James Burke (1829–1860)

James Burke was born at Gillingham, Kent, the son of John Burke (1795-1839) and Mary McDonnell (1794-1869). Both of his parents were born in the county of Mayo, his father hailing from in or near the town of Claremorris. James' father was a tailor by trade, and attested into the British Army in Ireland in 1817, serving eight years at various posts around the country before he was transferred to Chatham barracks in 1825.

After suffering from the ague and other complaints for several years, James' father died of fever in May, 1839. James was just a few weeks shy of his tenth birthday. While his sister, Margaret, had married several months beforehand, and was expecting her first child imminently, his mother now found herself in straitened circumstances. Support for the widows of deceased rank-and-file soldiers was scant, at best. However James and his mother managed to survive during the next few years, on the 10th February 1843 his mother delivered him into the hands of his father's regiment, the 39th, at the neighbouring town of Rochester. James was but thirteen years, eight months of age. [1] It was not uncommon for the regiment of a deceased soldier to take on under age soldier boys, particularly when the mother found ends difficult to meet.

According to his British Army service record, James spent the first twelve years at home. The 39th regiment then stationed in India [2], James was, first, an ordinary Private—perhaps, in service to an officer in Chatham barracks. In March 1845, he was appointed drummer, which post he held for two years, before returning to the rank of private.

After the return of the 39th to England in 1847, the regiment was stationed in Canterbury, but in mid-December, proceeded to Gosport. Three months later, in March 1848, the regiment moved, first to Portsmouth, then to Hull in Yorkshire, with detachments posted at Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, and Halifax. The regiment moved to Preston, Lancashire, in June 1848, remaining there until its removal in April 1850 to Belfast. [2]

During its sojourn in Ireland, the 39th regiment proceeded to the following stations:

  • Belfast, April 1850;
  • Newry, November 1850;
  • the Linen Hall barracks in Dublin, July 1851;
  • transfer to the Richmond barracks and the Islandbridge barracks, both in Dublin, March 1852;
  • five companies of the regiment to Cork, July 1852, during the elections;
  • one company to Balbriggan, county Dublin, at the same time, "in aid of the civil authorities during the elections in that town;"
  • after the elections, removal of the regiment to its new headquarters in Clonmel, county Tipperary;
  • two companies were sent to Carrick-on-Suir and one to Clogheen, both in county Tipperary, a fourth to Dungarvan and the fifth to Cappoquin, both in county Waterford;
  • all companies returned to headquarters in Clonmel, September 1852;
  • the regiment removed to Cork, February 1853, [2] remaining in that city until April, 1854.

 It was in Dublin that James Burke earned a Good Conduct badge, with pay, in June 1852. When the regiment was posted to Cork in February 1853, he was appointed Drum Major. While in Cork, unfortunately young James was tried by Regimental Court Martial, for an unfraction unknown. The Court sentence confined James to one day's imprisonment, with a reduction in rank from Drum Major back to Private. [1]

On the family front, James' sister, Margaret, her husband, John Huggins, and their four children had returned to England in Autumn 1849, after a seven-year posting with the Royal St Helena Regiment to the very distant island of the same name. His sister's family were in England until 1852, when John Huggins' regiment, the 54th, was removed to serve at Québec in Canada East.

After a four-year tour in Ireland, the 39th regiment removed from Cork to Gibraltar in April, 1854. From this date, James served a total of five years, 43 days abroad. After eight months in Gibraltar, the corps was posted to fight in the Crimean War from December 1854 to April 1856. The regiment was present at the Siege of Sebastopol, taking part in the assaults on the capital city on the 18th June and 8th September, 1855.

In May 1856, the regiment was transferred to Québec. [1,3] 

citadel looking eastward 1871

Winter view from the Citadel, Québec, looking eastward. [4]

james burke d1860 final decription

At some point in his career, young James contracted tuberculosis, then called Phthisis. Ailing and deemed unfit for further military service by a Regimental Board, James Burke was discharged from the 39th Regiment of Foot at Québec on the 31st May 1859. At Chatham, he was examined one last time by the Principal Medical Officer. From here, James made his way to his mother's home in Chichester, Sussex—where he died a scant six months later, on the 2nd January, 1860. [5]

Source: British Army Service Record,
James Burke (1829-1860) — See complete reference, below, note [1].

Click on image to view in new window.

When death comes, a victor,
   In mercy to greet me,
On the wings of the whirlwind,
   In the wild wastes you'll meet me!
—"From the Cold Sod That's O'er You,"
The Lyrics of Ireland, ed. by S. Lover.
London: Houlston & Wright, 1858.


  1. British Army Service Records, 1760-1915; James Burke, born at Gillingham, Kent (1829-1860); original record: National Archives, London, England, ref. WO97; digital copy online at findmypast.co.uk (accesssed 2013-06-16, by subscription).
  2. Cannon, Richard. Historical Record of the Thirty-Ninth or the Dorsetshire Regiment of Foot. London: Parker, Furnivall and Parker, 1853.
  3. James' sister, Margaret Huggins and her family had, by this date, already left Canada, returning to England and taking up residence at Waltham Abbey, in Essex.
  4. Winter View from the Citadel, Québec, Looking Eastward. From a photograph by Livernois and Bienvenu, 14 January 1871, no. 4270. The Canadian Illustrated News, Vol. III, No. 2. Digital copy online at Library and Archives Canada, www.bac-lac.gc.ca (accessed 2015-11-13).
  5. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death (England). James Burke, male, 27 years, Chelsea Pensioner, died 2 January 1860, High Street, Chichester, Sussex, occupation: Chelsea Pensioner; cause of death: Phthisis pulmonalis (certified), informant: Charles Hodder, present at the death, High Street, Chichester. Purchased from obtained from the General Register Office (2014-01-25), application no. 4960664-3, certificate no. DYD 525475.

This page was published on the 13th November 2015, and edited subsequently on the 17th and 23rd November 2015.

If you have a family history connection to a Burke family from the parish of Kilcolman (Clanmorris), county Mayo—or if you have information to add to the biographical sketches presented here—please consider getting in touch via the contact page.

Return to Burke of Claremorris index page.
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© Alison Kilpatrick, 2015. All rights reserved.
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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

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