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.