920, p5 and Diarmaid Ferriter, (2015), “A Nation and Not a Rabble,” Profile Books, London p197.
  5. “Balbriggan Horror – Red Indian Fury of Attackers,” the Daily Herald, 23 September 1920, p1.
  6. “The Balbriggan Outbreak,” The Yorkshire Post, 28 September 1920, p7
  7. “Balbriggan Affair,” The Midland Daily Telegraph, 29 September 1920
  8. Hansard HC Deb 20 October 1920 vol 133 cc925-1039 accessed online at https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1920/oct/20/vote-of-censure-proposed and “Balbriggan – the Homeless and the Destitute,” The Freeman’s Journal, 30 September 1920, p1.

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