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Letter 1112

Captain Frederick Charles St John to John Hancock (17 July 1879)

St John discusses his experiences on campaign in Afghanistan, with the British Indian Army, during the second Anglo-Afghan War. He mentions the difficulties his wife and family are experiencing, living in Bath, England while he is stationed in India.




Camp Vitakei

17th July 1879

Charlie St. John [pencil in Hancock’s hand]


My dear Hancock you will be surprised to see my hand writing as my letters are few and far between like angels visits — but all the same you may like to hear of my doings so I shall begin.

Well since the 5 — Decr  / 78 I have been on the move and living in tents not seen a house[.] Well my Regiment was ordered on Field Service in Afganstan[sic].  We went by rail to Mooltan1 — and after a short delay there, the Regt. was broken in half and as luck would have it, the wing under my Comd. was sent to Afgan the other is still in the Punjab[.]  well we have had a rough time of it first the cold was intense and now the heat is very great 110 in tents[.]  The tents are only 7 feet by 6 [p.2] and you can just stand up in the centre yr head touching the top,  we are only allowed 80lbs of baggage which includes everything bedding and all. Marches long 15 to 25 miles a day over country with neither road or track, i.e. upbed of streams and over high rocky hills always on the look out for being attacked by hill tribes in night and day[.]

No villages.  all the hill people live by plunder & a nice wild looking set they are.  The great bother was guarding camp followers for if they strayed a little some of them always got killed.  Beloochistan2 is a wild wretched country perfectly bare not a tree to be seen in some of the plains a little scrub and grass[.]  the hills as bare as can be rocks and stones — Afganistan is the same[.] that is the [p.3] part we have been over for the most part[.] — On the hills there the wild sheep and goats they have [1 word illeg. possibly grand] heads but I have no rifle only my old gun it was all I could bring in the limited baggage allowed –  birds are few as you may suppose.  Partridge, the grand black, which is a splendid bird, the chookoor3 [sic] a beautiful bird, the little see see here and the common grey –  sand grouse I’ve come aross[sic], of another kind to what we have in south.  The English Mallard is up here and in the Punjab Teal and ducks as usual.

Up at Chotiali4 there were a few trees and what should I see there but English wood pigeon.  Could not get in shot but there they were or birds so exactly alike I could not tell the difference.  I also heard the Magpie. I was sorry we [p.4] [were] there only 2 days otherwise I should have killed some so that there would be no doubt but it is difficult doing anything after a long march often from 5am till 5 pm all day and when marching with a large body of troops of course all animals get out of the way[.]  We are in a standing camp here now but it is so bare and open there is little but larks, the Indian gazelle and a few small birds, swallows, martens, wheat ear[,] stone & whin chat[,] rose coloured starling  of course there are the Indian birds but very few. Lots of wolves[,] we killed 3 in camp last moon[;] they come loafing about the tents at night — trying to get sheep or goats.  One was close to me last night but you can[‘]t [p.5] shoot in camp after dark without leave.  There is a small river close by, out of which I get lots of fish up to 6lbs or 10lbs, my tackle is primitive a stick, string and a hook of some kind[.]

it is too hot now to go out during the day — so the days are very long[,] in Octr.  we shall return to Madras presidency.5 They cannot march troops during the hot weather up here[.]  it seems curious having such cold and frost as we had and now this intense heat.

I have I am thankful to say been very well during all this wandering — some have suffered a good deal, and not to be wondered at, sometimes we have had to eat what [1 word illeg. dinner?] we could during a fearful storm and wind & rain blowing and up to your ancles[sic] in mud and water, then [p.6] tent and everything in it would be soaking wet the other day a fearful storm of wind & rain came on just as cooking was going on, put out all the fires and the plain was a sheet of water, cooking places a foot deep in water.  Such are the pleasures of campaigning in these wild parts of the world[.]

by the way I have come accross[sic] a new wagtail to me he is of the brightest yellow and black[.]  I shall try and preserve some if I can and see if he is down in Jerdons6 when we get back to civilised life again — which is not the case here as you may suppose for every week, we hear of one tribe attacking another and killing a lot — well then [p.7] of course the said tribe has to retaliate again & so the game goes on[,] they think nothing of it — one old gentleman with a long beard & whiskers & hair, who was with us, said he had only killed 37 people, but a relation of one of his victims enticed him away on some pretence, and had another friend waiting who shot him dead,  pleasant neighbours these, are they not.

I have spun you a yarn and a half about myself now.

What have you been doing, and are doing — if you answer this tell me all about your doings & your own people, as I hear nothing now and know nothing of you all and I much fear it will [p.8] be many a long day ere we meet, but I hope some day we shall[.] I should so like to see you again and come to the old place[.]  do you still live in St Marys terrace and how do you manage about all the collections — oh to see them all again.  My wife & children are all at home now — in Bath — Charley is preparing for the Army and I hope may pass in Decr. he often asks about you.  My 2d. boy should have gone into a training ship next month but I could not raise the 50 £ wanted to pay in advance it has been a sad blow to the boy as he [p.9] must wait till I can manage the money, which cant be now as of course being out in the wilds there is no way of getting it and there again if Charley goes into Sandhurst at the end of year I shall have to pay in advance for him, the fearful exchange on sending money home is the ruin of one out here, and my folly of getting into debt as I did, god knows it has been a fearful lesson to me, as here I am as much in debt as ever, as all I can pay off will not keep the interest down even[,] as the money lenders charge so much — but I must not go off on this subject, as it only upsets me and can be of no interest to others, but oh to be clear of debt, what a relief[.] I don’t know how I [p10] bear it, and much dread what will happen on my return to when they can get hold of me –

I want to have my poor wife and 3 of the girls out in Octr.  it will save so much exchange — and she has had to lead a hard life 7 children in lodgings and no servant and not enough to live on.

Is there any chance of your being in the South if so do go over there Charley would be so delighted, for he is as I said always asking about you.  I cant make [p.11] out how the boy remembers you as he does.  My wife’s present address is

13 Kensington Place, Bath

or you could always find out from her father Dr Eyre no. 2 Grosvenor Place Bath

I wonder if I shall ever see the old country again.  Oh could I but see it — but it is impossible with debts of 800 £.

My men have just built me a mud hut it is a square building of one room with a grass shade but it is a great relief after the wee tents.

I cannot think of anything more to tell you.  I will write again ere many months pass over so I shall say good [p.12] bye with kindest regards to your people.

Believe me as ever | Yr affte old friend | F Charley St John [signature]

Oh for a wander in old Scotland with you again.

If you write soon address7

30th. Regt  M I

Dera Ghazee Khan [Dera Ghazi Khan]



to be forwarded.

If you do not write soon


Care of Messrs Burney & Co.


They are my agents & will forward any letter





Colonel Frederick Charles St John (1835-1900) was born on 29 August 1835 the eldest son of Charles William George St John and Anne Gibson. He married Jane Eyre, daughter of Edmund Walter Eyre, on 7 June 1860 and died on 24 November 1900 aged 65.

He gained the rank of Colonel in the service of the Indian Staff Corps, a branch of the Indian Army during the British Raj.

St John’s regiment was the 30th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry. The Madras Army was the army of the Presidency of Madras, one of the three presidencies of British India within the British Empire. The presidency armies had originally belonged to the East India Company until the Government of India Act in1858 which transferred all three presidencies to the direct authority of the British Crown. In 1903 all three presidency armies were merged into the Indian Army.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War was fought between the United Kingdom and Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880, when the nation was ruled by Sher Ali Khan. The war ended in the ‘Treaty of Gandamak’ where the Afghans were permitted to maintain internal sovereignty but they had to cede control of their nation’s foreign relations to the British.

1. The 119th Infantry Regiment of the British Indian Army was stationed at Mooltan.

2. Beloochistan –   Balochistan or Baluchistan is an arid region located in the Iranian Plateau in South West Asia and South Asia between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

3. ‘the chookoor’ – A common Indian partridge known as the Chukar (Alectoris chukar)

4. Chotiali – a village in Baluchistan.

5. The Madras Presidency, officially the Presidency of Fort St. George and also known as Madras Province, was an administrative subdivision of British India. At its greatest extent, the presidency included much of southern India.

6. ‘Jerdons’   Thomas Caverhill Jerdon (1811 – 1872) was a British physician, zoologist and botanist. He is best remembered for his pioneering works on the ornithology of India, The Birds of India, Vols. I-III (1863-5).

7. The address of the Punjab 30th regiment Madras Infantry.