In Search of Sir John Moore in La Coruña, Spain

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I had often wondered why my mum’s sister is called Moorie. Unusual Christian name for a woman I thought – or a man for that matter. Her actual full name is Joan Moore Pope and I discovered that numerous members of our family tree had the name Moore as one of their Christian names.

There was occasional talk in the family about a family hero from the distant past. On further investigation I discovered his name was Sir John Moore.

WHO IS SIR JOHN MOORE?

Sir John is indeed famous and is remembered by many from the poem The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna by Charles Wolfe. The poem starts with the line, “Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note…” It tells how Sir John was buried in a far off corner of Spain after being fatally wounded by a cannonball while leading the British army in battle against Napoleon’s invading forces in Spain.

John Moore was born in Stirling, Scotland in 1761, son of the Reverend Dr. John Moore and his wife Jean Simson. John grew into a good-looking and boisterous youth with brown hair and hazel eyes. He was given the wonderful opportunity to travel Europe as a young teen with his father who was a tutor for the sixteen-year-old Duke of Hamilton for his extended “Grand Tour” including Paris, Geneva, Berlin, Vienna and Rome.  Thanks to the Duke’s aristocratic connections, John mixed with rulers such as the Prussian emperor Frederick The Great and the Austrian emperor Joseph II. John went to school in Geneva and became fluent in French.

John Moore was an enthusiastic military student. On his return to Britain at aged 15 he enlisted in the British Army as an ensign. He quickly rose through the ranks while seeing action in Minorca, North America, Corsica, the Caribbean, and Ireland. His final service was leading 16,000 British troops into Spain in 1809. His task was to halt Napoleon’s invasion which the English were concerned would extend into Britain.

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Napoléon Bonaparte mentioned Sir John Moore in his memoirs: “It was only Moore’s action which stopped me taking Spain and Portugal, by lock-jawing all of my planned movements, and I admire him for it.

Moore introduced the Martello Towers to Britain after being impressed with their defensive effectiveness in Corsica. He was also a Member of Parliament for some time in between campaigns.

He never married although he had a relationship with Lady Hester Stanhope, niece of Prime Minister William Pitt. Every year since Sir John’s death, Lady Hester would journey to Biography of Sir John Moore by Roger DayLa Coruña to pay her respects to the love of her life. Legend has it that her ghostly silhouette can be seen wandering San Carlos Garden in La Coruña, Moore’s final resting place.

My research included reading the fascinating biography, “The Life of Sir John Moore” by Roger Day, as well as multiple articles available on the web.

HOW ARE WE RELATED TO SIR JOHN MOORE?

With the help of genealogical research started by my dad John Head and helped by John Attridge and Carolyn Coxhead, I started to piece together the connection. The lineage back to Sir John Moore is via Henry Douglas Morpeth who emigrated to New Zealand in 1859 from Scotland (via Prince Edward Island in Canada) who was descended from the Moore family.

Here is a report generated by Ancestry.com which traces the relationship between Auntie Moorie, (nee Joan Moore Pope) and Sir John Moore who is her 1st cousin 6x removed:Relationship Joan Moore (Moorie) Pope to Sir John Moore

PREPARATION FOR THE TRIP TO LA CORUÑA

We decided to visit La Coruña to find out more about this family hero and to pay our respects to him as a personal pilgrimage on behalf of all the family. In 2015 Graciela and I were to travel to Europe.  We were already planning to be in Spain in June for the 40th birthday celebrations of our niece Paula Albrecht who lives in Barcelona. We could easily include La Coruña in the itinerary.

We booked our flights with Vueling Air,  Barcelona to La Coruña (1hr 45 min) and then La Coruña to London (2 hr 5 min), together with three nights accommodation at Hotel Blue CoruñaSome confusion was caused by the various spellings of the name of this coastal city in the region of Galicia in northern Spain. La Coruña is the Spanish name, A Coruña is the Galician version, and the English know it as Corunna. I prefer the Spanish version.

The next step was to try to find a local guide who could help us with a “Sir John Moore Tour”. I emailed the Oficina de Información Turística Plaza María Pita infompita@coruna.es and they put me in touch with Mr Suso Martínez,  suso.martinez@guiasdegalicia.com. He responded promptly and confirmed details. He would pick us up from the hotel at 10 am with his car and the price would be 110 Euros for the private tour, all inclusive.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF LA CORUÑA

Graciela and I arrived in La Coruña on 8 June 2015. We spent the first day acclimatising and exploring this beautiful city.

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We were immediately attracted to this sea port of 245,000 inhabitants, similar in many respects to our home town of Wellington. The city is positioned on a small peninsula with the port on one side and the surf beach on the other. It even has pohutukawa trees growing along the coast. How did they get there from New Zealand?  Nobody seems to know.

We noticed a distinct lack of tourists, a welcome change from the hordes in Barcelona. Just lots of locals going about their business and living their lives. The architecture of many of the buildings in the centre is quite unique with overhanging glassed-in balconies, reminiscent of the old colonial buildings in Lima, Peru.

The picturesque old city centre with its narrow pedestrian-only roads is where you can find a large selection of small restaurants and bars where the locals go out to eat and socialise. Our first night we tried the local delicacy, Pulpo a la Gallega. A delicious plate of octopus with tasty paprika sauce washed down with the local white wine. Mmm. Not expensive either. The only word of caution – don’t expect menus in English or waiters who speak English.

MARIA PITA TOURIST INFORMATION OFFICE

We first walked around the port and busy yacht marina area and then visited the Tourist Information Centre in Plaza Maria Pita. This happened to be the same office I had initially emailed about the tour and I was chatting with the staff there when Graciela noticed on the rack, lots of information brochures on Sir John Moore – in English, French and Spanish!

 Sir John Moore Points of InterestThe brochures included a detailed description and map of all the sites of interest around the city relating to Sir John. Perhaps we didn’t need the guide after all? Obviously the history of Sir John Moore is a major historical event for this town.

Armed with the brochure and map we went on to check out a couple of the places which would not be included in our guided tour tomorrow.

Maria Pita, we learned, was like the Joan of Arc of La Coruña. She led the forces in battle against the invading English troops in 1589 after her husband was killed in action.

MUNICIPAL TOWN HALL IN PLAZA MARIA PITA

In the same plaza as the tourist office is the imposing Municipal Building.

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The entry to the town hall is free and after passing through the security check we were able to view the massive oil painting of the Battle of La Coruña by Jano Muñoz depicting the details of the battle in Field of Elviña between British led by Sir John Moore and French troops led by Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult in 1809.

SIR JOHN’S DEATH PLACE

We then walked along the Rua Canton Grande close to the waterfront to find the spot where Sir John Moore actually died in the home of a local trader after being wounded on the nearby battlefield. There is a bank there now, Banco Popular, and on the front of the building we found this plaque.

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The English translation of the inscription is: “In this house died the brave English General, Sir John Moore on 16 January 1809 as a consequence of wounds received that day in the Battle of Elviña fighting heroically in defence of the independence of Spain. First centenary 1909″.

I must admit to feeling some pride to be standing there below the plaque of my famous Uncle John!

GUIDED TOUR WITH SUSO MARTINEZ

At 10am the next day our guide Suso Martinez arrived promptly at our hotel and after introductions we jumped into the car and sped off to the first stop. We had a busy day ahead of us!

Suzo MartinezSuso is an interesting and enthusiastic guide. As well as being a professional tour guide he teaches history at the local university and also is an actor. He was pretty excited to meet us. In all the years studying and teaching about Sir John Moore he had never met any Moore family descendant before. He treated me with respectfully and was keen for Graciela to take photos of him and me on his camera at each site we visited.

GALIACHO ROCK

After a 15 min drive we arrived at Elviña on the outskirts of the city. This is the site of the last battle between the English and French forces where Sir John Moore was hit.

The first stop was at Galiacho Rock located at the foot of Zapateira Hill in Elviña where there are a number of plaques in a small garden on a small rise overlooking the field. The plaques commemorate the passing of General Sir John Moore’s troops and the battle that took place here. The Prince of Wales unveiled one of the plaques in 1931. The others were financed by several local historical societies and were unveiled by the British Ambassador in 1997.

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By the time he got to La Coruna, Moore had lost around 5,000 men. Worse, the British evacuation fleet hadn’t yet arrived. The delay gave the French time to catch up and take a ridge overlooking Moore’s positions.

From there, on January 16, the French attacked across what was open land. (Now it’s engulfed in greater La Coruña). Battle ebbed and flowed until Sir John took a cannonball to the left shoulder. He knew he was dying but spent several hours doing so, waiting on his deathbed for news of the outcome of the battle. Meanwhile, the British drove the French back in what has been accounted by some “a victory”. Certainly, it allowed most of the army to get away that night to British ships which had, by now, shown up.

When finally he received the news that the French had been beaten, Sir John said on his deathbed, “I hope the people of England will be satisfied“. His final words were to James Stanhope, brother of his lover Lady Hester, “Stanhope, remember me to your sister“.

MARSHAL SOULT MONOLITH

Suso then drove us down into the valley which now is the campus of the University of A Coruña to visit the Marshal Soult Monolith. This memorial stands on the site of the battle and marks the spot where Sir John was actually hit and where the French general ordered a memorial to be erected in honour of his enemy Sir John Moore.

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The Latin inscription on the plaque is that which was inscribed by Marshal Soult, “Hic cecidit johannes moore, dux exercitus in pugna januarii xvi, 1809 contra gallos a duce dalmatiae ductos”, The monolith was unveiled on 16th January 1998 by the French Ambassador to Spain.

Suso offered his opinion to us that this was the last of the romantic wars where soldiers battled on open fields, civilians were not harmed, and there was a mutual respect between the warring factions.

THE CHURCH OF SAN VICENTE DE ELVIÑA

The ancient Church of San Vicente is probably the only building still standing which witnessed the front line fighting at the battle of Elviña.

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The plaque next to the stone cross was unveiled on 15th January 1999 by the British Ambassador to Spain, during the 190th Anniversary celebrations. The plaques honour the memory of all those French, British and Spanish soldiers that fell. There is also a plaque in memory of the French general Joseph Yves Manigualt, who was also killed during the battle.

SIR JOHN MOORE PROMENADE

Sir John Moore Promenade

This promenade winds round the gardens of San Carlos, from which it is separated by the sturdy walls of the old bastion. 

It is also just along the road from where the second richest man in the world lives. Amancio Ortega is the founder and owner of the Zara clothing stores. And then as we were motoring by, a garage door opens there was Sr. Ortega driving out of his driveway! Sr. Ortega has lived in La Coruña most of his life and keeps a very low profile. Apparently he goes to the same coffee shop every day and eats lunch with his employees in the company’s cafeteria.

THE MILITARY HISTORY MUSEUM

The next stop was the regional Military History Museum next to the beautiful Church of la Venerable Orden Tercera de San Francisco.

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We spent a while here studying the exhibits including weapons and other objects from the 1809 Battle of Elviña. A large scale model of the battle shows the moment that Sir John fell off his horse after being hit by the cannonball.

SAN CARLOS GARDENS

The grand finale of our tour was the San Carlos Gardens in which stands the mausoleum that has guarded the remains of Sir John Moore for almost two centuries. In 1834, the military governor of A Coruña, Francisco Mazarredo, decided to honour the memory of the British general who died while attempting to save their city. He ordered a garden to be built with the tomb in the centre.

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Beyond the flower beds a bust of Sir John looks over the gardens and mausoleum. Suso insisted on me standing next to the bust and remarking on the striking resemblance between Sir John and myself. “Extraordinario!”

And then we discovered a small oak tree which according to the plaque, is a cutting of an oak planted by Sir John Moore in Cobham, England in 1807. Suso did mention though, that the original one had died so they had planted a new one.

PRESS INTERVIEWS

Our guide Suso, took the initiative to invite the local media to visit us at San Carlos Gardens. I was photographed and interviewed live on the local radio station (in Spanish of course) and the press. The next morning we were greeted with this image on the front page of the local newspaper, La Voz de La Coruña. Famous for one day!

La Voz de La Coruña

EPILOGUE

It’s been a wonderful experience following in the footsteps of our heroic ancestor Sir John Moore. Hopefully the family and my Auntie Moorie in particular, will find this report interesting.

I would highly recommend the pilgrimage to any other family member and would be happy to help out with further information.

Hasta Luego!

Geoff Head  <gchead@gmail.com>
Wellington, New Zealand
August 2015

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Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, KB.psd

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