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James Burke (1832–1860) of Gillingham, Drummer, 39th Regiment of Foot

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Contents :

Early life at Gillingham, 1832–1839 :

James Burke was born at Gillingham, Kent in 1832, the son of John Burke (1795–1839) and Mary McDonnell (1794–1869). 1 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. 2

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’s circumstances were greatly reduced. Support for the widows of deceased rank-and-file soldiers was scant, at best. As needs must, James’s mother took her two children, the other presumed to have been Maria Anna (or Mary Ann), to the Medway Union workhouse 3 just six days after the death of John Burke.

A brief respite, c.1840–1843 :

Unsurprisingly and as was the custom for many army widows, James’s mother married John Anderson, a pensioner and regimental tailor, and native of county Sligo. 4 The household was enumerated in the 1841 census of England as follows: 5

  • John Anderson, age 40, occupation: tailor, born in Ireland
  • Mary Anderson, age 45, occupation: D [struck through], born in Ireland
  • James dto. [ditto], age 8, born in Kent
  • John dto., age 15, born in Ireland
  • Anne dto., age 2, born in Kent
  • census place: [The] Brook, Gillingham, Chatham, Kent

All of the children were listed with the surname, Anderson. However, James was almost certainly the son of Mary Anderson (formerly Burke née McDonnell). Whether the remaining two children, John and Anne, were Burke or Anderson is uncertain. Missing from the household was James’s sister, Maria Anna or Mary Ann Burke, born at Gillingham in 1828. 6

Drummer boy :

Bound for the War. Andersen, Hans Christian. “Bound for the War.” Image in, Stories for the Household. London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1889. Digital image online at Flickr (accessed and edited by Alison Kilpatrick, 2021-01-16).

On 10th February 1843, young James was delivered into the hands of his father’s regiment, the 39th, in the neighbouring town of Rochester. James was then but thirteen years, eight months of age. 7 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. 8 Importantly, pensionable service did not commence until James attained fifteen years of age. Thus, for two years James effectively became a ward of the British Army.

According to his British Army service record, James spent the first twelve years at home (i.e., within Britain and Ireland). When he was brought into the regiment, the 39th regiment was then stationed in India. 9 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.

Tour in Ireland :

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. 10

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.

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, young James was tried by Regimental Court Martial for an unspecified infraction. The Court sentenced James to one day’s confinement in prison, with a reduction in rank from Drum Major to Private. 11

During this period, James rarely saw his mother or sister, Margaret, though leaves granted during the tour in Ireland probably occasioned visits to England. His mother was widowed again in 1853, and remarried to another army pensioner, Charles Hodder. The couple removed to live in the High Street in Chichester, Sussex. 12

James’s sister, Margaret, was also married to an army man, John Huggins, who hailed from Caledon in county Tyrone. John’s postings took the family to the island of Saint Helena from 1842–1850 and to Fort Henry at Kingston in Canada West during the early 1850s. 13 It is not likely that James spent any time with Margaret and her family until James went home to England in 1860 (for which, see below).

Posted to Gibraltar :

After a four-year tour in Ireland, the 39th regiment removed from Cork to Gibraltar in April, 1854.

The fortress on the Rock of Gibraltar, where James Burke was stationed with the 39th Regiment of Foot in 1854.
Field, Henry Martyn. General View of the Rock of Gibraltar. (A story of fortress and siege.) London: Chapman & Hall, 1889. Digital image hosted online by The British Library (accessed and edited by Alison Kilpatrick, 2021-01-15).

From this date, James served a total of five years, forty-three days abroad. After eight months in Gibraltar, the corps sailed aboard the screw steamer, Golden Fleece, arriving at the port of Balaclava on the 31st December 1854. 14 From December 1854 to April 1856, the 39th was in the thick of the Crimean War. 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.

Officers and mounted soldiers of the 39th Regiment at the Crimea in 1855. James Burke fought with the 39th regiment in this war.
Fenton, Roger (1818–1869). Major Tinley and Officers of the 39th Regiment, 1855. Digital image online at the Royal Collection Trust; archival ref. RCIN 2500454 (accessed and edited by Alison Kilpatrick, 2021-01-16).

Overseas to Québec :

In May 1856, the regiment was transferred to Québec, 15 arriving to a general uproar of welcome: 16 , 17

   The welcome given was a fitting one. It was a public one in every sense, — the citizens of all nations joined in it. The descendants of France rivalled in enthusiasm the British subjects of the Queen, and the Tricolour every where flaunted in the breeze by the side of the Union Jack. The streets along the intended line of procession were filled from an early hour, and crowds at the wharf awaited the arrival of the John Munn and Québec, the river steamers which conveyed the troops from the Simoom. The different militia corps turned out in full uniform, as did also the Fire Companies. Three bands played appropriate music. Triumphal arches were erected; the houses along the line of march were decorated with flags, evergreens, floral and other devices; and when the soldiers of the Crimea marched along the streets, they were greeted with enthusiastic cheering from the house-tops, from the windows, and side-walks all were crowded, and the loud and continuous cheering gave the greeting of hearty welcome. …
   The 39th is a regiment that has seen much service. Its colours are emblazoned — “Primus in Indis” (first in India), “Plassey,” “Gibraltar,” “Albuera,” Vittoria,” “Pyrennes Nivelle, Nive, Orthes, and Peninsula.” It did not arrive in the Crimea until the middle period of the siege, but it took a glorious share in the hard labour and hard fighting of the grand finale. The 39th sailed in the Simoom from Gibraltar on the 23d of May, and made the passage in 33 days to Québec. There are 890 men of all ranks in the regiment. — The proceedings closed with a grand banquet to the officers and men.

This voyage appears to have bypassed England altogether. James’ sister, Margaret Huggins and her family had already left Canada, and were then living at Barnet in South Mimms, Hertfordshire. 18

View of the City of Québec, the citadel, and the harbour, then the capital of the British Provinces of the Canadas. James Burke was stationed at Québec with the 39th regiment until his discharge in May, 1859.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 August 1860. “View of the City, the Citadel and Harbor of Quebec, the Capital and Present Seat of the Government of the British Provinces of the Canadas, North America.” From a photograph by J.B. Livernois, Québec. Digital image hosted online by the Tides Institute and Museum of Art in partnership with the Downeast Coastal Conservancy, Downeast Salmon Federation, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe (accessed and edited by Alison Kilpatrick, 2021-01-15).

Illness, discharge, and death :

While stationed in Québec, it became apparent that young James had 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 31st May 1859. At Chatham, he was examined one last time by the Principal Medical Officer. 19

James made his way to his mother’s home in Chichester, Sussex—where the warmer clime could not save him from an advanced state of disease. James Burke died a scant six months later, on 2nd January 1860, aged all of thirty years. 20 Thus ended the mortal career of a young man who had been given into the army’s care at the tender age of thirteen, and who devoted the remaining seventeen years of his life serving at H.M.’s pleasure.

See also :

Footnotes :

  1. Roman Catholic Church (England). Parish of St Paul [Paulinus], Brompton, Kent. Record of Baptism. Transcript: “Die 8 Decembris A D 1832 et die 16 ej. mensis Baptisatus Jacobus Burke filius Joannis et Maria Burke/olim McDonnell / conj: patrinus fuit Jacobus Coleman matrina Maria Colemana me / J [E?] McEany[?] Mig’o Apo.” Digital image online at (transcript by Alison Kilpatrick, 2021-08-03). ↩︎
  2. Refer to biographical sketch of John Burke (1795–1839) for sources. ↩︎
  3. Medway Archives (Strood, Kent). Minutes of the Board of Guardians, Medway Union 1837–1840. Entry: “The weekly meeting of the Guardians at the Board room Wednesday 8th May 1839 … The following persons were ordered to be admitted … Mary Burke and 2 children were admitted at the charge of Chatham.” Archival ref. G/Me/Am/2, pg. 272. Information obtained from research commissioned by Alison Kilpatrick from Medway Council (2021-07-26). ↩︎
  4. To date, a marriage record has not been found. This marriage might have been an irregular one. ↩︎
  5. England 1841 Census. Household of John Anderson, age 40, and Mary [alias] Anderson, age 45, in Chatham, Kent. Original record: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1841. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1841. Archival ref. HO 107, piece 487, book 2, folio 8, pg. 8; civil parish of Chatham, hundred of Chatham and Gillingham, registration district: Medway, sub-registration district: Gillingham, enumeration district no. 16. Digital image online at (transcript by Alison Kilpatrick, 2021-01-21). ↩︎
  6. Roman Catholic Church (England). Parish of St Paul [Paulinus], Brompton, Kent. Record of Baptism. Transcript: “Die 6’â [6th] novembris anno Dei 1828° nata et Die 17’[xx] [17th] ejusdem mensis et anni Baptisata est Maria Anna Burk filia johannis Burk [—] militia ex 39° Regto et Mariæ Burk (olim McDonnal) conjugum. Patrinus fuit Andrew Sidny – matrina Mary Berwick[?]. A. me R’s Salmon M’so Apo.” Digital image online at (transcript by Alison Kilpatrick, 2021-08-03). ↩︎
  7. British Army Service Record. James Burke (1829–1860) of Gillingham, Kent; drummer boy, drum major, and private for the 39th Regiment of Foot. Original record held by The National Archives (Kew, Surrey); archival ref. WO 97/1512/32. Digital images held online by (transcript by Alison Kilpatrick, 2013-06-06). ↩︎
  8. Would a regiment have taken on the son of a dead soldier had they known that the deceased’s widow was living with another man? ↩︎
  9. Cannon, Richard. Historical Record of the Thirty-Ninth or the Dorsetshire Regiment of Foot. London: Parker, Furnivall and Parker, 1853. ↩︎
  10. Cannon (1853), op. cit. ↩︎
  11. British Army Service Record, op. cit. ↩︎
  12. Church of England. Parish of St. Paul, Chichester, Sussex. Burial Record. Index entry: Charles Hodder from High Street, burial 14th April 1860. Transcript by Sussex Family History Group. Index online at (accessed 2023-10-07). ↩︎
  13. British Army Service Record. John Huggins, born in or near Caledon, county Tyrone; attested to the 45th Regiment of Foot, 30 June 1834, at Armagh, Ireland; rank: Colour Sergeant, on being pensioned out, 8 October 1855. Original record held by The National Archives (UK). Archival ref. WO97/1555 (service record) and WO22/59 (pension record). Copy obtained through research commissioned from Dr. Christopher T. Watts, military history specialist (2002-07-10). ↩︎
  14. Archer, Jeremy. General William Munro, C.B., 39th Regiment – Soldier and Plantsman. Online at The Keep: Military Museum (accessed 2021-01-16). ↩︎
  15. British Army Service Record, op. cit. ↩︎
  16. The Caledonian Mercury, 30 July 1856, pg. 2. “Arrival at Montreal of the 39th Regiment from the Crimea.” Digital image online at (transcript by Alison Kilpatrick 2021-01-16). ↩︎
  17. The Nottinghamshire Guardian, 24 July 1856, pg. 5. “Crimean Troops in Canada.” Digital image online at (accessed 2021-01-16). ↩︎
  18. General Register Office, England and Wales. Certified Copy of an Entry of Birth. Extract: Registration district: Barnet, sub-district: South Mimms, county of Hertfordshire. Sarah Selina Huggins, born 29 December 1855; daughter of John Huggins, Staff Serjeant, Royal Middlesex Rifles, and Margaret Huggins formerly Burke; registered 22 January 1856, informant: John Huggins, father, 15, The Barracks, Barnet, South Mimms. Copy purchased by Alison Kilpatrick, 2002-04-08) (application no. CM329753, CM 329753) from Barnet Register Office, Edgware. ↩︎
  19. British Army Service Record, James Burke, op. cit. ↩︎
  20. General Register Office, England & Wales. Certified Copy of an Entry of Death. Extract: 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 by Alison Kilpatrick, 2014-01-25; archival ref. application no. 4960664-3, certificate no. DYD 525475. ↩︎

End notes :

Source citation for this page: — Kilpatrick, Alison. “Biographical sketch for James Burke (1829–1860) of Gillingham, Kent.” Published online to Arborealis, on 1st April 2015, edited 7th Oct. 2023.

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Updated 1st Nov. 2023.