Man of Merit

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Captain Charles Finnerty –
Staff Officer, Enrolled Pensioner Force from 1859 to 1880. Commandant of Western Australian Forces
August 1871 to August 1872.

Charles Finnertys origins were in Bumlin, a Townland and Parish of County Roscommon, Ireland.  Bumlin’s population in Finnerty’s childhood was moving toward 5,000; a collection of tenant farmers on estate land owned by the Mahon Anglo-Irish family from the 17th to 20th centuries. Strokestown Park was the hub of the Mahon estate.  During the Great Famine (1845-1850), over 50% of the population died or emigrated and the incumbent Mahon was assassinated by tenants with a grudge.

Finnerty was born in Bumlin, Strokestown on 4th May 1815.  He joined the 47th Regiment of the British Army as Private #1055 on 12th August 1833. Interestingly, a Sergeant John Finnerty #404 (born Cavan 1806) was serving in the 47th when Charles joined at age 18. No family connection between the men has been established. During the first ten years of Finnerty’s army career he was abroad with the regiment in Gibraltar, Malta and the West Indies. In 1844 Finnerty returned home and was based in Lancashire and Ireland for a further decade.  For him these were years of rapid promotion: Corporal in January 1837, Sergeant by October the same year and Sergeant Major March 1850. His duties as Sergeant Major were short lived when, seven months later, he was elevated to officer class without purchase, i.e. on merit, Ensign Finnerty.

After a failed British peace deputation with Tsar Nicholas I in February 1854, British troops set sail for Turkey; a force was being built up to deal with Russian aggression against the Ottoman Empire. On 28thMarch France and Britain aligned themselves with the Turks and declared war on Russia – it would be known as the Crimean War.

Ensign Charles Finnerty left for Malta with the 47th Regiment on 23rd March 1854. Since the arrival in Malta of the declaration of war the embarkation of troops for Gallipoli has continued with unremitting assiduity, and the excitement produced in the island is almost indescribable. Within three weeks Finnerty was on board Apollo when it left Malta with fellow officers, 845 rank and file and six women of the regiment arriving at Constantinople, Turkey on 18th April. While the bulk of the 47th  regiment joined the 41st and 49th in brigade on the Crimean peninsula to fight at the Battles of Alma, Inkerman and the Siege of Sevastopol, Finnerty spent his war in the Army hospitals of Scutari.

Scutari Hospital
Scutari Hospital

Early in his service in Scutari, Finnerty was promoted from Ensign to Lieutenant on 6th June 1854. There were two hospitals in Scutari – the General and the Barrack (not far from each other).  By the end of November 1854 (after Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman with Sevastopol still raging) there were over 3,000 men in the hospitals. No attempt was made to separate the ranks or regiments, but the wounded were kept separated from the sick; the sick being those with cholera, dysentery and fever. Wounded enemies received precisely the same treatment as allies.  …. they are presided over by the medical and military officers in charge…… On all hands they are admitted to be men entirely devoted to their duties.  Nor are the services of Major Sillery, the commandant, and of Lieutenant Finnerty, his adjutant and barrack-master, less warmly acknowledged. Upon them have devolved very important and onerous functions, which they have diligently and effectively carried out.  To their honour be it said, they are both officers who have risen by merit alone from the ranks.  Florence Nightingale and her 40 nurses arrived at Scutari early in November 1854, so it is clear that Finnerty would have known and worked with this famous woman.

By April 1856, the treaty ending the Crimean War had been signed by Britain and the conflict officially over.  Finnerty, his fellow officers and troops, left Scutari on the steam transport Resolute on 31st July, arriving back at Spithead via Malta and Gibraltar on 15th August – just four days before the birth of the Finnerty’s sixth child. It can be assumed that Finnerty took some leave then returned to his regiment. On 12th March 1857, he was again promoted on merit. He left the regiment, unattached, on 6th May 1859.

Finnerty Marriage – Malta 1839

Charles Finnerty had married Elizabeth Mathews in Valetta, Malta on 11th Jul 1839 at which time Charles was a Sergeant in the 47th Regiment serving in the Mediterranean. Their first child, Charles, was born in Malta on 16th  August 1840; then came Anne Eliza 19th February 1845, Bolton, Lancashire; John 27th December 1847,Cahir, Tipperary (died 1852); Susan Margaret 11th October 1850, Dublin; John Michael 31st January 1853, Limerick; Arthur James 19thAugust 1856 at sea off the coast of Dublin. Another daughter, Mary F S Finnerty was sadly left behind in Haidar Pasha Cemetery in Scutari, a reminder of the Crimean War; she was born and died at six months in 1855.

Three months after his regimental release Captain Finnerty, his heavily pregnant wife Elizabeth, and four of their five surviving children left Plymouth on 28th May 1859 on the HMS Sultana bound for Fremantle, Western Australia. Charles Junior had joined the British Army in January 1858 and was serving abroad with the 75th Regiment when the family left England. During the next 82 days of the voyage, Finnerty would become familiar with his future role as Staff Officer of the Enrolled Pensioner Force. Fifty of these British Army pensioners were on board with their families together with 242 convicts.  Captain Finnerty, as officer commanding the Guard was ever on the alert and on the occasion of the Guard being called out acted with the greatest energy, prudence and circumspection. On 16th June 1859 the Finnertys welcomed (two weeks’ prematurely) their third daughter into the world – Mrs Finnerty’s second birth at sea – the day the ship ‘crossed the line’!

Charles Finnerty’s promotion to captain in March 1857 was gazetted without one of the three administrative positions in a regiment usually given to men who rose from the ranks after meritorious service: adjutant, quartermaster or paymaster. It is therefore almost certain that Finnerty was commanding his own company in the 47th Regiment in the two years prior to his release in May 1859. We may never know why he applied for, or was offered, the post of Staff Officer of the Western Australian Enrolled Pensioner Force.  An explanation may have been that two brothers named Michael and James Finnerty, also born in Bumlin, Strokestown, had joined a similar force: The Royal New Zealand Fencibles. Michael (b. about 1803) and James (b. about 1804) both served more than 15 years (a minimum requirement for the Fencibles) in the British Army; they were discharged with pension from the 13th Hussars. The brothers arrived in Auckland on Clifton in 1848 and settled in Panmure, Auckland.  It is possible, though far from proven, that Michael and James were relatives of Charles and were the impetus for Captain Finnerty’s decision to take up a post in the antipodes. Whatever the reason for his appointment, as a former company commander, he would have been well up to the task of EPF Staff Officer.

Theoretically, by the time Sultana and Captain Finnerty and his family arrived in the Colony, over 600 pensioners would have been ‘on the strength’, excepting those who had died, returned home or left for the eastern states. This was a large body of men to oversee, working at that time from Fremantle Barracks. Finnerty very quickly became part of the fabric of the Colony as would befit a man of some rank in the ‘establishment’.  He became a JP and Magistrate in Fremantle. This role would have seen Finnerty preside at the Local Court, Court of Petty Sessions and Licensing Court.

With the imminent withdrawal of the British garrison in WA, an Act of Parliament was passed authorising a corps of military volunteers.  A public meeting in Fremantle on 30th August 1861 enthusiastically endorsed the formation of a Volunteer Rifle Corps. Finnerty’s military experience was acknowledged when he was proposed as the Corps’ Commanding Officer at a meeting on 6th September; by the end of that month 90 volunteers had signed up. In this respect Finnerty’s volunteers were ahead of Colonel Bruce’s Metropolitan Corps formed in Perth less than two weeks later. The withdrawal of Line troops had other repercussions: an increase in the Enrolled Pensioner Force on permanent duty as replacements. During 1861 other rifle corps were established in Pinjarra, Swan and Sussex.

1863 was a turning point in Finnerty’s career.  He may not have aspired to any role other than a soldier, but he was second in command to Colonel John Bruce, the EPF Commandant.  It is at this time we discover that Finnerty’s ‘face didn’t fit’.  Bruce had been lobbying Governor Hampton, and through him the Home Government, for an additional Staff Officer.  Captain Robert Henry Crampton was appointed as EPF Staff Officer in 1863 and by December when he and his family arrived on Lord Dalhousie, he had already been promoted to the local rank of Major.  Bruce, Hampton and the War Office had made their choice: Finnerty’s position had been eroded.  The correspondence was telling. In passing on confidential comments Hampton had received from Bruce, he in turn wrote (in part) to Lord Newcastle, Secretary of State for the Colonies as follows:  

Under ordinary circumstances I should decline to forward a confidential report prejudicial to any officer and especially one not amenable to me as a member of the Civil Service, but a due regard to the public interests leaves me no alternative in this case.  Capt. Finnerty was raised from the ranks, and is a very imperfectly educated man, with such a ridiculously tenacious temper that he is continually engaged in some controversy, mostly for the purpose of what he calls ‘vindicating his position’ – at the same time I believe that his abilities as a mere routine subaltern Military Officer are above mediocrity, and that he is a really gallant soldier.  I can assure Your Grace that serious complications and difficulties would be likely to arise from Captain Finnerty being either placed in temporary command of the Troops, or called upon provisionally to administer the Government, both of which contingencies might be sufficiently guarded against by appointing a third Staff officer senior to Captain Finnerty and properly qualified to succeed the efficient zealous and valuable officer at present commanding the Pensioner Force.

The only good news for the Finnerty family in 1863 was the birth of Henrietta Frances. However, plans to split up the family were afoot. Charles Finnerty Junior had left the British Army and was in New Zealand serving as an Ensign in the 2nd Waikato Militia. Mrs Finnerty left for England on Daylight in January 1865 with her five youngest children; the objective was to accompany John Michael Finnerty to start his education at the prestigious Church of England school Rugby in Warwickshire.  Meanwhile, Captain Finnerty did not expect to see his family in the short term, as he put the family furniture and household items at Cliff Street, Fremantle up for auction on 1st April 1865. Another daughter, Sarah, was possibly born in Malta in 1865, but there are no reliable sources extant for this event; surely not another birth at sea for Mrs Finnerty!  With Mrs Finnerty at 43 Lawford Road, Rugby in early 1871 was John Michael in his last year at school, Arthur (James), (Evangeline) Alice and Henrietta (Frances). Ann Eliza had married Lockier Clere Burges in March 1868 and Susan married John Maxwell Ferguson in September 1871 (both marriages at St John’s, Fremantle). John Michael and Arthur returned to WA in September 1873 on Zephyr from London. Mrs Finnerty with daughters Alice and Henrietta returned to Fremantle on the Airlie in April 1877.

EPF on Parade
Enrolled Pensioner Force on Parade

In the half-dozen years that Elizabeth and some of the children first left for England, the Colony and Captain Finnerty had seen many changes – notably the completion of the new Pensioner Barracks in Perth; the 1869 visit of HRH Alfred Duke of Edinburgh where soldiers of the 2-14th Regt., Enrolled Pensioners and Volunteers formed a Guard of Honor and lined the streets, the whole being commanded and arranged to the best advantage by Captain Finnerty; the death of Commandant John Bruce (1870) and Crampton’s promotion to this post – a short-lived elevation as Crampton himself died in August 1871.

During Bruce’s time, the Commandant of Troops also held the position of ‘Dormant Commission’ to act in the Governor’s absence. However, the change to a more representative political system was formalised in 1870, when the new Governor, Frederick Weld, agreed to regular elections for two thirds of the seats on a reconstituted Legislative Council. This suggested that the governor’s influence to nominate specific people to positions in the Colony was reduced, and the hierarchy in the Executive and Legislative Councils changed, the Colonial Secretary taking precedence over the Military Commandant.

On the death of Crampton, Finnerty saw his opportunity to become Commandant of Troops and immediately applied to the War Office for the post.  In a letter dated 15th August 1871, Weld supported Finnerty’s bid for Commandant, but aware of Bruce’s previous reservations about Finnerty’s suitability for service as governor in absentia, supported Frederick Barlee, Colonial Secretary, for this role. Weld stated, in part, Whatever may be the decision of the Military Authorities regarding the post of Commandant I trust that they will not promote a junior officer over Captain Finnerty’s head, as I am sure the result would not conduce to the good of the service here.  With regard to the exercise of the Governor’s power in case of my death absence or incapacity there can be no doubt but that the proper person to stand in the place of the Governor is the Colonial Secretary who is now senior member of the Executive Council.  In the event, Weld’s recommendations were ignored and Major Edward Douglas Harvest, 97th Regiment, was appointed Commandant AND the Dormant Commission in 1872.  Finnerty’s role as pro tem Commandant was therefore short-lived but on 5th July 1872 earned him a promotion to Brevet Major.

Catalpa Rescue
The Catalpa Rescue

Finnerty made strong headlines in 1876.  He and a contingent of pensioners were in the thick of the escape by six Fenian prisoners – they were on board the Georgette with the Water Police when there was an attempt to challenge the American whaler Catalpa in April that year. Finnerty also caused a furore among the Catholic Church’s population and RC Bishop Griver.  In a forgery case being heard by Magistrates Slade and Finnerty in the Fremantle Police Court, Finnerty accused a priest of tutoring 11 year old Helen Taaffe, witness in the case. He also contended that a priest had attempted to tamper with him— that he had ordered him out of the house, and that if he had not gone out he would have kicked him out. Slade’s comments were arguably more inflammatory: Mr Slade concurred with Major Finnerty that the witness had been tutored, and he supposed she had had absolution in this world and the next and that she could come and state what she liked.

Back in his position as Staff Officer, Finnerty worked closely with Harvest, the man who replaced him as permanent Commandant. There is no suggestion that his relationship with Commandant Harvest was as fraught as that with Bruce. But times were a-changing, and the role of Governor alternating between Robinson and Ord from 1875 to 1883 gave rise to alternating views on the future of the EPF. The Enrolled Pensioner Force was disbanded in November 1880 in favour of the Enrolled Guard under the command of Matthew Skinner Smith, Superintendent of Police.  From this point both Finnerty and Harvest relinquished their positions. Finnerty had been promoted to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on 31st December 1878 and retired on full pay with the honorary rank of Colonel on 1st January 1881.

Colonel Finnerty died at home aged 66 in the early hours of Sunday 18th December 1881 of apoplexy.  He died intestate and his widow was granted Letters of Administration in the Supreme Court in April 1882 for a personal estate and effects of less than one hundred pounds in value.  Elizabeth Finnerty died 12th August 1908; she and Charles are buried in East Perth Cemetery.

This author’s observation of Charles Finnerty is that he was a soldier, through and through.  His rise from Private to Captain entirely on merit showed superior organisational and man management skills within the confines of his military environment.  He probably saw the world in ‘black and white’ with little patience for compromise. His public outbursts and notoriously short temper would not make for a good politician. At a personal level, he would have struggled financially. Without family background and money it would have been difficult to educate his children and maintain his family’s position in colonial society. For a humble lad from Strokestown to have achieved the honorary rank of Colonel deserves more recognition than Finnerty received.

Note: The photograph of Charles Finnerty [RWAHS] has written on the reverse: ‘To Mrs Lefroy with Major Finnerty’s kindest regards Fremantle 5 Decr. 1875’. 

Sources & Acknowledgements
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Margie Denniston, Jeanette Lee and Peter Conole for their contributions and advice.
War Office Records of Officers’ Services, 47th Regiment WO76-190, National Archives, Kew.
Royal Hospital Chelsea: Soldier Service Documents, National Archives, Kew.
The London Times.
The London Gazette.
Perth Gazette
GRO Chaplains’ Returns (Marriages) 1838-39.
GRO Regimental Birth Indices (1761 to 1924).
UK Maritime Births, Marriages & Deaths 1787-1933
Church of Ireland Baptism, Granard,County Longford.
WA Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages.
Malcolm Idoine, New Zealand, descendant of Charles Finnerty.
1871 Census of England & Wales, RG10-3184, National Archives, Kew.
Southern Provinces Almanac 1866, New Zealand Army List, Colonial Forces.
Inquirer & Commercial News, Perth WA.
The Herald
, Fremantle WA.
Western Mail, Perth WA.
Admons Cons 3458, No. 352/1882, State Records Office, Perth.
Lancashire Infantry Museum, Roger Goodwin.
Records and Badges of the British Army, Henry Manners Chichester & George Burges-Short, 2nd Edition, Gale & Polden Ltd. 1900.
The Veterans, F H Broomhall, Hesperian Press 1989.
Officers of the Western Australian Defence Force 1861-1901,John Burridge Military Antiques.
A pleasant passage : the journals of Henry Richardson, Surgeon Superintendent aboard the convict ship, Sultana, Fremantle Press 1990.
Research notes of Margie Denniston for her book O’Fionnachta to Finnerty, 2010.

© Diane Oldman 2015