Kavanagh, Thomas Henry (‘Lucknow Kavanagh’) (1821–82), East India Company official and first civilian recipient of the VC, was born 15 July 1821 in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. Details of his early life are scarce but it is believed that his father was the bandmaster of the 3rd Foot. In December 1834 he joined the uncovenanted service of the East India Company (EIC) and was posted to Oudh province. By 1857 he was an assistant commissioner and was acting as superintendent of the chief commissioner's office. He was also, however, under threat of dismissal due to his indebtedness to Indian moneylenders.
The outbreak of the Indian rebellion (1857) ironically gave him an opportunity to change the direction of his life. Stationed in Lucknow, he took part in the disarming of native troops and also helped raise and train a force of civilian volunteers. When the city was eventually besieged, he threw himself into the organisation of the defences and played an epic part in the siege. It was soon discovered that the sepoys were trying to undermine the defences, and Kavanagh volunteered to take part in the countermining operations – a duty that most soldiers disliked, but in which he seemed to take a certain grim relish. On some occasions he waited for hours for the sepoys to dig through into his countermine and would then engage them with his pistol. On other occasions he dug into the sepoys’ mines in order to capture their mining tools.
When news of the approach of a relieving column reached Lucknow, Kavanagh volunteered to slip through the enemy's lines at night in order to bring a despatch to the column's commander, Sir Colin Campbell. On the night of 8–9 November 1857 he disguised himself as an Indian freebooter or ‘badmash’, dressing in native clothes and darkening his skin with lampblack. It must be said that, at over 6 ft (1.83 m) tall and with reddish-fair hair, he made an unlikely looking badmash, but with the aid of an Indian guide, Kanauji Lal, he made his way to Campbell's camp, having several close shaves en route. Having delivered his despatch to Campbell, he then acted as guide to the relieving force and led it through the sepoy defences to Lucknow. After the end of the siege, he took part in the pursuit of the mutineers and in the storming of the rebel fort at Sandela, about twenty miles (32 km) north-west of Lucknow.
For his actions during the rebellion, he was gazetted with the VC in July 1859, the first of only four civilians to be awarded the medal. He was also promoted by the EIC, given a reward of £2,000, and granted leave to return to England to receive his medal. Queen Victoria presented him with his VC at a special ceremony in Windsor castle and, nicknamed ‘Lucknow Kavanagh’, he was treated as a celebrity. He made a tour of England and Ireland and published (1860) his account of the siege, How I won the Victoria Cross.
Yet despite this popularity, Kavanagh was a deeply dissatisfied man. In August 1860 he wrote a letter to The Times, criticising the EIC and stating: ‘I am justified in asserting that the promotion awarded was no more than would have been given had I never gone out in disguise to assist Sir Colin Campbell. I had rendered good service already, and the same appointment was conferred on men of less merit and less standing than myself’. This letter set the tone for his later service in India and he was constantly at odds with his superiors, maintaining that he had been badly treated by the company. By 1875 he was seriously in debt again and was asked to resign. He later defended himself in two pamphlets: Guilty or not guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman (Lucknow, 1876) and The verdict (Lucknow, 1877). It is not clear how he supported himself in his later years. In November 1882 he took ill while returning from India and died at Gibraltar, where he was buried. His headstone gives his date of death as 13 November 1882.
After settling in India in 1835, Thomas Henry Kavanagh married a Miss Bryson, sister of Alexander Bryson who was killed during the rebellion. By the time of its outbreak he had fourteen children. His wife was wounded during the siege of Lucknow, and his youngest child was killed.
While he ended his career in some official disfavour, he became a Victorian icon. Photographs of him became popular postcard images, while a depiction of him donning his Indian disguise was later painted by Orlando Norrie, and acquired by the National Army Museum, London. Because of his prominence in the photographic record of the mutiny, most modern histories of the conflict still include at least one photograph of ‘Lucknow Kavanagh’.