The Complicated Lives of the Poor: Going for a Soldier


They are outside a pub, usually the best place to get men drunk and trick them into joining-up.

In the earlier post on this topic, I explained how I came upon a locally-printed booklet of transcripts of the records made by magistrates taking depositions under the 18th-century Poor Law in Holt, Norfolk[1]. One section of this booklet is entirely devoted to those who enlisted in the armed forces of the time. ‘Going for a soldier’ might well have offered a certain sense of adventure, together with some travel, but it was no passport to riches – or even stability

Britain was at war with someone – usually France – for most of the 18th century, so there was always a demand for young men to enlist. I wonder if those who did considered it fully? There were plenty of tricks played by the recruiting sergeants, most of which would result in some poor fellow waking up after a binge only to find himself trapped. Life in the army and navy was hard. Discipline was draconian, food poor, pay often months (or years) in arrears. In the regular forces, there was additionally the possibility of being killed in battle; plus the far greater likelihood of dying from disease.

The Recruits

Of course, all this was much more likely to affect the poor than any other group. Officers all came from the upper classes – commissions in the army had to be purchased and even naval commissions, though awarded on merit, came with significant costs attached. The constant demand for large numbers of recruits was for ‘cannon fodder’: foot soldiers and ordinary seamen, essential to have in good numbers but readily expendable.

We must not forget the militia either. Even since the days of Cromwell’s major-generals, Englishmen had an instinctive fear of keeping a standing army of any size. Whenever war flared, there would be a pressing need for still more bodies. For offence – basically the navy, since few British armies of any size were sent abroad – the ranks would be topped up with criminals, vagabonds and anyone else who could be forced into service, such as Irish insurgents. For home defence, each county was required to produce a set number of men to serve in the militia – in Britain only – for a given number of years.

On paper, militia recruits were selected by lot, parish by parish, from amongst all males within a certain age range. However, if you had money, you could pay a fine – or supply a substitute – and be excused. That’s what almost everyone did who had any means to do so. The fines were used to pay someone, probably poor and desperate, to serve in your place.


Of course, no one, least of all the government, wanted to pay soldiers for a moment longer than necessary. Every victory or cessation of hostilities at once released a flood of discharged soldiers and sailors into the pool of the unemployed. A good number might be wounded or maimed in some way. Even those who remained in reasonable shape – though military service itself was no way to stay healthy – would find themselves without work, a place to live or, very often, money in their pockets. Whores, tricksters and taverns selling cheap liquor mushroomed around any location where discharged personnel might be found. The man who could make it back to his home with his pay was incredibly fortunate. Even more fortunate were those entitled to small pensions – though these would be deducted from any subsequent help supplied by the Overseers of the Poor.

Examples of ‘Going for a Soldier’ and its consequences

Thomas Bridges of Holt, later working as a gardener, enlisted at age 13! He had started working for a local farmer around the age of 10, then became an apprentice gardener. Like so many, he found his master uncongenial in some way, so he ran away and enlisted in the 65th Regiment of Foot, part of the regular army. Later, aged 23, he turns up again in Holt, seeking to establish a settlement there. He would need one if ever he found himself “on the parish”. Holt was unlikely to have obliged, because he had been born and started working elsewhere before entering the army.

Walter Fowle, who was 71 when he appeared before the magistrates, had undertaken two periods of military service. The first was as a private soldier in the 71st Regiment of Foot; the second in the Royal Artillery. In between, he did a variety of jobs and “rambled the country” as well. He at least had a pension, though only a measly 1s 101/2d a day.

A Tale of the Sea

It wasn’t always the military that served as a suitable refuge for young men unsure of their path in life. John Jary joined a coal ship at the age of 12. The master seems to have been his uncle and the ship, a sloop, sailed between Cley-next-the-Sea and the coalfield ports of the northeast. It must have been very small, since by that time (around 1760) Cley’s port was almost entirely silted up.

By age 15, young John was persuaded by his father to quit the sea and take an apprenticeship with a shoemaker in Holt. The North Sea coastal trade in those days was extremely dangerous. A bad storm from the east could mean the loss of scores of these small ships in a single night. Jary stuck at shoemaking for some four years, but his heart was obviously not in it and he went back to sea in the same type of ship. That set his path for several more years,. First he spent time being a shoemaker, then went to sea again, then back to making shoes. Eventually, he entered the Customs Service at Morston in 1775 and was still employed in that role at the time of the deposition.

Things now become rather unclear. There seemed to be no need for Jary himself to seek a settlement in Holt, since he was employed. It also seems his examination may have been done not in Holt, but in Stockton in County Durham. Why?

Eventually part of the answer becomes clear. Jary needed to establish a settlement in Holt on behalf of his pregnant daughter. He seems to be wanting to throw her out of his own house, yet be certain she had somewhere else to go. Holt accepted her and offered her a place in the Workhouse, but the girl refused and took lodgings in the town – presumably then claiming ‘outdoor relief’.


Soldiers’ wives had a special need to establish a settlement somewhere, since many found themselves “on the parish” at some time, often with children in tow. Aside from the obvious difficulties to be faced by war widows, once a man had gone away to war, there was no certainty he would ever return. There were plenty of temptations which might persuade someone he would do better to ‘disappear’ than to return to the problems of caring for a wife and family.

This need for a settlement applied just as much to the wives and girlfriends of men in the militia. 18th-century England was a turbulent place, especially as republican and democratic ideas filtered in from America and France. The authorities relied on the militia to put down riots and disorders, since there was, as yet, no police force. That made them nervous of allowing regiments of militia to serve in locations where many of the soldiers would be local. The danger that the men would either refuse to quell riots fomented by their neighbours, families and friends or, worse still, join in with their weapons, was too great.

Just how far from home militia regiments might be sent is shown by depositions taken from three young men from Pembrokeshire, hundreds of miles away on the extreme west coast of Wales. Each had reached Holt via their service in the militia, then married local girls. As a result, they were keen to establish settlement for their wives against future necessity.

  1. “‘On The Parish’: Recorded lives of the poor of Holt and district, 1780–1835”, Jane Hales (ed. Susan Yaxley), Larks Press, Dereham, 1994.  ↩

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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2 Responses to The Complicated Lives of the Poor: Going for a Soldier

  1. noelleg44 says:

    Some things haven’t changed, at least in the US Army (I’m an Army mom). Very enjoyable and interesting.


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