Life in the army

The first six months of Coffey’s army life would have been largely taken up with learning drill. His average day would have begun at 7am (5am once the summer came), rising from a bed probably only a few inches apart from his neighbour’s, in a cramped barracks, smelly even by the standards of the time. Proper urinals would not be installed for several years after Coffey’s final departure from the army, and he may often have had to wash in the same tub that was used by the men as a urinal. He would have taken his turn at cooking meat and potatoes for a small group of comrades known as a ‘mess’, and would have had his own wooden trencher or pewter plate, a bowl and spoon, and possibly his own knife. Life in the barracks was probably monotonous and it was certainly unhealthy.

But for all its difficulty, it turned out to be a life in which Coffey excelled, as he quickly matured into a soldier noted for his good character and conduct. He was no frequent offender, and during his twenty-one years of service his name was entered only seventeen times in the Regimental Defaulters Book and he was never tried by court martial. He was recorded absent without leave on only three occasions - 27-29 January, 18-20 March, and 7-9 April - all at Devonport and all in 1850. It may have been in connection with these absences that he was placed in the cells on 12 April - his only recorded incarceration - but the record tells us no more than that he was locked up for a military rather than a civil offence. In any case, his sentence was quickly cancelled when the regiment sailed from Devonport to Portsmouth, arriving there on 13 April.

And then in 1852 come the first recorded indications of the good conduct that must have stretched back almost to his enlistment. On 15 October, while at Salford Barracks, he was placed on good conduct pay of a penny a day, something that normally indicated five years of good conduct. However, a mere four days later he was deprived of this privilege - something had proved the road of good conduct not so sure! Then exactly a year later, now in Scotland on 15 October 1853, he was back on good conduct pay, and after that he was never so deprived again.

Around this time William was united with his brother, Timothy. While William had sought out a soldier’s career, his brother had remained in Ireland and become a tailor by trade. But then he took a new direction. Timothy was recruited to the army at Tipperary on 19 February 1853. By 3 March he was at Chatham in Kent with the depot of the 75th Regiment, waiting to join the main body of that regiment in India. Now William Coffey himself would one day serve with the 75th, but that lay some years ahead. Timothy, however, was with this regiment only three months before he transferred to his brother’s regiment, the 82nd, on 1 June. From October the brothers were together on detachment at Perth, as the 82nd awaited its own departure for India and William was having thoughts of a family of his own.

While at Perth, William was granted leave. This was the second time he had been on furlough, the first having taken place at Devonport in November 1848. His second furlough was longer, from 7 December 1853 to 9 January 1854, and during it Coffey went back to Stirling where, with his regiment’s permission, he was married for the first time.

His bride was Margaret Linch (or Lynch) and she was about sixteen years of age. She had been born in County Fermanagh, Ireland, and three generations of her family had come together to Scotland. In 1851 Margaret was living together with her two younger brothers, her widowed grandmother and mother, and her mother’s sister, in St John Street, in an Irish enclave just down from the Castle where Coffey himself had previously lived in the great medieval hall, which was used as a barracks. Margaret’s mother, Mary Linch, was employed as a seamstress, and she herself worked locally as a servant.

St Mary’s Catholic church (today St Mary’s Hall in Irvine Place) had been founded in Stirling in 1838 on account of the growing Irish community in the town. It was there that William and Margaret were married on 27 December 1853. The marriage was solemnised by Fr Laurence Hayden and the names of the witnesses were James Cuddy, a fellow Irishman who had enlisted at Fermoy a month before Coffey, and Mary Goulden. 

When they married, the Coffeys must have been hoping for a future together in India, if Margaret was fortunate enough to be among those wives chosen to accompany their husbands east. In the meantime, while the regiment awaited its departure, she would have joined Coffey’s barracks life at Perth, though at half-rations and perhaps earning some money by doing the washing and nursing. It was an existence that would have afforded little privacy, perhaps the only concession being a curtain set up around the bed in a corner occupied by the married couples. Though they could have hoped for slightly better conditions in India, the death rate in barracks there was much higher than it was in Britain - there was every chance that either of them or both would never return.

However, when the time came for William first to go abroad, it fell to Margaret to remain behind and almost certainly to return to Stirling. In the event Coffey was going abroad without her, bound though not for India, but for the Crimea.