Coffeys last years

Coffey’s story after his final discharge has been interpreted as one of a man unable to settle outside the army, moving on from place to place - Pembroke, the Shrewsbury district, the Sheffield district - before finally taking his own life in 1875.

New light was shed for me on Coffey’s days as a pensioner by the discovery of his friend, Sergeant Patrick Gainey. I first came across Gainey’s name on a marriage certificate from Pembroke in 1868 between a William Coffey and a Margaret Gainey. This turned out to be a second marriage for William Coffey. The young bride’s father’s name was Patrick Gainey, a labourer. His name I then found a number of other times in my researches. The picture that builds up is one of a longstanding friend of William Coffey, both in the army and then afterwards, and it is this friendship which explains a good deal of the shape of Coffey’s life between his discharge in 1868 and his death in 1875.

Patrick was roughly the same age as William and had joined the 82nd in Ireland a few months after him in February 1847. But unlike Coffey, he had remained in the same regiment throughout his army career; he was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal in 1866. He had married his wife, Mary Lawrence, at Pembroke back in 1852 while the 82nd was in Wales. He had married, unusually for a Catholic, in the local registry office. Mary was almost certainly pregnant, and she gave birth to Coffey’s future wife soon after the regiment’s move to Scotland. 

Coffey and Gainey later fought alongside one another at Cawnpore, both were joined in India by their wives, and the two men were together again in the 82nd Foot from 1862. They shared many common experiences. Both suffered the deaths of some of their children while in India, and both were invalided home around the same time, Gainey leaving India for Netley the day before Coffey. Then they received their final discharge from the army on the very same day.

WO 97/1629 place of residence

Coffey’s discharge papers indicate that he initially intended to make for Westminster in London. The papers were evidently changed at the last moment to make Pembroke his destination, and the reason was undoubtedly Patrick Gainey. Mary Gainey was a native of Pembroke Dock, and it was Patrick’s intention to live with his wife and family there, at least for the moment. William was persuaded to accompany his friend, and they took up residence in King Street, Pembroke Dock. Then on 7 October 1868 William married Gainey’s eldest daughter, Margaret, at St Mary’s Catholic church in Pembroke Dock. They were married by Fr O. Murphy CP, and the names of the witnesses were Rachael and Ellen Vaughan.

Gainey and Coffey had both given their professions at enlistment as labourer, and it was as labourer that each was discharged 21 years later. The surgeon had declared that Coffey could ‘partly contribute to his maintenance’, though the inspecting medical officer had been more pessimistic: ‘can only very partially contribute towards his own support.’ At first Coffey took up a new profession as a baker, but it was not long before he found new work with the military. On 1 January 1869 he was transferred to the Shrewsbury Pension District, and joined the Royal Cardigan Militia, which was at that time a rifle corps and the militia for the Welsh county of Cardiganshire. Coffey was immediately appointed a sergeant on its permanent staff.

William and Margaret took up residence in the newly-built barracks at Aberystwyth (demolished 1979-80). Among Coffey's tasks were the annual drilling of new recruits and the training of the men as a sergeant instructor - the records show that he was in possession of an appropriate certificate from the Hythe School of Musketry. He was paid two shillings a day, was of course in receipt of his VC annuity of £10, and was declared exempt from income tax.

On 12 July 1870 a son was born - another William John Coffey - but like Coffey's son of his first marriage, this William John also lived only a matter of months, dying of 'consumption'(tuberculosis) on 3 December. Coffey himself continued to be dogged by illness, though he was successfully reengaged by the militia in January 1874. But the following year, he was unable to continue working throughout the annual drilling of new recruits, which began on 12 March. On 31 March 1875 he was for a second time declared unfit for further military duty and discharged.

And so the Coffeys decided that they would rejoin the Gaineys. Not long after William and Margaret had left Pembroke, the Gaineys too had left, but to make their home in the village of Stonegravels, Derbyshire, where Patrick had work as a labourer in the coke ovens. His pension was registered to the Sheffield District (which contained Stonegravels) on 1 April 1869. Coffey made his own transfer to this district on 1 April 1875, and he lived the last few weeks of his life in a house called Park View, which was on the same side of the main village street (today Sheffield Road in the town of Chesterfield) where the Gaineys had been living for at least four years. There at Park View, according to his death certificate, Coffey died of ‘chronic diarrhoea’(dysentery) in the presence of his wife on 13 July 1875.

A notice of Coffey’s death at Stonegravels was placed in the Derbyshire Courier, giving his name simply as ‘Mr. William Coffey’. His age was given, as on his death certificate, as 44. He was buried within a few days in a public grave in the Catholic part of Spital cemetery, Chesterfield. Then, while the Gaineys remained in Stonegravels, Coffey’s widow found work as a nurse and domestic servant in Solihull, Warwickshire, before moving to Bognor, Sussex. In 1888 she remarried at Chesterfield, settled in Rotherham, Yorkshire, and after the death of her second husband married for a third time.

Beyond that, however, Coffey
s death went unnoticed. As late as 1888, he was still being listed in Burkes Peerage and in Whitakers Almanack as a living recipient of the Victoria Cross, thirteen years after his death. It was only in 1889 that his name no longer appears. The list in Burkes Peerage was based on continuing claims for the VC annuity. Whether a mistake had been made, or whether someone was still claiming his annuity, is something of a mystery. It is easy to suppose that Margaret Coffey may have claimed it up to her second marriage in 1888, but it may have been no more than a copying error.