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Fort Malden National Historic Site of Canada


Military Life in the Brick Barrack


Until the 1830's the British Army had not encouraged the men to marry. However, six wives for every 100 men in a regiment were permitted to come on strength. These wives were chosen by the commanding officer of the regiment. Authorities came to realize finally that marriage had a steadying influence on the men, especially in the border posts where desertion rate was high. Beginning in 1832, and expanding through the 1840's the border posts were garrisoned with a high portion of married men and their families.

There were no private married quarters provided by the army for these men until the late 1850's. Soldiers with families occupied the corners of barrack rooms. They may have strung up a blanket at night to provide some privacy but, as this was technically forbidden by barrack regulations, it depended upon the individual sergeants as to whether this took place.

Wives were granted beds and bedding but their children were not. Young children would sleep with their parents. Older children had to find a bed every night, sleeping in the vacant bunks of the soldiers on guard duty.

Wives and children were permitted partial rations, one half for a wife and one third or one quarter for a child. At age 14 the children were removed from the rations list. Women and children were not recipients of any rum allowance. In return for rations the women did much of the housework in the barracks, sweeping and dry rubbing the floors, the regimental laundry, etc. They were also liable to military punishment for crimes such as bringing liquor into the barracks.

Most posts provided a school room for army children after 1811. In the 1840's the Fort Malden schoolroom was located in the north room, first floor of Number 2 Frame barracks.

In addition to the routine cleaning already mentioned, barrack women may have also made such commodities as soap and candles for the post. The commandant at Fort Malden noted that the price of everything was much more expensive for the soldiers in Amherstburg than in the larger towns and cities. It is possible that they would have made lye and soap on the base, especially as each barrack room had an ash box and there were ash pits in the garrison at Fort Malden.

Candles were usually supplied on contract to the posts, dipped candles for the men and mould made ones for the officers. The border posts may have supplemented their candle supply in the garrison, possibly prepared by the women.

Barrack Equipment and Maintenance

The Fort Malden barrack building was furnished with wooden berths (bunks) - a highly unusual feature for the late 1830's. In 1827 the single folding iron bedstead was introduced by the British army and by 1835 most posts had converted to this system.

Each soldier was allowed to draw the following bedding: one each of straw-filled palliasse (mattress), two sheets, two blankets, bolster (a type of pillow) and bolster cover. The straw in the palliasse was changed at least quarterly.

Shelves ran over the beds, along the walls of the room, with pegs below. Each man was allotted two or three pegs for his belongings, as well as a portion of the shelf.

Water for the barrack was fetched from the fort's well in oak buckets supplied for that purpose. Leather fire buckets were also supplied for each room.

Basins were provided for each room which served not only as a wash tub, but also at night as a urine tub, thus resulting in eye infections. This medical problem was eventually recognized and the practice halted c. 1840.

Barrack regulations forbade anything to be nailed into the walls so there would have been no personal belongings hanging over the beds. All such articles including spare clothing, were kept in the field pack. Decorations for special occasions began in the 1840's when they started to decorate barrack rooms for Christmas with evergreen boughs, swords, flags and paintings.

Floors were swept and dry rubbed. A new broom was supplied for each room one every three months. Floors were rarely washed because it was felt that water created an unhealthy, damp atmosphere. This work was carried out by barrack women if they were available. Another activity assigned to barrack women was the regimental laundry. Bed sheets were washed once a month. The soldiers were responsible for cleaning the windows regularly and maintained the fireplaces or stoves. The cleaning of chimneys was done by contract.

Each soldier was allowed three pounds of wood per day, which was delivered in rations of 12 pounds every four days. Fatigue parties would be detailed to fetch it from the wood yard. It was apparently stacked against the side of the building and split there into manageable pieces. As the wood was rationed, the men probably took care to use the fireplace or stove only when necessary.

Food and cooking

The food available to the ordinary soldier was limited in quantity, quality and variety. The daily ration for a soldier was one pound of bread, or 3/4 pound of biscuit, and one pound of meat. Fresh meat was provided for at least part of the year, in which case the daily ration also included ½ ounce of salt. The rest of the time salt meat might be provided. Beef or pork were the staples rather than mutton.

At times the army was issued rice or dried peas which would be added to the daily ration, but the troops had to rely on their own initiative for any fresh fruits or vegetables. Few could afford to buy them. At some stations the men were allocated a plot of land for a vegetable garden which they tended on their own time. At Fort Malden a military garden was located just north of the fortification, in the vicinity of the present day visitor orientation centre. There is also evidence, at some posts of the troops being given a root cellar.

Oatmeal or cheese were available at times Another food source was fish. Soldiers often fished to supplement or vary their diets.

Troops were not permitted to drink an liquor in the barracks, but there was an official daily allowance of one pence beer money. The no liquor rule appears to have been strictly enforced. However, many posts, including Fort Malden had a canteen of some sort where beer and whiskey was available. As for non-alcoholic beverages, the men drank tea or coffee with their meals, which they had to purchase.

The above diet was extremely monotonous. One known exception to this was Christmas. By the 1840's Christmas was beginning to be celebrated as a festive, as well as a religious occasion. As already noted earlier, barrack rooms were decorated and in addition a special Christmas Day dinner was also possible. For example, in 1847 at Kingston, the troops dined on roast beef and mutton, with plum pudding for dessert. Another place served wine to the men. Roasted meats of any kind, desserts and wine were virtually unheard of normally amongst the lower ranks.

For many years the soldiers were fed only twice a day: breakfast and a dinner (around 1:00 pm). By the 1830's an evening meal of bread and tea had been instituted.

By the 1840's most posts had cookhouses where the food was prepared for the men and this was certainly the case with Fort Malden. Rations, paid for by the men, would be issued in bulk. Cooks were appointed from the ranks for a three month period with assistants who rotated on a regular basis. N.C.O.'s, that is corporals or sergeants, were always in charge of the men's messes and were never appointed cooks.

The soldiers has only one method of preparing meat and vegetables - boiling them to create soups or stews. Iron pots, cranes, trivets, tea kettles and meat forks were supplied to the barracks rooms which suggests that some minor cooking was going on in the rooms. Although the men's food would have been prepared elsewhere and fetched into the room in pots, it was probably hung over the fireplace, or on the stove top, to keep it warm.

Leisure Activities

Leisure time was often not extensive, and much of it was spent by the men in improving their lot. Desertion was high in Canada, especially at the frontier posts. The greater tolerance of marriage for the men, in the 1830's and 1840's added stability to their lives and gave them an off-duty focus of attention. Generally speaking though, sham battles, spit-and-polish guard duties and barrack square training kept the soldiers occupied.

As already indicated, much off-duty time was spent tending a communal garden, fishing and other similar activities designed to supplement the diet.

The privates received a shilling a day in wages which was received daily at parade. However, after stoppages for food, clothing, barrack damages, etc. he had little left for anything other than a few beers at the local tavern.

Boredom was a constant problem at the posts and small frontier garrisons, such as Fort Malden, were that much worse. The only real relief was a new posting and a new town to explore. Thus regiments stationed at Fort Malden changed frequently, usually every year or two.

Ordinary soldiers were forbidden to own any clothes other than regulation dress. Thus all leisure time activities, from fishing to visiting the town would have been carried out in uniform. Part of their leisure time was spent in maintaining that uniform and equipment.

Books, except for selected religious works, were generally forbidden until the late 1830's, at which time libraries for the other ranks started to appear at some posts. The soldiers of Fort Malden often frequented a private circulating library operated out of a general store located in Amherstburg. From that library's records we can tell that both officers and enlisted men were frequent patrons.

Daily Routine

To maintain order among the men, intensive military drills were carried out daily and severe discipline was maintained. Disobedience and "unsoldierlike conduct" met with harsh punishments which were witnessed by the entire garrison. This was often a daily occurrence.

Generally, the men had only drills, guard duty and work parties to keep them occupied and this varied little from post to post. A typical day went like this:

  • reveille beating at sunrise
  • 0500hrs rise. Wash, make beds, clean rooms, etc.
  • 0600hrs - 0730hrs daily drill
  • 0730hrs - breakfast
  • 1000hrs - morning parade and guard mounting
  • 1300hrs - dinner
  • 1400hrs - drill for recruits and defaulters
  • retreat beating at sunset
  • 2000hrs - tattoo beating
  • 2100hrs - lights out

The before breakfast drill and inspection was an almost daily feature, as a practice for the men. It was performed in fatigues, not full kit. The men went through the manual of arms and bayonet exercises. The drill in use in 1838-1840 was the 1828 regulations. This included the manual of exercise to increase the soldier's familiarity with the weapon and the platoon exercise to practice loading and firing the musket.

Guards were mounted during the morning parade and that is when any public punishments would take place. The guards would be on duty status for 24 hours. The length of time between guard duty would vary from post to post, depending upon its size and strength. All orders would be read and explained at each of three successive parades after they were issued. The Articles of War had to be read to the men once every two months. The men turned out in dress uniform and full kit for parade and were thoroughly inspected by the sergeant. There would also be drill at this parade (the commanding officer's parade).

One of the first things the men wanted to do was to be de-classified as a recruit and thus be excused from the afternoon drill session (unless he was a defaulter). In addition to regular drill, these sessions included marching and extension and balance motions. Again there was an inspection. In addition to the drill, by the 1840's the recruits were also attending school to learn the basic three "R's" (reading, writing, arithmetic).

The gates were closed at sunset when retreat was beaten. After that those approaching were challenged. The men were usually free in the evenings to go into town, as long as they were in their barracks before tattoo beating.

The men could be assigned to routine work parties as need be for such tasks as unloading ships, digging new privies, cleaning stables, chopping fire wood, digging paths through the snow. These groups would be under the command of an N.C.O. They could also be asked to form a work party "as a duty" above routine garrison work, in which case they were paid above their normal wages, e.g., road crews. Then men were limited to a maximum of 10 hours of active work during the summer and to 8 hours in the winter.

Privates of good conduct might be assigned to serve in the Officers' Mess or to act as valet to an officer.

The men attended church on Sunday, in full dress uniform. By the 1840's the men had the choice of either the Protestant or Roman Catholic denominations. No other were considered.

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