Friday, 10 July 2020

Martin Commerford: from
the Siege of Sevastopol to
postmaster in Australia

The nativity scene in the Martin Commerford Memorial Window in Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral, Geraldton, erected by his widow Ellen and daughter Susan Commerford

Patrick Comerford

The siege of Sevastopol, from October 1854 until September 1855, was one of the decisive battles in the Crimean War, lasting almost a full year. Martin Comerford or Commerford from Callan, Co Kilkenny, was injured at Sevastopol and was decorated for his part in the siege and at other battles in the Crimean War, including Inkerman and Alma.

Martin Comerford (1830-1889), also known as Martin Commerford or Cummerford, was born on 7 April 1830 in Killmanaugh, Callan, Co Kilkenny.

At the age of 17, Martin joined the 33rd (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment as a private (Regiment No 2412) in Callan, Co Kilkenny, on 7 April 1847 Callan, Kilkenny. He was tall for his day and was described at 5’ 9½”, with a fresh complexion, grey eyes and dark brown hair.

The 1851 census places him at the Regimental Barracks in Sunderland. He was promoted private to corporal on 1 April 1852.

He was tried by a regimental court martial for neglect of duty when on escort. He was held in confinement from 31 December 1852 to 5 January 1853, and he was reduced from corporal to private on 6 January 1853. But the Crimean War broke out the following October, and Martin became a decorated hero.

He was rendered unfit for service losing his left thumb from a gunshot wound received in the trenches at Sebastopol on 4 December 1854. His medals, clasps and badges included the Crimea War Medal, with the Alma, Inkermann and Sebastopol clasps, and the Turkish Crimea Medal.

The Crimean War Medal with Sebastopol, Inkerman and Alma Clasps

After 7 years 83 days in the army, he was discharged at Chatham on 3 July 1855 Chatham, with a pension of 8 pence a day, and he moved back to Co Kilkenny. There he joined the Kilkenny Fusiliers Militia in 1856, and was based in Kilkenny (1856), Birr (1856-1857) and Dublin (1858).

He married Elllen Jones (1856-1922) in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, on 5 May 1856; She was born in Nenagh, the daughter of Bryan Jones and Bridget (née Hingerty) and was baptised on 30 September 1836.

The couple soon emigrated to Western Australia. They left Plymouth on the Lord Raglan on 5 March 1858 and arrived in Freemantle on 1 June 1858. There he enrolled in the Pensioner Force in 1858, and remained with them until 1865.

He was a ‘tide waiter’ or customs officer at Champion Bay (Geraldton) from 1858 to 1889, was a Magistrate’s Clerk briefly in 1860, and Postmaster in Geraldton from 1864 to 1889, and was also in charge of the telegraph office.

The Commerfords bought a plot of town land in Geraldton in 1867, and there they family bult their own house. From 1876 to 1885, he was an enthusiastic member of the Geraldton Rifle Volunteer Corps, in which he held the rank of Quartermaster and Sergeant. Later, he was elected a Geraldton Municipal Councillor.

His charitable subscriptions and donations include funds for Lancashire Relief Fund, the Perth New Convent and Female Orphanage, the Pensioners Benevolent Fund, Geraldton Working Men’s Society, and the new Catholic Church in Geraldton.

Martin Commerford and Ellen Jones and they were the parents of eight children, five daughters and three sons:

1, Susan Maria (1857-1942), baptised in Nenagh on 27 February 1857, died in Perth 3 August 1942. She followed her father into the Post Office and worked there all her adult life.
2, Brigid (1859-1927), born 1859, Geraldton, Western Australia, died in Adelaide, 10 November 1927.
3, Helen, or Ellen (1862-1892), born 1862, Geraldton; she joined the Sisters of Mercy in Australia and was known as Sister Mary Augustine. She was described as an ‘accomplished musician’ when she died in York, Western Australia, at the age of 30 on 31 October 1892.
4, Elizabeth Cecilia (1864-1927), born 1864, married Joseph James Griffin of Geraldton in 1886; she died in Perth on 17 March 1927.
5, Martin Commerford (1866-1867), born 1866, died in infancy in 1867, in Geraldton.
6, Mary Frances (1869-1942), born 19 May 1869, Geraldton. She married 19 February 1895 the journalist and politician John Michael Drew (1865-1947), son of Cornelius and Mary (Gavin) Drew. He was a contributor to the Catholic Record (later Western Australian Record); sub-editor, Western Australian Record, Fremantle (1887-1889), secretary and manager, Victoria Express (later Geraldton Express), 1890, editor (1892-1905), and owner (1912). He also started a vineyard and orchard in Northampton. He was elected to the Western Australia parliament in 1910 as an independent and joined the Australian Labor Party in 1912. He was a member of the state parliament in 1900-1918, and 1924- 1947. He was the Labor leader in the legislative Council (1910-1936) and his government posts included Minister for Lands (1904-1905), Colonial Secretary and Minister for Agriculture (1905), Colonial Secretary (1911-1916), Chief Secretary Ministry of Health, Education and the North West (1924-1930), and Chief Secretary (1933-1936). Mary (Commerford) Drew died 31 July 1942; John Drew died in Perth 17 July 1947.
7, Morris William Commerford (1871-1883), born 1871, Geraldton, died 27 April 1883.
8, Edward John Commerford (1874-1976), born 1874, Geraldton, died 1876.

John Michael Drew (1865-1947), Chief Secretary of Western Australia … he married Mary Frances Commerford

Martin Commerford died on 15 December 1889, Marine Terrace, Geraldton, Western Australia, and he was buried on 18 December 1889, in the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Geraldton.

Newspaper reports at the time described him as one of the earliest settlers and oldest Government officials in Champion Bay.

His wife and eldest daughter erected a stained-glass window to his memory in Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral, Geraldton. His widow Ellen died on 26 June 1922.

The Martin Commerford Memorial Window in Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral , Geraldton, erected by his widow Ellen and daughter Susan Commerford

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