James Burke (1829–1860) of Gillingham, Drummer, 39th Foot

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Ordnance Survey map of the county of Kent, England: an extract depicting Rochester, Chatham, and Gillingham; dated 1856.
Ordnance Survey Map (extract) of Chatham and Gillingham in Kent (1856). Image credit.

James Burke was born at Gillingham, Kent, 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.

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.

An image of a young drummer boy leaving home to join his regiment, as did James Burke when, at the age of thirteen years, he was given to his late father's regiment the 39th foot.
Bound for the War. Image credit.

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, in the neighbouring town of Rochester. James was then but thirteen years, eight months of age. 2 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, 3 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. 4

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, 5 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 unspecified infraction. The Court sentenced James to one day’s confinement in prison, with a reduction in rank from Drum Major to Private. 6

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.

The fortress on the Rock of Gibraltar, where James Burke was stationed with the 39th Regiment of Foot in 1854.
The fortress on the Rock of Gibraltar. Image credit.

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 1854.7 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.
Officers with mounted soldiers, all of the 39th Regiment in the Crimea, 1855. Image credit.

In May 1856, the regiment was transferred to Québec, 8, 9 arriving to a general uproar of welcome10

   “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.—Ottawa Citizen. 11 … The proceedings closed with a grand banquet to the officers and men. 12

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.
View of the city, the citadel, and harbour of Québec, 1860. Image credit.

At some point in his career, 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 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 the warmer clime could not save him from the advanced state of the disease. James Burke died a scant six months later on 2nd January 1860 in his thirty-first year. 13 Thus ended the all too short mortal career of a young man who’d been given into the army’s care at thirteen, and spent the remaining seventeen years of his life serving at H.M.’s pleasure.

Source citation for this page: — Kilpatrick, Alison. “Biographical sketch for James Burke (1829–1860) of Gillingham, Kent.” Published online to Arborealis, arborealis.ca/family-history/irish/burke/bio-james-d1860/ on 1st April 2015, edited 16th January 2021; accessed [insert date of access].

Image credits, in order of presentation:

  1. Ordnance Survey, First Series (1856). Sheet no. 6, scale 1:63360. Source: The British Library. Digital copy online at Vision of Britain (accessed 2015-11-11). This digital boundary and map material by the Great Britain Historic GIS Project, University of Portsmouth, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Follow the link to find out how you can re-use this image, and under what restrictions. Map edited by Alison Kilpatrick (2015) to highlight the location of Chatham and environs.
  2. 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).
  3. Field, Henry Martyn. “General View of the Rock of Gibraltar.” 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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).

See also:


  1. Note:—Though a baptismal record has not been found, the fact that James was taken in by his late father’s regiment (the 39th) as a drummer boy, and the circumstances of his death bear this out, i.e., the informant of the death was James’ mother’s friend, Charles Hodder.
  2. British Army Service Records, 1760–1913. 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 FindMyPast™ (accessed 2013-06-06).
  3. Cannon, Richard. Historical Record of the Thirty-Ninth or the Dorsetshire Regiment of Foot. London: Parker, Furnivall and Parker, 1853.
  4. Cannon (1853), op. cit.
  5. Cannon (1853), op. cit.
  6. British Army Service Record, op. cit.
  7. Archer, Jeremy. “General William Munro, C.B., 39th Regiment – Soldier and Plantsman.” Online at The Keep: Military Museum (accessed 2021-01-16).
  8. British Army Service Record, op. cit.
  9. This voyage bypassed England altogether. James’ sister, Margaret Huggins and her family had already left Canada, and were then living at Waltham Abbey in Essex.
  10. The Caledonian Mercury, 30 July 1856, pg. 2. “Arrival at Montreal of the 39th Regiment from the Crimea.” Digital image online at Newspapers.com (accessed 2021-01-16).
  11. The Caledonian Mercury, 30 July 1856, op. cit.
  12. The Nottinghamshire Guardian, 24 July 1856, pg. 5. “Crimean Troops in Canada.” Digital image online at Newspapers.com (accessed 2021-01-16).
  13. 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.