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"Lights Out!"
British Army Beds and Bedding
during the War of 1812
by Robert Henderson

        At the opening of the War of 1812 the majority of British regulars in Canada were being housed in barracks regulated by the Barracks Department. After war was declared, this situation changed considerably. With the influx of reinforcements and the mobilization of militia units, existing barracks accommodation quickly became inadaquate. Rented accommodation, barns, makeshift huts, and old tents filled the immediate need for a place for a soldier to rest his head. This paper will discuss the beds and bedding the soldier would have been provided while in barracks.

Barracks Beds

     The most common type of military bed used during the War of 1812 in Canada was the berth. Depending on the size of the room, this bed was constructed with one or two tiers. For example at William Henry (Sorel), Lower Canada, the upper floor of one barracks, because of its slanting ceilings and peaked roof, had both one and two tiered berths with the two tiered ones in the centre or high point of the cieling and the one story berths along the sides of the room.

       Two soldiers slept on each tier making these berths necessarily large. Each had to be assembled inside the barracks room, and since they could not be removed through the door without disassembling them, the berths were considered by the Barracks Department as architectural fittings, rather than furniture. Berth sharing was not for everyone however: sergeants, because their position of authority, were allotted a berth to themselves. As for drummers, some regiments were in the habit of pairing them with older soldiers as berthmates. With regard to married men, the Barracks Department in British North America permitted a tier for each couple at a portion of one for every ten men.

         Each berth was to have removable bottom boards laid width-wise. The boards from the centre of the berth down to the feet were removed each morning by the soldiers. When this practice was instituted in 1800 some garrisons were unable to comply. In Kingston the commanding officer reported: "I am sorry to say I cannot strictly comply with His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent's orders... the bottom of the men's births are laid length ways of the births and the board thirteen feet long which renders it impossible to have them turned up from the centre to the feet". At the garrison of York there was a different problem with the boards: "As to the Boards of the Births, they are all present, but in such a bad state from long use, that the men sleeping in the Top Berths often fall thro' on those sleeping in the lower ones." Berths were in poor condition in many garrisons, showing rot, missing parts and infested with insects. At the garrison of Niagara in 1793, the Barracks Master reported:

"The Berths in the soldiers Barracks are very bad. They harbour vermin to that degree that the men cannot rest in them and are obliged to shift to the Lofts and floors which must be very injurious to the Barrack bedding- till these berths are taken down and cleaned, and the Barracks at this post whitewashed the Troops cannot be comfortable."

       The 41st Regiment experienced similar problems at Montreal in 1800 when it was "necessary to order forty-five double Berths, which were perfectly rotten, to be taken down and burnt, to prevent as much as possible all danger of infection, and have given directions, that all proper means of purifying the Barrack rooms should be made use of". By the War of 1812, these problems had been minimized with the regular whitewashing of barracks rooms and the regulations in place for a regular cleaning of the births.

       It is difficult to determine the exact construction details of each berth. What is known is that the materials used consisted of 4 inch square pine scantling for the posts, 1 1/2 inch pine boards for the rest and hammered together with 20d nails. In other lists of construction materials, note 1 1/4 inch pine boards being utilized for the removable bed boards.   There is evidence indicating steps attached to the double berths.

Bedding

       Bedding is a general term referring to five separate items: a bolster, a pailliasse, sheets, blankets, and a rug. Caring for these items was a daily activity of the soldier and had a considerable impact on his comfort. After rising in the morning, the men were expected to shake and fold up their bedding. Daily after morning parade or breakfast , weather permitting, the bedding was ordered to be taken out and aired in the barracks yard. At this point the paillasses were expected to be beaten with a stick. After dinner the bedding was brought back in and arranged as it had been in the morning. Explicit orders were given for the bedding "never to be used for sitting upon, nor the sheets for wiping hands, nor the blankets for ironing linen" and that no wearing apparel was to be kept under the bedding.

For the washing and repair of the bedding in North American garrisons was done at public expense since 1794 with each garrison's barracks master contracted out to locals at prices established by 1797 Barracks Regulations. However in March 1814 at Fort York, Upper Canada, the Barracks Master was unable to get anyone to do the work at the Department's set prices. Citing the "excessive dearness of soaps and labour", the garrison's commander instead authorized a higher set of prices. At the end of 1814, the 1797 regulations were updated for British North America as a whole. Besides an reaffirming the 1797 prices allowed for laundry, the cost for washing the sheets was passed on to the soldiers. This brought North American regulations more in line with practices in England. The 1814 regulations also established that any repair to the bedding was not to exceed the cost of washing.

          The laundry expenses at the Royal Military Asylum in England for washing the residents' bedding and clothes for 1812 offers some insight into what was needed to wash each garrison's bedding:

72 cwt. of Yellow Soap at 3 16s per cwt. 11 cwt. of Pearlash at 17 per cwt. 40 firkins of Soft Soap at 1 15s 6d oer firkin 39 lbs. of Blue at 1s 8d per lbs. 100 lbs. of Starch at 1s per lbs. 1,843 days of labour of Washerwomen at 3s per diem Blanketing for ironing, Brown Holland for the Mangle, stout baskets, irons and stands, buckets, clothes pins, and lines

As for how often the bedding was washed, regulations ordered: sheets to be washed once a month, paillasses and bolsters one every three months, and blankets and rugs once a year.

One bolster per berth was supplied by the Barracks Department for two soldiers to use as a pillow. Each of these bolsters was made of ticking osnaburg, and measured 1 feet by 4 feet (46 cm x 137 cm). To establish them as government property, each was stamped with a 'G.R' in each corner. Once issued, each bolster was filled with straw and closed with ties. When the soldier made up his bedding in the morning, the bolster was "laid at the bottom of the palliasse which is to be doubled once from the length."

Every pair of soldiers was supplied with a palliasse or bed case by the Barracks Master to sleep upon. Each palliasse measured 6 ft by 7 ft (183 cm x 229 cm) and was made out of two pieces of ticking osnaburg. To show government ownership, the palliasse were "stamped each with durable marking stuff (G.R) in each corner." Thirty-six pounds (16.33 kg) of straw were supplied for filling each palliasse and replenished every three months. Typically palliasses were filled through length-way slits in the centre top side, were either tied or buttoned closed after the palliasse was full. When not in use as mattresses "the palliasse which is to be doubled once from the length" with the bolster inside.

Each berth was supplied with a pair of sheets for its two occupants. Each sheet measured six feet wide and seven and a half feet long (183 cm X 228 cm), and was made out of brown "Russia" or hemp linen. The long sides of each sheet likely had selvedge edges while the wideth was hemmed with whitish brown thread noted in Barracks Department stores. Earlier shipping records show yard wide pieces of Russia sheeting being shipped instead of completed sheets. This suggests that some of the sheets would have possessed a centre seam. The quality of linen was apparently quite coarsely woven. James Fitzgibbon of the 49th Regiment recounts being given an uncomfortable shirt by the French when he was a prisoner which he described as being "coarse as a barracks sheet". When not in use, the sheets were "to be doubled over from the length, and then turned together in three folds" then laid on the folded palliasse underneath the blankets.

Included with the bedding for each berth were two blankets. Each wool blanket measured six feet in width and seven and a half feet in length (183 cm X 228 cm). When not in use, they were folded in the same fashion as the sheet and placed on the palliasse, between the sheets and rug.

There are several known examples of British military blankets, all in American repositories. The provenance of these blankets is sketchy. From their G.R. markings, they can at least be attributed to the period between 1760 and 1830. While they are generally associated with the American Revolution, the markings and size of at least two of the blankets closely matches those being supplied to the Barracks Department at the time of the War of 1812. Considering that thousands of government blankets were captured by American privateers and sold off in auctions during the war, it is quite possible this was the origin of at least two of these originals. Almost all the blankets supplied to the military were made in Whitney, England, marked with a 'G.R.' by the Barracks Department ,and shipped to Canada.

       In November 1812, soldiers ordered into the field were permitted to bring with them one barracks blanket each. This practice of issuing blankets from barracks stores to soldiers leaving a garrison quickly created a general shortage of barracks blankets in the Canadas:

...The practice at present adopted of causing issues of blankets to be made by the Barracks Masters to troops, ordered from one place to another will be attended with very unpleasant and serious consequences to the Department, who from their ignorance of the destinations of the Troops, so served with bedding, are totally unable to account for it.

The Barracks Department suggested that the Quarter Master General's Department, who had proper field blankets in store, take over the responsibility of issuing blankets for field service. To ensure supply and demand for barracks blankets, it was requested in late 1813 that field blankets be managed by the Barracks Department and all available blankets be procured from the merchants of Quebec City. Therefore, due to different sources of fabrication, the pre-war uniformity in barracks bedding, had altered considerably by the end of 1813.

A green knotted bed rug was issued to every pair of soldiers by the Barracks master as part of their required bedding. These rugs were most likely the same dimensions of the blankets at six feet in width and seven and a half feet long (183 cm x 228 cm), and weighed approximately three and a half pounds. One rug cost the government six shillings to produce. Rugs for the Ordnance Department were noted as 3/4 bound at the ends with diaper binding. Once again, to identify government ownership, each rug was stamped with a 'G.R.' out of durable marking stuff in each corner. When not in use, the rug was "once doubled from the length, and then twined [turned] together in three folds" and placed on top of the blankets.

Copyright: Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) 1998


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