Previously unseen papers have revealed new details of the extraordinary rescue mission that followed the kidnapping of a British teenage girl on the North-West Frontier 100 years ago.
The abduction of Mollie Ellis and the dramatic response inspired breathless news coverage in the 1920s but were quickly overshadowed by a royal wedding. According to a study drawing on private letters of a British official, the episode isn’t only a compelling tale of terror and derring-do, but also reveals the “bankruptcy” of colonial policy.
The events unfolded in the historically contested region where northern outposts of the British Raj ran up against quasi-independent tribal territories on the border with Afghanistan.
In the early hours of April 14, 1923, five men from these tribal lands attacked the bungalow of Major Archibald Ellis in the cantonment of Kohat. With the major away, they murdered his wife Ellen and abducted the couple’s 17-year-old daughter, Mollie, whose cries for help were drowned out by a violent storm. The party fled to the hills and sheltered in caves and ravines as they made their way to the tribal area of the Tirah.
New insights into what happened next have been shared by historian Dr Jayne Gifford after she was given access to the papers of Sir John Maffey, Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province and the leading British administrator on the spot.
Learning of the attack at Kohat, 45-year-old Maffey wrote to his wife Dorothy: “This Kohat affair has lurched me sideways… Nothing can make such a sordid affair anything but a bad show.”
The motive of the attackers, led by one Ajab Khan Afridi, was believed to have been revenge after a police raid seized rifles linking Ajab and his brother Shahzada to the murders of a Colonel and Mrs Foulkes. The men tried to conceal the guns by disguising themselves as women but Frontier Constabulary entered the women’s quarters and foiled the scheme. The brothers were reportedly taunted by the women of their clan for allowing this insult to their sex.
Several days after her abduction, Mollie was permitted to write to Lieutenant-Colonel CE Bruce, district commissioner at Kohat, saying she was “alive and fairly well, but very weak from living on bread and potatoes”. Mollie, who was unaware of her mother’s death, wrote: “I am in a village N.W. of the Samana. My captors tell me that the D.C. [district commissioner] at Peshawar has offered a ransom for me. Is it true? If so, they are after it. They also want three or four men you took in connection with those rifles the other day. What can you do for me?”
She urged Bruce to comply with the men’s terms and to send her warm clothes, including a coat and breeches — “A skirt is no use to me, the way I shall have to travel.” The next day she wrote: “They are frightening me more than ever and I am afraid I shall never get out of this. I can’t quite make out what they say, so I may be imagining worse than it is.”
Maffey believed a conventional military operation in tribal territory would be unsuccessful and might endanger Mollie. For now, he didn’t even know her precise location.
As Gifford, lecturer in modern history at the University of East Anglia, explains, Maffey formulated a three-part plan that relied on close cooperation with the tribes. First, Zaman Khan, a tribal leader, was despatched from Peshawar to raise a lashkar, or war party, from the clans of the Afridi — the Pashtun tribe to which Ajab Khan and Shahzada belonged. His role was to put pressure on the tribesmen to stop Mollie’s abductors moving her further towards Afghanistan and, if necessary, “to cut them off and to capture her by force”.
Next, Khan Bahadur Kuli Khan, another Pashtun who was political assistant at Kurram, secured an audience with the influential Mullah Mahmud Akkundzake, who confirmed rumours that Mollie was being held by Ajab Khan in the cleric’s home village of Khanki Bazaar.
Finally, Maffey approached Lilian Starr, a missionary sister in Peshawar, and asked if she would join a rescue party. He believed the inclusion of a woman would have a “very real political effect” in the projection of imperial power. Starr, whose husband Dr Vernon Starr had been stabbed to death by Pashtun assassins in March 1918, told Maffey she was “only too glad” to be of use.
As the Newcastle Sunday Sun would put it days later: “Perhaps it was because of her bereavement that she deemed life a little thing, and was willing, as she now signified, to take her life in her hands and seek out the missing girl in the heart of the disaffected area… It seemed a veritable lion’s den into which she was putting her head.”
The party, consisting of Mrs Starr, Maffey’s assistant Rissaldar Mogal Baz Khan and members of the Orakzai tribe, set off on April 20 and reached Khanki Bazaar the next day. In the meantime, at the urging of Kuli Khan, the mullah had persuaded Ajab Khan to hand over Mollie to his own protection, pending negotiations.
Talks between the abductors and the British representatives took place at the mullah’s house while Mrs Starr cared for Mollie. During the discussions, Ajab Khan and Shahzada learned that the Afridi lashkar raised by the British had arrived in the brothers’ village and was attacking their homes.
Furious, Shahzada threatened the safety of Mrs Starr and Mollie. As Gifford writes in her paper in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History: “This action proved to be the turning point. The Mullah Mahmud was enraged at the insult to the sanctity of his roof and publicly cursed Shahzada and his companions. The balance had shifted. The demands for ransom and the concessions of a pardon were abandoned and the surrender of Mollie Ellis was swiftly arranged in exchange for the release of two men … held in Kohat jail for theft.”
The rescue party set out on their return journey on April 23 and were greeted by Maffey, Major Ellis and local officers at Shinawari Fort. Writing to his wife, Maffey said: “It is always hateful to the independent tribes when we stick our finger into their midst. The despatch of a woman was a bit of ju jitsu which has thrown them out of their bearings. It establishes our prestige and gives them a chance of regaining some of theirs. ‘You have shown how damned badly you can behave to a woman. Here’s another! See if you can do any better’.”
He described “the dainty English nurse, sitting at night in the house of the notorious Mulla[h] Mahmud with a pencil in her hand writing down in English what the Rissaldar is saying and round them the three bloodthirsty ruffians who murdered Mrs Ellis, haggling for terms. (This ought to be done for the Royal Academy!)”.
As for Mollie, he wrote: “[She] is not attractive to look at, tiny, pale, peaky, with huge black eyes, but lots of character. A marvellous escape!”
The rescue was fêted in the newspapers, although Maffey complained that, in their hassling of the various protagonists for comment, “the Press has been a perfect arse to us all”. Referring to the wedding of the future King George VI and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on April 26, he said: “Thank God there’s a Royal Wedding to attract attention now.”
Mrs Starr, Kuli Khan and Mogal Baz Khan were all subsequently awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal by the viceroy on behalf of George V.
Yet for all the congratulations, the attack and its aftermath had exposed the fragility of the British presence. With the perpetrators still at large and Afghanistan suspected of having, at the least, encouraged their actions, Maffey was expected to act decisively to restore British authority.
On May 11, he travelled to Kohat to convene a tribal council, or jirga, the following day. Four days previously he had arranged for 15 warplanes to fly over the tribal lands “as a gentle demonstration (no bombing yet) and to help produce the right atmosphere for the jirga“.
After the jirga, Maffey wrote to Dorothy that the results were “excellent”, even if attributable more to the aerial threat than his own eloquence. The tribal representatives declared Ajab Khan’s band their enemies. They said the kidnappers and their families would not be permitted to enter their territories and it would be the tribes’ duty to hand them over if they tried it.
They also agreed that the British could take action, by aeroplane or otherwise, if shelter was nevertheless provided by any individual or group. Maffey observed: “Under severe strain and much humiliation the tribal organisation has been made to work for us.”
Yet, presciently, he added: “But because I am satisfied, it doesn’t follow that other people will be”.
Indeed, while the Government of India was broadly happy with the outcome, questions were raised over Maffey’s methods. As one official put it: “The aerial demonstrations over Tirah is repeatedly stated to have had an excellent ‘lowering’ effect: but it is almost equally constantly stated to have been very deeply resented.”
In spite of the viceroy’s praise for Maffey’s “success” in the case, during the autumn of 1923 the colonial government was considering him “for some other post than that of Chief Commissioner of the North-West Province”.
Following the jirga, tribal search parties set out to find the perpetrators but it was established that they had fled to Afghanistan. It was only after months of diplomatic pressure that Ajab Khan and two other Kohat fugitives were arrested in January 1924 and exiled to Afghan Turkestan. The remaining two fugitives returned to the Tirah where they lived freely.
As Gifford writes: “The harbouring of these men was in direct contravention of the agreement reached on May 12 but the majority of Afridi opinion was in favour of allowing them to remain. The work of Maffey was ultimately null and void whilst the cat and mouse game between Britain and the tribes on the frontier continued. On the day that Maffey’s Indian Civil Service pension was due, he resigned from the service and left the North-West Frontier in 1924.”
She said Mollie’s rescue and its aftermath demonstrated Britain’s ability to project power across the frontier in the short term by utilising the tribal system and military coercion. “Longer-term consequences demonstrate the bankruptcy of British rule. That, despite the superior military technology, the construction of more secure cantonments and the capture of several of the perpetrators of the abduction, Britain could not secure its uncontested influence: two of the perpetrators returned to live in the Tirah country and the raiding of the settled districts resumed.”
She added that the case highlighted longstanding tensions between administrators and soldiers on the frontier, the Government of India and officials in London. In a memorandum of 1922, Maffey had argued that involvement in the tribal territories was a mistake. In his view, it did not strengthen Britain’s position when confronted with the risk of Soviet encroachment in Afghanistan, but rather “trammelled” it.
Gifford said: “Outwardly the rescue was touted as a success. Internally the whole episode really showed up the friction between the men on the spot like Maffey vis-à-vis London. London was pushing a harder line whereas Maffey was effectively saying, ‘No, we need to withdraw from these areas — it’s just making our lives a lot harder’.”
In his letters to his wife, Maffey referred to the Foreign Department of the Government of India as “most unhelpful and full of ignorant criticisms”. He dismissed Sir Francis Humphreys, the British Minister in Kabul, as “that namby pamby Humphreys”.
On a broader level, Gifford said: “The Mollie Ellis abduction is a good case study lens to look into the nature of British rule and people like Maffey, who wasn’t a big political figure. He was a mid-level imperial administrator. But the more you look into his story, the more you see the big network he built up of military and civilian contacts in his different postings. So there’s a bigger picture of imperial networks and how it was all about who you knew and what favours you could call in.”
After leaving India, Maffey had a distinguished diplomatic career and was raised to the peerage as Baron Rugby. He was the grandfather of the politician Jonathan Aitken who gave Gifford access to Maffey’s papers.
At Partition in 1947, the North-West Frontier became part of Pakistan. Ajab Khan Afridi has been celebrated as a hero and freedom fighter there and is the subject of several action films.
Mollie Ellis and her father travelled to England shortly after her rescue. She went on to marry Major Eric Wade at All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, London, in 1930. She returned to Kohat in 1983 to visit her mother’s grave.
The top picture shows the mountainous landscape around Kohat in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province as it appears today. Photo: Shutterstock