The Queen’s Escort – 1887

Risaldar_Major_Sher_Singh

Above: Cabinet photograph of Risaldar (Captain) Sher Singh by A & G Taylor of London. England. c. 1887. Sher Singh is pictured wearing the splendid full dress uniform of his regiment. His tunic is of the “alkalak” style with its distinctive curved lace across the chest. His pagri (turban) is of the regimental pattern. A cummerbund (sash) and sword belt encircles his waist and his saber is of the traditional Indian “tulwar” pattern.  Photograph: Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com collection.

In 1887 Queen Victoria was to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee and military representatives from the far-flung corners of her empire were called upon to take part in the commemorative pageant in London that was to mark the event. Her personal escort was to consist of selected native cavalry officers of the Anglo-Indian Army. 

In years of service to the British crown Risaldar (Captain) Sher Singh (pictured above) of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry, Punjab Frontier Force may have been the most senior of the Queen’s escort.  He certainly seems to have been the most highly decorated of the group. As in the case of the other Indian officer’s pictured here no overall statement of service has been found but a general outline of such service can be put together based on their campaign medals and decorations. Additional information was found in History of the Second Panjab [sic] Cavalry from 1849 to 1886 which was published in 1888.

Risaldar Major Sher Singh wears from center left to right: the 1887 Jubilee Medal, the Indian Order of Merit star awarded for valour, the Indian Mutiny Medal (1857-58) with three clasps, the 1854 India General Service Medal with two clasps and the 2nd Afghan War Medal (1878-80) with the single clasp “Ahmed Khel“. Around his neck in the Order of British India awarded for Indian officers for long and faithful service. The Indian Order of Merit was the oldest award form valour in the British Empire (established by the Honourable and East India Company in 1837) and was issued in three classed.  The first class was awarded under criteria similar to that of the later Victoria Cross and in 1902 when the Indian troops became eligible for the Victoria Cross, the Order was reduced to two classes.

According to a newspaper 2012 interview in the Henley Standard (Henley on Thames and South Oxfordshire) with Sher Singh’s fifth great-grandson Paramvir Singh, the Rasildar Major was some 74 years old when he attended the Queen’s Jubilee. This would place his birth date around 1813. According to family tradition, this old soldier stood just over five feet tall and would vault into the saddle of his horse since the stirrups were too high for a normal mount. Apparently, he performed this feat in front of Queen Victoria who was quite entertained by it. When Sher Singh received word that he had been chosen to be a member in the Indian contingent in the Jubilee he rode on horseback the entire was from the Afghan border to Calcutta where the England bound ship was waiting. The journey took him some four months.

The Jubilee may not have been Sher Sing’s first visit to England. He seems to have been part of the group of four who attended the delivery of the Koh-i-noor diamond to England in 1851. The others in the group where the young Maharaja Duleep Singh, deposed heir to the great Sikh Empire, his guardian British Army surgeon Dr. John Login, and Login’s wife Lena. If Sher Singh was indeed the fourth member of the group then it is possible that he was for a time attached to the Maharaja’s household.

A relatively complete outline of Sher Singh’s military career can be put together from mentions made of him in the 1888 book History of the Second Panjab [sic] Cavalry from 1849 to 1886. Published anonymously in London, Sher Singh is stated to have joined the 2nd Punjab Cavalry on 3 June 1849. Duffadar Sher Singh was cited for gallant and distinguished conduct at the battle of Agra on 1 October 1857 during the Indian Mutiny and was awarded the Order of Merit, 2nd Class on 17 December 1857. He was promoted to Jemadar on 22 January 1859 and to Resaldar on 16 November 1874. For his services during the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War, Sher Singh was awarded the Order of British India, 2nd Class and granted the honorary title of Sirdar Bahadur. His 2nd Class Order of British India was advanced to the 1st Class in 1886.

When Sher Singh died in 1888 Commander-in-Chief in India Frederick Sleigh Roberts, VC tendered his condolences to Singh’s family referring to him as a personal friend and stated his desired hope to have appointed Singh as an aide-de-camp had a posting become available.

Roberts also wrote in part:

“The late Risaldar’s unswerving loyalty to the State and to the officers under whom he served, his general demeanour, his single-hearted honesty and his untiring energy which the weight of 75 years had failed to impair, afford a bright example to his fellow soldiers which Colonel Lance trusts will long be remembered and imitated in the Regiment.”

This outstanding photographic study was once part of a set of fifteen which depicted officers of the Anglo-Indian cavalry who were chosen to take part in Queen Victoria’s 1887 Golden Jubilee of 1887. The set of photographs were in all likelihood the official portraits of these officers taken at the behest of the Queen by noted photographers Andrew and George Taylor. After supplying the Queen with her photographs the Taylor brothers would have offered additional sets for sale to the general public. These photographs came from one of those commercially available sets.

The set original depicted two British officers (Captain C.W. Muir, Viceroy’s Body-Guard and Captain G.A.Money, 18th Bengal Lancers) and 13 highly decorated Indian officers and was complete until it was broken up for individual sale via online auction. While the dispersal of the set was unfortunate it did allow at least some of the images to be displayed at the soldiersofthequeen.com website. It was interesting to note that the two images of British born officers sold for a considerably higher sum than any of those of the Indian officers even if the latter are by far considerably much more rare and more desirable from a collectors point of view, at least in my opinion – especially when one considers their extremely fine condition and outstanding composition.

With the close of the auction, I had acquired what I consider to have been the four best of the photographs – each depicting an identified veteran Indian officer taken at the very apex of the British Raj.

Sher_Singh1859_Portrait

Above: A photographic illustration taken from the 1888 edition of History of the Second Panjab [sic] Cavalry from 1849 to 1886 showing a group of officers and
noncommissioned officers of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry in 1859. A young Sher Singh is shown seated second from left. Image courtesy of google books.

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