James Kearns ~ the irish gene


James served in the British army and his army record, and in particular his rather chequered disciplinary record, give us a good idea of the life that he led.

He was born, probably around March /April 1810, near the town of Ballitore in the parish of Moone, County Kildare, about 30 miles south -west of Dublin. Prior to joining the army he worked as a labourer. It is likely that his father also worked on the land and possible that the family were itinerant, going wherever the prospect of work dictated. James did not receive much education and was, at this stage, illiterate.

James, however, sought adventure and saw his opportunity when the 9th Regiment of Foot were stationed at Dublin barracks in 1830/1.

Early Days

James enlisted as a Private on 11th January 1831, giving his age as 20 years 9 months. His records show him to be 5’9” tall with dark brown hair, grey eyes and a sallow complexion. He must have found army life quite tough initially because in May, after a mere 4months, he deserted. He rejoined on August 24th and, unusually in such circumstances, was pardoned. As a young man he enjoyed a drink or two. In the following 12 years he has 7 citations for ‘drunk and riotous behaviour’.

In late1832 the regiment spent a short time in England before being posted to Mauritius in 1833 where he spent nearly 2 years. In 1835 the regiment was posted to India where it was to spend the next 12 years. However records show that James returned to the base at Sheerness, England, at this time and did not rejoin the main body of his regiment in India until 1839. Between 1839 -1842 his regiment were stationed in Bengal and involved in the 1st Afghan War from which the British withdrew in defeat. There is no mention of James receiving the Cabul medal awarded to the men of his regiment involved in the campaign.

A Family Man

  James’s wife, Elizabeth Pape (or Peep) was also Irish. It is possible that he met and married her when he was home between 1835 and 1838. Less likely is the possibility is that she was already out there. Elizabeth was some 5 years younger than James and could have been the daughter of a fellow soldier. It would appear that James returned to England in 1841 as both he and his wife are listed at Chatham Barracks in the census taken in June of that year. There does not seem a reason for this return home which must have been quite brief as James was certainly in India on 7th January 1841 when he was disciplined for breaking out of the guard room and given 7 days of drill. His first son, Henry, was born ‘at sea’ probably late 1841 although there is no official record of his birth. A daughter, Susan, was born in Kussowlie,, the base for the British army in India from 1842  and now known as Kasauli, on 18th August 1844.

Kausauli Barracks and Parade Ground from the East

Battle Honours

  After 1843 there were no blemishes on James’s record and he seemed to settle down and become a good soldier.  Over the next 10 years he received 4 ‘Good Conduct ‘pay awards each meriting an additional  penny a day. In1845  came his chance for action and glory as he fought with his unit in the 1st Sikh War (Sutlej campaign) gaining the Moodkee Medal with additional clasps for the Battles of Ferozeshah and Sobraon. In these battles the British fought alongside the Indian troops of the Bengal against the Sikh armies of the Punjab. The Battle of Moodkee (Mudkhi) took place on the 18th December 1845 and Ferozeshah 3 days later over 21st/22nd December. The Battle of Sobraon was the final and decisive victory on 10th February 1846. Accounts of these battles can be read on www.britishbattles.com - scrolling down to ‘1st Sikh Wars’ on left of page.

Click on picture for explanation

New Challenges

During the 22 years 223 days that James served in the regular army he suffered 2 bouts of Hepatitis and this could be the reason that he missed the 1st Afghan War campaign. On 28th November 1853 he was medically discharged as being ‘ Unfit for service in consequence of physical debility and worn out’. He received the Good Conduct and Long Service Medal. His character and conduct were rated ‘very good’. James had most likely returned to England by this time as his wife gave birth to a daughter, Julia in Winchester on 8th February 1848 and another daughter, Sarah in Loughrea Ireland, in 1853.

Before he was finally discharged James, now aged 43, had successfully found a position as Staff Sergeant with the 5th Royal Lancashire Militia. In 1853 this regiment was re-established after having been disbanded many years previously after the Napoleonic Wars .The regiment were based in Burnley and he enlisted there on 1st December 1853. It was a full time training position but the rank and file were part-time soldiers. James served with the Militia for 18 years and was finally discharged on 28th February 1871.  When he had enlisted with them in 1853 he had signed his name with a mark, unusual for an NCO. He gradually learnt to write, probably learning from his growing family who would have received some education.

Life in Burnley

I n December 1853 the family, James, Elizabeth and their 4 children – Henry(12), Susan(9) , Julia(5) and Sarah(months) settled in Burnley. They seem to move home several times within the Burnley area.

On 22nd February 1858 they were living in Bank St where their youngest child, Matthias, was born. In 1861 the census shows them at 24 South Havelock Terr. Henry does not appear in this census and Susan is not in employment but helping run the home while her sister Julia is a cotton weaver and Sarah and Matthias are scholars.It is known that they had another son, Joseph, who was born in 1855 and died in 1857.

Ten years later the family were at 2 Scarlett St and James had recently retired from army life. Their daughter, Susan, and her husband, Josiah Pickles, lived next door but 1 at no6 with their 2 young sons.

By 1881 they were living at 11 Clarence St and the census shows that their household includes son Matthias, now 23 and a cotton warp taper, and his wife Susannah. There is also a young Henry Kearns, age 9, their grandson by son Henry,

James died on 9th September 1884 at 26 Branch St and Elizabeth 7 years later on 29th March 1891.

Scarlett St today

His Legacy

The decision to join the army altered the whole course of James’s life. He faced a life of poverty in Ireland and possibly would have perished in the potato famine of the mid 1840’s, or perhaps his desire for survival would have taken him to America like thousands of his countrymen. Instead he faced the dangers of war in India and 2 bouts of Hepatitis. But army life gave him discipline, purpose and the chance to improve his lot in life. Descendants of at least 3 of his children are alive today. Click on the link to find out about the Kearns Descendants.

Acknowledgements: The majority of research on the Kearns family was done by Patricia E. Martin , National Archives, and by my 3rd cousin, Emily Kearns, great- granddaughter of Matthias. Grateful thanks to both.