James Gunning - A Dalkey Man



By Caroline McCall, MGSI

This article was originally printed in the Journal of the Genealogical Society of Ireland in 2004, Volume 5 No. 1.

James Gunning married his seventeen-year-old sweetheart, Ellen Redmond, in St. Michael's church, Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) in February 1865. He was thirty-one years of age. His marriage certificate gave his residence as HMS Nightingale, a 60-hp gunboat attached to HMS Ajax, the Coastguard Flagship at Kingstown Harbour. His Naval service record revealed that he had joined the Royal Navy in February 1854 at the age of 20. He was described as five foot seven inches in height with sallow skin, dark hair and blue eyes. His new bride Ellen was the daughter of a local shopkeeper, Thomas Redmond.

Since joining the Navy, James had travelled to all corners of the world, from the Baltic Sea to the Cape of Good Hope and from the Mediterranean to the West Indies and North America. He had fought in the Crimean War and had secured several promotions along the way. His first ship was HMS Saturn, which took him to the Royal Naval Training Barracks at Chatham, Kent which was named HMS Pembroke.  From there he was posted onto the HMS Nile. The HMS Nile was quite an old ship at that time. Built about 1804, during the transition from wooden ships to Ironclads, she was a Trafalgar Class Battleship. The Nile was part of a combined British and French force under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Charles Napier, which was involved in the capture of Bomarsumd in the Crimean War. Captained by George Mundy, the Nile was also involved in actions against the Russians leading up to the Treaty of Paris in 1856. The ship played a part in the boarding and burning of some vessels in Hammeliski on the 18th of September 1855. Following the Crimean War, the Nile sailed to North America and the West Indies. As an able seaman 2nd class, James Gunning earned £18 5s per year.

In 1857 he was aboard the HMS Boscawen, the Flagship stationed at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. North America and the West Indies were his next destinations with HMS Aboukir where he was promoted to Coxswain of the Cutter. After this it was back to the Mediterranean and HMS Meanee. In 1863 he returned to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) and the HMS Ajax, a Coastguard Service ship under the command of Captain Michael de Courcy.

The parish records of St. Michael's Church in Kingstown indicate that James Gunning was born in Dalkey on the 17th of June 1834, the third child of Daniel and Elizabeth Gunning. His parents had been married in the same church in February 1827. According to James’ marriage certificate, his father Daniel was a labourer, possibly in the local quarry or on one of the grand estates in the area. James had three sisters, Bridget (born December 1827), Mary (born November 1836) and Catherine (born March 1839). There had been another son, also called James, born in April 1830. Most likely he died at an early age. The 2nd Report of the Commissioners for Public Instruction in Ireland, published in 1835, indicates that attendance in the boy’s school had diminished due to an outbreak of whooping cough in the area. This may well have been the cause of death of the first infant James. The Report also gives an indication of the type of education in the area in the 1830s. Those families that could afford education paid 1d per week. The boys were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. The girl’s school had the same curriculum but in addition they learned needlework. While James could read and write, it is doubtful that he attended school past the age of ten. His application to join the Navy was supported by the fact that he had spent the previous ten years working on local fishing vessels.

The Gunning family lived in a small cottage at the end of Miskin Terrace, Dalkey. They sublet the adjacent cottage to the local schoolteacher. The ruins of the cottage still stand on what is now known as Grosvenor Terrace. Daniel Gunning was one of only two Gunning families listed in Griffith valuation for 1848 for the area. His name appears in the cancelled valuation books until the mid 1860's. According to Thom's directory, the only other bearer of the surname was the Widow Gunning, residing in the newly fashionable Carysfort Avenue in the adjacent parish of Monkstown from 1838 to until about 1859. The Griffith Valuation House Books indicate that she had a grander existence than that of Daniel. While the small cottage in Dalkey measured 14ft x 15ft and had a rateable valuation of 7 shillings, her substantial property had a valuation of £8 10s and 11d.

Only one Gunning family was listed in the Tithe Applotment books for the area. James Gunning in the town land of Bullock, Dalkey in the Parish of Monkstown rented 3 acres 1 rood and 23 perches from the Earl of Carysfort. As Daniel and Elizabeth Gunning had given this name to both of their sons, it seems probable that this James Gunning was related to the family. The deaths of Daniel Gunning and his wife Elizabeth were not registered. However, the naval service records of James Gunning indicate that had taken a leave of absence and returned to service in early February 1864. In addition, there is no record in the cancelled valuation books of anyone with that surname residing in the cottage after the mid 1860's.

The surname does not appear among the lists of fields and tenants of Thomas Reading's Survey of Dalkey in September 1765. This may suggest that they were one of the many families of labourers who moved into the area in the early 19th Century. In 1815 plans were made to provide a safe harbour in Kingstown, following a tragedy in which 309 lives were lost within sight of land. By 1830 it was clear that Kingstown was rapidly expanding and it was decided to construct Ireland's first railway line between Kingstown and the capital. Dalkey too had its own building boom in the 1840's with the Church of the Assumption, the Loreto Convent and St. Patrick's Church being built.

Following their marriage, James and Ellen spent the next two years at Kingstown before James took up the post of Boatman at the Coastguard Station at Ringsend, Dublin. Their first child (Mary) Elizabeth Gunning was born there on 28th September 1867. The Office of Public Works Archives yielded the original architectural drawings of the Station. The colours as delicate and fresh as the day they were first made. This led to a field trip to the old Coastguard Station at Ringsend to see if it was still standing. The chief officer's house was virtually unchanged, and most of the original nooks and crannies including the watchtower and ammunition storeroom remained. The old communal washhouses and outside privy were gone and the allotments reduced in size due to road improvements. The remains of the old boathouse remain in the garden. The station is now landlocked by a container park and a busy road. Also included in the OPW archives are files on post offices, lighthouses, labourer's cottages, lunatic asylums, teacher's houses, Police and Army Barracks, model schools with references to the engineers who designed them.

In the mid-19th Century the Coastguard station was run on a naval basis. Each home was allocated furniture, which included the following items:

  • One Iron Bedstead
  • One Table
  • Four Windsor Chairs
  • Two six foot Forms
  • One Coal Box to hold half bushel of coal
  • Fire Irons, Fender
  • Musket, Bayonet
  • Pistol and Two Sea Service pistols.

The chief officer made weekly inspections of all accommodation, including bedrooms. The women were expected to keep their homes shipshape, to grow vegetables on their allotments and do their washing at the communal washhouse. In times of conflict, no fraternisation was allowed with the locals and they were not permitted on the station. Most of the coastguards had formerly served in the Royal Navy and lived with their families at the station. They were unpopular with the local population and Ringsend was viewed as being particularly unfriendly. When on watch they worked from 4.30 p.m. to 8 a.m. They were forbidden to leave their post even if they were soaked through. Naturally, there was quite a lot of absence due to sickness, for which one third of their pay was stopped.

The Coastguards were expected to work sixteen hour dusk to dawn shifts in all weathers, their only rest a one legged stool, commonly called the three legged donkey - the weary unfortunate coastguard being the donkey. They had rifle drill and cutlass drill once a week and held exercises in Morse and signalling daily. Their varied duties included taking charge of wrecks, the operation of lifeboats, testing telegraphic communications and navigation buoys, and the prevention of smuggling. It was this latter task that caused so much conflict, smuggling being a profitable occupation. One of their more unusual tasks was the search for rare fish. These were examined, cleaned and the lower jaw was sent to the Natural History Museum. They received three weeks holidays per year and a railway voucher. There is no doubt that life at the coastguard station was very difficult for the couple, and in March 1868 James Gunning returned to sea as a Bosun's Mate (a first class petty officer). His daughter Elizabeth was almost six months old.

Following his return to sea, he served on HMS Prince Consort, spending much of the time in the Greek Islands, Malta and Italy. The Prince Consort was part of the English Squadron under Admiral Sir Alexander Milne at Messina in August 1869. In August 1871 he joined HMS Simoon, a troop ship that had also been involved in the Crimean War. His final posting was aboard HMS Himalaya, a troop ship, in June 1872. HMS Himalaya had been built for the P&O and was launched in 1853, the Worlds largest ship at that time. She was requisitioned as a troop transport during the Crimean War and continued to serve as a troop ship to India.

James Gunning retired from the Royal Navy in March 1874 at the age of forty. He had served twenty years and forty-two days. It is not known where his wife Ellen and daughter Elizabeth lived while he was away at sea. The 1901 Census (incorrectly) states that Elizabeth Gunning was born in Dalkey and this may indicate where she spent her early years. Following his return from sea, the family lived at 22 Guild Street, Dublin for several years. Their son James was born there in February 1875, followed by Mary Ellen c. 1876, Thomas in 1878 and Catherine in 1884. They family later settled in 6 Coburg Place (off Seville Place). James Gunning continued to give his occupation as sailor and there is no doubt that his naval pension would not have been enough to support his growing family.

Tragedy struck the Gunning Family in 1894 with the death of Mary Ellen in September aged 19 years. She died of phthisis, a form of TB, which was endemic in Dublin at that time, but worse was to come. On the 25th May 1901 James Gunning died of influenza and asthma, followed by his son James (a compositor) on the 8th of December that same year. In January 1903, Thomas Gunning, also a compositor, died of TB. A broken-hearted Ellen died in December of that year having lost almost all of her family.

The Gunnings lie buried together in Glasnevin Cemetery, apart from Ellen who was buried nearby because the family grave was full. It was almost totally overgrown by a large beech tree and many of the brass letters from the headstone had come loose and were scattered in the topsoil. A search for these missing letters yielded a curiosity; several inches below the surface were dozens of seashells. Perhaps this was an early attempt to identify the grave until a stone could be erected, or perhaps a tribute to mark the grave of a sailor who spent his life "with a vast and ever-changing expanse of sea and sky from far below and far above”.

1 Comment · 17773 Reads · Print  -> Posted by Tony on May 02 2008


#1 | Anne56 on 27/03/2009 22:33:07
An interesting article I believe that my great great great grandmother is the "widow" gunning of Carysfort Ave. Her name was also Elizabeth. Her son Bernard worked for the railway, married Anne Reilly in Dublin in 1841 - both died in Athenry. Can any one help me with any information, e.g. Elizabeth's husband's name and if they had other children. Perhaps there is a connection between the two families. May be someone can enlighten me. Regards Anne

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