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Women and the Victorian Regiment

There are a good many young women who seem to think that to ‘keep company’ with, and afterwards to marry, a soldier is the acme of bliss. Yet there are but few, indeed, who have the remotest idea of what life as soldier’s wife is like. ~ Married Life in the Army, The Graphic, September 23, 1893

While on the one hand, soldiers in the British Army were discouraged from marrying and were required to ask permission before doing so, the army also recognised that women were useful when it came to doing the men’s laundry and sewing and that married men were often less likely to be drunk, delinquent and disorderly. Prostitution often followed military camps, and in the Victorian era, venereal disease was rampant in the larger camps. After the Crimean war, nearly half of the men had to be admitted to hospital for treatment but married soldiers were seldom affected. Still, the army took little interest in the wellbeing of the wives and children of those selected soldiers who were reluctantly given permission to marry and mostly considered them a burden to the establishment.

The number of married soldiers per regiment was limited. No soldier could marry without the permission of their commanding officer and then only if he was of good character, had served for at least seven years and had savings set aside. Of every hundred soldiers, only six would be granted permission to marry, although another nine would marry without leave.

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MarriageSanction

from the Pay Book of William Bond, Royal Artillery

Those who married with permission were said to be on the strength of the army. The wife became part of the regiment and was recognised at the rank of her husband. Families on the strength looked to the military for their support, however they were also subject to army discipline. The wife was expected to maintain their quarters to army specifications and in some regiments, quarters were inspected daily. Wives were required to be respectable and clean and families were expected to attend church every Sunday. Men were obliged to stay home in the evenings when not on duty and passes were needed by any who needed to stay out past ‘last post’. Failure to comply with these standards in any way could result in the wives being ‘struck off the strength,’ and being asked to move out of the barracks.

Soldiers married on the strength of the regiment lived with their wives and children in an area of the barracks set aside for families. Quarters were sometimes only a portion of a large room screened off with blankets, perhaps a hut of about forty feet by twenty feet that might be shared by up to six families. Where separate married quarters existed, these often consisted of only one room, which served the dual purpose of living and sleeping. The army might provide some meager furnishings and household goods such as a table, a stool, a bed and bedding, fire irons and two or three brooms and brushes but the couple would be expected to purchase pots and pans, crockery and other household goods themselves. The married soldier would continue to receive his daily ration of bread and meat but his wife and children would not be allotted any food, although their rations would be available to purchase at reduced costs through the regimental stores. Wives were expected to do washing and mending for the single men of the regiment, and this was considered a privilege because the few shillings that they earned allowed them to supplement their husband’s wages. Washing facilities were often miserable and there was no allowance for soap, bluing, soda or coal and women were expected to find and purchase these necessary laundry supplies on their own. Those wives with the necessary skills would also clean, sew, nurse and teach. Any woman who wanted to find work outside the military, however, had to receive leave to do so from the commanding officer.

When the regiment moved, the wives, boys under fourteen and girls under sixteen were given travel expenses to accompany the soldiers. If the regiment was sent outside of England, however, only a small percentage of the soldiers were permitted to bring their families and there was much competition to be allowed on the troop ship. In some cases, women would stow away to follow their husbands, and in other cases, women who held tickets to board the ship would trade or sell their ticket to another, less fortunate woman. In few cases, those left behind were allowed to remain in barracks where space allowed, but more often, the families left behind had to seek alternative housing at their own expense and many had to resort to the workhouse.

Schools were provided for the army children at nominal cost, and all children were expected to attend. In some regiments, the regiment itself provided schooling for the children but in garrison towns, garrison schools were often established. Schools were divided into ‘infants’ and ‘grown children’s’ schools. The younger children were under the charge of the schoolmistress and learned spelling, reading and singing while their mothers worked in the laundry. Older children were taught reading, writing, grammar, history, geography, arithmetic and algebra by the schoolmaster, and in the afternoons, the older girls would join the infants and learn domestic skills like needlework from the schoolmistress.

Because of the restrictions on marriage, many soldiers were forced to marry secretly and without consent. Their wives and children were said to be ‘off the strength’ and were considered to be of a lower class than the families who were sanctioned. They were not allowed to live in the barracks and if the soldier was transferred to a new station, they had to find their own transportation. When soldiers were sent abroad on foreign service, and indeed about two thirds of their time was spent outside of England, their families were forced to remain at home and were dependent on the parish or the poor union for their very survival.

Whether on or off the strength, the women of the Victorian regiment soon found that they served two masters. The first, their husband, whose first loyalty was to his commanding officer and the second, the military establishment whose reluctant patronage controlled their very existence.

In spite, however, of many seeming advantages which the wife of the soldier enjoys over those of the civilians, we would say to the girl who has her eye on an army marriage – ‘Don’t’. ~ Married Life in the Army, The Graphic, September 23, 1893

This article took first prize in the ISFHWE’s 2015 Excellence in Writing Competition

  1. I have been trying to find this sort of information for some years – what were your references, please. One of my ancestors served with the British army (91st Regiment of Foot) and must have been one of the lucky ones granted permission to marry as the births of all 3 children are in the regiment records, although curiously not the marriage itself. Further, the regiment was sent to Jamaica in 1822 and the father succumbed to yellow fever soon after. The children were left “in the care of the regiment” according to the muster roll – no mention of the wife though, perhaps she had already died. One of my brick walls ….

    1. My interest in this story came about when I found two marriage certificates for my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather was a Bombardier with the Royal Artillery and his regiment was stationed on the Isle of Wight. He became involved with my great-grandmother and they were unable at first to get permission to marry and because she was pregnant, a clandestine wedding was arranged. My great-grandfather stated in the marriage records that he was a plumber in order to circumvent the rules. A few months later, when my great-grandmother was nine months pregnant and my great-grandfather’s regiment had just been ordered to Delhi, India, they finally were given permission to wed and were married a second time on the mainland in Portsea, Hampshire, just before they sailed to India.

      My resources for the story included my great-grandfather’s regimental account book, along with newspapers and books contemporary to the period. One of the other books I found very helpful for background about the role of women in the British Army was Women of the Regiment: Marriage and the Victorian Army by Myna Trustram. You might also try The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age by Roger Norman Buckley. I’ve only read snippets of that one from Google Books but it seems very good. Have you tried the website http://www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com/ as yet? They have some transcriptions of parish registers and what looks like a lot of helpful information.

      1. I have just read your article of the Victorian army. My great great grandmother was married in Hackney to a soldier and then followed him to barracks in Aston Under Lyne. He was a private in the 96th Regiment of Infantry. He died in barracks in 1874, buried in 1875. She then seems to have returned back to Hackney with their young baby, who also died in Hackney in 1875 (within two or three weeks of his father).. What I want to know is why she travelled back to London with such a young baby? Would she have been unable to remain in barracks because her soldier husband was dead? I have no family to ask. What is your opinion? Thank you.

        1. That is very sad.
          Unfortunately, it is probably the case that she had to vacate the barracks after her husband’s death. You might find an entry in the military records regarding this. If you want to let me know the soldier’s name and your great-great-grandmothers, I can see if I can find anything in the records.

      2. I have a similar story – 2 marriage certificates for my 2 x great-grandparents; one in 1861 in Lambeth and one in 1864 in Whitechapel. He was in the Grenadier Guards and based mainly in London and the south of England but even so it sounds as if it was a terrible time for his wife – poor housing, the workhouse and losing children. It cannot have been easy for him either – the circumstances must have made it almost impossible for him to support a family.

        I’m wondering whether they actually went through a second ceremony, or if it was perhaps a paper exercise for the benefit of the army. His signature certainly looks different from other examples. Subsequent children were born in ‘model dwellings’ so I think things improved somewhat after the permitted marriage; though sadly she died within five years and the children were brought up in an orphanage. He remarried but was still considered a widower by the army – presumably he failed to get permission for a second time. Very interesting and rather sobering to know a little of what they went through.

        1. Hi Pauline, thanks for sharing. In the case of my great-grandparents, I think it was a second marriage. The first was by license, the second after banns. Both were at different churches.

  2. Thank you for your story and congratulations on your award for it. I hope you don’t mind that I have made a reference to it on my Family Search tree in my story about Jane Bateman Hyder, my great great grandmother. She and her two small children had to fend for themselves at Berhampore barracks in Bengal, India, along with other families of soldiers of the 49th Regiment of Foot. The men were away for over two years fighting the First Opium War in China between 1840 and 1842.
    Kath

  3. Thank you for this fascinating article Barbara Starman. I am wondering if you know if the policies with regard to women applied to the Colony of Victoria (Australia). My great grandmother accompanied her husband, a Royal Engineer, to Victoria in about 1860. I believe two years later he went to New Zealand, and probably she with him? Later she lived in a couple of different towns in Victoria, and I am wondering whether she was living in army barracks in those places.

    1. It would depend if she was ‘on the strength’ meaning the marriage was approved by the Army. If so then probably yes. There was a higher number of married quarters abroad.

      1. Thanks Barbara, the clue I have that she was “on strength” is that after her husband died (in the Bengal wars) she was unable to support her two small daughters who were admitted to the Benevolent Asylum. The admission notes said the mother was “out of situation” and had to rely on a friend for support. I do wish the Royal Engineers had kept proper records in Australia – they leave many questions unanswered. I found a book that lists every British military person sent to Australia in the 19th century. The one group whose peronnel are not listed is the Royal Engineers. The author notes that they did not keep proper records.

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