Life in the British Army
A series of Essays shewing what It was like For the Officers, men and women Who made the Army their career BEFORE they Arrived in the Colony.  The topics discussed are Desertion | Uniforms | History of the British Uniform | Education Why Join | Daily life | Rations | An example of a Typical day Punishment | Officers Quarters | Marriage and Women

Daily Life


     Each room is 18 by 36 feet and housed a maximum of 19 men.  Since space was so cramped, every measure was taken to maximize it, such as folding beds.  This was where the men slept, ate their meals and relaxed off duty.

     Each man was issued with a bed, a straw mattress, a blanket and sheets, and a barrack box.  While a soldier's uniform and accouterments would be placed about his bunk, his personal possessions would have to be placed in the box.  A table and wood benches, wood stove and fuel box completed the necessary issue.  Inspections were made every morning.

     Although cleanliness was stressed, the conditions in the barracks were poor.


     Separate privies existed for the sexes and for officers.  The officers and women had toilet seats.  The men did not.  Sanitation in the army was a serious problem.  In many barracks, sanitation was a bucket placed at the back of a room as a toilet.  These "urine tubs" were primarily used at night and during wet weather.  These tubs were responsible for the oppressive smell encountered when entering the barracks.

     The cleaning of the men's privies was usually done by "fatigue parties" soldiers undergoing punishment for crimes they had committed.  It involved washing and scrubbing of the seats and floors every morning.

     Cleaning of the women's privies was not an assigned duty for soldiers' wives.  The job was a paying one and it was contracted out by the regiment.  The wives had the right of first refusal, whereupon a civilian would be employed.

     Water to flush the privies was collected from grates on the parade square.  The water was held behind a sluice gate that could be opened to flush the waste through a two-foot square drainage tunnel into the bay.

     As a rule barracks were poorly lit, heated and ventilated.  Fuel for the barrack stove was in limited supply. In an effort to keep heat in and cold out, ventilation drafts were blocked, affecting, in turn, the health of the men.  The urine tub added to the foul atmosphere.

     These conditions resulted in tuberculosis, respiratory ailments, fevers and other diseases which hospitalized 37% of the ranks in 1860.  Yet conditions were better in Canada than overseas: there were 50% fewer died in Canada than in Britain.  The state of health in Canadian regiments was described as "uncommonly good."

     When soldiers became ill, they could be sent to the hospital under the supervision of the fort's medical officer.  The average time in hospital for a sick soldier was 17 days.

     Although conditions in the barracks accounted for a large percentage of sickness, the main culprit for admissions into hospitals was venereal disease, particularly syphilis and gonorrhea.  It was thought to be immoral of women to attend to patients so afflicted.  Consequently female nurses and regimental wives were not allowed to work in the regimental hospitals.  The medical officer was given a permanent staff of soldiers and non-commissioned officers who were exempt from any other duties.

     Everything being relative, many soldiers considered themselves better looked after than if they had not enlisted.

     Apart from recommendations to make accommodations more comfortable, medical officers identified marriage as a cause of good health among the regular soldiers.  There appeared to be fewer cases of venereal diseases, and of other health problems in regiments with a high ratio of married men.  Some doctors expressed hope that the army would do all in its power to allow and encourage regular soldiers to marry.

     These proposals for reform were suggested not only because of their intrinsic value but also because the army was facing a new chronic problem: recruiting.  If the lifestyle and health of the soldiers improved, perhaps many more men would consider joining.


The Grog Issue

     Drunkenness was such a problem that pay was doled out daily to prevent the binges that occurred when men were paid monthly.  Alcohol was issued as a daily ration because it was considered an absolute necessity, due to its nutritional value and its importance among the men.  Officers, being by definition gentlemen, were allowed to keep alcohol in their private quarters.

     Common soldiers would have been punished for keeping alcohol in their quarters.  Initially the "grog" issue was rum or another strong spirit.  Originally troops in North America received spruce beer (boiled spruce, molasses and yeast) which was tremendously effective in reducing scurvy. This was replaced by "NECK OIL" or more commonly "THE PURGE."  Today we refer to it plainly as beer.  It was the most common reason for soldiers' crimes, because alcoholism was so rampant.

     Soldiers formed "boozing schools" where small groups of men clubbed together for the sole purpose of heavy drinking.  These men pooled their pay to embark on the type of binges that the army hoped to avoid by implementing its daily pay policy.  In essence, drink was the only escape for men whose life was devoid of variety or comfort.  The harsh North American climate and isolation of the garrisons compounded the problem.  Of those court-martialled between 1838 and 1840, 33% were found guilty of being drunk on duty.

     From time to time individuals would try to do something about drunkenness.  Temperance clubs, such as "Havelock's Saints" or the Soldiers' Total Abstinence Association, were formed in response to the "boozing schools."  Members who managed to stay sober for six months wore a badge, similar to a regimental badge, which bore the motto: "Watch and be sober."  Some members of "boozing schools" wore this badge proudly once they had earned it, as it was generally regarded as proof of near superhuman resolution and endurance.

     On the whole, however, the army continued to issue its troops with alcohol and the temperance associations failed to create an army of teetotallers.

     At British Forts there was little else for a soldier to do in the evening, other than head into town and drink.  This drinking and poor diet made them more susceptible to disease.

Next page: Rations

Information courtesy of

The Fort Henry Adventure