QUEEN’S SHILLING, TUPPENCE & HA’PENNY
Sappers’ Pay in the Colony of British Columbia
by Tim Watkins
1. Notes on
A peculiarity of
colonial British Columbia was the use of English and American currency
interchangeably. A grasp of both systems and their relative values is
essential to understanding prices of this period.
The basic unit is
the pound (now £; formerly l. ), made up of 20 shillings (s.).
The shilling in turn is made up of 12 pence (d.). Thus prices are
given in 3 digits: 1l.8s.2d. would be one pound, eight shillings and
two pence (or ‘tuppence’).
transactions were generally conducted with coinage. The one-pound
coin is a gold ‘sovereign’. An oddity of the English system was the
‘guinea’, worth slightly more than a pound (21 shillings instead of
20). The actual gold guinea coin was not minted after 1813, but the
guinea had acquired a certain cachet as the gentleman’s preferred coin
and therefore lived on as a concept for the rest of the century.
Luxury items like racehorses and sporting rifles were generally valued
in guineas, while more utilitarian transactions were conducted in
The coins more
commonly in circulation were as follows, in descending order of value:
(5 shillings, or ¼ of a pound)
‘half-crown’ (2½ shillings, or 2s. 6d.)
(or ‘bob’ in common parlance)
||sixpence ( ½
of a shilling)
and tuppence bits
(plural ‘pence’; over an inch across, much larger than the US
d.) and farthing (¼ d.)
coinage of the common man was the bob or shilling piece, and its
component sixpences and pennies.
The pound in 1860
was roughly equivalent to five American dollars. Conveniently, that
makes the shilling roughly equal in value to the American quarter,
which it resembled in size.
Thus, the sapper’s
colonial pay was referred to by the men as $1 per day, while the
official rate was the English equivalent, 4 shillings per day. When
British Columbia debated minting its own coinage, and even struck a
few sample coins in 1862, the unit of currency it chose was the
One point to bear
in mind is that the English penny is worth twice as much as 1¢
American. A copy of the Columbian newspaper cost 10¢ or 6d., both of
which prices were printed on the masthead. Strictly speaking, ten
cents should equal only five pence, but the price presumably reflects
the fact the convenience of using the common coins (dime and
sixpence)without having to make change.
newspaper in Victoria by contrast had published subscription rates
which included the very odd “Per Week payable to the Carrier – 37½¢”
(for three issues), or “single copy – 12½¢.” While it is of course
impossible to pay 12½ American cents, that sum is equal to half a
shilling, or sixpence.
also was usually in the form of coins. The US government would not
issue its own paper currency until after the start of the Civil War,
and bills issued privately by banks and businesses could be of dubious
value. The hoarding of US coinage once the war started exacerbated
the shortage of cash in B.C.
for the Sappers
The basic rate of
pay for a sapper of the Royal Engineers in 1861 was 1 s. 2½ d. (one
shilling, tuppence and ha’penny) per day. This works out to over £22
per annum before stoppages. A corporal’s annual pay thus totalled
about £40, serjeants £52, and colour serjeants nearly £62. A pay rate
for each individual in the Columbia Detachment can be found in the
Nominal Roll on this site.
A soldier who has
not incurred any punishment for a specified period would receive a
Good Conduct badge, in the shape of a chevron pointing upwards (i.e.,
^ ), worn on the lower sleeve just above the cuff, and not to be
confused with the rank badge generally worn above the elbow.
In 1854 GC badges
were awarded after 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years’ of punishment-free
service. For each badge, the soldier earned an extra penny a
day. In 1860, the required number of years was varied to 3, 8, 13,
18, 23, 28, 33, and 38.
On the June 1861
muster, the majority of the sappers in the Columbia Detachment earned
an extra 1d. daily, and most of the corporals made an extra 2d.
Sapper Hall’s tunic preserved in the Chilliwack Museum still bears his
three GC badges, once worth threepence per day (a misunderstanding of
these three GC chevrons caused the tunic at one point to be mislabeled
as that of ‘Serjeant’ Hall). Good Conduct pay was not available to
serjeants, whose rank and higher basic pay presupposed their
continuing good conduct.
To prevent men from
being lured to the gold fields, and to offset the high costs prevalent
in this colony, men of the Columbia Detachment were eligible to
receive colonial pay of 4 shillings per day. Given the prevalent use
of US currency, most sappers referred to the bonus as “a dollar a
day”. This was paid by the Colony of British Columbia directly, and
thus was always in arrears and a source of discontent to the
governor. It may be that this bonus was only payable while performing
work for the Colony, leading to Col. Moody’s accounting to the
Governor of the ‘Nature of Employment’ of his men.
The Regimental pay
an officer of the RE received was equivalent to £125 per annum for a
lieutenant, just over £220 for a captain, and £330 for a colonel.
Although vastly more than an enlisted man received, these sums could
be insufficient to maintain a fashionable gentleman’s lifestyle and
frequently had to be supplemented by private means.
The officers of the
Columbia Detachment also received stipends from the Colonial
government - £250 per annum for the lieutenants and £350 for the
captains. As Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works, effectively the
second-ranking civil servant in the colony, Col. Moody received £1,200
per annum. Like the enlisted men, however, the officers often had to
wait until the colony could actually produce these funds.
Incomes and the Cost of Living
In England by 1870,
the range of working class wages from a low of £35 per annum for farm
and general labourers up to some £90 for skilled workmen like the
makers of watches, jewelry and optical instruments. The income of the
growing mercantile middle class would be between £100 for a junior
clerk up to and beyond £400 for a successful professional man or
Columbia, wages were increased dramatically. Matthew MacFie in
his 1865 guide to the colony stated: “In all cases labour commands at
least three times the remuneration it does in England, and often much
more than that.” He gives the following examples:
£8 - £12 per month
£12 - £16 per month
£1 per day
£5 – 10 per month
£10 per month
£1 per day in the Interior, and 12s.
6d. in New Westminster
£1 to £2 per day in season
$10 (£2) per day in Cariboo in season
Thus, even with
colonial pay, an RE carpenter earned half to one-third of what he
could make in business on his own in New Westminster, and could double
his income again in the Cariboo.
Of course, much of
a colonist’s extra income was eaten up by the high cost of living in
the colony. Food prices were found by MacFie to be only
“moderate”: beef was to be had at 9d. per pound generally,
rising to 40¢ in Cariboo. However, clothing and other necessaries
could be very dear. Room and board in a hotel cost £2 per week at New
Westminster, and a whopping £6 per week in Cariboo. The sapper must
have take some consolation in the fact his rations, accommodation and
clothing were provided by Her Majesty.
Notably, many of
the sappers who mustered out in 1863 did very well in B.C. by taking
advantage of their trade skills combined with hard work and shrewd
investment. Several like Bonson and Wolfenden enjoyed a prosperous
middle-class lifestyle that belied their working-class roots.