Sir James Gildea.

Local history: Kilmaine native was highly decorated British military officer

By Tom Gillespie

COLONEL Sir James Gildea, a highly decorated military officer, philanthropist and humanitarian, was born in Kilmaine, Co. Mayo, in 1885.

During the Franco-Prussian War (1870 to 1871) he worked for the National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War.

A few years later he was instrumental in raising a fund of £12,000 for the relief of dependants of those killed in the Zulu War of 1879. Some 1,722 British soldiers died, with 256 wounded, and during the second Afghan war of 1890, where 1,630 British soldiers were killed or wounded, he raised a similar fund.

James founded the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association in 1885 and served as its chairman and treasurer until his death in 1920. In 1886 Queen Victoria became patron, and in 1888 her daughter Victoria, the Kaiserin, became a vice-president.

James Gildea was son of James, High Sheriff of Co. Mayo, and grandson of Rev. George, Provost of Tuam.

The Gildea Estate is listed in Landed Estates. He received his education at St. Columba’s College, Dublin, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Great Britain.

He was an extremely successful philanthropist. From 1885 to his demise he served as chairman and treasurer of his first foundation. He acted as organising secretary of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Institute for Nurses from 1890 to 1895. He was founder and one time treasurer of St. John’s Ambulance Association.

He received a knighthood during 1902 in the British Commonwealth.

As the Second Expeditionary Force set sail for Egypt, Major Gildea wrote a forceful letter to The Times appealing for funds and volunteers to look after the service families left behind.

Within three months, the charity was born and the then Princess of Wales (the future Queen Alexandra) was appointed president.

By the end of the first year, 23 women and 466 children had received grants totalling £515-10.

The letter to The Times read:


Ample provision having been made under recent regulations for the relief of the widows and orphans of our soldiers and sailors who may be killed or die of disease or of wounds in war, a further responsibility and duty now devolves on the country in seeing that the wives and children of those ordered on active service are not altogether forgotten, or that the cry of poverty and want be not added to that of suspense and anxiety.

The Government ‘Separation’ allowance, together with that stopped from the pay of the soldier himself, is for his wife 1 s. and for each child 3 d. per day; whereas no provision whatever is made for the many respectable women, married with or without leave, who are not on the strength of the regiment.

For both I would venture to make an earnest appeal, but especially for the latter, wholly unprovided for, and who in a somewhat extended experience in the distribution of former funds, I have invariably found a most deserving class.

I shall be glad to receive subscriptions and to hear from any who would be glad to help in this movement. All amounts received will be acknowledged in the daily press.

I have the honour, to be, Sir, your obedient servant,


Major, late ‘Treasurer and Hon.

Sec. Zulu, Afghan, Bombay, and Indian Patriotic.

In 1955, the chairman of the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association, as it was then known, wrote to The Times and the following is an extract:

‘I write now on the 70th anniversary of the publication of Major Gildea’s letter in your columns to report that the seed he then sowed has grown into the great association … with its 1,500 branches located throughout the United Kingdom and overseas, and its experienced army of 15,000 voluntary workers.’

From 1890 to 1895 James was organising secretary of Queen Victoria's Jubilee Institute for Nurses. In 1899 he founded the Royal Homes for Officers' Widows and Daughters at Wimbledon. At one time he was treasurer of the St. John Ambulance Association and was also the author of a number of historic documents of philanthropic work.

From 1890 to 1898 he was Colonel commanding the 6th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment and in 1909 was appointed honorary Colonel of the 4th (Special Reserve) Battalion.

In October 1890 Kensington Society published in its series ‘Kensingtonians: men of note’ a eulogistic article on Gildea. It recounted his life and charitable achievements and stated that: ‘his sole relaxation consisting in seeking new channels for his philanthropy … He is never idle, yet so methodical is he that no matter what may be the pressure of work, he never appears to be in a hurry … he is singularly modest and unassuming … and few beyond his immediate friends and relations have any idea of the enormous amount of work he succeeds in disposing of’.

He was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath (C.B.) in the 1898 New Year Honours and Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (C.V.O.) soon afterwards. Knighted in 1902, he was later appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (K.C.V.O.), and in the 1920 civilian war honours became Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E).

James married Rachel Caroline Barclay (1844-1888) at Westcott near Dorking, Surrey, in 1864 and in a formal announcement he was described as ‘Rector of Kilmaine’. James and Rachel had five children, two of whom died shortly after birth: Kathleen Octavia Gildea (1866-1951), James Barclay Gildea (1868-1868), George Arthur Gildea (1870-1947), Edward Gildea (1879-1879), Christian Helena Gildea (1885-1965). Rachel died in 1888 when Christian Helena was just three.

James died on November 6, 1920, aged 82, at his Hogarth Road home. His funeral took place at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey, and a memorial service was also held in Kensington.

His property was divided equally between his three surviving children, except for some bonds which he left solely to his daughter Christian Helena ‘in consideration of her devotion and attention to me for many years’.