When telegraph saved the empire

We are off, said dispatch from Delhi, alerting other British stations of the mutiny in May 1857

Sir Robert Montgomery, a British administrator in colonial India, had remarked after the mutiny of 1857, "The electric telegraph has saved India." The comment is inscribed on a 20-foot obelisk in old Delhi, a memorial to that event. The Telegraph Memorial, made of gray granite, was erected on April 19, 1902, "to commemorate the loyal and devoted services of Delhi telegraph office staff, on the eventful 11th May 1857," reads the inscription on the obelisk. A decisive turn of events followed the dispatch from telegraph office in Delhi which warned other British stations about the revolt.

The site of the memorial, however, is not in the vicinity of the 'original theatre of action', according to historian Nayanjot Lahiri. The office was originally situated near the Flagstaff Tower on the Northern Ridge but the memorial was set up by the members of the telegraph department in front of the new office at Kashmere Gate.

First published in 1902, HC Fanshawe's Delhi: Past and Present provides a brief account of the "incident of the Telegraph Office". It gives credit to "irresponsible chatter of one clerk with another that warned Punjab of what happened at Delhi, and enabled the authorities there to take steps which at least scotched further mutiny and saved the position for the time being".

On the morning of May 11, 1857, the telegraph master, Charles Todd, who had left Delhi to check the lines which had been cut by the mutineers was murdered by them. However, his two assistants, William Brendish and J W Pilkington, remained at the office till 2 pm, having received no message from the military which had been relying heavily on help from Meerut. Meanwhile, the signallers had been providing updates to the "Amballah" office of the events in Delhi. At three in the afternoon, Pilkington returned to the office with a military officer from the Flagstaff Tower where the telegraph officials had retreated to dispatch a "very meagre official telegram to Amballah". The last dispatch sent to Ambala said that the telegraph officer who had left from Delhi in the morning had been murdered. It ended with "we are off".

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