Brian Moseley, Plymouth
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JOSEPH MAY (1808-1904)

Joseph May was born at the Gun-wharf, Plymouth Dock on February 19th 1808.  His father, Mr Benjamin May, was an officer of the Ordnance Department.

Following his education at the Dock Classical and Mathematical Subscription School, he was articled in 1824 to Mr Tripe, surgeon, and in 1830 became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS).  Thirty years later the College honoured him by electing him as a Fellow.

Joseph May of Devonport

After completing his training in London, he went to Paris.  There he worked under the guidance of the eminent surgeon of the Hotel Dieu, Baron Dupuytren, to relieve the suffering of those wounded during the fighting that compelled the French King, Charles X, to flee. 

When he had finished in Paris he offered his services to the Polish army, who were at that time at war with the Russian army.  Upon arrival in Warsaw he was appointed as surgeon-major at the Ujaslowa Hospital and remained in Warsaw until the Polish army were defeated.  When he presented himself to the victorious Russian army for a passport home he had to explain that he had acted as a surgeon not as a combatant, after which he was invited to fill a corresponding post in the Russian army.   He declined this invitation and returned home, always, apparently, with a high regard for the Polish people.

In 1832 Mr May returned to Devonport, where he set up his own practice at number 5 Saint Aubyn Street as a general practitioner and surgeon at the Royal Albert Hospital and Eye Infirmary.  He was also appointed surgeon to the Devonport and Stonehouse Dispensary, which, through his actions, was later removed from Chapel Street and merged into the Royal Albert Hospital.

Around that time he married Miss Elizabeth Morphew, the daughter of Captain Morphew, master of one of the Falmouth Packets.  At the end of 1838 she presented him with a son, Joseph junior, who became a surgeon-lieutenant-colonel of the Volunteer Artillery and at the time of his father's death was Medical Officer of Health for Devonport.  The couple went on to have another son and four daughters, Elizabeth in 1843, Caroline in 1848 Mary Morphew May in 1855 and a fourth who died young.

He also entered public life, becoming a Justice of the Peace, Alderman and Mayor of Devonport on four occasions, 1870-71, 1871-72, 1872-73 and 1875-76.  He ardently opposed plans to amalgamate Devonport with Plymouth, arguing that his Town was soon to become the premier Naval port in the English Channel and thus 'had vitality enough to stand alone'.

Mr May was a member of the Devonport School Board for twenty years, being chairman for twelve of those years.  He was vice-chairman of the Devonport, Stoke and Stonehouse High School for Girls and fully supported the building of the Free Library, the Devonport Municipal Science, Art and Technical School and the Public Hall.  He was also a director of the Plymouth, Devonport & South-Western Junction Railway Company and the Stonehouse Pool Improvement Company.

By this time the family were living at 1 Nelson Villas, Stoke.  Elizabeth had died and he had re-married, to Miss Eliza Anderson, who was almost half his age, partially deaf and from Carlow, in Ireland.

Mr Joseph May died at home on Saturday April 9th 1904, at the age of 96 years.  The funeral took place on Thursday April 15th 1904 at the Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport Cemetery, Ford Park, Plymouth.  The glass car and carriages were supplied by Mr Sibley of the Devonport Livery Stables and the funeral was carried out under the direction of Mr Kneebone of Messrs Pinsent and Company, of Devonport.

For a man described as "The Father of Devonport Council", who spent most of his long life in his birthplace, the great and the good turned out in large numbers.  It included twelve boys from the Mount Edgcumbe Industrial Training Ship.  The Mayoral chain, worn by Alderman Edward Blackall (1850-1925), was entwined with black ribbon.  Family mourners were Doctor J May, son; Colonel Steele, RAMC, son-in-law; Mr Eustace May, grandson; and Mr J P Goldsmith, nephew.

It is noteworthy that Mr May had seen all four Napoleons.  At the age of seven years he had been taken into Plymouth Sound to see Napoleon I being held a prisoner on board HMS "Bellerophon".  When passing through Vienna in November 1831 he saw Napoleon II and his bride.  In 1871, when he was Mayor of Devonport, Mr May saw Napoleon III, then in exile in England with his young son, the Prince Imperial, at Mount Edgcumbe House.