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A Soldier's Family in the British Army
 during the War of 1812

by Robert Henderson

     Piecing together the experiences of the common soldier's family is a very difficult task.   Unfortunately there appears to be no written letters or journals from wives of privates or non-commissioned officers from the War of 1812.   Therefore evidence has to be gathered from  (1) any entity that may have regulated their activities or provided services to them in some manner or another;  (2) husband, father or other witness accounts on the family experience in the army; (3) surviving pictorial representations and associated archaeological specimens; and (4) primary source material related to the social tier which the soldier's family occupied.  Obviously unlocking the secrets of the soldier's family could be a lifetime pursuit.  The goal in this article is to offer some insight and possible approaches one could take in studying the subject.  In particular, there will be some decision on the number of families in a given regiment and how this number was affected by various regulations and their application.


     Who married a soldier and why?    Simple questions not easily answered but at least almost everyone has some idea of the possible responses.  Love, economics, and social pressure are but a few of the ideas that come to mind when one thinks of marriage both in 1812 and today.   There are stories of love and tragedy in the numerous soldier accounts of the early 19th century. As well when you look at the various church records further stories hide in between the entries.  For example is the marriage of Alexander Forbes to Ann Bennett.  The 31 year-old Ann Bennett until July 1811 was the wife of Private William Rhodes of the 41st Regiment.  On the 23rd of that month William died.  Alexander was a 29 year-old widower living in Quebec City and was a free mason.  On new year's day 1812 Alexander and Ann got married.  Was William a friend of Alexander?  Where they fellow masons?  With snow on the ground in Quebec City since the beginning of November, was Ann's marriage to Alexander an act of survival?   Similarly, in another example, why did Catherine Murphy, widow of a private in the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, marry a private in the Canadian Fencibles in December 1812?  Was she considered undesirable by her former husband's regimental comrades?   Unfortunately these are questions that will likely never be answered and they can only be left to one's imagination. 

       This said there is surviving information on some of the reasons why a soldier married. Writing in 1812, one officer noted a certain practice where "women in the lower orders of society are apt to swear children to soldiers often when they are not the fathers, and the soldier is imprisoned to satisfy the parish."   Jailing of the soldier by the parish was so the parish could garnish the soldier's pay to cover any expenses the parish 'might' incur for taking care of the woman and child.    Being in a parish jail was not a pleasant one:

A recent instance occurred, where a soldier was taken up by the civil power on a charge of bastardy.  He could not procure bail, twenty pounds being demanded: he was committed to the county prison, where he was two days confined in a cell, so cold and damp, that the poor man lost his hearing.  His friends were refused admittance to him; nor would the jailor allow victuals to be sent him by them.  The effect of this conduct is, that the man will never recover his former health, and of course his discharge from the service must be granted.

     In this situation the wrongfully accused soldier was left with three options: prison, marriage, or desertion.   The marrying of an "abandoned" woman by a soldier appears to have been widespread.  For example the 7th Regiment in 1812 specifically ordered: "no irregular woman will be allowed to remain with the regiment, much less a drunkard or an abandon, any woman of the last description will be sent from quarters with disgrace, having just sufficient to take her home."  Did this occur in North America?  There are a number of entries in church records were soldiers marry then a few months later a child born, but there is no evidence pointing to any such practice being common.

      Of course there are two faces to every coin.  Soldiers abandoning their family responsibilities were also common occurrences.   Indeed some soldiers took on numerous wives throughout his service as they moved from station to station: "Many marry wherever they may go, and there are instances, by no means uncommon, of soldiers having three and four wives, with children by each, which become burthensome to the parish, and expensive to the state."   Some soldiers simply chose to support a woman without marrying her.  In his work London Labour and London Poor (1851) Henry Mayhew of Punch Magazine fame reproduced an interview he had with a woman who followed a regiment for years cycling from one relationship to another but never marrying.    While published in 1851, her story is only first person account of its type for the early 19th century and offers important insight into this side of the service.

    Certainly unmarried women made it into the soldier's barracks bed during Napoleonic times.  Indeed one regiment tried to curve the flow by ordering sentries to stop any woman from entering the barracks rooms after 7 pm unless allowed by an NCO.  How well this was enforced is unknown.  In some instances, it is likely prostitutes would marry a soldier and be 'pimped' to his roommates.   Indeed this may have been the case when the 96th Regiment ordered: "The Wife of Thomas Holduson of Captain Sharps Company is to be immediately turned out of Barracks and never permitted to join the Regiment again;  Any man seen in her Company will be punished for disobedience of Orders".

      In 1812 many officers considered the "women who cohabit with the soldiery" as "loose and disorderly."  However later in the 19th century the character of women marrying soldiers was attributed to army conditions.  Writing about army intemperance in Canada in the 1850s, Dr. James Miranda Barry, with a pinch of Victorian morality, suggested:

...a woman humbly born but modestly and religiously educated is suddenly placed in a Barrack room with ten or twenty men, perhaps some married.   She becomes frightened and disgusted, next becomes habituated and in despair has recourse to drunkenness and not infrequently her husband, a good man, joins with his wife and becomes the occupant of a cell in a military prison.

Countering this opinion was society's general low opinion of women who associated with soldiers, or as the woman Henry Mayhew interviewed noted: "things fell out as they always do with girls who go about with men, more especially soldiers."

The Numbers Game

      In the British Army every regiment and army department established limitations to the number of soldier's families they were willing to support.  However there was no statute, policy, or even a clause in the mutiny act that governed the soldier's right to marry.    Soldiers were required to gain the permission of their commanding officer before marrying.  For example the 62nd in 1813 ordered:

marriage must be discouraged as much as possible, and before any application is made to the Commanding Officer for his consent, every reference must be made by the Officer commanding the company to which the man belongs, as to the character of the female, with respect to her honesty, good conduct, and ability to support herself.

 In short find out if the woman could be a burden on the regiment.  The 71st Regiment in 1809 thought it necessary to explain why soldiers needed the commanding officer’s leave: “this positive order should not be considered in the light of a grievance; it is only intended to prevent improvident matches, and to give those time who are impartial (yet interested) to inquire into the expediency of them.”  It is important to note that nowhere is there a mention of the limitation on numbers of married soldiers in a regiment.  So what would happen if a soldier did not get permission?   The consequences were that the soldier's wife and children could be barred from rations, barracks accommodations, regimental washing, transportation, and so on.   The 33rd Regiment in 1813, for example, stated: "should a soldier marry without the consent of the Commanding Officer, his wife will not be allowed to come into the Barracks of the Regiment."   

     It appears the 8th Regiment had a similar rule because, while stationed in Quebec in 1811 Private John Wilson was sentenced to 100 lashes for bringing his wife into the barracks room contrary to orders. However only 50 lashes were inflicted.   Other regiments like the 29th Regiment of Foot in 1812 expanded these consequences to "not being considered as a woman of the regiment, or receiving the smallest indulgence as such." How common was it to marry without permission?   That is a hard question to answer but it appears to have been common enough to issue orders again and again about it. The 12th Regiment had to remind its officers “ by no means are [the soldiers] to apply for liberty to sleep out of barracks for men who are married without leave…”  The conclusion is if a soldier was determined he could marry whomever he chose.   The Regiment could only place restrictions on  the nature of the soldier’s married life.

      It was a real challenge for military officials to limit the number of dependants attached to the army.   First place to try to establish limits was the recruiting service.  Recruiting parties were instructed, whenever possible, not to recruit married men.  However since the recruiting party received payment for finding recruits it is likely this instruction was ignored.  Indeed during the Highland clearances some regiments recruiting for service in North America presented joining their regiment as a way to secure free passage to Canada for the recruit and his family.  The next line of defence for stopping the escalating numbers of families was the regiment itself.   However all were leery of attempting regulate this number.  Of all the regimental standing orders reviewed only one makes a half-hearted stab at it.   The Standing Orders of the 26th Regiment in 1820 noted: "A convenient number of the soldier's wives will be permitted to remain with the Regiment, as long as they conduct themselves well" and reminded the men "that his duties and mode of life are not well calculated for the enjoyment of the comforts of the married state."    Trying to stop the frequency of marriage, the 17th Light Dragoons in 1804, with a tone of exasperation, ordered: "Officers must explain to the men, the many miseries Women are exposed to even in England, when there are so many of them, and particularly on Service; and by every sort of persuasion they must prevent them from Marrying, if possible."

      The single greatest barrier to the growth of soldier's family numbers was the limitations established when a regiment was ordered to set sail from Great Britain.  As a result of the disastrous Holland campaign, the War Office in 1799 established a limit for the number of families allowed to accompany a regiment abroad.  The order stated: "the lawful wives of soldiers are permitted to embark in the proportion of Six to One Hundred Men, including Non-commissioned Officers."   This regulation seems to have been interpreted differently and, to a degree, bent by the various regiments.  While some, like the 95th Rifles in 1800, viewed this restriction as inclusive of sergeants, others, like the 85th Regiment in 1812 saw it as exclusive.  In addition, the 85th viewed the government's restriction to six as for regiments going on active service and that "for garrisons or on foreign stations, where no active duty is expected" the restriction did not apply.   This breach of regulations was likely condoned by military officials because of the domestic situation this regulation had caused.

       Not only was the melancholy scenes of the forcible break-up of families the subject of many a soldier's account, they were the source of grave concern for civilian officials.  This institutional abandonment of soldier's families left women and children destitute and numerous parishes overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of this displaced population.  It took a number of acts in Parliament to try to elevate the situation.  Almost immediately after these Acts were passed to deal with this problem, officials were overwhelmed by women and children with fake documents trying to cheat the new system.  Unfortunately this tale is too involved to cover in any detail in this article.  Suffice to say, army regulations became more flexible to deal with this problem and in 1813 it was ordered that

"when a Regiment embarks for Garrison Duty on Foreign Service, the lawful Wives of Soldiers shall be permitted to embark, in the proportion of  Twelve per Company, including the Wives of Non-commissioned Officers....for active Field Service, the number of Soldier's Wives...must be limited to six per company.   When a Royal Veteran Battalion embarks for Foreign Garrison Duty, all Soldier's Wives of good characters, who are desirous of accompanying their Husbands, are to be permitted to embark."

In North America the last part of the order only affected the 10th Royal Veterans who had previously been limited to 12 wives per company.  It is important to note that the 1813 order replaced   "six to one hundred men" with "six per company".  Therefore under-strength regiments had the same number of dependants as full strength ones.   However this was may have been a mere formalizing of an already existing interpretation of the previous regulation.

     Did a similar situation develop when a regiment left North America for another station?  What happened to the soldier's families who had married in the Canadas while stationed there?  Well there are no regulations covering this therefore it is assumed that free passage was permitted.  As well there was another possible answer.  Prior to leaving Canada there was a number of soldiers were permitted to transfer from the departing regiment into a regiment still in North America.  One of the reasons may have been to allow an excess of soldier's families to remain behind, thus avoiding the enormous expense of transporting them abroad.   How many soldiers married after arriving in North America?  Only a detailed study of church records would answer this question and, discounting deaths of spouse from the numbers, would determine the total number of wives at given time with a particular regiment.

    Sometimes only the children were abandoned before a regiment departed.  As cruel as it sounds, sometimes it was for their own good. For example when a regiment was ordered to the West Indies it was often a death sentence for a child. In 1804 the following letter was entered into order books in Cork, Ireland:

His Royal Highness the Commander in Chief is anxious to extend the charity at the Royal Military Asylum at Chelsea as much as possible derives. You will be pleased to order an enquiry to be made of the number of Children left behind the Regiments upon their sailing for the West Indies, and direct a return thereof to be made...specifying the Age and Sex of each child, that an arrangement me be made for bringing over to England such as are applicable to the rules of the Institution. 

The 96th Regiment, before departing for the West Indies, encouraged parents to take advantage of this charity.  Would this practice have happened if a regiment was ordered to the West Indies from British North America?  Local records in garrison towns like Halifax may hold the answer.

   Of course length of stay in North America would have been a key factor in the number of dependents with a regiment.  Take for example the 41st Regiment.  Arriving from Ireland in 1799, 41st Regiment took on a number of transfers from the departing 60th Regiment.   Church records show at least some of these transfers had families.   Recruiting efforts in the Canadas would likely have added new soldiers with families to the ranks.  As the regiment intermingled with the locals, a steady stream to 41st soldiers to the altar seems to have taken place.  Even in frontier towns like Niagara-on-the-lake, which Isaac Brock referred to as "the nest of all wickedness", 41st members continued to marry.   By September 1813 the regiment reported 72 women and 113 children drawing rations with it in the Right Division of the Army.  This number grew when other garrisons listing 41st families drawing rations were added (example: 5 women and 4 children of the 41st in Quebec City).  These numbers are a little misleading because the families of officers would have drawn rations as well.  But were all the lawful families with the regiment allowed to draw rations?

    The answer may lie with the orders for rations.   Military officials in Quebec issued orders in 1810 that limited the number of women and children receiving rations to 6 to 100 men.  This cancelled an 1808 order that first allowed the issue of 1/2 ration to women and a 1/4 ration to children but placed no limits.   After 1810 Commissariat Department in Quebec functioned under the belief that rations were to be issued based on the ratio of men to women on a regiment's "establishment" using the 6 to 100 model.  So if there were 60 men at a garrison only 4 women would be entitled to rations.   In addition, Commissariat officials arbitrarily limited each women to 2 children allowed rations.  In March 1812 a case was reviewed were two companies of 100th overdrew rations for their women and children.  

At Amherstburg, 14 women and 26 children receiving issues, when the commissariat thought only 8 women and 16 children were authorized.     What happened in this case is the regiment viewed its sergeants and drummers as not part of the establishment and could draw rations for their families above and beyond the 6 to 100 number.  The officer writing remarks on the case underlined his assumption: "it is understood to be in the proportion of six to 100." The officer commanding the 100th replied that (1) there was no restriction in the number of children and (2) if the families that  overdrew rations were ordered to reimburse the Commissariat, they simply did not possess the means to repay them.  The important point about this case is that the 100th Regiment had a proportion of families that was beyond those allowed to draw rations.

       Confusion over the regulating rations grew.  In a separate case on "signing off" on provision returns for soldier's families, Major General Brock simply stated that there was "no Established mode that I know of has been adopted respecting Women and Children."  In Newfoundland the 1810 order limiting the number of women and children drawing rations threatened the very survival of some soldier's families.  The commanding officer in St. John's reported "of the Great scarcity of Provisions" and "the difficulty of procuring the common necessities of Life, together with a total want of any kind of market."  The officer concluded that if he restricted the numbers drawing rations "will occasion a most serious loss to a great number of the wives and Families of the married soldiers."   With all this confusion and problems over provisions to families, military officials in Quebec appealed to London for guidance.    The response was to first reprimand officials for trying to establish a system without consulting His Majesty's Government, and then to order the establishment through the Treasury "a General System in the Issue of Provisions for the Wives and Children of soldiers on Foreign Stations."   But what was the system? Unfortunately the nature of the system is unknown.    However one letter from the Commissariat General Robinson in late 1812 may provide some clues.  Responding to a request for rations from a militia unit the Quebec Volunteers, Robinson stated that "by the General Order 12 women only are allowed to a company."  Whether this was extended to the army as whole in uncertain.   A more detailed study of Commissariat records may shed more light on this.   Since it was a system established through the Treasury, searching Treasury records rather than War Office records may prove more fruitful.

     The next orders to be studied are those that regulated of the number of families in barracks.   Barracks regulations of 1807 permitted "four married Women per Troop or Company of 60 men, and six per Troop or Company of 100 men."   On its surface this appeared to be a serious deterrent for soldier's wanting to marry.  But the rule appears to have been a toothless lion. During an investigation of the barracks department in 1811 it was found that:

With that Regulation which limits the number of women and children permitted to reside in Barracks, the Master General and Board do not, however, require an absolute conformity; it being their intention that the number of women and children to be accommodated in the Barracks, should be fixed at the discretion of the resident Barracks Master, who, after consulting with the Commanding Officer of the Corps stationed in the Barracks, will of course take care to prevent the inconveniences resulting from too great an extension of the indulgence.

In short the changed the rules to meet the needs of the regiment.  In Canada the Barracks Regulations were little bit different and military officials in 1811 attempted interpret the numbers issue.  The reason for getting a ruling was primarily to restrict the issue of barracks bedding and  not necessarily the accommodation itself.   The question was the proportion 6 women for every company that was supposed to have 100 men, or who actually had 100 men.  Again military officials in North America went with the six to 100 ratio based on a regiment's establishment.


      While the Barracks Department seemed to shy away from regulating the numbers of families, individual regiments, as touched on earlier, appeared to make a more determined effort.  For example, the 19th Light Dragoons, shortly before embarking for Canada, did not allow women with children to live in the Private Rooms.  Reading between the lines, this did not mean children were not allowed in Barracks, only that "barracks" women who swept, washed, and cooked for the single soldiers of a particular room did not have children with them.  Confusion of this is understandable.  At this time we have two different soldier family "categories" merging into one:  barracks women, and the soldier's family.  Barracks women were soldier's wives allowed to live in barracks into to provide services to the men which she received pay and accommodation.  Soldier's family was the social grouping that did things together.   So how did this manifest itself?  Well, barracks women with families messed with the rest of the troops and lived with them in barracks.  If a soldier's wife did not chose to fill this position then this family was free to be accommodated in the same barracks room, with other families, or live outside the garrison.  The latter was the most common.

To be continued…..

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