Among the military records held in the British National Archives at Kew are some intriguing entries from the end of 18th century suggesting a very short-lived military tradition within the Moxham family of County Longford. As with many records from this era, pinpointing the exact identity of the people involved is next to impossible, but we can make some reasonably educated guesses along the way. The earliest record we find is from 1777, by which point the family had been settled in Longford for perhaps a century, with no apparent penchant for the army life. The significant change may have been intermarriage with a prominent local military family in the 1750s.
The ‘General Muster Books and Pay Lists’, held at Kew and designated as ‘War Office 12 (1732-1878)’, are bound volumes which record the name, rank, military station and pay period of soldiers serving in each regiment of the British army (including all Irish regiments pre-1922), for the purposes of paying wages. At a regimental muster, each soldier was checked against his name on the roll and any changes in circumstance since the last muster were noted. These included absences (permitted or otherwise), transfers, promotions, demotions, illness or death. The unforeseen advantage of studying these muster rolls centuries later (in Kew itself, as they are not yet digitally available) is that they have left behind a diary of the soldiers’ movements and major life events that can’t be matched for civilian lives. In addition, many give generous details of the new recruits upon enlistment, such as physical appearance and previous occupation, while discharge and pension papers can add more details on their overall military service.
The ‘Description Book of the Royal Irish Artillery’ (WO 69/620/649) records that John Moxham enlisted as a ‘mattross’ [sic] assigned Captain Andrew Buchanan’s Company on 26th May 1777 (a matross assisted the artillery gunners with loading and maintenance of their guns). It adds that he was aged 18 (the number 23 or 24 having been scratched out), was born in the County Longford parish of Abysrule [sic], and was 5′ 8½” in height with a fresh complexion, fair hair and grey eyes. He had no trade, but could read and write. He was enlisted by Lieut. Wright at Longfield (in County Cork or County Monaghan, or should this be ‘Longford’?) and certified (vouched for) by a gentleman named Robert Maffet Esq. (perhaps connected to the Robert Moffett who was curate of Tashinny Church at this time). Despite this wonderfully detailed start, there are apparently no surviving muster rolls for this particular regiment during the period of his service, which is all the more unfortunate as it coincided with some feverish activity.
In April 1777 (one month before John’s enlistment), 70 members of the Royal Regiment of Irish Artillery had marched from their base at Chapelizod to Cork and set sail to join the British forces fighting the American rebellion, and recruitment was ramped up to fill the vacancies. A further 150 soldiers went to America in January 1778, while detachments were posted to Clonmel, Cork, Dungannon and Charlesfort soon afterwards, leaving just 108 men at Chapelizod under Lieut.-Col. J. Straton.Where was John Moxham during this time? Was he fighting in the American colonies? Or trying to keep the nationalist Volunteer militias from seizing power in Ireland? His commanding officer Captain Buchanan resigned in 1779. In October 1783, upon American Independence, a reduction of the regiment was announced, with the rank of ‘mattross’ abolished and 310 men discharged and encouraged to sign up with the East India Company. John Moxham left sometime before August 1790, but in the mid-1790s the Irish Artillery saw action in the West Indies and on the European continent before the regiment was absorbed into the British Royal Regiment of Artillery in 1801.
The other question is over John Moxham’s identity, ‘John’ being an incredibly common name within the family. The most likely candidate would seem to be the man mentioned in a deed from 1807, which describes him as the eldest son of the late George Moxham of Rathsallagh. George’s wife – John’s mother – was Mary Nixon from Cranleybeg near Edgeworthstown, whom he had married somewhere within the diocese of Kilmore & Ardagh (roughly, Cavan & Longford) in 1753. This connection is significant because the Nixons are a well documented soldiering family. Mary’s uncle was Captain John Nixon of Chapelizod, an officer in the 3rd Regiment of Foot (a Dublin militia), her first cousin was Lieut. John Nixon of the 3rd Foot, three of his sons rose to the rank Lieutenant-Colonel during the Napoleonic Wars, and many of their sons and grandsons carried on the martial tradition. In the mid-1770s George Moxham was being threatened with eviction by the landlord of the Newcastle Estate – the subject of a long-running legal dispute – and with this in mind it seems entirely plausible that a jobless 18-year-old with an uncertain future would follow his high-achieving cousins into the army.
Three years after John enlisted, two more Moxhams joined. A ‘Description of Soldiers on joining Royal Artillery’ (WO 69/80C/1782) states that on 1st February 1780 Christopher Moxham and George Moxham were both enlisted by Corpl. Molloy at Longford, both were sworn by C. Pakenham and both were approved by Col. James. Both were born in Barry in the parish of Tishany [sic], County Longford. Both were farmers, both could read and write, both had dark hair and black eyes (though only George was described as having a fresh complexion), and with both being 5′ 9½” in height and 25 years of age, it is clear they must have been twins. They were both assigned to C. Downman’s Company and attended their first muster in May 1780. Captain Francis Downman’s No. 5 Company of the (British) Royal Regiment of Artillery was then stationed at Gros Islet, St. Lucia, which had been seized by the British from the French in 1778. On 11 May 1780 Capt. Downman noted in his diary the arrival at the nearby British colony of Barbados of a ship from Cork holding “the remainder of the new regiments that arrived some time ago, and a few recruits”, Christopher and George probably among them. Again, the muster rolls are sadly lacking for this regiment; George is recorded as having been discharged on 16 April 1783, but Christopher is simply noted as having died at St. Lucia, presumably before the island was returned to the French by the Treaty of Versailles in September 1783.
Christopher and George may well fit into the family tree as the brothers of John Moxham and sons of George Moxham senior. They would have been born around 1755 – soon after the marriage of the elder George, who was noted as living at many addresses during his lifetime including, during the 1780s, the village of Barry. Before we feel too much sympathy for the bereaved twin George, however, it is very likely that he was the main culprit in the notorious abduction of Elinor Perry at Legan in February 1785, along with accomplices James Moxham and Robert Moxham who must have either been yet more brothers or closely-related cousins. Already, the County Longford Summer Assizes of 1784 had taken the side of George, Robert, John and William Moxham after a violent altercation with Patrick Duffy, James Duffy and Henry Jones, but with Elinor’s death the accused ‘George Moxham the younger of Barry’ soon fled Longford and probably never returned (as, perhaps, did James and Robert). In 1785 we find a George Moxham suddenly turn up on the muster roll of the 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot, based either in England or in Canada at that point according to different sources, and given subsequent events it was most likely the same George Moxham. The muster rolls record that he quickly became a corporal and then a serjeant [sic] by December 1788, and was sent out on recruitment duties during the periods June 1789 and March 1790.
On the 14th August 1790 at Ballinrobe in County Mayo John Moxham enlisted as a private with Captain John Church’s Company of the same 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot. His enlistment notes “attestn. with Govrnt.”; I’m reliably informed that a sworn attestation was made upon first enlistment to guarantee that no coercion was used in the recruitment process, and that this note suggests that the government already had such a document from John, meaning he was almost certainly the same man who had previously served in the Irish Artillery and was re-enlisting rather than transferring from another regiment. Over the following decade the two Moxhams’ paths must have crossed frequently as various divisions of the regiment were shifted around to deal with the escalating political upheavals and wars at home and abroad. In 1792 George was demoted back to private and spent the next year stationed at Magherafelt, County Londonderry, with Captain Alexander Douglas’ Company before being restored to corporal in 1793 and serjeant in 1795. John also became a corporal in 1793 and a serjeant by 1795 (WO 12/5172: 1778-1788; WO 12/5173: 1789-1798; WO 12/5174: 1798-1799; WO 12/5175: 1800; WO 12/5176: 1801). Meanwhile, back in Longford, George Moxham the elder had died and his contentious lease of 19 acres of land in Rathsallagh was transferred to his widow Mary Moxham (Nixon) in August 1793, the ‘lease lives’ including her youngest son Henry Moxham, then aged about twenty.
Models depicting the uniform of the 38th Regiment during the 1770s
On the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1794 the main body of the 38th Regiment was sent to Holland and Flanders, while the flank companies of light infantry had gone to the West Indies where they helped British forces occupy Martinique and re-occupy St. Lucia. The main body of the 38th Regiment returned to England and between late 1795 and late 1796 they too were shipped to the West Indies, initially at Barbados. According to the muster rolls, John was deployed to the West Indies in late 1795 and was demoted to private in late 1796, around the same time that George arrived. The regiment took part in the occupation of Trinidad in 1797 before being stationed at Les Saintes (a cluster of small French island colonies under British occupation 1782-1802). The British presence in the West Indies had an added dimension to the war in Europe: in early 1794 the French Republic abolished slavery throughout its colonies, which greatly concerned the wealthy white owners of slave-run plantations throughout all the Caribbean islands, and the British occupation of French islands was principally in order to maintain the slave trade. Over the following decade slavery was restored everywhere except in Haiti, which resisted successive invasions from Britain, Spain and Napoleonic France. One of the most serious enemies for European armies, though, was the mosquito-borne Yellow Fever, which devastated their numbers in the rainy seasons. As a serjeant with Captain John Nugent’s Company, George Moxham was listed as sick during June and July 1799. He died in August, probably on ‘the Saints’, just 200km from where Christopher had died over sixteen years earlier. Because of George’s death there are no discharge/pension records to definitively confirm his identity.
The survivors of the 38th Regiment returned to England in June 1800 and when Lieut.-Col. Spencer Thomas Vassall took command in 1801 there were less than one hundred men remaining. He moved the regiment to Ireland for the next four years to rebuild the numbers. Among the ranks at this point were John Nixon and James Nixon – perhaps relatives of the Moxhams? John Moxham, now a private in Major John Gordon’s Company, was listed as sick during June 1801 and was discharged from the 38th Regiment at his own request by Lieut.-Col. Vassall at Newry on 9th August 1801. His discharge papers credit him with twenty-two years of ‘faithful and honest’ service which, were it consecutive, would date back to 1779. However, if we believe him to have first enlisted in 1777 then we could speculate that he may have had a two-year civilian interlude (1788-1790) before re-enlisting in County Mayo. Intriguingly, among John Moxham‘s discharge papers is a brittle hand-written document with a cover note concerning a twenty-one year lease from the Bishop of Killala to __ Gore Esq., dated Michaelmas (September) 1778. The relevance of this document to John is unclear; the original is too fragile to be accessed by the public at Kew, but the digital image provided is illegible. It may be significant that Killala is also in County Mayo, though a branch of the Gore family were also prominent landlords near Tashinny at this time. The 38th Regiment went on to see much action in the Iberian Peninsula, South Africa and South America, where Lieut.-Col. Vassall was killed at Montevideo in 1807.
Just two months after his discharge, on 6th October 1801, John Moxham re-enlisted as a private with Captain Robert Browne’s Company of the Corps. of Royal Irish Invalids. Invalid companies and battalions were made up of soldiers who were not fit for active service in regular regiments but who were still able to perform garrison duties. However, after five months of service he was again discharged at his own request by Lieut.-Col. Peter Daly at Dublin on 16th March 1802. This final document among his discharge papers (‘War Office Records of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham: Pensioners’ Discharge Documents (Certificates of Service: Regiments on Irish Establishment)’; Kilmainham Ref. A1528; WO 119/5/329) gives a second physical description of him, twenty-five years after the first. He is now described as aged 48 years (which would make him born around 1754 and five years older than the earlier document suggests), born in the County Longford parish of Tishiney [sic], 5′ 9″ in height with a fresh complexion and grey eyes, hair now brown rather than fair, and a ‘long visage’. He was a labourer by trade.
After this point we must return to speculation about John Moxham. As mentioned above, an agreement of 21st April 1807 involved Mary Moxham, widow of the late George Moxham of Rathsallagh, and their eldest son John Moxham and second son Henry Moxham. As also mentioned above, Henry Moxham was previously described as the youngest son of George Moxham. These documents don’t necessarily contradict each other, but the deaths of other/intervening brothers might have left John as the eldest surviving son by 1807. Next, a marriage agreement was contracted on 27th February 1816 between Anne Gardiner, a spinster of Loghan, and John Moxham, a farmer holding 19 acres of land at Rathsallagh for the duration of the lives of Henry Moxham and others. It is apparent that this John Moxham who married in 1816 died a few years after the birth of a son, also named John, around 1819, as detailed elsewhere on this site. A signature identical to that on the military records is found in the vestry minutes of Tashinny Church in 1810 and 1820. The burial of a John Moxham in the parish of Abbeyshrule & Tashinny on 4th July 1825 may well have been the Last Post of the old soldier, who would by then have been aged between 65 and 70. Certainly, by September 1825, Anne Moxham was living in Rathsallagh as a widow, and appears to have died ten years later.
That was the end of the professional military career of the Moxhams, although John’s great-grandson and great-grandaughter were among many relatives who enlisted during World War I. The contrast with the Nixon family is interesting; both were from broadly similar origins in rural County Longford, but the army enabled some of the Nixons to rise rapidly through the class system with, for example, Lt.-Col. John Lyons Nixon becoming Lieutenant Governor of St. Kitts in the 1830s. Despite the skeletal nature of his military records, we can be sure that Private John Moxham saw a considerable part of the world during his time as a soldier. We can surmise that he may have fought against American patriots in the 1770s and 1780s, he probably fought against French republicans on the European continent in the 1790s, and he certainly spent five years harassing French colonists in the Caribbean. Along the way he must have witnessed destruction and carnage unprecedented up to that point in history, perhaps including the deaths of his two brothers.
Sincere thanks to Don N. Hagist for his patient help in deciphering the Muster Rolls – visit his excellent website here.