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Taking the King's Shilling: Recruitment for the British Army, 1812
by Robert Henderson

The following article is a short overview of recruiting to give the reader a basic idea of how the army filled its ranks.

What brought someone to consider joining the British Army? Not surprisingly, the unemployed or persons dissatisfied with their jobs made up the majority of those willing to "take the king’s shilling". Lesser numbers chose his majesty’s service for reasons like to escape certain social situations such as over -controlling parents, running from the law, paid to be a substitute, or in hopes of deserting after being paid for joining.

     Regulations in 1802 established some uniformed standards for what recruits would be allowed. However as the war with France dragged on these standards were lowered. The regulations stated:

In the Infantry, Men enlisted...are not to be taken above Twenty-five [Thirty] years of Age, nor less than Five Feet Six [Five] inch high; but growing Lads from Seventeen to Nineteen Years of Age, may be taken as low as Five Feet Five [Four] Inches.... The Lads and Boys are to be enlisted as Privates, without any Promise or Expectation being held out to them that they are to be of the Band, or put on Drummer's Pay.

*(the numbers in [ ] are the changes made later in the war)

     From the study of descriptive rolls and inspection returns of regiments it appears the "growing Lads" phase was used as a loop hole to recruit those quite under the required height, and some of the boys that were enlisted were under 5 feet in height.

     Recruiting parties scoured the countryside and city streets for able-bodied soldiers. In his arsenal of weapons, the recruiting Sergeant offered any perspective recruit a bounty of over two month’s worth of wages to enlist. Some were offered the option to enlist for limited time of service, usually a 7-year term, and receive a smaller bounty, but most chose the other option: service for life. Calculating one’s options in life must have been difficult for the recruit in a noisy, smoke-filled Ale House after consuming a number of gills of rum, happily provided by a member of the recruiting party. While the recruiting prospect drank endless rounds from the punch bowl, his ears were filled with stories of an easy life as a soldier, quick promotion and how women to could not help but be drawn to a man in a red coat.

     The members of a recruiting party were all quite motivated in convincing say a young weaver or labourer to join as each was paid handsomely for each recruit they brought before the army surgeon for inspection and got attested by a Justice of the Peace. If the potential recruit hesitated to enlisted, deception was applied. A recruiting sergeant recounted:

…your last recourse was to get him drunk, and then slip a shilling in his pocket, get him home to your billet, and next morning swear he enlisted, bring all your party to prove it, get him persuaded to pass the doctor. Should he pass, you must try every means in your power to get him to drink, blow him up with a fine story, get him inveigled to the magistrates, in some shape or other, and get him attested; but by no means let him out of your hands.

Attestation involved the recruit appearing before a Magistrate to swear that he didn't have any hidden illness, that he wasn't an apprentice, and that he did not already belong to the Army or Navy. After physical particulars were recorded he was read the parts of the articles of war and took two oaths: the Oath of Fidelity and the Oath of Allegiance. The oath of fidelity went:

I swear to be true to our Sovereign Lord King George, and to serve him honestly and faithfully, in Defence of His Person, Crown, and Dignity, against all His Enemies or Opposers whatever: And to observe and obey His Majesty's Orders, and the Orders of the Generals and Officers set over me by His Majesty.

The oath of allegiance was more involved and covered the right of the crown to transfer him to the East India Company if he was needed there.

    Once enlisted, the recruit was surprised to find that from his bounty he had to pay for part of his uniform, called his regimental necessaries, along with other miscellaneous expenses. Once the recruit joined his company, he was happily welcomed by his new comrades. Everyone was a friend to a new recruit who had several pound sterling in his pocket. However once the recruit had been convinced out of his last shilling to purchase drink for his new-found friends, he soon found himself alone once again.

     Recruiting was not confined to the British Isles. British North America also saw its fair share of recruiting parties. However sometimes recruiting could be a dangerous occupation. Alexander Bulger, a young Lieutenant in the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, was recruiting in New Carlisle. An incident arose after Bulger had enlisted some of the young men of the community. A large crowd refused to allow the new recruits to leave and freed them by force from Bulger’s party. Bulger immediately applied to the local Militia Captain for assistance. Bugler recorded his response: " this Captain of Militia…declared before a number of people of this place, that I and my Party ought to get a good flogging and be kicked out of Carlisle." Such were the risks of this service.

    Another important source for recruits came from the ranks of the British militia. Hundred of thousands of militiamen transferred into British line regiments and as much as 14 pound sterling for their move. Regiments serving in British North America would likely have been considered desirable because of the comparatively low mortality rate and, for some, the opportunity to desert and settle there or in the United States were the demand for labour was high and the price of land low. The method of taking transfers for the militia was not adopted in the British North American colonies. In addition the Line (numbered) Regiments were barred from recruiting in order allow the Fencible Regiments to fill their ranks. By the War of 1812 a couple of line regiments were again being allowed to recruit in North America.

Copyright Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) 2001

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