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Tracing Isabella Massey

Septuagenarian Jean Andrews has sent a request from Worcestershire, England, seeking information on her ancestor Isabella Massey, whose husband Edward Roberts, Headmaster of Delhi College, was killed in 1857, along with a seven-year-old son, at the Red Fort. The other son escaped with her mother, who was born in 1815 and married in Agra at the age of 14.

The surname Massey is very common in India and Pakistan. It is actually derived from Massih, which in itself is the oriental version of Messiah (Christ). It was also adopted by the Indian Bourbons from Akbar’s time. Notable among them were Innayat Massih, Shamshad Massih, Shahzad Massih and Mumtaz Massih. Balthazar Bourbon (Massih) was the PM of old Bhopal State and his wife, Isabella was known as Begum Dulhan. Isabella Massey must have been an Indian Christian but it is doubtful if any of the present Messeys in Agra or Delhi can trace their ancestry to the early 19th Century.

Jean’s great, great grandfather was Robert Roberts who was born in St. Asaph Flintshire, Wales in about 1778. He was a labourer who attested into the 53rd Shropshire Regiment, Foot Soldiers on the 1st March 1799 at the age of 21. “There is a strong family legend of a little boy on the beach in Wales, writing in the sand, when a gentleman then provided the funds to put the boy into school. Aunty Daisy thought that this story was about Edward Roberts but I have now found that Edward Roberts was born in India so it is possible that the story referred to Robert Roberts although it is also possible that the story is apocryphal,” she says.

“Roberts was sent to St. Lucia to defend it against the Napoleonic forces and after two years there, when the island was handed back to the French the regiment returned to England before embarking once more, this time for India. Roberts landed in India in 1805 and died at the time of the third Anglo-Maratha War against the pindarees (thugs, insurgents) at Trichinopoly in 1817 at the age of 39 by which time he had attained the rank of Sergeant. He married Elizabeth Ruek (Ruck?) in 1806 and they had one known son, Edward born in, 1809. He was buried at St. John’s Church, Trichinopoly. After the death of Robert Roberts at the end of November 1817, it appears that his widow Elizabeth very quickly re-married in March 1818, a widower, John Pownall, but both died in 1820. Edward Roberts was a boy of 11 at that time.

“Edward married Isabella Massey when he was 24. They seem to have had four children among them. The year 1857 found Edward as the headmaster of Delhi College, second-in-command to a Mr. Taylor who, as the head of the governing body of the college was designated as Principal. The Roberts family were housed in a large house on the banks of the river Jumnah. In the hot summer months classes at the Delhi College commenced very early at 6.00 a.m. and on Monday, 11th May, 1857 the day began as usual, the staff being completely ignorant of the fact that the Sepoy rebellion had broken out in Meerut, some 40 miles away, just the day before on Sunday. At 8.00 a.m. a servant arrived from Edward’s house with the news that the sepoys had arrived at the bridge which led into the city and an English officer had been killed. Mr Taylor sent all the students home as a precaution and called a meeting in the college hall. Edward and family took refuge at the British Magazine (near Kashmere Gate) and then managed to cross the river.”

Feigning death

Isabella was an enormously fat woman and she was soon completely exhausted and could go no further. She begged her husband to leave her there and try to get the two boys to safety. But the smaller child realising that his mother had been left behind, ran back. There was no time to get him back to his father and his mother hid him under her voluminous Victorian skirts.

“The exhausted woman now heard the sepoys coming and could do nothing but lie there feigning death, with the small boy hidden under her skirts. One of the sepoys took up his spear and was about to run it through her, but was prevented from doing so by another who said, “Don’t desecrate the dead – look how the body is already swollen.” They then moved on and she continued to lie there in the burning sun until night fell. She then stumbled off in the darkness until she came across a small crop guard’s shelter and asked the old man there for help. He fetched his son and a bullock cart and they hid the terrified woman and child in the cart and took them to Ghaziabad’s military encampment from where they were sent to a camp in Meerut.

“Edward Roberts and his 7-year-old son had managed to get through to the Lahore Gate of the royal palace in Delhi and given ‘sanctuary’ by the puppet King Bahadur Shah Zafar’s troops. This was not to last, however, and on the morning of the 16th May all the prisoners were herded out into the courtyard of the Red Fort where, according to one account, they were all tied together with a rope and then slaughtered with swords under a peepul tree, among them Edward Roberts and son.”

Jean’s mother Noreen, daughter of another Edward (born 1856 to her great-grandfather Robert Edward Havelock) was married in Simla in 1939 to an Armyman, John Ainsters, and in September 1945 she, her husband, Jean and two other children, sailed for England to end their Indian Odyssey. A year later Jean went with the family to South Africa and Rhodesia and is now back in England. But the fate of Isabella Massey and her son, Alexander still remains a mystery. She may, however, find some information on them in E.A.H. Blunt’s book, “Ancient Christian Tombs and Monuments in U.P.” if she is lucky. Otherwise Isabella’s other descendants, born to Alexander, may still he surviving incognito among the many Masseys around.

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