Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/St. John, Oliver Beauchamp Coventry

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ST. JOHN, Sir OLIVER BEAUCHAMP COVENTRY (1837–1891), officiating agent to the governor-general of India in Baluchistan, eldest son of Captain Oliver St. John, Madras army, and of his wife Helen, daughter of John Young, esq., and widow of Henry Anson Nutt, was born at Springfield House, Ryde, Isle of Wight, on 21 March 1837. He was great-grandson of the tenth baron St. John of Bletsho [see under St. John, Oliver, Earl of Bolingbroke]. He was educated at Norwich grammar school, and at the East India Company's military college at Addiscombe, where he took many prizes, and received a commission as second lieutenant in the Bengal engineers on 12 Dec. 1856. He went to Chatham for the usual course of professional instruction, was promoted to be first lieutenant on 27 Aug. 1858, and in the following year went to India, where he was employed in the public works department in the North-West Provinces and Oudh for the next four years.

In October 1863 he joined the expedition to Persia, under Lieutenant-colonel Patrick Stewart, royal engineers, to establish telegraphic communication from India through Persia and Asia Minor to the Bosphorus. His duties lay in the Persian section. He landed at Bushahr in January 1864, and took charge of the fifth and last telegraph division, the most difficult and important of all. From December 1865 to June 1866 he had charge of the directors' office during Stewart's absence, and from June 1866 to January 1867 his own immediate superintendence embraced the line from Tehran to Bushahr.

In May 1867 St. John returned to England, and joined the expedition to Abyssinia under Sir Robert Cornelis (afterwards Lord) Napier [q. v.], as director of the field telegraph and army signalling department of the Abyssinian field force. He laid the telegraph line, under great difficulties, for some two hundred miles from the coast; was mentioned in despatches (London Gazette, 30 June 1868), received the thanks of the government of India and the war medal, and was recommended for a brevet majority on attaining the rank of captain. On his return home in 1868 he was employed to report on the military telegraphs of France, Prussia, and Russia. St. John was promoted to be captain on 10 Nov. 1869, and returned to Persia in 1870, with the local rank of major. Sir Frederick Goldsmid, on being appointed in 1872 arbitrator in the Perso-Afghan boundary dispute, applied for St. John's services, but he could not be spared from his telegraph duties in Persia.

In October 1871 he went to Baluchistan as boundary commissioner of the Perso-Kalat frontier. Having completed the survey of the boundary he returned to England, and during his furlough was employed on special duty at the India office in 1873 and 1874 in compiling maps of Persia and Persian Baluchistan. These maps were based on longitudes of the principal Persian telegraph stations, fixed in co-operation with General J. T. Walker of the Indian trigonometrical survey, Captain William Henry Pierson [q. v.], royal engineers, and Lieutenant Stiffe of the Indian navy, by whom time-signals were exchanged between Greenwich and Karachi on the one hand, and stations in Persia on the other. A result of the Perso-Kalat survey was St. John's ‘Narrative of a Journey through Baluchistan and Southern Persia,’ published in vol. i. of ‘Eastern Persia’ (1876).

In January 1875 St. John was appointed principal of the Mayo College, Ajmir. He was promoted to be regimental major on 29 Aug. 1876. In August 1878 he was attached to Sir Neville Chamberlain's mission to Kabul, which came to nothing in consequence of the amir's refusal to admit it to the Khaibar. In November he was attached as chief political officer to the staff of Sir Donald Stewart, who commanded the Kandahar field force, which entered Afghanistan by the Bolan pass and occupied Kandahar. On 10 Jan. 1879 an attempt was made to assassinate St. John in the streets of Kandahar, but the shot missed him, and the assassin was apprehended. On 29 July he was made a companion of the order of the Star of India. On 26 Dec. some mounted Ghazis ran amuck through the camp at Kandahar, when Major Tytler was wounded, and St. John had another narrow escape. During the occupation of Kandahar he found time to contribute a valuable paper on Persia to the ‘Journal of the Royal United Service Institution of India,’ for which he was awarded the gold medal of the institution for 1879. He was made a companion of the Star of India on 29 July 1879, and was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel on 4 Feb. 1880. On visiting Calcutta early in 1880 to confer with the viceroy on Afghan affairs, he was appointed political agent for Southern Afghanistan. He returned to Kandahar in April, and, on the departure shortly after of Sir Donald Stewart with a field force for Ghazni and Kabul, entered on his new appointment.

In July 1880 a force under Brigadier-general Burrows was sent from Kandahar to support the Wali Shir Ali Khan, governor of the province of Kandahar, against the advance of Ayub Khan on Kandahar. St. John, with Brigadier-general Nuttall and the advanced column, arrived at Girishk on 10 July, Burrows with the main body coming up the following day. The wali was encamped on the opposite side of the Halmand river. Disaffection having shown itself in the wali's army, it was arranged by St. John's advice to bring it over the river, and to disarm the disaffected troops on the 14th; but before this could be done they had absconded, carrying with them their arms, and also a battery of guns and ammunition. St. John took part in the pursuit and action of the Halmand, which resulted in the capture of the guns. By his advice Burrows then fell back on Kushk-i-Nakhud. St. John was present at the battle of Maiwand on 27 July, and reached Kandahar with Burrows and the remnant of the force on the following day, having lost three out of his escort of five and had a horse shot under him.

St. John was in Kandahar during the investment, took part in the sortie of 16 Aug., and, on its relief by Sir Frederick (now Lord) Roberts, was present at the battle of Kandahar on 1 Sept. 1880. The governor-general of India in council, in a minute dated 15 Jan. 1881 to the secretary of state for India on the services of officers in the Afghan campaign, mentioned the conspicuous ability, zeal, and energy shown by St. John throughout, and recommended their recognition. St. John was mentioned in despatches (London Gazette, 3 Dec. 1880), and received the medal with clasp. On the evacuation of Kandahar he was appointed officiating agent to the governor-general for Baluchistan, in succession to Sir Robert Sandeman [q. v.], and moved to Quetta in April 1881. On 23 May 1882 he was made K.C.S.I.

St. John went to Kashmir on special duty, and as resident in January 1883. He was promoted to be brevet colonel on 4 Feb. 1884, and in April went temporarily to Haidarabad as acting resident, returning to Kashmir in August. On 7 March 1886 he was promoted to be regimental lieutenant-colonel, and in May he returned to Quetta as officiating agent to the governor-general for Baluchistan. In December 1887 he was appointed resident at Baroda, and in January 1889 resident and chief commissioner at Maisur and Kurg. In May 1891 he left perhaps the pleasantest billet in India to again temporarily officiate as governor-general's agent for Baluchistan, an appointment which gave a better field for his active mind and his keen interest in the frontier question. A fortnight after his arrival at Quetta he died there of pneumonia, following influenza, on 3 June 1891. His remains were buried in the new cemetery at Quetta, with military honours, on 5 June.

To soldierly qualities in the field St. John added the courage and skill of the oriental sportsman, and the tastes and capabilities of the naturalist and scientific traveller. Mr. W. T. Blanford, in his introduction to the ‘Zoology of Persia’ (1876), acknowledges the value of contributions made to his collections by St. John, whom he accompanied in his journey from Gwadar to Teheran in 1872. St. John was a fellow of the Royal Geographical and the Zoological Societies, and he sent the latter many animals, among them a two-humped Bactrian camel, which Ayub Khan left behind him in Kandahar. He made collections of birds and reptiles for various museums. When travelling in Persia he used to lodge in the black tents or houses of the natives, and his memory still lingers among them.

St. John made many contributions to newspapers and journals; among them may be mentioned a paper in the ‘Royal Geographical Society Proceedings’ in 1868 ‘On the Elevation of the Country between Bushire and Teheran.’ There is an oil portrait of him in the residency at Quetta, of which his widow possesses a copy. He married, on 23 Sept. 1869, Jannette, fourth daughter of James Ormond, esq., of Abingdon, Berkshire. She survived him, with three children: Henry Beauchamp, born in 1874, lieutenant 14th Sikhs; Olive Helen, born in 1870; and Muriel, born in 1873.

[India Office Records; Royal Engineers' Records; Despatches; Blue Books; Royal Engineers' Journal, 1879, 1880, and 1881; Proc. of the Royal Geographical Soc. July 1891; London Times, 5 June 1891; Goldsmid's Telegraph and Travel, 1874; private sources.]

R. H. V.