Samuel John Huggins, O.B.E., 1864-1922

In my continuing quest to slay the genealogical dragon, I lay before my rellies—close, distant, and indifferent—a biographical sketch of Samuel John Huggins (1864-1922). [The link connects to the biographical sketch—the page that you are reading is merely the blog entry.] How apt that metaphor is, "to slay the dragon," as the life of Samuel John—known variously as Samuel, John, or Jack—revolved almost exclusively around military service.

Having studied this family for the past thirteen years, it is tempting to pose the question, what other dragons might Samuel John have been attempting to slay?

Samuel John's parents' marriage started life at a couple of disadvantages, born both of circumstance and prejudice. Margaret Jane Burke (1823-1898) was just fifteen years of age when she caught the eye of John Joseph Huggins (1816-1876) in the fall of 1838. Her father was a tailor with the 39th Regiment of Foot, stationed at Chatham. John Joseph was a twenty-two year old Corporal, stationed at Canterbury. Born of a liaison between a Protestant father and a Catholic mother in county Tyrone, John Joseph had enlisted in the army when he became estranged from his father. Without the means at his disposal, John Joseph could not purchase a commission in the officer corps.

How the twain met, we can only speculate, but nary was the outcome. By Christmas, John Joseph was granted three weeks' leave to Chatham, where Margaret's family lived. It is most likely that he and Margaret were married during this period. John Joseph's and Margaret's first child (and Samuel John's eldest sister), Mary Ann, was born at the barracks in Windsor in June, 1839.

John Joseph's father was of longstanding Presbyterian stock, with connections to the monied classes, and, as time would prove, the marriage did not go over well with his family in Ireland. Margaret's parents were from the county Mayo, Roman Catholic, and almost certainly bilingual, that is, they spoke English and "had the gaeilge." With Margaret's mother in the household during the last ten years of her life, did the children hear the occasional word or expression in the Irish language? Returning to the original point, when his father died, John Joseph's uncle made sure that nothing flowed from the estate to John Joseph or his progeny but, instead, to cousins who, by this redirected beneficence, went on to become doctors and lawyers in Drumfriesshire and Gloucestershire. 

Was the military career of Samuel John's father curtailed by discrimination on the basis of religious denomination? While the repeal of the Test Acts in 1828 and the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829 permitted Catholics to hold commissions in the British Army, in fact, their numbers were scant during the Victorian era. In England, these were primarily the sons of the Catholic gentry. Irish officers were generally assigned to Irish regiments, but were invariably of the Anglo-Irish, Protestant class.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to John Joseph Huggins' career was that he could not afford to purchase an officer's commission in the first place. His own father, who inherited rather well, had run into financial difficulties. Additionally, there was no family tradition of commissioned service in the British Army and thus, there were no military connections on which to draw. There were uncles and cousins in the Presbyterian ministry, and a few wealthy relatives in the linen industry, and even a distant connection to the Stewarts, but none with sufficient influence to bear on the matter. Thus it was, when John Joseph enlisted with the 45th Regiment at Armagh in 1834 for a bounty of £3.

Nevertheless, John Joseph soldiered on (apologies for the pun). During his considerable career, John Joseph and his wife, Margaret, both of Irish birth, traversed the Atlantic Ocean, south and north, west and east. John and Margaret instilled in their children the values of hard work, service, and meticulousness as to detail (though an exception seems to have occurred at their sixth born, Sadie, my great-grandmother, who was notorious for colouring the truth). By the end of the requisite twenty-one years' service, John Joseph Huggins had attained the rank of Colour Sergeant, having risen through the ranks of the 45th, St. Helena, and 54th Regiments. During his military career, John Joseph and Margaret raised ten children, beginning at Windsor and Portsmouth in England, thence to such farflung places as the island of St. Helena and Fort Henry in Canada West, returning again to the English counties of Hertfordshire and Hampshire, before finally emigrating to Canada in 1874. 

Just two years into their residence in Canada, John Joseph died in a remote part of northern Ontario. He had gone there, with his youngest son, Samuel John, to prospect for land. However, these plans went awry when, after a fall from a horse, John succumbed to inflammation of the lungs. He died at a remote settlement in Victoria (now Muskoka) County called Allansville, in Stephenson Township. The awful news may have been conveyed to Margaret, in Toronto, by means of telegraph, but Samuel John had to make his own way home, first, by mail cutter to a train station, then by rail to Toronto. Though likely taken under the wing of the cutter's master and, next, of a railroad conductor, the journey must have been painful and lonely for a young lad of twelve years.

The family drew on their wits to survive, with all hands over the age of sixteen going to work. Four years after his father's death, when he was sixteen years of age, Samuel John returned to England to enlist in Her Majesty's service.

His military service in Ireland from 1881-1883 gave Samuel John an opportunity to reconnect with his brother, James Edward—a Quartermaster Sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry, stationed at Dublin—and to make the acquaintance of his father's family in county Tyrone. At the same time, Samuel John was one of the tens of thousands of soldiers directed by the British government to a country in turmoil and upheaval. Samuel John spent five months in the county Galway, attending searches and arrests under the guise of the Coercion Act. Two instances of double murder occurred during his time there, and another—the Phoenix Park murders—occurred just before his reassignment to Dublin.

What was the dialogue in his head? How and when did Samuel John become aware of the differences in his parents' background? Had Irish politics been a forbidden subject in his parents' household? One does wonder whether the great Irish divide ever factored into his parents' marriage, the raising of their children, or the conversation at the dinner table. For all that, was a twenty-year-old young man inclined to think of the political strife that was 1880s Ireland? Samuel John may well have been far more interested in catching up with his mates at the Curragh for the races or in Dublin for a pint.

While Samuel John was engaged with the Somerset Light Infantry during the Third Burmese War, he learned of the suicide of his eldest brother, James, at Dublin in 1888. During the inquest, it was learned that James had become financially embarrassed, rendering the death all the more painful for the family. In less than a year, the next eldest brother, William Henry, died of tuberculosis, while serving as a gunner at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario. His father and his brothers having died, Samuel John was the sole surviving son, left to bear the male standard for the Huggins family.

Finally, what motivated Samuel John to quit the British Army in 1892? That he had managed to attain only the rank of Lance Corporal might be one reason. Perhaps he regarded Canada, the armed service of which was still young in its development, as a forum of greater opportunity for advancement. If these were his motivations, then Samuel John might not have understood, initially, the perils of navigating "Toronto the Good" during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. For here, one truly had to be Protestant (preferably evangelical, not "high church"), Loyalist, and Royalist—all the better if you were an Orangeman—in order to be invited into the ranks of the establishment.

Having cast aside a safe, albeit predictably unrewarding, career with the British Army, the societal barriers of the Toronto establishment must have seemed impenetrable. Thus, it would appear that Samuel John eschewed the social strictures of Toronto, going instead to Hamilton to make a life for himself. From this new home base, he signed on with the local infantry, the 13th Royal Regiment, in peace time; made the best of friends with an Englishman, a Physical Director at the University of Toronto; honed his skills as a champion marksman, periodically, but regularly, bringing honours from the Mother Country back to Canada; obtained what, in retrospect, was a fortuitous injury in France, one that permitted him to advance in the officer corps while training the Canadian troops in England; and finally, perhaps perceiving a vacuum of talent, positioned himself to win the coveted prize of a senior officer's commission.

Interestingly, the caption underneath a photo, in a 1915 British newspaper notice of Samuel John's injury during the Second Battle of Ypres, states that he was born in Ireland. Surely he wasn't, but either he stated as much or spoke of his Irish ancestry often enough that people took him for a native born Irishman.

Whether or not Samuel John Huggins had endeavoured to compensate for the early and all too painful deaths of his brothers, he did manage to attain a rank in the armed service not available to his father in the Anglocentric social systems that were the British and Canadian armies—yet he managed to stay resolutely Irish and Catholic. I am convinced, however, that Samuel John Huggins was just as pleased when anyone took him for an English gentleman.

I salute you, good Sir.


  • Huggins, John Alfred (1896-1962), eldest son of Samuel John Huggins. Family history notes prepared for his niece, Mary E. Brandum née Huggins (1926-2007), March 1962; from the collection of Carole Herbert (received, with thanks, 2015-01-25).
  • Karsten, Peter, ed. Motivating Soldiers: Morale or Mutiny. (Routledge, 1998.)
  • Snape, Michael. The Redcoat and Religion. (New York: Routledge, 2005.)
  • Snape, Michael Francis. The Royal Army Chaplains' Department, 1796-1953: Clergy Under Fire. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008.)

This blog entry was updated on the 26th May 2015; on the 24th October 2015 for an article published in the 12th October 1876 edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper, furnished by Rod Huggins, of Ottawa, grandson of S.J. Huggins; and, on the 16th November for correction of the year in which the family emigrated to Canada from 1876 to 1874.

❖          ❖          ❖

© Alison Kilpatrick, 2014. All rights reserved.
Copyright notice

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

E-mail   |   Subscribe to RSS feed   |   Subscribe to mailing list   |   Privacy statement   |   Site map

© Alison Kilpatrick 2014–2019. All rights reserved.