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  • Writer's pictureStephen Callaghan

Clonoghill Stories: Major John Gilbertson

Despite some hesitation in letting soldier be buried in Clonoghill Cemetery when it first opened in 1869, the cemetery contains many military burials. Generally, soldiers who died whilst serving in Birr Barracks were buried in the military cemetery, however officers and pensioners were buried in the local town cemetery. One such officer is Staff Officer of pensions, Honourary Major John Gilbertson.

John was born in West Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland on 30 December 1812. He was the son of Thomas Gilbertson and Jane Gilbertson (née Armstrong). Thomas was a Quartermaster in the Royal Artillery.

In the footsteps of his father, John attested for service in the Royal Artillery at Woolwich, Kent on 26 June 1824, his papers list his age as 9 years old, although in reality he was more likely around 12 years old. Taken on as a drummer and trumpeter John served for 25 years and 31 days working his way up the ranks to Sergeant Major. His foreign service included 12 and 8 months in Gibraltar for 12 years and 8 months and 2 years and 4 months in Bermuda.

Sergeant Major Gilbertson was discharged from the Royal Artillery in May 1853 on his appointment as Adjutant and Captain to the Norfolk Artillery Militia. His conduct with the Royal Artillery was described as exemplary, with his name having never appeared in the regimental defaulter’s book and his award of the Long Service & Good Conduct medal in 1850.

In June 1853 John married Mary Ann Purvis in Woolwich, London. As the Norfolk Artillery Militia headquarters was based in Great Yarmouth, John and Mary moved there and are recorded on the 1861 census as living on Trafalgar Road with their two sons, daughter and John’s mother Jane. John’s father Thomas had died in 1828.

In 1875, now a Major, John was appointed as Staff Officer of pensions for the Birr district. He took up residence in Millbrook Cottage, which had been former residence of county surveyor Mr. French. The role of Staff Officer involved in the administration of pensions to the countless veterans living in the area and he had taken over the position from Major Woods.

Major Gilbertson was struck with illness in June 1876 and died at his residence on 18 June, his son Thomas present at his death. The cause of death recorded as disease of heart. Local papers mentioned his death and recounted that ‘Major Gilbertson, though of a retiring disposition, evinced characteristics of a kind which wins the esteem of all who know how to estimate sterling qualities’.

The funeral, with full military honours took place on 21 June, the 43rd Regiment of Foot supplied a firing party and the King’s County Militia supplied the band. The band was followed by some 250 men of the militia and all available officers and men of garrison forming a procession from the house to the grave.

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