Inside the picturesque St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland church in Ardagh, renovated in recent years and built near the site of the tiny medieval cathedral that gave both the present Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic dioceses their names, there is a brass plaque dedicated to the memory of Company Sergeant-Major James Moxham who “fell in action, Solonika 3rd October 1916”. This was a source of great curiosity to me as a child, because nobody could tell me exactly who he was or how he was related to our family. As it approaches 100 years since his death, it seems appropriate now to fill in some of the blanks of his life and his family.
The research of James’ family involves lots of loose ends and very little solid information. I can trace no living relatives and his family moved frequently, leaving few tangible roots. Through birth records, we can discover that James Moxham was born 8th April 1881 at Kildevan, County Westmeath. His parents were James Moxham and Margaret Trapp. His eldest sibling was Mary or Maria, born 7th April 1877 at Oldtown, near Ardagh. Next was Sarah Elizabeth, born 8th July 1879 at Kildevan. Mary and Sarah, with an address at Breany, Ardagh, enrolled at Carrickboy National School for three months in 1884 and Mary, living at Coolamber on the Longford/Westmeath border, later attended Coolamber School and Street National School (1887-1888). Younger sister Jane was born 19th February 1884 at Breany and brother William (Willie) followed 31st January 1888 at Coolamber. Mary Moxham died from typhoid at Coolamber just days after her 14th birthday in 1891.
If we trace the family backwards from this point, we find that James Moxham (sr.) and Margaret Trapp had married 21st January 1876 at Corboy Presbyterian Church. Their marriage cert tells us that James sr., an illiterate coachman living at Oldtown, was the son of a labourer named George Moxham while Margaret, who was at least twenty years his junior, was the daughter of a labourer named Hugh Trapp, and was living at the minister’s Manse at the time.
A death certificate tells us that James sr. was present at the death of his father, George Moxham (who was aged about 80 and was buried at Tashinny Church), in May 1880 at Kilglass, near Legan. In a Charlton Charity application from 1838, George Moxam (who also was illiterate) and Elizabeth (Betty) Meale said they were married on 5th August 1827 in Kilglass parish – useful information, as these marriage records were destroyed in 1922. Betty was the daughter of Patrick Meale, while George, of Tennalough, was the son of Henry Moxam, who had worked as a ‘day labourer’ from about 1807. Thus we can move back yet another generation, and we could plausibly speculate that this Henry might be the same Henry Moxham born around 1773 who was described as being the youngest son of George Moxham and Mary Nixon of Rathsallagh.
Of note, the records of Tashinny Church list the death of a John Moxham of Kilglass parish aged 10 in October 1838, who could possibly have been another son of George and Betty. The 1854 Griffith’s Primary Valuation places George Moxham living in a cottage along the small boreen where the townlands of Lisaquill, Tully, Deerpark and Tennalough meet, all within the parish of Kilglass. George Moxham of Tully/Deerpark was on the vestry of Kilglass Church of Ireland church in 1871, and by the time of his death in 1880 he was the sexton of Kilglass Church. In an invaluable addition to local history, Legan man John Greene collected his personal recollections in his 1925 book Foxhall Estate, in which he remembered that there was a Protestant schoolhouse on the Legan side of Kilglass Church (in front of a short laneway leading to the Glebe House) and that when the last teacher (Mr. Gilligan) left the school George Moxham became the new tenant of the building. Greene went on to say that after George Moxham’s death the house was inhabited by his daughter Mary Moxham, until she later married Jemmy McKeown and left the house.
This information ties in with one of the more unusual records from the area; the parish registers of Legan Roman Catholic Church state that a Mary Moxham was baptised on 4th February 1889 and that exactly one week later she married a James McKeon of Clygeen, Legan (across the road from Kilglass Church). Evidently Mary converted from her Protestant faith in order to marry a Catholic – a rare occurrence in 19th century Ireland, as was the fact that she was well into her 50s when she married. They are probably the James and Mary McKeon living at Furze, Legan, in the 1901 census, in which case James died in 1908 and Mary died in 1917. John Greene adds that a Jemmy McKeown of Lurgan townland in Legan, who had a brother named Micky, left ‘Union Cottage’ to his nephew Jem Farrell upon his death. Mary Moxham is recorded as being present at the death of her mother, Eliza or Betty Moxham, in 1876 (aged about 70 and buried at Tashinny), adding another date to the family tree.
James Moxham sr. seems to have changed occupation and address often. Born to George and Betty sometime in the early 1830s, he described himself as a coachman or a farmer while living at Oldtown (1876/1877), a servant while at Kildevan (1879/1881 – this could be Kildevin House, near Street), a labourer at Breany (1884), a coachman at Coolamber Manor (1887/1891 – ‘coachman’ might mean the forerunner of a modern taxi driver but, in this context, was probably the personal chauffeur for the ‘big house’), and a shepherd or a labourer at Tennalick (1893/1906). He was also posthumously described as a caretaker in his daughter’s marriage certificate. At Tennalick the family lived in a solid stone or brick 2-to-4 room house, according to the 1901 census. James jr., then 17, was a farm labourer, and he was possibly the same James Moxham of Colehill mentioned in the Longford Leader of July 1908 as growing an experimental plot of ‘mangle manures’ for the Longford Committee of Agriculture. James sr. died at Tennalick in January 1906 and, like his parents, was buried at nearby Tashinny. “A man the name of Moxham” was later remembered for having cut down an old cursed tree in Tenelick – presumably one of this family. In the 1911 census his widow Margaret remained at Tennalick along with daughter Sarah and younger son William, now a shepherd. Daughter Jane was living as a domestic servant at the home of James Gallagher in Belfast. James jr. is possibly the James Moxon, postman, who was boarding at a house in Mohill, County Leitrim.
In January 1913 Margaret’s sister Mary, the wife of Thomas Elliot of the Gate Lodge of Ardagh House, died (their eldest son James Elliot having been killed in the Boer War some years earlier). Soon afterwards the Moxham family moved to Ardagh, where James and William were added to the Church of Ireland vestry in April 1914. According to a later obituary, James worked at Edgeworthstown Post Office before he enlisted in the army, where he “won the respect of his superiors and fellow-postmen by his integrity and loyal comradeship”.
James enlisted at Abbeyshrule, service number 7417. We can only guess his motivation. As a midlands Protestant he is unlikely to have been involved either with nationalist or with Ulster unionist militias. As a 30-something with an apparently steady job in the postal service, he is also unlikely to have volunteered for the pay or for the adventure. It’s most likely he was driven by a sense of patriotic duty to King and country, a feeling which, judging by vestry book entries from the time, was prevalent among the Church of Ireland community of Longford during the war. The battalion he joined, the 2nd Battalion Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers), had been stationed in India before deploying to the Western Front at Christmas 1914, where they fought at St. Eloi and in the Second Battle of Ypres during 1915. In December 1915 they were transferred to Salonika (now Thessaloniki) in northern Greece. James became a Company Sergeant Major (C.S.M.) and a Warrant Officer Class 2. In circumstances as absurd as they were tragic, this 34-year-old postman from Ardagh, who had perhaps previously been no further from home than Mohill, found himself fighting to recapture the obscure Greek villages of Karajakois (Monokklisia) and Yenikoi (Provatas) from an occupying Bulgarian army. There he was mortally wounded and there he has lain for 100 years in the Mikra British Cemetery at Kalamaria. Had he survived, he might have gone on with his regiment to fight against Ottoman forces in Egypt and Palestine.
The brass memorial inside Ardagh Church remembers two young men, the other being Private William Hamilton of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards. He was the son of William and Margaret Hamilton of Ardagh, and the husband of Joanne Hamilton of Crenard, Crossdoney, County Cavan. His battalion was one of the first to engage with the Germans on the Western Front, and huge numbers of them were slaughtered during the futile First Battle of Ypres (October-November 1914), including Hamilton himself. He died 6th November 1914, aged 27, and was buried at Aeroplane Cemetery, Ypres.
James Moxham’s sister Jane married Thomas Henry (Tom) Browne, a 54-year-old widowed RIC officer, in October 1919 at Belfast. A retired police sergeant Thomas Henry Browne of Coleraine died in September 1940, but his widow was named as Margaret, so the fate of Jane, or any children she may have had, is unknown. As for the rest of the family, James’ mother Margaret died in Ardagh in April 1927. A senior resident of Ardagh told me in 2014 that she remembered James’ siblings Willie and Sarah Moxham from her youth, that they lived in one of the iconic stone cottages in Ardagh, and that they worked for a Mrs. Hall who owned some land and lived in another house in the village. I also understand that there may be photos of James and William Moxham in the possession of another resident of Ardagh, which would be a very welcome addition to this page. Sarah, a housekeeper, died from influenza in September 1941 and Willie Moxham, the last of his family, died on his 71st birthday in January 1959 at Longford Hospital. He was buried at Ardagh, though James alone from this family has his final resting place marked with a headstone.
In the decades since World War I the legacy of the Irishmen who fought in royal uniform has been debated, ignored, condemned and memorialised in equal measure. As we mark the centenary of these events in 2016 the emphasis has been on their personal bravery or on their particular brand of patriotism. In the case of James Moxham we can know little with certainty beyond the dates of his birth and his death but, to echo the above obituary, his violent death in a very distant land – and those of his cousin James Elliot, his neighbour William Hamilton, and countless millions more – ended not just a career but also a life of bright promise.
Also of possible relevance:
- Sarah Moxham, the 8-year-old daughter of a labourer of Sheroo (adjoining Lisaquill), enrolled at Carrickboy National School in May 1871, the only reference found to a Moxham family at this address (and not to be confused with the slightly older Sarah Moxham from Killenboy who was also enrolled in the school at the time).
- Robert Moxham, an 80-year-old unmarried labourer from ‘Lagan’ (or possibly Legan?) died of senile decay at the Ballymahon Workhouse in November 1906. An ‘RM’ appears in the 1901 census as a 72-year-old pauper inmate of the Ballymahon Workhouse, a former labourer born in Ratharney and apparently a Roman Catholic (workhouse and asylum inmates were identified only by initials).
- Bessie Moxham, a 68-year-old spinster and domestic servant from Legan, died of senile decay in August 1908.
- A girl named Anne was born to a woman named Eliza Moxham in Kilglass townland on 23 December 1879; no father is given (suggesting illegitimacy) and Anne’s fate is unknown.