New book tells the story of Yorkshire heroine's role in tragic massacre in India

St Andrew's Church in Aysgarth, where there is a memorial to Ann Fraser, nee Wray
St Andrew's Church in Aysgarth, where there is a memorial to Ann Fraser, nee Wray
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She was the surgeon's daughter from the Yorkshire Dales who endured an event described as 'the British Empire's 9/11'.

A new book will tell the story of Ann Fawcett Wray, the orphaned young woman who played a pivotal role in the Cawnpore massacre during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Ann was from a Yorkshire family who, like many others during the 19th century, headed out to British-ruled India as servants of the Empire.

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She was born in Cleasby, near Richmond, in 1829, and her father, Doctor Octavius Wray, lived at Town Head House in Thoralby, a village near Aysgarth.

Several years later, they left Yorkshire when Octavius took up a post as an army surgeon attached to the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers. By 1836 he had died of fever and his wife Sarah is thought to have returned to England, as was common for European women who struggled in the Indian climate. There are no records of her until her death in Catterick in 1870.

Ann was left with her four siblings, the youngest of whom was just two years old. In 1850, aged 21, she married an army officer, Lieutenant George Fraser, but he was reported missing in action just before the rebellion broke out seven years later.

The Indian Mutiny was sparked by caste tensions among the native soldiers - sepoys - serving with British forces. The high-caste Hindu recruits to the Bengal Army had previously been exempt from overseas service, but the British wished to change this policy, fearing that the burden of deployments fell disproportionately on the other armies spread across India.

A further row broke out when a new rifle was introduced which required sepoys to bite the cartridge off to release the powder. The grease used in the cartridge paper was rumoured to be made from tallow with traces of beef and pork, which was offensive to both Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

The ensuing unrest was the most violent episode in the history of the British Empire. At the Cawnpore garrison, where hundreds of British military wives and their children lived, the population came under siege from the rebels. They suffered from heat and starvation for three weeks before the men were offered a safe passage out of the city by boat. They were then betrayed and massacred on the banks of the Ganges, while the remaining women were captured and imprisoned. They were eventually slaughtered in a mass killing and their bodies thrown down a well.

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Ann was one of the women imprisoned at a villa in Bibighar - there were around 200, but she was one of the many to die from disease, believed to be cholera, before the massacre took place. She was just 27.

She had been part of an escape party who had fled the Cawnpore garrison - she had earlier fled the violence in Delhi in a bullet-riddled coach - and was reported to have made it to the Ganges with scarcely any clothing left before being dragged from the river.

Captain Mowbray Thomson, who was one of only a handful of people who survived the massacre, stated of her:

‘In the thickest of the deadly volleys she again appeared indifferent to danger and to her own scanty covering; while with perfect equanimity and unperturbed fortitude she was entirely occupied in the attempt to soothe and relieve the agonised sufferers around her, whose wounds scarcely made their condition worse than her own. Such rare heroism deserves a far higher tribute than this simple record from my pen.’

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Author James Bancroft believes Ann's bravery merits the awarding of a gallantry medal. His book, The Devil's Trap, about the victims of the Cawnpore massacre will be published on November 30. He is the first historian to have researched the stories of those who died in an event he likens to 'the 9/11 of the British Empire' for the impact it had on morale.

There is a memorial to Ann at the Wray family's local church, St Andrew's in Aysgarth.