18th Century Living History

“Ye lowsy red-coat rake hells, ye locusts of the nation, you are dogs that would enslave us, plunder our shops and ravish our daughters, ye scoundrels” – 18th Century Billeting

In 18th century, 68th Foot, DLI, Durham Light Infantry, Research, Seven Years War on June 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm

The statement above was probably a common one when considering the nature of the billeting systems of the British Army through to the 1850’s and Cardwell’s Reforms. Although the Mutiny act of 1689 had technically banned the practice of billeting soldiers on only private civilians without prior permission, with number of purpose built barracks largely none existent in England, with forts and other military installation generally only built in Scotland or Ireland. British Soldiers being stationed in the homes and public houses of parts of population remained common practice (Horn;1776). This is especially true of emergencies for instance the town people of Manchester in 1746 during the Jacobite uprising complained and filed a petition against the “One regiment of foot and one regiment a dragoons numbering 900 men, 250 women and children” (Horn;1776, McNeil:1990).

A very friendly British Grenadier – From Moriers paintings of a Grenadier from each regiment, currently held by the Royal Collection.

 The reasons behind the practice of billeting on the local populace were three fold; firstly the bureaucracy of the modern nation state army was in its infancy and had not yet developed the resources to cope with a barracks building programme of any scale. Similarly at least in England the idea of the monarchs standing army was seen as signs of tyrannical and autocratic rule dating back to Cromwell and James II, barrack’s were the embodiment of this threat upon English men’s hard won civil liberties. (Western: 1965, Manning: 2006). Finally the army itself main role was to maintain and restore public order, suppress riots and crush civilian insurrection. In having the army dispersed around the country the government had potentially a company of men at hand not only as a deterrent but also a reactionary force in every local area (Thompson: 1968, Brewer: 1989).

 

Hogarth ‘March of the Guard to Finchley’

Hogarth’s infamous painting of the British Foot Guard’s march to suppress the Jacobite rebellion perhaps sums up the unwelcome affects of soldiers coming into contact with the civilian populace. These men trained for violence, seemed to be prone to fall into general unruliness.  Similarly those who followed a company or regiment of foot could reap as much havoc on a local population as the soldiers themselves, for example General Wolfe while a colonel complained that he had received “complaints from the people in the neighbourhood of this castle against some women of loose disorderly conduct, supposed to belong to the: garrison; which however is not true.- The colonel, is likewise informed that the soldiers have in an open, indecent, and scandalous manner frequented these same women” (1753).

Similarly the army gave little consideration to the economic affect of housing and feeding its men would have on the local populace. As one colonel stated “we have ruined half the public house upon the march, because they have quartered us in the villages too poor to feed us without destruction to themselves”. Inn-keepers being bound to provide food and lodgings to the cost of 4d per private soldier and 1 shilling per officer below rank of captain, it is clear the sheer magnitude of cost a battalion of foot numbering several hundred could reap on the local civilian population (Brewer: 1989).

Private Walsh tries his luck the with the local population.

It can be assumed that generally civilians disliked soldiers, to the reluctant householder who had to billet their unwelcome military guests, the regulars must have seemed little more than armed policemen living at next to nothing at the expense of honest townsfolk, anti-social and dangerous parasites (Childs: 1982).

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  1. Enjoyed the post! We need to get you lads over on this side of the pond for an event in South Carolina. Question-your buff leather looks great, where do you get it-or-is it painted?
    Cheers, Private Fielding, His Majesty’s Independent Company of South Carolina, Fort Dorchester.

  2. Today I was working through some 18th century parish accounts for Stony Stratford and in one of the books (1770) is a careful tabulation of dates, men and horses under the inns which had been used. Occasionally some officers are recorded and since these are not the total number of people staying at these inns, I believe the purpose was to record the military use of the inns. Your post seems to confirm my hunch. I have a question, if you are able to answer it. Why would such a record be kept? I can understand each inn keeping a tally, but it is less clear why the overseers of the parish would keep such a record unless there was a centralised system of payment – i.e. the government making a single payment to the town, who would then disburse the funds amongst the innkeepers. Any thoughts?

    • Your hunch does sound correct, I’d guess it was to allow claiming of the set amount of money.

      I had always assumed that it would be dealt with locally by an officer, who would then claim as with clothing.

      I think maybe the War Office and Treasury records would confirm one way or another of payments made centrally.

      • Thank you for replying to my comment. Not all of the inns in Stony Stratford at the time were included in this tally and I have not as yet found any disbursements, even supposing that money was paid to the overseers. It is not at all clear cut and will obviously take further research to get to the bottom of it.

  3. What are the sources you used for this article?

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