Wednesday 19 August 2015

From Farmboy to Fusilier, Part Two

Hello, thank you for dropping here.  I am a bit grumpy: I should be camping by the sea but the Best Beloved decided that we shouldn't go because of the weather forecast (wet, wet, wet), so instead I am at home.  He says that I am on holiday so I can do whatever I want, so I have been writing all this up for you (and for me).  You may want to settle down with a cup of tea because this is going to take a while.

It's time for this month's family history post and I would like to tell you some more about John McKeon, known as Jack, my great-grandfather.  I told you the first part of his story last month (you can find it here) and when we left him in 1886, he had been posted to the East Indies, which we now call India, with the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers.   On Tuesday 22nd July 1890 while stationed in Nasirabad he wrote home to his brother, Pat, about an impending promotion to Colour Sergeant:

I have nothing important to inform you.  I am doing right well and today the Colonel sent for me and offered me Color Sgt a vacancy having occurred today.  I refused it for two reasons first I do not care for the Company officer he is a contrary chap, got two Cr Sgts reduced in his time. + second there will be a vacancy in my own Company in November next, the Cr Sgt is going home to the Depot.  I am doing the work of my Coy. Officiating as Cr Sergt this is to be mine, the Colonel gave me my choice and I said I would prefer my own Compy. knowing it so well.  he gave me till tomorrow morning to consider the question of course I am still in the factory and drawing my extra cash – no trifle.  I have a good deal of work to do but I don’t mind it as long as it profits me.  We are shifting from here  in January to Karachi, a fairly good place on the coast, it will be welcome after spending three years in this hole.  One of the worst in India. 

I can report that Jack was promoted to Colour Sergeant on 9th October 1990, so I guess he must have turned down the immediate offer and waited for the vacancy in his own company.
That's all I know about Jack's time with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  He remained in India until he left the service on 7th May 1895, being discharged at Gosport in Hampshire, presumably when he got off the ship which brought him home.  His army record states "Free after 13 years service" - to be precise, 13 years 97 days.
The next eighteen months are a mystery, but SOMETHING obviously happened during those eighteen months because on 3rd November 1896 Jack rejoined the British army in Ireland under a different name.  I suspect that he may have gone to America - certainly, a 31 year-old farmer named John McKeon did go to America with his wife Rose, leaving Liverpool on the Britannic on 29th May 1895.  When John and Rose arrived at Ellis Island in New York ten days later their surname was recorded as McKeown and John's occupation was given as "Clerk".  I cannot yet prove it, but this may well have been my Jack and if that is the case, I don't know what happened to Rose; she may have died, she may have left him, he may have abandoned her and returned home to Ireland without her.  We just don't know.  All I know is that there is no record of Jack being married during his service with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers but that in June 1899 he described himself as a "widower".  It's infuriating! 
So, in November 1896 Jack went to Armagh in what is now Northern Ireland and joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers.  Lying about his age, he claimed to be 24 years and 3 months old when he was, in fact, at least thirty-two years old, although his enlistment papers show that he appeared to be 24 years and 3months old (these are genes which I should dearly like to have inherited!).  They also record that he had scars on his back and his right knee and I wonder if these dated from battles fought in the Sudan eleven years earlier?  Again, Jack started off as a Private and worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a Lance Corporal within ten months.
The Battalion was stationed in Colchester in Essex and while Jack was there he met a girl, Martha Jane Stevens, who was living there with her elder sister and brother-in-law, Alice and John, and their three children.  Martha and Alice were tailoresses, having learnt their skills in an orphanage after their parents died.  Jack and Martha were married at the registry office in Colchester on 17th June 1899 and Alice and John were their witnesses.  Jack claimed to be thirty-four years old and a "widower".  Oddly, the army didn't seem to know about the marriage for another three years.  Did Jack not tell themIt's another mystery.  What we do know is that almost exactly three months later, on 16th September 1899, Martha gave birth to their daughter, Mary Alice McKeon, my grandmother.

Almost four weeks after that, on 11th October 1899, the Boer War was declared and on 23rd October Jack and his Battalion sailed for South Africa on the Hawarden Castle, expecting that the war would be over before they arrived.  Three weeks later, they landed at Durban and they remained in South Africa until January 1903.  In November 1902 Jack wrote a long letter to Pat, telling the tale of his war.  Here is the third sentence:

 Regarding myself, well I have not had an hour’s illness in S.A. nor have I ever stopped a man’s bullet – come through it all without a scratch. 

That wasn't quite true as he was injured in a fire in May 1902, an accident about which we know very little except that all of his possessions were burnt.  Thanks to this letter, I know a great deal about Jack's war, but I would like to share with you just this little snippet about the Battle of Pieter's Hill, which took place over a fortnight in February 1900:

Our losses were terrible it was sunset before the Hill was ours but the fighting continued all night, meantime the Boers got away all their munitions of war.  We kept the Hill all night and the following day each buried their dead.  I saw the next morning a Lance Corporal of ours, and a young Boer both lying dead in handigrips among the rocks with their rifles on the ground and beneath them both shot through the head with the muzzle evidently touching.  Colenso and Spion Kop are not to be forgotten by those who were there, but Pieter’s Hill should, I think, be henceforth called “Pieter’s Hell”.  Pieter's Hell.

There is another section of this letter which I would like to share with you as I think it says something about Jack's character:

Well on 5th September 01 we joined a mobile column operating in the East under Kitchener’s brother and we started off, on 16th we reached Ermelo (as nice a little town as I ever saw), and damn his soul he reduced the town to ashes.  It was a most sickening sight, the town was burning for days and the Colonials took away all the best furniture for firewood.  Furniture of all sorts, of polished mahogany, the costliest on the market.  8 day clocks and pianos were smashed up for firewood.  The looting did not end here, when all this was consumed, the sons of bitches had recourse to sacrilege the church, the only building standing, was robbed of seats, pews, pulpit, altars (Dutch church), the flooring and balconies the latter portions being so roughly removed that the building is quite useless, it may fall down any day.  I passed there a few months ago it was still standing but it must be rebuilt again...There was plenty of wood growing about the town, and coal mines at the surface everywhere. 

Jack was awarded the Queen's South Africa Medal with clasps for Tugela Heights, Relief of Ladysmith, Cape Colony and Transvaal as well as the King's South Africa Medal with clasps for 1901 and 1902 and in August 1902 he was paid the South Africa War Gratuity of £12 and 9 shillings.

So, by October 1902, in his late thirties, Jack was a Sergeant and two significant things happened in that month: on 16th he informed the army that he was married and had a child and on 18th he extended his period of army service, signing up to carry on for another six years.  I reckon those two events must have been related.  You see, Jack's battalion was not posted home to the UK after the Boer War; in January 1903, shortly after his promotion to Colour Sergeant, they went to India, to Rawal Pindi, and this time, Martha and (Mary) Alice travelled halfway across the world to join him.  They hadn't seen each other for three and a half years and the new baby he had left behind was now a walking, talking, lively little girl.

On 20th April 1903 Jack wrote to Martha's sister to let her know of their safe arrival.

I am at length extremely happy to be able to inform you that my darling wife and daughter arrived here safe and well last Monday morning but needless to state they were awfully tired and weary of the journey and no wonder for I know the hardships a woman endures when travelling alone under military arrangements and I assure you my dear sister it is a shame the way they treat women and children.  Of course we men do not feel it half so much.  Well I think, considering the hardships of the journey my darling Martha looks fairly well and our little daughter is, I think, the most engaging little child I ever saw.  She is such a beauty and so lively all day long, so sharp and talking and running about the whole day, never takes a rest, and is dada's girl, but says she also loves her Mama dearly. 

I love this letter.  As Martha was six months pregnant when she and Jack were married, I had thought that theirs was perhaps a "shotgun" wedding, but when we found this letter I realised that I had been mistaken, there is so much love and delight contained in Jack's words.  And his description of his daughter, who I knew only as an elderly woman with impaired mobility, is very poignant. 

On 16th January 1904, almost nine months to the day after Martha's arrival in Rawal Pindi, she gave birth to a boy who they named Hugh.  He was baptised three weeks later - remember that, for I shall come back to it.  However, later that year Hugh fell ill and he died of enteritis on 26th October, only nine months old.  Heartbreaking.  He was buried the same day. 

Now, you remember that Jack joined up this time under an assumed name?  Well, by April 1904 the army knew that he was really John McKeon, but I can't find anything in his records to explain how they found out.  I did write to the regimental museum and ask for help but they were not forthcoming, so it's another mystery I have yet to solve.  That's the thing about family history, there is always more to discover.

There were no more babies born to Jack and Martha in India.  In 1906 Jack signed up for another eleven years in the army and in March 1907 he was posted home, I think to the regimental garrison depot in Armagh.  Certainly, that is where their second son, John Joseph, was born in military barracks on 29th January that year.  He was baptised in St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral in Armagh just four days later. 

Colour Sergeant John McKeon was discharged from the Royal Irish Fusiliers at Bordon in Hampshire on 20th January 1911, having been found medically unfit for further service.  His pension claim stated that "the disability has been gradually progressing for several years to very shaky and debilitated.  Always very quiet and at times somewhat depressed.  Prematurely aged.  Not result of service, climate or exposure on duty.  Aggravated by campaigning in S. Africa and service in India directly following.  Permanent."  The Medical Board concurred.  The records showed treatment for jaundice, colic and ague in India during his time there with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and it was minuted that "the disability of this man may be regarded as the result of service."  Jack was about forty-seven years old and he had spent more than twenty-seven of those years in the British Army...Sudan...South Africa...India...

Jack's discharge papers record that his conduct and character while with the Colours was "exemplary", that he was "steady, sober and reliable" and that he was "a good clerk and accountant".  I should have thought that his employment prospects were good.  He intended to return to County Roscommon, not to the family farm but to the town of Boyle.  I don't know whether or not he did, but I do know that two years later, in September 1913, he was at his wife's sister's home in Portland in Dorset when he had a brain haemorrhage and died.  We think that he was not yet fifty years old; Martha was forty-two and would live for a further twenty-nine years; the children were fourteen and four. 

Would you like to see a photo?  Last time I showed you a fine portrait of Jack in his scarlet tunic.  This time I offer something a little different, a rather more casual photo of a group of soldiers, taken in India. You may wish to click on it to look more closely.  The small girl sitting in the middle is my grandmother, Alice, and the man to her left, with his arm around her, is Jack. 

 Oh yes, and I promised to come back to Hugh, the baby who was born in India and died within a year.  Remember that I told you that he was christened when he was three weeks old?  There are no photographs of him, only words written down on official documents to prove he ever existed, but I have something which belonged to him, something which makes him real, a living, vital baby who was loved and to whom I feel connected: it is his christening mug.

See you soon.

Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

P.S. Blogger is driving me mad: it keeps changing the fonts and their sizes and I can't work out how to fix it.  Sorry.  Please bear with me and thank you for your patience.


  1. Wonderful to read this bit of your family history. It sounds as though Jack had quite a life didn't he! It must have taken you so long to research all of this and record it, but it will be wonderful for future generations of your family. Sorry that you didn't get to get away. I hope you are enjoying your staycation instead! xx

    1. Thank you, Amy. I am doing my best to make the most of it. Jack certainly did have quite a life for a farm boy from the middle of Ireland, and I am very grateful that he wrote letters about it. Perhaps there's a lesson for all of us in that? x

  2. Fascinating read, a wonderful family record for further generations to cherish. Such a shame about your holiday, the weather is awful here too.

    1. Thank you. And I am sorry you are having bad weather, too. It has been a very poor summer. x

  3. Well done, you've found out a lot from all the letters, it's so interesting. You get a picture of them in your head as the story of their lives builds up. One of my ancestors was shown as Elizabeth on all the official documentation and then I found something where she was called Lizzie and my image of her changed completely! x

    1. Thank you. I love that about Elizabeth and Lizzie, you're right, it does alter the way we think about them. x

  4. This is such a fascinating read, well done you. I remember how infuriating at times it was when my father tried researching his family. Shame about your hols xx

    1. Thanks, Jo. Research can be a slow old business, but every tiny piece of information builds the picture and is valuable. x

  5. How wonderful to have learnt so much about your great grandfather. The letters are so informative and I love his descriptions of your great grandmother and grandmother. I've really enjoyed reading your words and Jack's letters too:)

    1. Thank you Rosie. My mother approves of what I have written, which is the most important thing to me - she says that I know more about him than she does, which feels a bit odd, but she knows it now, too. I hope your research is progressing well.