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British Army Shirts 1803-1815
by Robert Henderson

           Shirts were annually issued to each soldier as part of his necessaries, the cost for which was deducted from his pay.[1]  The cost for each shirt varied from four to ten shillings depending on its tailor, quality, and market.  The number of shirts owned by each soldier varied from two to four.  Bennett Cuthbertson believed each soldier should have four shirts in his possession, of which three were to be in good shape.[2]  Men of the 70th Regiment were ordered in 1788 to have four good shirts.[3]  The 40th Regiment in 1800 had each soldier with four shirts "made of linen of three quarters and a half bound, such as is bought for one shilling and six pence per yard and made up for one shilling; they are to be of good length, to come up well at the neck, and be of sufficient length in the sleeves."[4]  In 1801, each rifleman in the Rifle Corps was required to have three white shirts as part of his necessaries.[5]  Serving with the 7th Fusiliers, Sergeant Cooper noted in 1807 each soldier was equipped with only two shirts.[6]  This is interesting since the 7th Regiment's standing orders nine years earlier noted each private was to have "three white shirts with single frills instead of 6 shirts with double frills, [and] one flannel shirt instead of two."[7]

            By 1811 attempts were made to have a standard number of shirts throughout the army.  That year, a board of officers recommended that, considering the weight the soldier marched under, the number of shirts owned by the soldier be reduced to two.[8]  This recommendation is not surprising considering that each private's shirt weighed 1 lb.[9]  Clothing regulations for the following year indicate that this recommendation was endorsed.[10]  It became apparent that two shirts were not sufficient and the 1812 clothing regulations were amended in 1817 to include an additional shirt in the soldier's required necessaries.[11]  In contrast to the 1812 clothing regulations, th 29th Regiment at the end of that same year ordered their men to be supplied with three good shirts: "made sufficiently large, fit well about the neck and wrists."[12]

            The quality of shirts provided through regimental agents[13] or other government contractors seems to have been questionable.  Cuthbertson remarked in 1768 that shirts provided to regiments on the establishment "can be of little use unless taken to pieces, and made up properly."[14]  It appears little had changed by the Napoleonic wars.  In 1811 the quality of clothing was criticized: "clothing is generally sent to Regiments so ill-sewed, as to require it being remade."[15]  In the field, a soldier's shirt turned to tatters.  William Brown of the 45th Regiment on the retreat back into Portugal in December 1812, noted: "for a shirt...I had none.  A tag of what was once a shirt, hang down before and behind, having much the resemblance of a que, and the whole so stiffened with nits, of so shining a quality, that any one at a little distane might have thought it richly embroided with silver lace."[16]  Prior to this, Brown had donated a shirt to provide kindling for a fire when there was no dry wood available.[17]  Other soldiers like Rifleman Harris sold or traded their poorly-made shirts for food.[18]  In 1812 a shirt of better quality was ordered to be supplied to the army.[19]

            Shirts not supplied by the regiment's agents were made up by tailors in the regiment, soldiers' wives or purphased from the locality.  The rate paid to women sewing shirts, agreeable to instructions, was not more than eight pence in the 1770s.[20]  Around the same time, tailors in the 37th Regiment were paid one shilling for the same labour.[21]  In the 106th Regiment, if a woman deviated from the regimental instructions when making a shirt, the sergeant was held responsible: "If any sergeant... allows a man to have a shirt made by his washerwoman contrary to [standing orders], he will be obliged to pay for the alteration himself."[22]  Lists of costs for tailor's work show that by the beginning of the 19th century making shirts were no longer a function of regimental tailor shops.

            Commonly army shirts were made out of white linen. In addition to this, soldiers stationed abroad in the field or in harsher climates were issued or purchased shirts made out of other more durable or warmer materials.  At the opening of the War of 1812, Commissariat store returns in Canada reveal an abundance of both white linen, and flannel (woolen) shirts.[23]   Among other army necessaries, an advertisement in the Montreal Herald on 23 October 1813 noted check shirts for sale to soldiers.[24]  The durability and usefulness of linen shirts in Canada 's climate was certainly questioned by military officials.  Clothing regulations for 1812 underlined the need in the Army as a whole for linen shirts "of a rather better quality than those which were supplied when the price was limited to five shillings six pence."[25]  Considering that linen shirts were supplied when the price was limited to five shillings in General Orders in Canada the following year[26], and taking into account the large quantities of linen shirts in stores, it is unlikely the better quality linen shirts where in use in Canada until 1814.  Only a requisition for 800 strong linen shirts for the Artillery and Drivers of Upper Canadian Militia in March 1813 shows the contrary.[27]

            By the time of the war the soldier's use of linen shirts was viewed as detrimental to their health.  In July 1814, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison of the 2nd Battalion, 89th Regiment issued a Battalion Order in Upper Canada on the subject:

            It having been represented that some of the men who have been supplied with Flannel shirts are in the habit of occasionally wearing linen ones, and such a thing being prejudicial to their health, it cannot be allowed, and to prevent similar practices, officers commanding companies will be pleased to sanction and enforce the disposal of their linen ones when Flannel ones are furnished.[28]

Whether the whole army in Canada experienced this transformation from linen to flannel shirts is uncertain.  As early as October 1812, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles in a recruiting advertisement offered each recruit two flannel shirts.  There is no mention of linen shirts.[29]  Records of one Battalion company of the 49th Regiment show a similar situation with the men purchasing only flannel shirts for their necessaries.[30]  General Orders in 1813 for Canada established the price of a flannel shirt equal to linen ones at five shillings each.[31]  This is surprisingly low price considering that the soldiers of the 49th Regiment paid a year earlier between eight and ten shillings for flannel shirts.[32]

            The preference of flannel shirts over linen ones is exhibited in regiments in other theatres of war.  John Green of the 68th Light Infantry while on the Peninsula remarked that his regiment:"arrived in good health at Pedrogos, with about eight hundred new flannel shirts for the Regiment; the shirts were full sized, with long sleeves, which I have no doubt had a tendency to preserve health, more than linen shirts could do."[33]  Even in warmer stations like the West Indies there is evidence of the wide use of flannel shirts.[34]

            Robert Jackson, in his book A systematic view of the formation, discipline, and economy of armies (1804) wrote on the advantages of flannel:

            Flannel preserves, more effectually than linen clothing, an equable warmth in the parts which its covers.  It absorbs moisture more readily; and, in this respect, it is a pleasant material to be worn next the skin; for the excess of perspiration, in hot climates, is quickly taken up by it; the wettings with rain, in colder countries, are injurious or disagreeable, only in an inferior degree where the body is covered with this material.[35]

While Jackson recommended the universal wearing of flannel next to the skin, some soldiers were hesitant.  In October 1799, Sergeant James Fitzgibbons of the 49th Regiment remarked how he prefered to wear a linen shirt under his flannel one: "I never could endure the flannel next my skin."[36]

            When wearing his shirt, the soldier was expected to keep both collar and wrists of the shirt fastened.  The Standing Orders of the 7th Regiment ordered all shirts "to have one button and one button hole on the wrist, which is constantly to be kept buttoned."[37]  A number of contemporary prints support the wearing of the shirt with the wrist continually fastened.  St. Clair's watercolour entitled "Troops bivouacked near Vila Velha" portrays a number of soldiers performing fatigues in their shirt sleeves and none appear with their collar undone or sleeves rolled up.  The same appears in Martinet's "Bivouac Anglais", during the occupation of Paris in 1815.

            Into the 19th century, soldiers continued to wear frills on their shirts.  Under the direction of the meticulous Duke of Kent, standing orders were issued for the garrison of Gibraltar outlining how the frill was to appear on the soldier's white linen shirts:

            The frill, which is the only part to be seen when on, is to be nine inches long, and two in depth; including the hem, which is to be the narrowest possible, ironed in as small plaits as can be done; one inch of the frill being confined under the stock, which will ensure its remaining parted, and perfectly smooth, at the length of eight inches.[38]

That same year orders were issued from the War Office calling for the frill on both the officers and other ranks shirts to be nine inches long.[39]

            Prior to these regulations, the frill were determined by each regiment.  The 6th Regiment noted the frill on the shirt was to be "one nail and a quarter wide".  For the 106th Regiment, the frill was to be a "full two inches broad".  The 7th Regiment was noted in 1798 as having shirts with double frills.  Many illustrations of soldiers show that when worn with the coat, the shirt's frill appears as a small triangle above the coat's top button.  A watercolour of a recruiting party of the 33rd Regiment in 1810 depicts the members of the party with their coat top buttons open and the frill protruding.  It appears from numerous contemporary illustrations of British infantrymen that the wearing of a frill on the shirt remained popular through to the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  An account book of the 49th Regiment in Canada show soldiers, as a sign of personal preference, purchasing frills for their shirts.

            In addition to the shirt, soldiers were issued with a number of "false collars".[40]  Also termed as turn-overs,[41] turn-downs,[42] or dickees,[43] the use of this article of clothing was described by Alexander Mercer of the Royal Artillery: "The eighth of inch white shown above the stock was intended for the men, and in their kits were included six false collars.  These were narrow strips of linen, which were doubled over the leather stock and confined there by a hook at each end."[44]  In 1801 the Roscommon Militia ordered their men to have their stocks "worn tight with a clean turn-down."[45]  This fashion of an edge of white showing above the stock appears to have disappeared by 1805 since false collars no longer show up on various lists of necessaries.[46]

            Detached frills, also noted as breasts,[47] or false frills,[48] were bought and used by the troops throughout the Napoleonic Wars.  In Canada , the accounts of the 49th Regiment show the continued purchase of frills at 2s 3d which were whip-stitched onto their otherwise plain flannel shirts.[49]  In his work Regimental Companion, Charles James warns officers how the soldier may use false frills to dupe them at inspection: "The dirty soldier... in order to save two pence for liquor, will frequently wear the same shirt a fortnight or three weeks together; taking care, all the time, to exhibit a complete stock; and having the art enough to deceive his officer by means of detached frills."[50]  This was possible since the rest of his shirt he had on at inspection was concealed by his coat.  By this means of deception, the soldier would not only avoid laundry expenses but possibly could conceal the fact he had the venereal "complaint".  Considering the painful techniques used by the regimental surgeon in dealing with this infliction, it is not surprising the soldier wished to hide the fact.  James suggested the best way to determine whether a soldier had the venereal disease was by a thorough examination of the last shirt worn, presumably, searching for stains left by venereal sores.[51]

            In 1802, James viewed it necessary, in order for the officer to determine if soldier was short of his required clothing, to have each shirt marked:

            No excuse whatever should be admitted, when any deficiency, in the compliment of necessaries, is discovered to arise from negligence, or worse causes.  Soldiers will frequently borrow from each other, in order to get through the day of general inspection.  To prevent collusions, the captains of companies will have the initials of every man's name printed on his shirt, between the shoulders, with a particular mark of his own under the frill.  Marking-irons, for this purpose, may be purchased at a very moderate expense.[52]

By 1811 all of the soldier's necessaries were ordered to be marked with permanent ink with the owner's name, the letter of the company, and the number of the regiment in which he belonged.[53]  In 1813 the 62nd Regiment ordered their men's shirts to be marked, in addition to the owner's name and letter of the company, with the date of delivery.[54]  In contrast the 17th Light Dragoons simply called for every shirt to be marked with the initials of the owner's name.[55]  The accounts of the 49th Regiment reveal one soldier in the company being paid two pence to mark his fellow soldier's shirts.[56]  The 29th Regiment was specific about how the shirt was to be marked:  "Everything belonging to the soldier must be marked previous to delivery or soon after as possible, the shirts in front, one inch below the frill."[57]

[1]. Great Britain , War Office, A Collection of Orders, Regulations, and Instructions, for the Army; On Matters of Finance and Points of Discipline Immediately Connected Therewith. v. 2 ( London , 1819), p. 470,   Regulation for the Provision of Clothing, Necessaries, Great Coats, and Appointments, for Corps of Infantry. dated 15 July 1812 , Article XVI.

[2]. Bennett Cuthbertson, A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry, ( Dublin , 1768), Article XXXVI.

[3]. Hew Strachen, British Military Uniforms, 1768-96, ( London , 1975), p. 258, in Standing Orders for the 70th Regiment, 1788.

[4]. Standing Orders for the Fortieth Regiment, (Margate, 1 January 1800), pp. 7, 30.

[5]. Regulations for the Rifle Corps, formed at Blatchinton Barracks, Under the Command of Colonel Manningham, ( London , 1801), p. 75.

[6]. Michael Glover, Wellington 's Army in the Peninsula , 1808-1814, ( London , 1977), pp.64-65.

[7]. Percy Sumner, "Standing Orders of the Royal Fusiliers", JSAHR, vol. 27, p. 123.

[8]. Public Records Office (PRO), War Office (WO) 7/56, p. 97, Report of the proceedings of a Board of Officers, appointed by His Royal Highness The Commander in Chief to be assembled, "for the purpose of reporting upon the Equipment of the Infantry", London, 29 June 1811.

[9]. Scottish United Services Museum , Manuscript 355-66, Inventory of Military Baggage, 1816, p. 81.

[10]. Great Britain , War Office, A Collection of Orders..., p. 468, Regulation for the Provision of Clothing,... Article XV.

[11]. Ibid., p. 514, Warrant authorizing the Provision of certain additional Articles of Necessaries for Regiments of Infantry. Dated 31 October 1817 .

[12]. The Standing Orders of His Majesty's 29th, or Worchestershire Regiment of Foot, ( London , 1812), p. 56.

[13]. Shirts shipped from regimental agents or stores were to be in bales of a hundred, measuring 22" by 10", Scottish United Services Museum , Inventory of Military Baggage, 1816, p. 88.

[14]. Cuthbertson, A System..., Article XXXIII

[15]. PRO, WO 7/56, p.102, Report... upon the Equipment of the Infantry, London , 29 June 1811 .

[16]. William Brown, Narrative of a Soldier. (Kilmamock, 1829), p. 194.

[17]. Ibid. p. 186.

[18]. Christopher Hibbert (ed.), The Recollections of Rifleman Harris.( London , 1985), p. 101.

[19]. Great Britain, War Office, A Collection of Orders,... p. 469, Regulation for the Provision of Clothing,..., Article XV.

[20]. Cuthbertson, A System..., Article XXXVI

[21]. Strachen, British Military Uniforms,..., pp. 226-227, Standing Orders of the 37th Foot, 1775.

[22]. Ibid., p. 258, according to the Standing Orders for the 106th Regiment, 1795.

[23]. Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) RG 8 I, C 1220, pp.404, Commissariat Stores, Quebec, 13 June 1813; RG 8 I, C 118, pp.70, Commissariat Stores, Quebec, 10 September 1813.

[24]. Montreal Herald, 23 October 1813 .

[25]. Great Britain , War Office, Collection of Orders,...  p.468, Regulations for the Provision of Clothing,... Article XV.

[26]. L. Homfray Irving, Officers of the British Forces in Canada During the War of 1812-15. (Wellend, 1908), p.246.  General Order, Quebec 7 June 1813 .

[27]. LAC RG 8 I, C 703, p. 75, "Requisition for Clothing for the Artillery and Drivers of U.C. Militia", Quebec , March 1813.

[28]. LAC, MG 24 I3, vol. 9, Order Book of the 89th Regiment, 1814.  Battalion Order, Fort Wellington 3 July 1814 .

[29]. Montreal Herald, 31 October 1812 .

[30]. United States National Archives, RG 98, No. 531, Account Book, 49th Regiment, Company G, Montreal , 1811-12.

[31]. L. Homfray Irving, Officers of the British Forces in Canada During the War of 1812-15, ( Welland , 1908), p. 246, General Order, Kingston , 7 June 1813 .

[32]. United States National Archives, RG 98, No. 531, Account Book, 49th Regiment, Comapny G, Montreal , 1811-12.

[33]. John Green, The Vicissitudes of a Soldier's Life. (Lough, 1827), p. 70.

[34]. Captain Browne of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers recounts in 1809 on the Island of Martinique each soldier having a flannel shirt for light marching order.  R.N. Buckley, ed. The Napoleonic War Journal of Captain Thomas Henry Browne, 1807-1816, ( London , 1987), p. 99.

[35]. Robert Jackson, A systematic view of the formation, discipline, and economy of armies. ( London , 1804), p. 252.

[36]. Mary Agnes Fitzgibbons, A Veteran of 1812: The Life of James Fizgibbons. ( Montreal , 1894), p. 29.

[37]. Percy Sumner, "Standing Orders of the Royal Fusiliers, 1798", JSAHR, v. 27, p.123

[38]. F.R.T. Trench-Gascoigne, "Extracts from the Standing Orders of the Garrison of Gibraltar, 1803", JSAHR, v.3, p. 128.

[39]. L.I. Cowper, ed. The King's Own: The Story of a Royal Regiment, 1680-1814, vol. 1, ( Oxford , 1939), p. 495.  Quoting from War Office Book 13.

[40]. Ibid., p. 249, "four false collars" mentioned in the Regimental Standing Orders for the 70th Foot, 1788.

[41]. Four "turn-overs" noted as part of the rifleman's necessaries in Regulations for the Rifle Corps..., 1801, p. 75.

[42]. W. G. Strickland, "The Roscommon Militia", JSAHR, vol. 3, p. 147, Abstracts from the Standing Orders of the Roscommon Militia, 1 January 1801 .

[43]. for each soldier to have 3 dickees.

[44]. of a button on the false collar opposed to a hook and eye system.

[45]. Strickland, "The Roscommon Militia", p. 147.

[46]. Great Britain , War Office, A Collection of Orders,..., pp. 468-469, Regulation for the Provision of Clothing,... Article XV.

[47]. Sergeant Cooper of the 7th Fusiliers notes each soldier having three "breasts" in 1807, Glover, Wellington 's Army... p. 65.

[48]. Percy Sumner, "Dress of the 85th Light Infantry, 1813", JSAHR, vol. 25, p. 70.

[49]. United States National Archives, RG 98, No. 531, Account Book, 49th Regiment, Company G, Montreal , 1811-12.

[50]. Principles of System and Responsibility Familiar. vol. 1, ( London , 1802), p. 303.

[51]. Ibid., p. 306.

[52]. James, Regimental Companion..., p. 303.

[53]. Great Britain , Horse Guards, General Regulations and Orders for the Army. ( London , 1811), p. 98.

[54]. The Standing Orders of the 62nd Regiment.( London , 1813), p. 65.

[55]. Standing Orders of the Seventeenth Regiment of Light Dragoons. (Clonmel, 1804), p. 35.

[56]. United States , National Archives, RG 98, No. 531, Account Book, 49th Regiment, Montreal , 1811-12.

[57]. Standing Orders of the 29th Regiment...1812, p. 56.



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