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Origins: A soldier's unmarked grave

By Brian Porro

On the occasion of a significant birthday, most people choose to celebrate by going to a favourite restaurant with friends or family, visit the theatre or take a trip to somewhere exotic or relaxing.

I will be celebrating my 65th birthday by going to Colchester Cemetery.

Colchester is, no doubt, a city with much of historical interest to fascinate anyone. But my reason for going to its cemetery is that a story which set me on the road to researching my family history over 20 years ago ended here, in Colchester, on 30 July 1864.

James Keating was my grandmother’s grandfather and he was born in Ireland in 1834, as the famine was beginning to take its devastating toll throughout the country.

On 10 February 1852, at the age of 18, he joined a Scottish regiment, the 1st Royal Regiment of Foot, which would later become the Royal Scots, who were based in Fermoy, not far from his home in Ballyclough, County Cork. He was enlisted as a private into the 2nd Battalion. The documents describe him as a labourer, measuring 5’7¼”.

He may not have been aware how close war was while he was training but, by February 1853, his battalion was in the Ionian Islands in the eastern Mediterranean, as the world prepared for conflict in Crimea, a war which started on 5 October 1853 and finished 30 March 1856.

James Keating spent two years training on Cephalonia but, by 7 July 1855, the battalion was landed on the Crimean Peninsula. The Siege of Sevastopol was in full swing and, 6 days after landing, James was in hospital in Scutari, where he spent 7 weeks. He may not have met Florence Nightingale, but he was lucky to live through his experience at the hospital, where survival rates had been as low as 50% before Florence Nightingale made her improvements.

Once the war was over and the troops withdrawn, James Keating was posted to Malta in the summer of 1856, now promoted to sergeant. From Malta, his battalion was shipped at the end of May 1857 to Gibraltar.

That is where he was promoted to Colour Sergeant but, more importantly for me, if I was not to disappear in a puff of blue smoke, is that he met and, within a year, married my 2nd great grandmother, Rosa Dominga Vila, the daughter of Menorcans who had emigrated to Gibraltar.

No sooner were they married than, three months later on 7 July 1858, the couple joined the rest of the battalion on a troopship headed for Hong Kong to take part in the Opium Wars.

The journey took almost 16 weeks on the Lord Raglan, a sail-only vessel with almost 1000 persons on board – 32 officers, 804 men and their families plus the crew. The route tracked across the Atlantic close to the Cape Verde islands, came close to the Brazilian coast and then turned east, sighting Tristan da Cunha, and past South Africa before heading towards Java and on to Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, James Keating fell ill again in and spent more than two months in hospital, from where he was embarked back to the UK, a year after arriving.

By the time they arrived in Cape Colony, what is now South Africa, they had their first child, William, who had been born aboard the troopship.

James Keating was then posted to Birr, Ireland, for about a year, where he took four months’ leave. That would have been welcome for Rosa and their young son.
By 1862 the battalion was posted to The Camp, Colchester, where my great great grandfather James was born.

James senior was a librarian at The Camp. In early 1863 he took 75 days of leave. In 1864, he took a further 137 days off and, sadly, two months after returning to work, he died on 30 July 1864, aged just 29. On 1 August 1864 he was buried in an unpurchased and unmarked grave.

He left Rosa with a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and a baby.

The regiment paid Rosa her husband’s outstanding pay – £34 11s and 10¾d (worth about £5,500 today) – and she returned to Gibraltar.

Two years later, in 1866, aged 28 and with three young children, she married John Neish, another Crimea Veteran from Aberdeenshire, with whom she went on to have a further seven children.

When I visit the place where my great great grandfather Keating is buried, I will remember him, growing up through a period of starvation and disease during the Great Famine in Ireland, seeing action as a soldier at the siege of Sevastopol, spending many months in several hospitals in Türkiye and Hong Kong and eventually dying before he was thirty from an asthma attack.

But I will also think of the strength of character of my great great grandmother.

Rosa had travelled on a sail-powered troopship carrying about 1000 crew and passengers for four months with no landfall, all the way to Hong Kong, then back via South Africa, giving birth on board another troopship and widowed, having to return home herself and her three infant children.

To his ‘Fred Astaire’ she was a ‘Ginger Rogers’ – doing everything (or almost everything) he did, but ‘backwards and in high heels’, withstanding several long sea journeys, risky childbirth at sea at least once, travelling alone with three young children, having seven more and still managing to live to the age of 78 and dying, according to the Civil Register, ‘of old age’.

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