William Stephen Raikes Hodson

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William Stephen Raikes Hodson
William Hodson, engraving printed as frontispiece to his biography Rider on a Grey Horse, by B.J. Cork, 1958
Born 10 March 1821
Maisemore Court, near Gloucester
Died 11 March 1858
Lucknow, British India
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Bengal Army
Rank Brevet Major
Commands held Corps of Guides
Hodson's Horse
Battles/wars First Anglo-Sikh War
Indian Mutiny

Brevet Major William Stephen Raikes Hodson (10 March 1821 – 11 March 1858) was a British leader of irregular light cavalry during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the Indian Mutiny or the Sepoy Mutiny). He was known as "Hodson of Hodson's Horse."

His most celebrated action in British 19th century annals, was to apprehend the King of Delhi (also referred to as Emperor of India and Bahadur Shah II). The following day he rode to the enemy camp, heavily outnumbered by the rebels and demanded the surrender of the Mughal princes who were leading the rebellion around Delhi and killed them,.[1] It needs to be noted that in the course of the Mutiny a number of male members of Bahadur Shar II's family were killed by East India Company forces, who imprisoned or exiled the surviving members of the Mughal dynasty; furthermore, Bahadur Shah II was tried on four counts, two of aiding rebels, one of treason, and being party to the murder of 49 people - however, as Hodson had previously guaranteed his life the Emperor eventually died peacefully of old age.[2] Hodson's career received praise from a number of senior military commanders such General Hugh Gough [3] (see references below) but there were certain dissenting voices from other members of the military. There were also a few politicians who felt the killing of Mughal princes by Hodson had done 'dishonour',[4] however Hodson's career received praise from more senior politicians including the Prime Minister and Minister for India.[5]

Hodson is credited with being jointly responsible for the introduction of the khaki uniform.

Early career[edit]

William Hodson was born on 9 March 1821 at Maisemore Court, near Gloucester, third son of the Rev. George Hodson. He was educated at Rugby School under Dr Arnold and at Trinity College, Cambridge.[6] He accepted a cadetship in the Indian Army at the age of twenty-three; joining the 2nd Bengal Grenadiers, he went through the First Anglo-Sikh War.

Unusually among officers of the time, William Hodson was a Cambridge graduate and keen linguist. A contemporary described him as tall man with yellow hair, a pale, smooth face, heavy moustache, and large, restless, rather unforgiving eyes… a perfect swordsman, nerves like iron, and a quick, intelligent eye[citation needed]. Hodson delighted in fighting and his favourite weapon was the hog spear[citation needed]. He was a brilliant horseman with the capacity to sleep in the saddle[citation needed]. He was described as 'the finest swordsman in the army'.[7]

The initial assistance he gave in organising the newly formed Corps of Guides in December 1846 had been one of Sir Henry Lawrence's projects in which Hodson excelled. The Guides Corps had Lt Harry Burnett Lumsden as its commandant and Lt Hodson as adjutant. Significantly, among the duties assigned to Hodson was responsibility for equipping the new regiment which necessitated his choosing the regiment's uniform. With Lumsden's approval, Hodson decided upon a lightweight uniform of Khaki colour - or 'drab' as it was then referred to. This would be comfortable to wear and 'make them invisible in a land of dust'. Accordingly in May 1848 he liaised with his brother Rev. George Hodson, in England, to send 'drab' cloth for 900 men as well as 300 carbines.[8] As a result Hodson and Lumsden had the joint distinction of being the first officers to clothe a regiment in Khaki which many view as the precursor of modern camouflage uniform.

For a while, later, he was transferred to the Civil Department as Assistant Commissioner in 1849 and stationed at Amritsar; and from there he travelled in Kashmir and Tibet. In 1852 he was appointed Commandant of the Corps of Guides.

As well as being unusual among British soldiers in India for being a Cambridge university graduate, he also enjoyed classical literature for relaxation, and was a keen linguist - this included his interest in learning the main language(s) of his host country at that time. On his arrival in India he started first learning ‘Hindustani ‘and later Persian, with the help and encouragement from his mentor Sir Henry Lawrence.[9] This apparently was of intellectual and cultural interest to him. Particularly as his army quarters offered him little in the way of culture or reading-matter, save for the ‘usual copy of the Bible and works of Shakespeare’. This led him to eventually order from his brother “a formidable collection of classics, though he probably saw nothing incongruous in spending three hours a day studying Persian, and turning later for relaxation to untranslated Xenophon…”.[10]

Indian Rebellion[edit]

At the outset of the Indian Mutiny he made his name by riding with despatches from General Anson from Karnal to Meerut and back again, a distance of 152 miles in seventy-two hours, through country full of hostile cavalry. Following this feat, the commander-in-chief empowered him to raise and command a new regiment of 2000 irregular horse, which became famed as "Hodson's Horse", and placed him at the head of the Intelligence Department.

In his double role of cavalry leader and intelligence officer, Hodson played a large part in the reduction of Delhi. As already indicated, his major achievement at this time was the capture[11] of the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II; and his major discredit the execution of the three Mughal princes, Bahadur's sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan and his grandson Mirza Abu Bakr.[12]

The British knew that the old Emperor of India (or "King of Delhi") was proving to be a focus for the uprising and the mutineers, and that he, his sons and their army were camped just outside Delhi at Humayun's Tomb. The General in command said he could not spare a single European. Hodson volunteered to go with 50 of his irregular horsemen, this request was turned down but after some persuasion Hodson obtained from Colonel (later General) Archdale Wilson permission to ride out to where the enemy were encamped. Hodson rode 6 miles through enemy territory into their camp, containing some 6000 or more armed mutineers, who are said to have laid their arms to grounds when he ordered them to.[13] Some have seen this abject surrender as highly symbolic of the twilight of the millinium-old Islamic political power in India,[14] which had started after Aurangzeb; but the fact was that the mutineers, or rebels, at Delhi were simply demoralised after their hard-fought defeat and severe privations.[15]

The Emperor of Delhi surrenders himself to Captain Hodson

Here he accepted the surrender of Bahadur Shah II, the last of the Moghul Emperors of India, promising him that his life would be spared.[16] The capture of the Emperor in the face of a threatening crowd dealt the mutineers a heavy blow. As a sign of surrender the Emperor handed over his arms, which included two magnificent swords, one with the name ‘Nadir Shah’ and the other with the seal of Jahangir engraved upon it, which Hodson intended to present to Queen Victoria.[17] The swords he took from the Emperor were given to the Queen as a symbol of the Emperor's surrender and are still held in the Queen's Collection.

The sons of the king, the princes had refused to surrender, demanding guarantees of safety[18] and on the following day with a few horsemen Hodson went back and demanded the princes' unconditional surrender. Again a crowd of thousands of mutineers gathered, and Hodson ordered them to disarm, which they did. He sent the princes on with an escort of ten men, while with the remaining ninety he collected the arms of the crowd.[19] The princes were mounted on a bullock-cart and driven towards the city of Delhi. As they approached the city gate, a crowd of people again started to gather around them, and Hodson ordered the three princes to get off the cart and to strip off their top garments. He then took a carbine from one of his troopers and shot them dead before stripping them of their signet rings, turquoise arm-bands and bejewelled swords. Their bodies were ordered to be displayed in front of a kotwali, or police-station, and left there to be seen by all.[20] The gate near where they were killed is still called the Khooni Darwaza, or 'Bloody Gate'.

The actions were controversial even[21] at the time. The future Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts, then a junior officer serving in the Delhi campaign would later call it a "blot" and criticized "an otherwise brilliant officer" for exposing himself to criticism.[22] Other first hand accounts, such as William W. Ireland also called into question the exigency of his actions[citation needed]. His service record showed that he had often behaved in arbitrary fashion before, and he had previously been removed from civil duties by the then Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie.

Hodson's grave in La Martiniere College in Lucknow

Accusations of corruption[edit]

In 1855, two separate main charges were brought against Hodson. The first was that he had arbitrarily imprisoned a Yusufzai Pathan chief named Kader Khan,[23] on suspicion of being concerned in the murder of Colonel Mackeson.[24] The man was acquitted, and Lord Dalhousie removed Hodson from his civil functions and remanded him to his regiment on account of his lack of judgment and gross negligence.[25]

The second charge was more serious, amounting to an accusation of misappropriation of the funds of his regiment. He was tried by a court of inquiry, who found that his conduct to natives had been unjustifiable and oppressive, that he had used abusive language to his native officers and personal violence to his men, and that his system of accounts was calculated to screen peculation and fraud. However, a subsequent inquiry was carried out by Major Reynell Taylor: 'Taylor's investigation took two months, during which time he went through every item received or paid out by Hodson over the two years of his command'.[26] By the end of his investigation into the record of Hodson's accounts Taylor found 'it to be an honest and correct record from beginning to end - It has been irregularly kept, but every transaction, from the least to the greatest, has been noted in it, and is traceable to the individual concerned' [27][28]

During a tour through Kashmir with Sir Henry Lawrence he kept the purse and Sir Henry could never obtain an account from him; subsequently, Sir Henry's younger brother Sir George Lawrence accused him of embezzling the funds of the Lawrence Asylum at Kasauli; while Sir Neville Chamberlain in a published letter says of the third brother, Lord Lawrence, "I am bound to say that Lord Lawrence had no opinion of Hodson's integrity in money matters. He has often discussed Hodson's character in talking to me, and it was to him a regret that a man possessing so many fine gifts should have been wanting in a moral quality which made him untrustworthy." Finally, on one occasion Hodson spent £500 of the pay due to Lieutenant Godby, and under threat of exposure was obliged to borrow the money from a local banker named Bisharat Ali through one of his officers.

Financial matters[edit]

Throughout his career Hodson was dogged by accusations of, at best, negligence in financial matters and, at worst, theft. He was investigated on more than one occasion but nothing was ever proved. His detractors claim he was a looter. His supporters say that these accusations came from those who disliked his manner and his military success. He had not followed the normal career path for an officer and he was renowned for his curt, brisk manner and was not afraid to step on toes or say what was on his mind. On the other hand the Rev. G Hodson states in his book that he obtained the inventory of his brother's possessions made by the Committee of Adjustment and it contained no articles of loot, and Sir Charles Gough, president of the committee, confirmed this evidence. This statement is totally incompatible with Sir Henry Daly's and is only one of many contradictions in the case. Sir Henry Norman stated that to his personal knowledge Hodson remitted several thousand pounds to Calcutta which could only have been obtained by looting. On the other hand, again, Hodson died a poor man, his effects, which included a ring, watch, Bible and Prayer book, and a miniature, were sold for only £170. General remarked "there was nothing in his boxes but what an officer might legitimately and honourably have in his possession." His widow did not have money enough to pay for her passage home and she had to apply to the Compassionate Fund for assistance, which was granted. She was given apartments by the Queen at Hampton Court, and left only £400 at her death.


On 11 March 1858 Hodson's regiment was in Lucknow and while storming the Begum's palace (Begum Kothi) he was shot. His last words were "I hope I have done my duty".[29]

On the evening of 12 March 1858, his body was buried in the garden of La Martiniere Lucknow. His grave is still located within the grounds of La Martiniere College. The memorial bears the inscription "Here lies all that could die of William Stephen Raikes Hodson".


Though the British Empire looked upon Hodson as somewhat of a hero, he is remembered in India mostly for his excesses while trying to curb the 1857 Revolt. He is also remembered for a number of notable achievements in his lifetime. His military career won him respect and praise from many quarters; this included recognition from the Secretary of State for India, the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria.[30]

In parliamentary speeches made on 14 April 1859 the Prime Minister Earl of Derby, and the Minister for India Lord Stanley, singled-out Major Hodson for his unique services to the country. Lord Stanley is quoted as saying:

"Major Hodson, of the Guides, who, in his short but brilliant military career, displayed every quality which a cavalry officer should possess. Nothing is more remarkable in glancing over the biography of Major Hodson that has just appeared than the variety of services in which he was engaged, unless it be the energy and versatility with which he turned from one to the other. At one time displaying his personal courage and skill as a swordsman in conflict with the Sikh fanatics; then transferred to the Civil Service, the duties of which he performed as though he had passed his whole life at the desk; afterwards recruiting and commanding the corps of Guides, and, lastly, taking part in the operations before Delhi, volunteering for every enterprise in which life could be hazarded or glory could be won; he crowded into the brief space of twelve eventful years the services and adventures of a long life. He died before the reward which he had earned could be received, but he attained that reward which doubtless he most coveted — the consciousness of duty nobly done, and the assurance of enduring military renown."

[5] The Prime Minister said of him

"Doubtless many have fallen who, if they had been spared, might have risen to greatest eminence and have held the highest stations in public service. I allude to Hodson a model of chiefs of irregular forces. By his valour, his rigid discipline, and careful attention to his men's real wants, comforts, desires, and even prejudices, he had obtained an influence which was all but marvellous. This enabled him to lead his troops so formed and disciplined into any danger and into any conflict as if they had been British soldiers. He has met a soldier's death. It will be long before the people lose the memory of Hodson".[5]

General Hugh Gough said of him,

"A finer or more gallant soldier never breathed. He had the true instincts of a leader of men; as a cavalry soldier he was perfection; a strong seat, a perfect swordsman, quick and intelligent".[3]

This recognition of Hodson by the Prime Minister was reflected in the special pension granted his widow by the Secretary of State for India in Council, who declared it was 'testimony of the high sense entertained of the gallant and distinguished services of the late Brevet-Major W.S.R. Hodson'. Her Majesty Queen Victoria honoured Major Hodson posthumously by granting his widow a Grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace "in consideration of the distinguished service of your late husband in India".[31]

He features as one of the main characters in James Leasor's novel about the Mutiny, Follow the Drum (1972), which describes his part in these events and his death in some detail.


The following verses by Sir Mortimer Durand appeared in India shortly after Hodson's death:

I rode to Delhi with Hodson: there were three of my Father's sons;
Two of them died at the foot of the ridge, in the line of the Mori's guns.
I followed him on when the great town fell; he was cruel and cold they said:
The men were sobbing around the day that I saw him dead.
It is not soft words that a soldier wants; we know what he was in fight;
And we love the man that can lead us, ay, though his face be white.

And when the time shall come, sahib, as come full well it may,
When all things are not fair and bright, as all things seem today,
When foes are rising round you fast, and friends are few and cold
And half a yard of trusty steel is worth a prince's gold
Remember Hodson trusted us, and trust the old blood too,
And as we followed him - to death - our sons will follow you.[32]


On 5 January 1852,[33] he married Susan (d. 1884), daughter of Capt C. Henry, RN and widow of John Mitford of Exbury, at Calcutta Cathedral, whom he had known and liked for some time prior to her first marriage. A daughter, Olivia, was born in 1853 but died in July 1854.[34][35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ LJ Trotter, A Leader of Light Horse, pages 200-202
  2. ^ Charges against Mahomed Bahadoor Shah, ex-King of Delhi reprinted in Perth Inquirer & Commercial News, 7 April 1858
  3. ^ a b Old Memories 1897 memoirs published by H. Gough
  4. ^ From a speech delivered by Gen. Thompson, MP for Bradford, in the House of Commons, February 1858. Cited in Michael Edwardes, Red Year: The Indian Rebellion of 1857, London: Cardinal Books, 1975, p.165
  5. ^ a b c Hansard; 14 April 1859
  6. ^ "Hodson, William Stephen Raikes (HT840WS)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  7. ^ "Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition"
  8. ^ pages 50-51 from Twelve Years of a Soldier's Life in India, published 1859 - first edition of the biography on Hodson by his brother George
  9. ^ Trotter, Hodson of |Hodson’s Horse
  10. ^ pp.40 B. Joynson Cork, ‘Rider on a Grey Horse’
  11. ^ Or, more probably, the astute negotiation of the surrender of Bahadur Shah, his favourite wife Zeenat Mahal, her young son Jawan Bakht, and a few other members of the Royal Family. See Edwardes, Red Year, p.58
  12. ^ For a detailed study of this issue, which became very controversial in 19th century England and India, see Appendix N of TR Holmes's History of the Indian Mutiny, London, 1898, pp. 591-617
  13. ^ Edwardes, p.58-59
  14. ^ Including Holmes (1898), Kaye (1880) and others
  15. ^ Edwardes, pp.60-61
  16. ^ Hansard; 11 December 1857
  17. ^ Illustrated London News; 20 March 1858
  18. ^ Which Hodson refused, see Edwardes, p.59
  19. ^ Edwardes, p.59
  20. ^ It was later confirmed that Hodson wrongly believed that some Englishmen had been killed at this place. Edwardes, p.59
  21. ^ And remained so for quite some time later too. Much can be said on both sides, for the situation during the Mutiny/Rebellion remained very volatile and considerable violence was done on both sides. In the matter of the princes' execution, it is quite certain that Hodson was earlier negotiating with an agent of the Queen of Delhi, Zeenat Mahal, for the surrender of the Mughal King/Emperor, as well as herself and her young son Jawan Bakht, and a few other members of the Royal Family. However, the executed princes were not mentioned or included in this 'deal' and a lot of speculation is also attached to Zeenat Mahal's own possible ulterior motives, although this in no way exonerates Hodson. See Edwardes, p.58, and TG Metcalfe, Two Narratives of the Mutiny in Delhi, London, 1898, which mentions some of the court intrigues in Delhi, briefly, too
  22. ^ See also his Letters Written During the Indian Mutiny, London, 1924
  23. ^ As well as his young son
  24. ^ See Charles Allen (2000), Soldier-Sahibs, p.237, for these and various other, minor charges brought against Hodson
  25. ^ Allen, pp.236-237
  26. ^ page 85, Barry Joynson Cork, 'Rider on a Grey Horse: Life of Hodson of Hodson's Horse'.
  27. ^ . page 126, LJ Trotter, 'Hodson of Hodson's Horse'
  28. ^ The life of Hodson of Hodson's horse
  29. ^ The Spectator (Literary Supplement), Nov. 2, 1911 - article: 'Hodson of Hodson's Horse, pp.631-632.
  30. ^ Blackwood's Magazine March 1899
  31. ^ Grace & Favour; A handbook of who lived where in Hampton Court Palace, 1750 to 1950 Sarah E Parker, p39
  32. ^ Lionel James Trotter A Leader of Light Horse: Life of Hodson of Hodson's horse (W. Blackwood and sons 1901) APPENDIX D
  33. ^ Lionel James Trotter A Leader of Light Horse (W. Blackwood and sons 1901) p. 129
  34. ^ Twelve years of a soldier's life in India: being extracts from the letters of the late Major W. S. R. Hodson ed. by his brother, the Rev. George H. Hodson; p119
  35. ^ At Murree, and is buried there in the Christian cemetery. See Charles Allen, (2000) Soldier Sahibs, pp. 230 and 235

Further reading[edit]

  • Twelve years of a soldier's life in India: being extracts from the letters of the late Major W. S. R. Hodson ed. by his brother, the Rev. George H. Hodson
  • Lionel James Trotter A Leader of Light Horse: Life of Hodson of Hodson's Horse (W. Blackwood and sons 1901)
  • James Leasor The Red Fort, (Werner Laurie 1956, James Leasor Ltd 2011)
  • Barry Joynson Cork, Rider on a Grey Horse, A life of Hodson of Hodson's Horse, (Cassells 1958)
  • James Leasor Follow the Drum (Heinemann 1972, James Leasor Ltd 2011)
  • Charles Allen Soldier Sahibs, the Men who made the North-West Frontier, (John Murray 2000)
  • Saul David, The Indian Mutiny, (Vicking 2002)
  • Julian Spilsbury, Indian Mutiny, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2007).
  • Perth Inquirer & Commercial News, 7 April 1858

External links[edit]