Joseph Huey’s gravestone indicates that he died on the 28th April 1838 and that he was the Assistant Surgeon for the 14th Kings Light Dragoons. This short inscription leaves much unanswered. Why was he buried in St. Mark’s graveyard? What happened to him, and what brought him here to Edinburgh? In finding the answers to these questions, we perhaps learn less about the person Joseph Huey and more about army life in the early 19th century, and how this related to the broader social situation at the time of his death in a period marked by turbulent politics, dissent and civil unrest.
It has proved difficult to find any official record of his birth or his death. The only record showing in searches is from the Perthshire Courier which includes an obituary notice for Joseph Huey in its 17th May 1838 edition, including the information that he died at Piershill Barracks. Indeed searching for any personal information about him has proved frustrating, apart from his military record and it is in these details that we can trace some of his life. The other source that shed some light on what happened to him is a book by Henry Blackburn Hamilton called the “Historical record of the 14th (King’s) Hussars from A. D. 1715 to A. D. 1900.” Published in 1901, this hefty volume charts the story of the 14th Hussars up to the start of the 20th Century. Whilst it is true to say that it reflects the era it was written in, it also provides a level of informative detail laid out in chronological detail, year by year. It is from this attention to detail that we learn Joseph Huey died of laryngitis in Edinburgh in 1838. This may have been the cause of his death but he may have been suffering from throat cancer or a similar condition that would still have been perceived to be laryngitis. The book also provides officer lists, with details of changes for each year. From this we can see that Joseph Huey is first recorded as Assistant Surgeon in 1829, and appears annually from that date. In 1838, the year of his death, this record changes to Joseph Huey MD, indicating that he has now qualified as a doctor. This is confirmed by an article in the Belfast Commercial Chronicle dated 8th May 1837 which gives a list of all the “gentlemen of Ireland who obtained degrees during the session” at the University of Glasgow. The list for medicine includes a Joseph Huey. From the Historical Record we know that the 14th Light Dragoons were stationed at Glasgow during 1836-1837 so it seems likely that this is the same Joseph Huey. However, sadly he never got the chance to move further up the ranks to surgeon.
The war office produced regular reports detailing transfers, promotions etc. of officer posts and these then appeared in a variety of newspapers, often the London Gazette; it is from this practice that Joseph Huey’s career prior to joining the Kings Hussars can be traced. He is listed in the London Gazette in May 1815 as joining the 58th Foot Infantry as a Hospital Assistant. In February 1822, the same paper lists him as being promoted to Assistant Surgeon with the 58th. The reference to him being an Irish gentleman attending Glasgow University is supported by an entry in the Londonderry Sentinel in 1835 which reports that a Miss Huey married the Rev J Armstrong. It notes her father is Mr R Huey and her uncle is Surgeon Huey of the 14th Light Dragoons. I have not been able to find any other family records for him, but Huey seems to be a common surname in County Tyrone so perhaps this was where he spent his early years.
The 58th Foot Infantry had just returned from the Napoleonic Wars when Joseph joined them. They were stationed in Ireland in 1815 which could explain the connection and why he signed up with this regiment in particular. He then moved to the 14th Kings Light Dragoons or the Hussars as they were also known in 1829, perhaps for an increase in salary or because of their reputation. Henry Blackburn calls them “one of the most illustrious regiments in the British cavalry”, saying they were noted for their “esprit de corps” and for their record during the Napoleonic Wars. Joseph joined them whilst they were stationed in Britain, and during his time with them, they did not leave the country.
This was a time of political turbulence. Electoral reform was being fiercely campaigned for, and there was agitation and the threat of riots in industrial areas. The 14th and other regiments were used to quell civil unrest and keep order. In 1831 with Parliament dragging its heels over reform, riots broke out in several areas. The 14th Light Dragoons were sent to Bristol to prevent disorder. However, despite being there in force, they lost control of the crowds before instigating a charge against the rioters with drawn swords. The jail and Bishops Palace were set on fire and in total about 70 people died. The commander at the time, Colonel Brereton, was court-martialled and shot himself.
The 1832 Great Reform Act was parliament’s response but for many this did not address electoral inequality and coupled with repressive legislation and an upsurge in poverty, unrest at elections continued. Army regiments therefore remained in their civil role, suppressing riots. Between 1833 and 1836, the 14th were in Ireland for this purpose. In 1836 they were sent to Scotland, to Glasgow. Then in 1837 they marched to Piershill Barracks and were deployed to keep order at Musselburgh during the general election. Their focus then moved to Dalkeith during the election of peers for Scotland.
In the early 19th century there was no uniform standard of medical education. The majority of regimental surgeons held the license of Apothecaries. There is a reference to a J Huey in 1813 qualifying in this field in the Return of Persons examined and certified as Qualified by Apothecaries’ Hall in Dublin, and Number of Prosecutions, 1791-1829. He is described as being from Erganagh, Tyrone which would tie in with the other family record which lists his brother R Huey as being from Erganagh.
Medicine at the start of the 19th century was still limited in understanding and effectiveness. It was also divided into distinct areas of medical practice: physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. It is likely that Joseph was first apprenticed to an apothecary, before going on to qualify as this was the usual route to qualification. Apprenticeships usually lasted 5 years and were not cheap, indicating that Joseph’s father would have had enough means to support his son. To go on to join the Army also required further examinations. However, it is also the case that with the urgent need to recruit more medical staff due to the high casualty rates of the Peninsula Wars, these requirements were reduced, particularly for the rank that Joseph joined at. An army medical career was not an easy or a safe life, particularly on the battle front. Medical officers were often looked down on as civilians, and the pay was low compared to other ranks. They were also exposed to the same risks as the regular army facing not only the dangers of war, but the risk of disease. There were far more casualties from typhus, dysentery and malaria than battle wounds.
At the end of all his travels, Joseph Huey lies in St. Mark’s graveyard. Perhaps the regiment chose this church because it was the “English” church. We have no indication of Joseph’s denomination or faith to know if this would have been his choice. His presence here at St. Mark’s links us to a time of intense uncertainty, a campaign for reform that would change how democracy was defined, a period of passion and struggle seen across the country.