Mary Burke née McDonnell (c.1794–1869)

Mary Burke née McDonnell's story qualifies as a family history mystery. To tell that part of her story which is known to us, and to describe the mysterious components, this biographical sketch consists of two parts:

  • the first part of this biographical sketch is a fairly secure (that is, in terms of genealogical research standards) narrative of Mary's life until the death of her husband in 1839; and,
  • the second part takes a different format, by laying out the information found, in chronological order, concluding with an invitation to readers to submit your interpretations of that data—the results of this interactive format to be shared in a later blog entry on this site.

Part I: 1794–1839:

   Mary McDonnell was born c.1794 in the county of Mayo, townland and parish unknown. As was the case in tracing the life story of her husband, John Burke (1795-1839), we catch only fleeting glimpses of Mary in the written record. To date, that tally runs to: the baptism of her daughter, Margaret Jane Burke; the death of her husband at Chatham, Kent, in 1839; a rather interesting census enumeration in 1841; a tangled web involving the informant of a death, followed by the informant's death, and news articles about the latter; an 1861 census enumeration (for she cannot be found in the 1851 census, anywhere); and, the civil registration of her death. From these bits, the following story emerged.

   No record of the marriage of John Burke and Mary McDonnell has been found. Our first sighting of them, as man and wife, is in the record of the baptism of their daughter, Margaret Jane Burke, on the 11th May 1823. Margaret was baptised by the Rev. J. Quill in the chapel at Tralee, county Kerry—where John Burke was stationed with the 39th regiment of foot. The sponsors were Patrick Brenan, a tailor with the 39th, and Mary Galihir. [1]

   When John's regiment was subsequently posted to Limerick, five months after the birth of Margaret, thence to Cork one year later [2], Mary followed, almost certainly by shank's mare, with babe in arms. In this and in other ways, the lot of the soldier's wife was unenviable: there being no separate quarters for families, a shawl or a blanket suspended by the bed provided the merest pretence of privacy in barracks.

   By November 1825, the 39th had shipped to Chatham, Kent, from which port most of the regiment shipped out to New South Wales during the next three years. [2] John stayed at Chatham as part of a depôt detachment, working as a regimental tailor. The family may have lived in barracks or, if John's income were sufficient from the set rates paid for tailoring, they may have sought lodging in Chatham or nearby Gillingham. The birth of a son, James, in Gillingham, on the 10th June 1829 [3], implies residence either in the barracks at Brompton (which lies between Chatham and Gillingham), or in Gillingham town.

   It would be tempting to believe that Mary's husband worked in more favourable conditions than those soldiers who did "hard" service. However, the regimental tailors laboured in cramped, dank workshops that were poorly ventilated. Woe betide, then, the weakened constitution that came into contact with any of the tropical diseases brought to the depôt barracks from military outposts in the East and West Indies.

   John began to experience pain in his loins in 1834, spreading to his arms by 1836. He was invalided and sent to the General Hospital at Fort Pitt, once for Ague and twice for pain in the pit of his stomach. Inevitably, a regimental board convened, and ruled that he was unfit for Active duties of a Soldier in consequence of Rheumatic affection and Impaired constitution. [4] After his discharge in August, 1838, the family lived in Holborn Lane, Chatham.

holborn lane chatham map

Source: Ordnance Survey map, segment, depicting tenement
houses in Holborn lane, Watt's Place, etc.,
which were demolished in the 1960s. Kent History Forum,
online at (accessed 2015-11-12).

  Not long afterwards, in the summer or autumn of 1838, a young corporal named John Huggins, an Irishman posted with the 45th regiment at Canterbury, began to take an interest in their daughter, Margaret. The romance proceeded merrily along, until a marriage is presumed to have been solemnized in December of the same year. [5] John and Margaret Huggins' first child, Mary Ann, was born on the 14th June 1839, at the Windsor barracks. [6]

   Unfortunately, however, John Burke had died of fever just six weeks earlier, on the 2nd May. [7] Widowed, without the benefit of her husband's army pension, Mary was in no position to travel to Windsor to greet her new grandchild or to offer her daughter any support. Rather, she could only have been consumed with the question of how to support herself and her young son, James. Though her daughter had been just fifteen years old at the time of her marriage, it must have been a source of some relief for Mary Burke to know that Margaret was now provided for as the wife of John Huggins.

Part II: 1839–1869:

   An interesting, and perplexing (and admittedly, scant) trail of genealogical bread crumbs follows Mary from the time that her husband died at Chatham in May, 1839. I have my own suspicions of the meaning of these mere morsels of information, but suspicions do not genealogical proofs make. So, digressing from the narrative description format taken to this point, I shall lay out these events in chronological order, and invite readers to submit your impressions and  interpretations via the contact page.

(1.)  Mary Burke and her son, James, were not found in the 1841 census. However, the following intriguing enumeration was made for several households in Holborn Lane, Chatham. Ann Harfleet was listed as a neighbour of Mary Goodman, age 45, and her son, James, age 12. Mrs. Harfleet had been the informant who attended the Registrar to report the death of Mary's husband, John, just two years earlier.

mary goodman w son james near ann harfleet 1841

1841 England census: (1) Ann Harflet (Harfleet), informant of the death
of John Burke in 1839; and, (2) Mary Goodman, age 45, with son,
James, age 12. Place: Holborn Lane, Chatham, Kent. Source [7].
Click on the map to view larger image in new window.

(2.)   On the 10th February, 1843, James Burke, aged thirteen years and eight months, attested to the 39th regiment—the same in which his father, John Burke, had served. James was born at Gillingham, taken into the regiment at Rochester (the town directly adjacent to Chatham), and given the post of drummer. [8] It was a fairly common practice for a regiment to take in the under age son of a deceased soldier as a drummer or servant, especially when the widow found herself in straitened circumstances.

(3.)  No trace of Mary Burke, or Goodman, was found in the 1851 census. A search of any woman with the forename, Mary, born in Mayo, Ireland, was similarly fruitless.

(4.)  On the 19th July 1859, James Burke—now thirty years old, and suffering from phthisis (tuberculosis)—was discharged from the 39th regiment, at Québec. The discharge papers indicate his intention to reside at Chichester, Sussex. [9]

(5.)  James Burke died in the High Street, Chichester, on the 2nd January, 1860. The civil registration confirmed that James was a Chelsea (army) pensioner, and that the cause of death was phthisis pulmonalis. The informant to the registrar was Charles Hodder, present at the death, High Street, Chichester. [10]

(6.)  Charles Hodder, himself a Chelsea pensioner, died at Chichester on the 11th April, 1860. The cause of death, confirmed by inquest, was recorded as "concussion of the brain, caused by a fall on the ground, whilst intoxicated after an interval of seven hours." [11]

   The inquest was reported in the 21st April 1860 edition of The Hampshire Telegraph, as follows:

        Inquest.——On the 12th inst. an inquest was held
      before J. Powell, Esq., City Coroner, at Harmsworth’s
      Brewery, on the Old Broyle [in Chichester], to
      investigate the circumstances attending the death of
      Charles Hodder, a Chelsea pensioner, 66 years of age.
      It appeared by the evidence that on the preceding day
      the deceased was seen staggering in Chapel-street very
      much intoxicated, and that he fell several times, in
      one of which his head had come in contact with the wall
      of a house, whereby a severe wound had been inflicted.
      He was conveyed to his home, but as he did not rally,
      Mr. F. St. Quintin Bond, the House Surgeon of the
      Infirmary, was sent for, but did not arrive in time to
      see him alive. That gentleman made a post mortem
      examination, and stated that the skull was not
      fractured, but the brain was much congested, and there
      was no doubt death had been caused by concussion of the
      brain, accelerated, in all probability, by excessive
      drinking. A verdict to that effect was returned. [12]

(7.)  The 19th April 1860 edition of the Brighton Gazette reported the inquest in greater detail: 

        Inquest.——Death through Drink.——An inquest was held
      at Harmsworth’s Brewery, Somer’s Town, on Thursday
      afternoon, on the body of Charles Hodder, 66 years of
      age, a Chelsea pensioner, who met his death in the
      following manner:-—-George Wright Parker, a butcher,
      saw deceased about half-past three o’clock on Wednes-
      day, in Chapel Street, drunk and staggering about; his
      wife was with him; he fell down twice, and witness and
      another picked him up and took him home. Saw that he
      had a wound on the back of his head, caused by his
      falling against the wall of a house; it was bleeding a
      little. They remained with him about three quarters of
      an hour after they had got him home. Mary Burke, living
      in the same house with deceased and his wife, saw
      deceased brought in by the young men. After he had been
      home about half an hour, he laid down before the fire
      for a time, and witness went to bed about half-past
      ten. Had not been long gone when deceased’s wife called
      her down. When she went down she found deceased lying
      on the bed and quiet. Deceased had been lately given to
      drinking. Mr. F. St. Quinton Bond, House Surgeon of the
      Infirmary, deposed that deceased was a patient under
      him. Saw him at the Infirmary on Wednesday morning. In
      the evening was sent for about eleven o’clock and found
      that he was just dead. There was a large scalp wound,
      which laid the bone bare, and there had been
      considerable effusion of blood. He made a post mortem
      examination of the body. The skull was not fractured,
      but the brain was very much congested. Witness
      attributed the cause of death to concussion of the
      brain, and had no doubt that the drink deceased had,
      accelerated death. The wound on the head was such as
      might be caused by a cut from a stone. Verdict
      accordingly. [13]

(8.)  Charles Hodder served with the 3rd (Buffs) regiment, obtaining his discharge in India in 1844. In 1840, he had married at Fort William, near Calcutta; his wife died in Meerut in December, 1842. In fact, Charles Hodder was a bigamist, for, at the time that he was marrying his second wife in India, his first wife was languishing in the workhouse at Croydon, where she died in 1841. In 1845, Charles remarried yet again, to Elizabeth Korral (formerly Donovan) at Fort William near Calcutta. Charles Hodder returned to England sometime between 1845–1860, with or without his third wife is not known.

(9.)  When the 1861 census was enumerated, Mary Burke was enumerated as Mary Hodder, in the household of her daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and John Huggins:

mary hodder waltham abbey 1861

England 1861 Census: John Huggins and family, with
mother-in-law, Mary Hodder, widow, age 67, "A Pensioner Widow." [14]
Click on image to view at larger size, in new window.

A transcript of this enumeration follows:

  • John Huggins, head, married, age 44; Pensioner & Drill Instructor; born in Tyrone, Ireland
  • Margrat Huggins, wife, age 38; born in Kerry, Ireland
  • Elizabeth Huggins, daughter, age 11, scholar; born at St Helena, Africa
  • Amalia Huggins, daughter, age 7, scholar; born at Kingston, Canada
  • Sarah S. Huggins, daughter, age 5, Pensioner's daughter; born at Barnet, Middlesex
  • William H. Huggins, son, age 2; born at Barnet, Middlesex
  • Mary Hodder, mother in law, widow, age 67, a Pensioner Widow; born in Mayo, Ireland
  • Census place: 7 Factory Road, Waltham Holy Cross civil parish, Waltham Abbey, Essex [14]

(10.)  Between August, 1861 and March 1864, the Huggins family moved to Winchester, Hampshire, where John worked as a drill instructor for the Hampshire Regiment. There, on the 14th May 1869, Mary Burke died in the hospital attached to the Winchester Union Workhouse (patients in this hospital were not necessarily residents of the workhouse). The civil registration of death recorded the name of Mary Burke, female, age 77 years, widow of John Burke, soldier, cause of death: paralysis (certified). [15]


   There are, certainly, many gaps in the information presented. And it may well be the case, therefore, that interpretation can only be tentative, or speculative at best. If anyone should care to make that attempt, please do drop me a line to share your thoughts.

   I will repeat what I said earlier, that the lot of the soldier's wife was unenviable. Yet, Mary Burke endured, and in the face of all that was unjust and inaccessible in the mid-nineteenth century, I should think that counts as a triumph of spirit.

See also the blog articleThe lot of the soldier's wife was unenviable.


  1. Irish Genealogy, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ireland; Margaret Burk, date of baptism: 11 May 1823; father: John Burk, mother: Mary McDonnell, address: New Barracks, Tralee, county Kerry; baptised by the Rev. J. Quill, sponsors: Patrick Brenan, Mary Gallihir, Roman Catholic parish church at Tralee, county Kerry; book no. 3, page 10, entry no. 106, record identifier KY-RC-BA-457560; digital record; church register not yet “imaged”, online at (accessed 2012-03-25).
  2. Cannon, Richard. Historical Record of the Thirty-Ninth or the Dorsetshire Regiment of Foot. London: Parker, Furnivall and Parker, 1853 (pp. 65–7).
  3. British Army Service Records, 1760-1915. James Burke, Private, 39th Regiment of Foot; born June 1829, Gillingham, Kent. Original record: National Archives, London, England, ref. WO97. Digital copy online at (accessed 2013-06-16, by subscription).
  4. British Army Service Records 1760-1915. John Burke, Claremorris, county Mayo (1795-1839). Original record: National Archives, London, England, ref. WO97/551/9. Digital copy online at (accesssed 2012-03-25, by subscription).
  5. John Huggins obtained three weeks' leave from Canterbury to Chatham in December, 1838.
  6. Certified Copy of an Entry of Birth, given at the General Register Office, England. Mary Ann Huggins, date of birth: 14 June 1839, place of birth: Windsor, Berkshire, England; father: John Huggins, Corporal, 45th Reg’t of Foot; mother: Margaret Huggins formerly Burke; registered in Windsor Registration District, informant: John Huggins, father. Purchased from the General Register Office, UK, application no. PAS 493279, registration no. BXCA277019 (2004-03-11).
  7. Certified Copy of Entry of Death. John Burke, male, age 41 years, Tailor; died 2 May 1839, Holborn Lane, Chatham, England; cause of death: fever; informant: Ann Harfleet, Holborn Lane, present at death; registration district: Medway, subdistrict: Rochester. Purchased from the General Register Office (2012-03-28), application no. 3949627-1, DYD 245150 (2012-04-13).
  8. British Army service record, James Burke, op. cit.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death (England). James Burke, male, 27 years [sic], Chelsea Pensioner, died 2 January 1860, High Street, Chichester, Hampshire, occupation: Chelsea Pensioner; cause of death: Phthisis pulmonalis (certified). Informant: Charles Hodder, present at the death, High Street, Chichester. Purchased from the General Register Office (2014-01-25), application no. 4960664-3, certificate no. DYD 525475.
  11. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death (England). Charles Hodder, male, sixty-six years, Chelsea Pensioner, died 11 April 1860, High Street, Chichester, Hampshire, cause of death: Concussion of the brain, caused by a fall on the ground, whilst intoxicated after an interval of seven hours, information received from James Powell, Coroner for the City of Chichester; inquest held 13th April 1860. Purchased from the General Register Office (2014-01-25), application no. 4999334-13, certificate no. DYD 534390.
  12. The Hampshire Telegraph, 21 April 1860. Digital copy from The British Newspaper Archive, online at (accessed by subscription).
  13. The Brighton Gazette, 19 April 1860. BNA, op. cit.
  14. England 1861 Census. John Huggins, Margaret Burke, and family, Waltham Holy Cross civil parish, Waltham Abbey, Essex, registration district: Edmonton, sub-registration district: Waltham Abbey. Original record: The National Archives, ref. PRO ref. RG9/801, ED 1, folio 27, pg 48, household schedule no. 296, GSU no. 542703, enumerated 7th April 1861. Data obtained from purchased CD (Archive CD Books, UK, 2004).
  15. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death (England). Mary Burke, female, widow of John Burke, soldier; died 14 May 1869; cause of death: paralysis (certified); informant: Mr. Jewell, Union Workhouse, Winchester, present at the death. Purchased from the General Register Office, Southport, U.K. (22 January 2014), application no. 5356201-1, certificate no. DYD 622740.

Mary McDonnell may have been from, or near, the town of Castlebar, county Mayo. Her husband, John Burke (1795–1839), was stationed there with the 39th Regiment of Foot for two years, 1819–1820.

If you have information that could help us connect Mary McDonnell to a family in the county of Mayo—or if you have information to add to the biographical sketch presented here—please consider getting in touch via the contact page.

This page was first published on the 12th November 2015, and edited subsequently on the 18th November 2015, and 25th December 2015.

Return to McDonnell of county Mayo index page.
Return to Biographical sketches, outlines, and timelines index page.

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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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