During the summer of 1857 throughout parts of India thousands of Indian soldiers mutinied against the British. The Europeans and their supporters living in Cawnpore were attacked in June 1857. Preparations had been made to protect the town in case of attack but these proved to be inadequate. An eyewitness account of mutiny at Cawnpore was recorded by Captain Mowbray Thomson.
Chapter 6 of Julian Spilbury's book, The Indian Mutiny, describes the massacre that occured at Cawnpore. The following excerpts are from pages 129 - 131. When Cawnpore was attacked the settlement contained "210 British soldiers and a hundred officers and civilians, mostly railway engineers, tradesmen and clerks. In addition, there were some Christian drummers, a handful of loyal sepoys from the 53rd and 56th, who had made their way into camp, making a total of 450 comabatants. The rest of the population of the entrenchment consisted of 330 women and children, many of the latter being half-cast children." [p129] One of civilians in the compound was John Mackillop, son of George Mackillop.
There were four weeks' worth of supplies within the entrenchment, whose walls were only 4 feet high, not even bulletproof at the top, and which was overlooked from several directions. Things went wrong from the start - overcrowded, baked by the heat and exposed to a vicious crossfire by day and night the garrison suffered terribly. Almost at once the disposal of the dead became a problem. A small well outside the walls, not far from the unfinished barracks, provided the answer - and the dead, after lying on the verandah of the barrack building during the day, were carried out at night and lowered into it. [p129]
The only water supply in the compound was a single well on to which by day the rebels concentrated their fire. It was soon ordained that each man would draw his own water and at night, when the fire slackened, there were crowds about the well. 'Even in the dead of night,' wrote Mobray Thomson, the darkness afforded but little protection, as they could hear the creaking of the tackle, and took the well-known sound as a signal for instantly opening up with the artillery upon the suttlers. These were chiefly privates, who were paid as much as eight or ten shillings per bucket. Poor fellows! their earnings were of little avail to them; but to their credit it must be said, that when money had lost its value, by reason of the extremity of our danger, they were none the less willing to incur the risk of drawing water for the women and children.' [pp129-130]
Constant blasts of grape soon destroyed the well's winding gear, so Mr John MacKillop of the Bengal Civil Service undertook to draw water up - 60 feet - by hand. 'He became self-constituted captain of the well ...', wrote his friend Captain Thomson. 'He jocosely said that he was no fighting man, but would make himself useful where he could, and accordingly he took his post; drawing for the supply of women and children as often as he could.' [p130].
Mr MacKillop, the 'captain of the well', was mortally wounded at his post. 'It was less than a week after he had taken this self-denying service,' wrote Thomson, 'when his numerous escapes were followed by a grape-shot wound in the groin, and speedy death. Disinterested even in death, his last wounds were an earnest entreaty that somebody would go and draw water for a lady to whom he had promised it.' [p131]
All Soul's Church, Cawnpore, has a series of tablets on the walls commemorating those killed during the massacre - Tablet six contains the name of John Mackillop.