Wearside Echoes: Jailed for desertion - then hailed a hero!

WAR HERO: Henry Huggins, who won a Distinguished Conduct Medal while fighting in the Second Boer War with dozens of soldiers from Sunderland.
WAR HERO: Henry Huggins, who won a Distinguished Conduct Medal while fighting in the Second Boer War with dozens of soldiers from Sunderland.
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AN appeal for information on a Norfolk-born Army deserter who was awarded the Freedom of Sunderland for his wartime bravery was launched today.

Henry Huggins served time in jail after being convicted of desertion in 1885, and earned another black mark in his record book after marrying his Irish sweetheart, Julia, without Army permission.

But, when the call for Sunderland volunteers to fight in the Second Boer War was made in 1901, he immediately signed up – fighting alongside Captain Ernest Vaux, of the Wearside brewing family.

The bravery of the former joiner, who was wounded in action in the western Transvaal, earned him a Distinguished Conduct Medal, as well as the Honorary Freedom of Sunderland Borough.

“I think you could call him a loveable rogue, as they say nowadays,” said Bill Huggins, from Suffolk, Henry’s great-nephew. “He certainly must have been very brave.

“What really puzzles me, though, is how the son of a Norfolk farmer came to get the Freedom of Sunderland. It seems such a strange thing to happen – and is a real mystery to me.”

Henry, the son of tenant farmer Thomas Huggins and his wife Charlotte, was born in Shottisham, Norfolk, in 1856 and signed up for the Royal Artillery on May 18, 1875, aged 19.

His medical record described him as 5ft 6ins and 11st 8lbs, with a fair complexion, blue eyes and dark hair. His conduct, as reported by his original recruiter, was “very good”.

It was while serving on the home front as a gunner with the Royal Artillery that Henry married Julia in Cork in 1878. At least two of the couple’s children, Maud and Charlotte, were born in Ireland.

Henry’s record of good service was broken in April 1884, however, when he was reported for army desertion. Tried and convicted in early 1885, he was imprisoned from February 26 until April 22.

Despite this blot on his copybook, two promotions soon followed and, in May 1895, he was transferred to the Durham Artillery. Finally, after 21 years and 284 days’ service, he retired in 1897.

Army records list George Street, Sunderland, as Henry’s address on discharge. By the time of the 1901 census, Julia was living with Charlotte at 7 Brougham Street, Sunderland, while Henry was away at sea.

“It seems surprising that he chose to live in Sunderland, rather than go back to Norfolk, as I’m not aware of any personal connection he had to the town,” said Bill.

“But lots of people moved around in Victorian times, mainly because of the new railway lines, so perhaps the move was something to do with finding work. Maybe an Echo reader can help?”

Henry obviously answered Sunderland’s call for Boer War volunteers once he returned from the sea in 1901, joining the 15 Company (Northumberland) 5th battalion Imperial Yeomanry aged 45.

Operations in the Transvaal, Orange Free State and the Cape Colony followed, for which he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa campaign medal with four clasps as well as the DCM.

“My Aunt Renee gave me some of his medals when I was about seven and, like kids do, I managed to lose them. But I’d love to find out how he won his DCM,” recalls Bill, 82.

Wounded slightly in an enemy attack on September 5, 1901 – an incident which left 10 of his colleagues dead and a further 26 injured – Henry returned to a hero’s welcome in Sunderland.

Indeed, almost 100 of Wearside’s Boer War soldiers were awarded the honorary Freedom of Sunderland in 1902, including Henry, and a plaque marking their courageous actions was unveiled.

“The freedom is an expression of regard and admiration of their self-sacrifice,” reported the Echo.

Despite the warm welcome on Wearside, the 1911 census shows Henry, Julia and one of their daughters, Maud, had moved to London in the years after the Boer War.

Henry is listed as a caretaker and steward living in Whittington Road, Wood Green, now home to the Cavendish Club, in the census. His peaceful Army retirement, however, was not to last.

As the war clouds gathered over Europe, Henry signed up for the Army Reserve (Special Reservists) of the Royal Regiment of Artillery on October 5, 1914. He was 58.

Recorded as a joiner by profession, as well as a member of the Durham County National Reserve, he served for the next four years – only stepping down due to sickness on June 13, 1918.

Henry’s last posting took him to one of the Royal Field Artillery’s training schools and, when he finally hung up his Army boots, he had just turned 62.

“Although we don’t know what Henry’s initial connection to Sunderland was, there is actually a strange twist of fate to this story,” said retired civil servant Bill.

“My father married my mother, a Sunderland girl he met while she was on holiday at her aunt’s in Lowestoft, and she went back to her mother’s house in Marion Street to have me. Talk about a coincidence.”

* Can you help fill the gaps in Henry’s history? If you know why Henry originally moved to Sunderland, or how he won his DCM, contact Bill c/o Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER or by email at: sarah.stoner@northeast-press.co.uk