A couple of years ago I researched into a line connected to the Wildman family tree, which resulted in reading into the Donohoes of Plymouth. The post explains the connection to the Wildman family and provides an overview of two generations of the Donohoes. I have previously posted about George Donohoe, a young man who lost his life during the First World War.

Key Dates:

1858 Birth of Francis Donohoe in Carbury, Kildare, Ireland

1879 Marriage of Francis Donohoe and Elizabeth Forrest

1880 Birth of their daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth Donohoe

1893 Birth of their son, William Donohoe

1896 Birth of their son, George Donohoe

1897 Marriage of Mary Ann Elizabeth Donohoe to Edwin White Bailey

1911 Death of William Donohoe (b. 1893)

1917 Death of George Donohoe (b. 1897)

1931 Death of Elizabeth Donohoe (nee Forrest)

Little is known about the origin of the Donohoes, other than that they came from Ireland. The surname name assumes only a small portion of the wider family tree, because we only know of two generations. Donohoe is an old Irish surname, being a reduced Anglicised form of the Gaelic O Donnchadha; meaning ‘descent of Donnchadh’. Donn is assumed to mean a brown-haired man, or chieftan. There are many variations on the name, including O’Donohoe, Donoghue, and Donohough.

The Donohoe connection can be traced to County Kildare in Ireland. Francis Donohoe (my great-great grandfather) is the central link in the story; records show his birthplace as Carbury (also spelt as ‘Carbery’). It was a rural community to the west of Dublin in an area that was known for the Norman built Carbury Castle, although by the time of the Victorian period this lay in ruins. Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (published in 1837) provides an overview of the region in the time in which Francis Donohoe’s father – William – resided. The parish is listed at 1,476 inhabitants, of which 159 were from the village. The castle was in ruins, ‘of which there are some remains, situated on a lofty isolated hill.’ The parish was ‘near the source of the river Boyne’ – that famous river that played host to the Battle of the Boyne in the 1690s during the reign of William III. Lewis further mentions that ‘the greater portion of the land is arable, and some of the farms wholly under tillage’, continuing:

The town is beautifully situated on the south-west side of the spacious lough or hay to which it gives name, and immediately at the base of an extensive range of mountains which terminates at this point. It consists of 288 houses, and, though small, has an interesting appearance, from the venerable ruins of its castle and abbey….The scene of the bay is remarkably fine: the Mourne mountains on the opposite side, are beautifully varied with rocks, woods, heath, and verdure; and in the foreground the shores are enlivened with neat cottages and numerous bathing-lodges… The oysters found in the bay are highly esteemed, and are sent in great quantities to Dublin, Liverpool, and other places. The bay, one of the finest natural havens on the coast, is eight miles in length and about four in breadth, extending inland… The market is on Saturday; fairs are held on the first Saturday in each month.

However, nothing more is known of William Donohoe, bar his name, occupation (a farmer) and probable living-location. The established link in this family is Francis Donohoe, a man who made the jump from Ireland to Plymouth. When in Plymouth he met with his future wife, Elizabeth Forrest. Little is known of Francis’ origins other than being born in – or around – 1858 in Castle Bury, County Kildare. Guess-work as to how Francis came to end up in Plymouth is required. He served in the British Army from 1876 – when aged 18 – until the mid-to-late 1880s (and possibly into the 1890s). His marriage certificate lists him as a gunner in the Royal Artillery, while further research lists his regimental number as 3Bde/3405. There appears to be a more substantial record on Francis available from the War Records website, with the year listed as 1882.

An Irishman serving in the British Army appears out-of-place in the modern world, but back in the Victorian period Ireland was a firm part of the United Kingdom, due to the establishment of the 1801 Act of Union (and would remain so until 1922). Historian John Lynch believes that the Irish were always over-represented in the British Army; in the early nineteenth-century up to 40% of the army were Irish. Between 1830-1878 – by the time Francis joined up – the Irish made up 28% of the army, thereby forming a significant proportion of British soldiers.

Furthermore, the nineteenth-century was a time of growing divide between the Irish and the rest of Britain, as clearly seen in the 1840s Irish famine that killed a million and forced a further million to flee due to the terrible conditions. Despite clear antagonism of many people in Ireland towards the British (and there was a growing independence movement in the latter half of the nineteenth century led by the likes of Charles Stewart Parnell) there were many reasons for joining up: some deemed themselves Protestant Anglo-Irish and identified more with the British Empire, while the poorer Irish Catholics joined up to feed their families, find work, or possibly seek adventure. Lynch offers alternative reasons, believing that industrialisation had left British males unhealthy and physically broken. By contrast, the men of rural Ireland were strong and well-suited to the physical demands of the army. However, he also notes that the shortage of work provided a stimulus:

when you walked into a barracks and signed up you were given clothes and three meals a day. Even if this meant, as happened in many cases, they were ostracised by their family.

Because of this, the Irish loyalty towards the crown was treated with suspicion. The words of Michael McDonough – a teenager who enlisted in 1898 – provides greater context:

I am fully willing to leave my manson [sic] and to go into the interiors of Africa to fight voluntarily for Queen Victoria and as far as there is life in my bones and breath in my body, I will not let any foreign invasion tramp on Queen’s land. However, if her or her leaders ever turn with cruelty on the Irish race, I will be the first to raise my sword to fight against her. I will have plenty of Irishmen at my side, for they are known to be the bravest in the world.

Francis’ choice for enlisting is unknown. It can be presumed that he was a Catholic, although he didn’t have many quibbles about marrying in an Anglican service in Plymouth. But it is clear that the life of an Irishman in the British Army was a challenging one. Neeson writes that enlisting was ‘akin to emigration’, adding:

Soldiers signed up for 21 years and were shipped off to India or West Africa and if disease didn’t get you, the war did. An incredible 75% of men who were sent to West Africa in the first half of the 19th century were killed by disease alone. Others died in campaigns that none of us would know of today. A third of those who died were Irish.

Francis must have been based in – or spent time in – Plymouth as part of his service in the army. This provides a possible answer as to how he ended up in this part of the country and thereby making him able to come into contact with Elizabeth Forrest; the Forrests were a Plymouth family that earned their living due to the fishing industry.

Francis and Elizabeth were married on 6th April 1879 at St. John-on-Plym, in Plymouth, by vicar Chas Coombes. At this time Francis is listed as being twenty-one years old, a bachelor, and a gunner in the Royal Artillery. His bride, Elizabeth, is listed as being a ‘spinster’ with no occupation, and living at 22 Looe Street, Plymouth. Elizabeth’s father is listed as John Forrest, a fisherman from the Barbican area of the town.

It appears that Francis did not live with his new bride; his service in the army is a possible reason for this situation.. Very soon after the wedding – 9 months – came the birth of their first child; Mary Ann Elizabeth Donohoe was born on 31st January 1880 at the Forrest family home in 22 Looe Street, Plymouth. She was baptised on 8th April 1880 at the place of her parents’ marriage: St. John Sutton-on-Plym. The name Mary Ann appears to have been chosen in honour of Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Ann Forrest (nee Easton).

Francis’ absence is likely explained due to his service with the British Army (searches to find him in the 1881, 1891 and 1901 census’s have failed). However, we can find Elizabeth and their fourteen-month old daughter, Mary Ann Donohoe, living with Elizabeth’s parents at 22 Looe Street. As noted above, the Forrests were primarily fishermen: the 1881 census shows how Elizabeth’s brother, George (then aged 23) was a fisherman, like their father. Elizabeth herself worked as a dress-maker during this period.

The next snap-shot that we see of the Donohoes and Forrests is ten years later in the 1891 census. The family have moved from Looe Street and are now listed as living at 10 Friary Street, near the waterfront and Sutton harbour (as would be fitting for fishermen). Mary Ann is now 11 years old, and still remains living with her grandparents: John (aged 63) and Mary Ann (aged 61). Two sons remain living in the household: George (aged 33 and continuing work as a fisherman), and Richard (aged 22 and working as a ‘fish curer’). The 11 year-old Mary Ann is listed as a ‘scholar’. Francis, again, is nowhere to be seen (and could still be serving in the army at this point), but it is confusing to not see the name of Elizabeth at the household (presumably she was staying overnight – or living – somewhere else in 1891 when the census was taken).

The 1901 census, too, remains a mystery as to the whereabouts of Francis and Elizabeth Donohoe. However, it is clear that the family changed greatly during the end of the Victorian era: Mary Ann Elizabeth married Edwin White Bailey on 11th November 1897 and started her own family, whilst Francis and Elizabeth had two sons: William (born 1893) and George (born 1896 in the parish of St. Andrews, Plymouth).

Of the two brothers, William remains the largest mystery. William isn’t found in any census returns: he was born 2 years after the 1891 census, and died shortly before the 1911 census was issued. He was born in Plymouth and died at the young age of eighteen on 18th February 1911. He is buried at Ford Park Cemetery (next to Plymouth Central Park), with his denomination listed as ‘Catholic’. But beyond this, records are non-existent, but the mention of his religion is interesting, as it shows that perhaps Francis did not entirely abandon his faith when moving to England. There is more information on his younger brother, George, due to his involvement in the disastrous event of the Great War.

The 1911 census provides us with the firmest understanding of the family as it then stood. The family – comprising Francis and Elizabeth, and son George – lived in two rooms at 6 Melbourne Street near Plymouth town centre. Francis Donohoe was aged 52 and worked as a ‘docker’, and Elizabeth was aged 52 and here occupation is listed as ‘household duties’. George is 14 at this point, with a simple ‘Nil’ next to his occupation (so neither a scholar, nor in work). It also provides more information as to the number of children Elizabeth gave birth to, with a total of six children being born; four of which sadly died.

Francis’s work as a ‘docker’ took place at New Gun Wharf in the dockyard (later named Morice Yard). The wharf wasn’t exactly new by that point, having been constructed back in the first-half of the eighteenth century. It was a self-contained establishment with its own complex of workshops, workers, officers, offices and storehouses. It is stated the gunpowder stored on the site was a cause of concern among local residents (although gunpowder magazines were built further north at Bull Point by the 1850s). George also followed his father into the dockyard to work. It is possible that George would have continued on in this manner and would have been rooted to the Plymouth area, eventually settling down and having children. However, the First World War completely removed any of those ambitions, with the outbreak happening in 1914 when George was coming into the right age as a soldier fit for the army.

George was drafted into the army in 1916; earlier that year the 1916 Military Act imposed conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41 (only exempting the medically unfit). George’s military documents shed a considerable amount of light on the details of both himself and the family. By 1916 they were living at 52 Wolsden Street, Plymouth; George had followed his father in working as a labourer at ‘Gunwharf’. George signed up at the age of 20 years and 3 months, on 10th July 1916. His attestation form notes that it is for ‘short service for the duration of the War’.

The military documents provide detailed information about George’s physical appearance. He was just 5 feet and 5 inches tall, and weighed only 103 pounds: just over 7 stone. This seems a surprisingly small height and low weight for a solider, however, both are within the average for British soldiers in the First World War (with a height of 5ft 7in or higher a rarity). Such small sizes indicate a malnourished diet before the outbreak of war; the army attempted to make the men healthier by providing them with more meals – all of which sheds light on the social conditions of England in the Edwardian era. Furthermore, the records also list George showing ‘marks indicating congenital peculiarities or previous disease’, as well as holding a speech impediment.

What the records do not – and could not – state is George’s own thoughts on being conscripted. Ultimately, whatever his thoughts he had no choice but to obey to the orders to be conscripted into the army and be subjected to the demands of the military authorities. Historians have written of the conscripted men becoming resentful at being pulled away from their home-lives. One conscripted man, Alfred M. Hale, compared his experiences of enlistment with ‘a certain compartment full of convicts bound for Dartmoor I had once seen at North Road Station, Plymouth’. George signed up as part of the Labour Company with the Devonshire Regiment. He was based in England between 10th June 1916 to 9th March 1917; on 10th March he travelled to France to fight in the war. He would survive only five months before being killed in action in August 1917.

His ‘Casualty Form’ lists injuries sustained during 1917, as well as his transfer to the newly formed Labour Corps. The Labour Corps was created in February 1917 and primarily comprised men who had fought on the front-line and had been wounded or taken ill, or those who on enlistment were too old or un-fit to serve on the front. By the end of the war in November 1918 around 400,000 men served in the Labour Corps (10% of the army), with 9,000 of them killed. They were involved with ‘the immense effort of building and maintaining the huge network of roads, railways, canals, buildings, camps, stores, dumps, telegraph and telephone systems’. Undoubtedly George’s experience from Devonport Dockyard would be of use in these situations. However, many historians believe that the Labour Corps ‘suffered from its treatment as something of a second class organisation’.

George was awarded medals for his service and sacrifice, including the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Both medals were issued to millions of soldiers who had served in the Great War. He died on 8th August 1917, and his George’s body was laid to rest in No Man’s Cot Cemetery in Boesinghe, Belgium. His headstone displays the details of his service number (56321), his Devonshire Regiment, and his death date. The commemoration by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission states:

Private George Edward Donohoe


6th Labour Coy

Devonshire Regiment

Who died on 8 August 1917, aged 21

The end of the Great War brings further question marks and uncertainties regarding Francis and Elizabeth Donohoe. The documents relating to George’s service and death list them at living in several homes over the space of a few years, including 52 Nolsdon Street and 19 Well Street (both in Plymouth). This indicates that the couple were not well-off financially, and further adds sadness to their loss of two sons during the 1910s.

Elizabeth died in 1931 at the age of seventy-two. However, a search for information relating to Francis’ death has so far drawn a blank. It is possible that Francis died much earlier than Elizabeth, and possibly before 1920. In other documentation relating to George’s death, his war gratuity is issued on 15th July 1919; the ‘sole leg’ (meaning sole legatee – the person who received an inheritance from a will) is only listed as Elizabeth Donohoe. Other similar documents relating to George’s death (from 1919-1920) also avoid direct mention of Francis. This indicates that perhaps Francis was no longer around; only further research and information relating to his death certificate will confirm this.

The Donohoes, then, remain a small link in the larger chain of the Wildman family history. Both Francis and Elizabeth suffered much sadness during their lives, but the chain continued with their first born: Mary Ann Elizabeth Donohoe. Mary Ann married a Bailey, which led to the birth of my grandmother, Elsie Wildman in 1911.


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Karsten, P. (1983) ‘Irish Soldiers in the British Army, 1792-1922: Suborned or Subordinate?’. Printed in the Journal of Social History, Vol.17, No.1 (Autumn 1983) pp.31-64. Oxford University Press.

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Neeson, A. (2013) ‘Fascinating insight into the Irish who joined British Army’. Published on: Belfast Media Group. Available at: http://belfastmediagroup.com/fascinating-insight-into-the-irish-who-joined-british-army/ (Accessed: 20 December 2016)

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Wikipedia (2016) ‘Donohoe’. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donohoe (Accessed: 05 February 2017)