With students back to school for another year in our Fort Town, I can’t help thinking about how married soldiers and their families lived together in cramped quarters at Fort Wellington in the early to mid-nineteenth century.
In 1990-91, an archaeological dig at the Fort unearthed many artifacts that one would not have expected to find on a military site. These included painted tea cups, glassware, trinkets, children’s toys, shoes belonging to women, children and men, bottles for condiments and patent medicines, and even writing slates and slate pencils. Nineteenth century life at Fort Wellington was considerably more domestic than originally thought!
The 1851 Canada West census lists 16 military families living away from the Fort, in the Town of Prescott. This sample suggests that Fort Wellington soldiers were older than soldiers in other Regiments. Families consisted of 2 or more children, many of whom were born overseas…in the British Isles, at sea, or in exotic places such as Gibraltar, Jamaica, and Grenada.
The military unit assigned to Prescott from 1843-55, and later in 1867-70 was the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment (RCRR), a special regiment of long-serving loyal soldiers from existing British regiments. The continuing problem of desertion to the United States from garrisons located close to the border was what led to the creation of the RCRR. It was thought that mature soldiers could be trusted more than younger ones, and they were given incentives to enlist such as slightly higher pay, permission to work in their spare time, a guarantee that they would never be posted outside of Canada and most importantly, the allowance of twice the number of wives per company.
Children who lived at the Fort shared crowded quarters with their parents on the second floor of the Blockhouse. Some slept with their parents on a hard wooden bed, but many slept on the floor under the bed, along with pets and luggage. Records show that curtains afforded some privacy between families, but imagine 30% of the Fort’s soldiers living together with around 30 spouses and a total of 40 children or more!
Robert Henderson offers some great insight into the life of 19th century soldiers (http://www.warof1812.ca/). Soldiers, he writes, were required to seek permission from their commanding officer before marrying. If a soldier did not get permission, there were consequences. The soldier’s wife and children could be barred from rations, barracks accommodations, regimental washing, etc. The 33rd Regiment in 1813, for example, stated: “should a soldier marry without the consent of the Commanding Officer, his wife will not be allowed to come into the Barracks of the Regiment.”
At Fort Wellington, families took turns eating at the dining table on the east side of the second floor sleeping area. Married soldiers were permitted to pool their rations with their families, and the army usually issued a ½ ration of food to each woman and each child under the age of 14. Rations could be topped up by the family through provisions purchased privately.
Conflicts arose in garrison kitchens, especially with each family preparing their meals alongside the mess cooks. Barracks reforms in the 1850s helped set up separate cooking places for families.
Breakfast consisted of bread with milk, soup, tea, or saloop (a hot grain-based drink) and occasionally butter. A full dinner was served around 12:30-1:00 pm and was described by one soldier as “soup well thickened with meal, flour, or rice, and with the meat there must be a sufficiency of vegetables.”
The dining table might have served as a classroom during the day. The proximity of Fort Wellington to the Town of Prescott, however, made it possible for older children to attend the Common School.
During times of peace, the daily life of the soldier was monotonous and exhausting. Soldiers were required to drill for long hours at regular and special parades, and each man served shifts of guard duty. They worked in the kitchens and the garden, and were required to make repairs to the buildings and their uniforms. They could also serve as firefighters, and were sometimes sent to work on road and construction projects.
Wives were expected to keep busy by helping in the hospital or the barracks store or taking outside work, if they could, as a seamstress. In spite of the harsh discipline, poor pay, hard work, and cramped living quarters, many families got their start in Upper Canada by accepting assignments in garrisons like Fort Wellington.