Sol­diers’ trades

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FOCUS ON -

Welling­ton called his troops “the scum of the earth” and the oc­cu­pa­tions given by most men on en­list­ment show them to have been, in the vast ma­jor­ity, work­ing class. Of nine men shown on one page of the De­scrip­tion Book for the 2nd Bat­tal­ion of the First Foot be­tween 1826 and 1831, six de­scribe them­selves as “labour­ers”, two as “weavers” and one as a “moul­der”. All but one have en­listed for life (which meant at least 21 years), pre­sum­ably in the hope of job se­cu­rity with a pen­sion at the end.

Over the fol­low­ing pages “labourer” and “weaver” make up the vast ma­jor­ity of trades recorded. One man is recorded as a “school­mas­ter”, but within three months he’d been pro­moted to sergeant, prob­a­bly so that he could teach at the Reg­i­men­tal School (these es­tab­lish­ments taught sol­diers as well as their chil­dren, be­cause the army en­cour­aged sol­diers to fur­ther the ed­u­ca­tion they had re­ceived as civil­ians by mak­ing it com­pul­sory to achieve a cer­tain stan­dard of ed­u­ca­tion be­fore pro­mo­tion to cor­po­ral and be­yond). Even 50 years later, in the South Wales Border­ers De­pot Muster, the trade most fre­quently given was “labourer” although pre­dictably “col­lier” and “coal miner” also fea­ture, to­gether with a few ‘real’ trades such as wheel­wright, car­pen­ter, baker, ma­son and even a sur­veyor.

By the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury a spe­cial­ist sol­dier could go far – at least one sol­dier took a de­gree at Lon­don Univer­sity while serv­ing in the ranks in 1887, and went on to be­come a colonel – but for the ma­jor­ity of men, driven to en­list most prob­a­bly by un­em­ploy­ment, the army re­mained just a safe haven.

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