James Guerins (c.1859-1919)

Claire Bradley, Ireland

James Guerins, my maternal great-great grandfather, was little remembered in my family, until I began to research him. My grandmother, Angela Guerins, was born the year after he died, and knew that he was in the British army and that he possibly had a metal plate in his head! We also knew his wife, Margaret Morgan, was Welsh and presumed they had met through his army exploits. His career had ended in Limerick city and the family remained there for a couple of generations before James’s son, Henry, was posted to Dublin, where he worked as a manager of Woolworths, thus making me the proud Dub I am today.

Guerins 1911 Census

The return for the Guerins family from the 1911 census, Limerick city.

Before the arrival of the census online, I had searched UK marriage indexes for a Morgan- Guerins marriage in Wales to no avail. When the 1911 census became available for Limerick, I easily found the family living at 4 St John’s Avenue in that city. James Guerins gave his age as 50 and his occupation as army pensioner. To my surprise, his birth county was Waterford. Until that time, we had always presumed he’d come from Limerick. Wife Margaret was 41 and from south Wales. They had been married 25 years. Eight children had been born to them and six were still living. Their three boys and three girls ranged in age from 22 – 13. The girls were all employed as lace makers and the boys had a variety of jobs, with the youngest still at school.

The 1901 census yielded even more information as James had not yet retired from the army. His occupation was given as Sergeant Instructor in Musketry for the 5th Royal Munster Fusiliers. Now that I had a regiment, I was able to obtain a full copy of his service records from the National Archives in Kew. James Guerins joined the British army on 19th September 1879 in Tralee, Co. Kerry. Initially he was part of the 70th Brigade, and his attestation papers note that he had previously been in the South Cork Militia. His home parish was Cappoquin, near Lismore in Co. Waterford and he was 20 years of age on joining. This means he travelled 142km to enlist. The statistical reports for the 1881 census show Cappoquin was a town of just under 2000 people. The railway opened in 1878, so hopefully James was able to use it for at least part of his journey to Kerry! His occupation on joining up was a sawyer. He probably would have worked sawing wood in a sawpit – the area around Cappoquin was heavily forested. The Royal Munster Fusiliers were founded in 1881 and the fifth battalion was raised from the South Cork Militia light infantry. From James’s service record, it appears he joined the Fusiliers in July of that year.

Attestation of James GuerinsSeeing his attestation document debunked a long held family myth that James had added the “s” onto our Guerins. Guerin is a much more common name, but almost everyone recorded with the “s” on the census is related to our family. My great-grandfather explained that another Guerin family had lived on their street. They were always getting each other’s post so James added the “s” to stop confusion. However, here was our surname intact 20 years before he lived on the street which did indeed have another Guerin family on it. Through DNA testing, we can see that the family has a French connection and I wonder if the Guerins were originally Huguenots, as the surname does appear in their ranks. Many Huguenots did settle in Waterford but the records from their time to my documented ancestors are scarce and it may never be possible to confirm this hypothesis.

As anyone who has seen a British army service record will know, it yields a huge amount of information about a person and his family. When James joined the army, his next of kin was listed as “mother: Mary and brothers: Denis and John”. Later after his marriage, this changed to “wife: Margaret”. The date and location of their marriage, which had so long eluded me, was included. They married on 14th January 1886 in a registry office in Dover. It’s no wonder I couldn’t find it in Wales but I’ve yet to establish how she came to Dover from her home town of Tenby in Pembrokeshire. Armed with these details, I was able to trace Margaret’s ancestry back a further three generations to the middle of the 18th century in Wales. The registry office was probably necessary because Margaret was originally a Protestant and James a Catholic. Their marriage certificate showed that James’s father was called John and he was also a wood sawyer, though deceased by their marriage. As he was never listed as a next kin, he likely died before 1879 when James joined the army. I haven’t been able to find a death certificate for him or a marriage but Guerins is a name with a lot of spelling variation and it’s probable that the parents were illiterate. The censuses of 1901 & 1911 show that Margaret converted and all their children were raised Catholics. The service record also gave the full names of all 8 children, elucidating the names of the two who died young for the first time. Their first child, Lewis James was born in Dover on 29th November 1886, just 10 months after his parents’ marriage. Lewis was his paternal grandfather’s name. Before the next child, Elizabeth, was born in 1888, the family moved to Limerick, when James was posted to the Strand Barracks. Alice, Maude, Albert, Henry, Anne and Joseph followed in the intervening years. Several of the children were known by their middle names, a practice which continued in the next generation.

Before his marriage, after promotion to Lance Corporal, James spent almost two years in Malta from 1882 – 1884 with the 2nd battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Malta was a Crown colony during this period and an important half way point between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. While James was stationed there, he would have seen the opening of the first Maltese bank and railway line. The rest of James’s 31 year service was spent “at home”, i.e. in the British Isles. He avoided the Boer War – his battalion did not participate, and he retired in 1910 so missed World War I. Of James’s two brothers, John also joined the army. Jack, as he was known, fought in the Boer War and was later discharged due to ill health – he suffered from tuberculosis, but he rejoined at the beginning of World War I. A man in his 40s, he did not see active duty, but died of illness in 1915 and is buried in Tralee’s military cemetery. Denis Guerins joined the navy and later ended up in the UK. I’m in contact with a descendant of Jack’s, who settled in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, though his 20th century descendants are in the UK too. Their mother appears to have remained in Waterford and may have died in the workhouse in 1889 but unfortunately this death doesn’t have anything (other than name) to confirm the connection. Indeed, there’s no evidence that James ever returned to Cappoquin at all.

James was educated by the army, though his signature matches on the census and attestation, so he could read and write beforehand – national school education was compulsory from 1831 in Ireland. His service record shows he received several grades of education, and was trained to instruct others in musketry, achieving the rank of sergeant. They also sent him to the Royal Small Arms Factory in Birmingham for training in 1891, where the famous Lee-Enfield rifle was designed and made.

Although we have no photographs of James, his service record gives a physical description. On joining the army, he was 5ft 10¼ – tall for the time – with a sallow complexion, blue eyes and red hair. He had tattoos on both arms but no description of them is given. By the time James left the army, his hair had darkened to auburn. His red hair and height genes have reappeared in subsequent generations. Nowhere in his military record does it mention any injuries or a metal plate in his head!

1897 was a horrendous year for the family. Their eldest son, Lewis, the only child born in England, died of meningitis on 11th July. He was 10 years old. Just two months later on 19th September, their youngest daughter, Anne Minnie, died at the age of 1½ from a respiratory illness. Both children were buried in Mount St Lawrence graveyard on the outskirts of Limerick city. Neither of these children were now remembered by the family. Henry, my great-grandfather, would have been only 3 in 1897 and it’s probable that the family did not discuss these deaths in later life. I was so pleased to be able to restore Lewis and Anne to the family memory.

At some point between the two extant censuses, the family moved from Garryowen Villas to 4 St John’s Road. I visited Limerick last year and took photographs of the house. The present owner was home and she very kindly showed us around!

James was discharged from the army in 1910 at the end of his third period of engagement. His conduct was considered exemplary and he was “thoroughly sober and reliable” and a “very good clerk”. His age in 1910 was apparently 51 years and 3 months, which tallies with the 1859 birth date from his attestation, but doesn’t match the census, or his marriage (23 in 1886) or his death (53 in 1919)! His wife, Margaret, was born in 1866, and I suspect he aged himself down a little to more closely match her age. Given all the different ages on official documentation, his birth could have taken plan any time between 1859-1866. His brothers were born in 1865 and 1868, so the earlier part of the period is more likely. I have not been able to find baptisms for any of the three brothers, which leads me to speculate that perhaps the family came to Cappoquin after the children were born.

As a retired soldier, James must have taken a keen interest in the Great War, particularly when his son Henry joined up and saw action in France. Happily, Henry survived the war. James died on 23rd January 1919 from a general disability which had lasted 10 months. His daughter Maude registered his death. Though he died without a will, letters of administration were posted for him by neighbours, on behalf of his widow. It was proved at Limerick District Registry in February 1919. His estate was £87 17s 10d. Most intriguingly, the paperwork lists 6 children with his wife and one natural child. No name is given but it is fascinating to learn that James had another child, that he knew about said child and that his wife also knew about the child. One presumes that he or she was the result of a liaison during his time in the army but without any name, this child is impossible to trace.

James Guerins was buried in Mount St Lawrence cemetery in Limerick. The graveyard records show that he and Margaret and their first child, Lewis, are all buried in the same grave. I visited the cemetery in 2012 and, sadly, there is no headstone. He has at least 90 descendants today.


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