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The 1851, 1861 & 1871 Worldwide Army Index

Military Researcher, Roger Nixon explores life in the British Army in the 1800's...


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The world of a common soldier was not necessarily an easy one. Aside from active combat service life could be somewhat monotonous, boredom often being relieved by alcohol. There are many tales of townships and villages being terrorized for days on end by drunken soldiers whose billeting was often forced on landlords and householders. The Paylists contain long lists of soldiers who lost pay due to drunkenness: month after month!

Traditionally, a soldier was paid a nominal ‘shilling-a-day’ (it varied by period, rank and so on) but, more importantly, whatever a soldier did receive was subject to off-reckonings. These deductions were usually for food, clothing, loss of and to damage of army effects, also for damage to barracks, the latter sometimes being used by unscrupulous commands to withhold money. Short changing soldiers was also not unknown. By the time any remainder was spent on drink there was usually little, if anything, left.

Administration of army subjects was very rigid. A great deal revolved around bookkeeping and accounts the returns of which had to be made at regular intervals to the War Office. Everything was closely scrutinized. Large muster sheets were originally maintained but later on more formal pre-printed sheets containing the names and regimental numbers (each regiment had its own series of numbers) of every soldier were kept and these would be bound-up into quarterly periods.  Each regiment had an officer Paymaster and invariably a Paymaster Sergeant. Men were mustered every month and the musters would be endorsed with how many days service a man might be paid for - they would not be paid for absences or whilst imprisoned – whether a man was sick in hospital (but more likely a lazarette) and whether he was On Duty or On Command, or be detached from the regiment: Or be attached from another regiment.

All regiments had men detached from the HQ location in other parts both at home and abroad. Detached men were used to augment provincial guarding duties, quelling civil unrest and escorting prisoners to and from assizes. Some men were detached on recruiting duty and would be led by a splendidly attired and very persuasive sergeant and corporal who would be instantly recognizable by coloured ribbons affixed to the back of their headwear. They would tour towns and villages beating a drum to encourage attention of likely recruits.

Transcribed data from these Paylists now forms the foundation to the 1851, 1861 and 1871 Worldwide Army Indexes included in TheGenealogist collection.

Aspiring privates might reach corporal rank within a few years. Promotion to sergeant would usually take a lot longer. Not only was it necessary to gain solid military experience but the right character and having the requisite educational achievement was equally important. Naturally, the pyramid structure of the army restricted the number of available posts at any one time and a promoted man might then also have to battle hard to ensure that he retained his rank.

The Black Watch - "Forward the 42nd!" at the Alma

Whilst some men achieved sergeant rank not a few erred and were demoted back to corporal or even to private. Misconduct, theft, and drunkenness were often the reason. Interestingly, a sergeant might also be demoted for a completely different reason. A sergeant awaiting transfer to another regiment was not allowed to simply transfer as a sergeant. Instead, he would be demoted to corporal and then to private rank prior to discharge. Then when joining a new regiment the process would be reversed and promotion back to sergeant would be effected.

You can find entries in the Worldwide Army Indexes on TheGenealogist of promotions and demotions showing both ranks, and these will have the same name and number in the same quarter. Also included are men who mis-stated their names when enlisting. This was a fairly common practice employed by men who were eluding custody, deserting a wife or girlfriend and putative fathers. They simply declared an assumed name at time of enlistment knowing that once they were subject to martial law that the civil power would have great trouble gaining access to them. However, where such men served for long periods there was always the worry that discovery of a mis-stated name might endanger their later pension rights. They would then declare their mis-statement of name. Once accepted the army would revise the musters in the paylists accordingly. Entries of men in this category are also shown in the Worldwide Army Indexes their entries being cross referenced to both names used. A useful inventory for family historians.

It was also not unknown for a magistrate to arrive at an accord with a young offender that he might have the choice of prison or enlisting. Most would have opted for the latter.

Men were discharged from army service in a number of ways. Some would die in combat or from disease. Others might be discharged with ignominy, or by desertion. Many would become unfit. Lung problems, arthritis, venereal disease, ruptures (especially amongst cavalrymen) and eye disease were commonplace.  In the latter half of the 1800s a few thousand soldiers might also be discharged by purchase, ie they bought themselves out with the leave of their commanding officers in accordance with a tariff at great expense.

Many fit soldiers were discharged at the end of a war. They would then be sent to an invalid or garrison battalion before being eventually classed as ‘worn out’. Their time in these units would be spent in guarding and upkeep and many were part of battalions sent to Australia to guard convicts. They might also be recalled to service at any time but many continued to serve in invalid or garrison forces. Often for some decades before being discharged to a pension as ‘worn out’. Some veterans volunteered the most well known are the notorious ‘Ambulance Men’ of the Crimea War. A number of, mainly, aged pensioners were employed in the conflict as stretcher bearers but were withdrawn amid claims of bad conduct and drunkenness.

The 1806 regulations were seen as liberal enabling soldiers who had completed 21 years to apply for a Royal Hospital, Chelsea pension (or a Royal Hospital, Kilmainham pension for men on the Irish Establishment 1706-1822. At the end of 1822 Kilmainham pensions were taken over by Chelsea. As of 1817 soldiers might also take a reduced pension after 14 years service. The Miller report of 1875 brought about further revisions and after 1883 soldiers being discharged after completing one of the newly introduced limited terms of engagement, or who had bought their discharges, were also eligible for a reduced pension.

Some men had their careers cut short due to wounds or some other reason attributable to service and might also claim a Chelsea invalid pension prior to completing 21 years of service. A very small number of men actually resided in the Royal Hospital at Chelsea but the vast majority were out-pensioners. To obtain admission to pension upon discharge they would present themselves before a regular Board which determined the daily amount and its terms which were not generous. They were paid-out in a number of ways.

Pensioners in receipt of parish support would receive their payments from the parish. Prior to 1842 pensioners residing more than 25 miles from London but still in England, Scotland or Wales received their pensions from local excise officers. In Ireland this service was provided by postmasters. Pensioners living within a 25 miles radius of London were paid out at Chelsea. From 1842 to 1883 pensions were paid through district pension offices of which some were overseas. Thereafter pensions were paid through post offices. The only exceptions to these arrangements were admitted pensioners from colonial regiments 1817-1903 who did not have to appear in person to collect their payments. Payments abroad were otherwise invariably paid out through British consuls. By 1894 there were some 74,000 army pensioners in receipt in the UK and around 8,000 overseas. Very similar to figures from the 1840s. Roughly half were men in receipt of invalid pensions.

The army was not really interested in a man’s family and there was no pension entitlement for an army wife at all although some did apply for prolongation of a deceased pensioner’s pension and some might have been given a small amount of relief for a very short period.

Fraudulent payment claims were always a risk. Pensioners were identified by a parchment identity certificate issued at time of discharge. On the whole the system functioned well but there were many instances of pensioner imposters being caught out trying to claim the rights of genuine pensioners. Many families also conveniently forgot to report a pensioner’s death leaving payments to continue.

Despite the limitations of the past it is remarkable that such a huge military machine and its attendant pension schemes functioned so well before the age of computers and instant communications.

Today, the family historian can thank the former War Office and modern archivists for creating and maintaining a superb collection records of which 13,000 Paylists have formed the foundation of the Worldwide Army Indexes in TheGenealogist’s collection. Also worth mention is that Paylists from 1830 to 1877 generally also show enlistment dates and birthplaces of cavalry and infantry subject at time of discharge.

The Worldwide Army Indexes collection is an invaluable source for family history research, especially where papers have not survived men who were not pensioned prior to 1882 will generally have none. Note: Each index has a dedicated description of content to help with searches.


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