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The Life of a Seamstress

March 15th – The seamstress came this morning to begin my wardrobe. We were with her for more than two hours and Mama ordered so many new gowns as that I am sure I shall never wear the half of them, but she insists that I must be properly dressed.
– From The Journal of a Regency Lady, Chapter 5
By Anne Herries


Dressmaker shop in 1775. Image from Regency England by Yvonne Forsling

The above quote, though coming from a contemporary author, might well have been written during the regency era. Women’s clothes were made at home during this period by the ladies themselves, their servants, or a professional seamstress. A dressmaker (or mantua maker) would charge about 2 pounds per garment and come to the house for fittings, where she might be served tea. A successful mantua maker who had set up shop in the fashionable part of Town would also provide a pleasant environment in which a lady could relax, serving tea and refreshments to prolong the shopping experience.

In her letters, Jane Austen mentioned a Miss Burton, who made pelisses for her and Cassandra in 1811. The cost of cloth and labor were reasonable, she wrote, but the buttons seemed expensive. Fabrics, increasingly mass produced, became more affordable during the Industrial Revolution, and demand for clothes grew among the newly wealthy middle class women. Young girls who sought work in the cities became seamstresses in homes and sweat shops. A little over twenty years after Jane’s death, the poor working conditions described below were common for seamstresses.

EVIDENCE TAKEN BY Children’s Employment Commission
February 1841
Miss — has been for several years in the dress-making business…The common hours of business are from 8 a.m. til 11 P.M in the winters; in the summer from 6 or half-past 6 A.M. til 12 at night. During the fashionable season, that is from April til the latter end of July, it frequently happens that the ordinary hours are greatly exceeded; if there is a drawing-room or grand fete, or mourning to be made, it often happens that the work goes on for 20 hours out of the 24, occasionally all night….The general result of the long hours and sedentary occupation is to impair seriously and very frequently to destroy the health of the young women. The digestion especially suffers, and also the lungs: pain to the side is very common, and the hands and feet die away from want of circulation and exercise, “never seeing the outside of the door from Sunday to Sunday.” [One cause] is the short time which is allowed by ladies to have their dresses made. Miss is sure that there are some thousands of young women employed in the business in London and in the country. If one vacancy were to occur now there would be 20 applicants for it. The wages generally are very low…Thinks that no men could endure the work enforced from the dress-makers.

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Source: Hellerstein, Hume & Offen, Victorian Women: A Documentary Accounts of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and the United States, Stanford University Press.

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Half-Pay and Prize Money: Making a Living in Britain’s Navy

Wentworth would have received both half-pay and prize money

Half-Pay and Prize Money

Captain Benwick had some time ago been first lieutenant of the Laconia; and the account which Captain Wentworth had given of him, on his return from Lyme before, his warm praise of him as an excellent young man and an officer, whom he had always valued highly, which must have stamped him well in the esteem of every listener, had been followed by a little history of his private life, which rendered him perfectly interesting in the eyes of all the ladies.

He had been engaged to Captain Harville’s sister, and was now mourning her loss. They had been a year or two waiting for fortune and promotion. Fortune came, his prize-money as lieutenant being great; promotion, too, came at last; but Fanny Harville did not live to know it.She had died the preceding summer while he was at sea.

As the Royal Navy came to its more modern organisation during the 17th Century it adopted the practice of impressment to provide the bulk of the crews.

The process of impressment was not suitable for the recruiting of officers, and the procedure adopted there was that officers received a basic pay for their rank when they were holding an appointment and half of that when between appointments (half-pay). Officers in command of ships or establishments received additional ‘Command money’ which varied with the status of the ship or establishment involved.”

Prior to 1814, Officers on shore could expect to receive payment every six months. After 1814, when so many officers were without ships, due to peace with France, this schedule was adjusted to once a quarter. Payment was based on a senority scale. A detailed chart of payments made may be found at The Napoleon Guide and ranged anywhere from £3.30 per day for Admirals to 5s per day for the lowliest of lieutenants.

Officers and men also received extra payments under the ‘Prize’ scheme. While this could arise in several different ways the most common by far was the capture of an enemy ship and its subsequent purchase by the Navy (a feasible process with wooden ships). For the ordinary sailor the amount was typically a few shillings (although it should be noted that this represented several months pay) but for the commanding officer it typically amounted to hundreds of pounds. Thus many captains had estates ashore which gave them an alternative income.

Junior officers were in a much more perilous state, as it was not really possible to keep a home on the half pay for a Lieutenant. This was part of the reason why marriage by junior officers was so frowned upon.*

While ashore, officers could refuse postings to new ships, waiting for more desirable places, but advancement was not assured and in so doing he ran the risk of being passed over a second time.


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The Advent of Valentines

“Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day, when every bird chooses her mate. I will plague you no longer now,
providing you will let me see you from your window tomorrow when the sun first peeps over the eastern hill, and give me right to be your Valentine for the year.”
Sir Walter Scott
The Fair Maid of Perth, 1828

Valentine’s day is one of the earliest Christian holidays. Springing from the ancient Roman fertility

festival of the Luprical, in 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius attempted to ban the pagan ritual by replacing it

with a Saints Day celebration. He named February 14 in honor of St. Valentine, the patron saint of

lovers. Though the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or

Valentinus, (all of whom were martyred on February 14) tradition holds that this Valentine was a

priest imprisoned for marrying young lovers againse the Ceasar’s command. Sometime around 270 A.D.

Emperor Claudius II had decided that single men made better soldiers than married ones. He therefore

decreed that young men not be allowed to marry. When Valentine was found defying this order, he was

impriosoned and later beheaded. The legend continues that while in prison, Valentine fell in love with

his jailor’s blind daughter. Shortly before his execution, he sent her a farewell letter which was

signed “from your Valentine.” Words that are used even to this day.

Later, Medieval Europeans believed that birds began to mate on February 14. Doves and pigeons mate for

life and were therefore used as a symbol of fidelity. Also during the Middle Ages, people began to

send love letters on Valentine’s Day. The first “official” valentine was sent by the Charles, Duke of

Orleans in 1415. Imprisoned in the Tower of London following the battle of Agincourt, he passed the

time by writing love poems to his wife.

target=”new”>This letter is now part of the collection of the British Library in London.

A Redoute Rose
It wasn’t until the 1600’s that Valentine’s day as a holiday really took off. Sending flowers as a

Valentine’s gift began in the early 1700’s when King Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian poetical

art called the


language of flowers to Europe. Throughout the 18th century, floral dictionaries were published,

allowing friends and lovers to send secret messages with a single bloom or bouquet. Of course, the

more popular a flower is, the more meaning is attached to it. Roses also came into their own during

the Georgian period. New imports from China promoted breeding and cross breeding producing what is now

one of England’s favorite garden flower. A famous floral artist of the time, Pierre-Joseph Redoute,

painted hundreds of flowers during his time as court painter to Marie Antoinette and the Empress


“The arrival of this pianoforte is decisive with me.
I wanted to know a little more, and this tells me quite enough…
now I can see it in no other light than as an offering of love.”

Frank Churchill, Emma

We know that the Georgians celebrated Valentine’s Day in style. In Emma, Jane Austen has Jane

Fairfax’s surprise pianoforte arrive on Valentine’s day. Truly a splashy gift made embarrassing by a

secret engagement.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to

exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. Some of these styles are easily recreated at

home. Pinprick valentines were made by pricking tiny holes in paper with a pin to resemble the look of

lace. Similar to today’s paper snowflakes, cutout valentines were lacey looking cards made by folding

paper several times and cutting out a delicate design with small, sharp scissors. Poems and acrostic

valentines, verses in which the first letters in the lines spelled out the beloved’s name were also


By the end of the century, printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in

printing technology. Cards decorated with black and white pictures painted by factory workers began to

be created in the early 1800s; by the end of the century, valentines were being made entirely by

machine. In the 1840’s, (soon after chocolate candy was invented) machine made, mass market valentines

became available. We must thank the Victorians for forming Valentines Day into much of what it is

today. Recent statistics show that Valentine’s day is the second most popular card sending holiday,

with 1 billion valentines mailed world wide.

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Become a Regency Beau

Mr. Jenkins' suit by Marie Bernadette Strang, The Regency Gent

Regency Wear for Modern Gentlemen

Mr. Jenkins' suit by Marie Bernadette Strang, The Regency Gent
When attending a function requiring period dress the first question is, of course, “What should I wear? Followed by, “What did the men of Jane Austen’s period wear?”

In most cases, the answer to the first question is easy – whatever you are comfortable wearing. The second is a bit more difficult – we have to look at the years represented and your position in society.

For men with a basic wardrobe at their disposal (business attire and weekend variations), I would recommend keeping it simple. Perhaps a dark suit or dark slacks and a dark sport coat, a white or lightly colored shirt and a tie. If you have one, a bow tie is a nice addition. To men who own a more varied collection, I would recommend a tuxedo or “white tie and tails.”

There are a few easy changes men with a more adventurous spirit might make. Perhaps the lady in your life is willing to put in some extra effort. First, you could add a vest. It could be dark, light or even brightly colored. The “higher” the vest is cut or the more buttons it has the better. Next replace the tie with a cravat. A cravat is a piece of cloth 2-4 inches wide and about three feet long. It can be made of almost any fabric and color. It could even be made of lace for an extra bit of flair.

Half-knot with pin

Lace stock

Tying a cravat is fairly simple, but a little hard to describe. Start by folding it lengthwise so that it is only about two inches wide. Then, holding the fabric in front of your neck wrap it once around so the ends are again in front. Now, tie it like a bow tie or with a half knot. If the ends are long they can be tucked into the vest. If tied with a half knot, a stick pin or tie pin at the knot is a nice touch.

For men more adventurous still, pants could be replaced by knee breeches with knee socks/stockings. Dark pants with white socks or stockings are preferred. “Stretch” pants with under-foot loops (they look just like woman’s stirrup pants) are also an option. Baseball socks work very well for the knee socks/stockings. A good period look is pants (normal, stretch, knickers), a white shirt (collared, wingtip, or collarless), a vest (black or colored), a black tail coat, and cravat.

Before you start to worry, I would like to tell you a story. A number of years ago I was attending a formal 1860’s ball. Shortly after the ball began I noticed a man standing at the door. He was looking in and looking quite concerned. I should point out that he was wearing khaki pants and an Hawaiian shirt. He stood there for quite a few minutes.
Less Formally AttiredI went over and asked if I could be of assistance. He told me that he had bought a ticket for the ball; however, when he asked someone about attire they responded with – Oh! Don’t worry, anything festive. He told me that he felt a little foolish walking in to a room filled with men in white tie and tails and ladies in ball gowns, dressed as he was. I told him that he did not need to worry; he was welcome however he was attired. After a few minutes of chatting he decided to come in. He had a great time and made many friends that evening. The moral? It is more important to come to the party than to spend all evening worrying about what to wear.

Marc Casslar is the founder and director of the Vintage Dance Society. Mr. Casslar is involved in the development of theatrical performances (for both stage and film) and the recreation of period social events. He has been involved in a variety of historic dance forms since 1977 and has performed throughout the United States and Japan. He is currently helping to coordinate JASNA-CT’s first “assembly”. You can visit his website at

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Sense and Sensibility

Is it all about self-control?

The Dashwood Family, from left: Elinor, Marianne, Marguerite, and Mrs. Dashwood.

“The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.” Thus begins the story of two sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood with an emphasis on family, sense of place and society. Forced into reduced circumstances by the sudden death of their father, the Dashwood sisters and their mother move from their home in Sussex to Barton Cottage in Devonshire. Before leaving Sussex, an attachment has been formed between Elinor, the eldest, and Edward Ferrars, her sister-in-law’s brother. In Devonshire, the youngest sister Marianne meets and falls in love with the handsome Willoughby. Both relationships encounter problems: Edward Ferrars has been engaged for years to Lucy Steele whom he feels bound to marry out of a sense of duty, and Willoughby mysteriously disappears. Upon learning of Willoughby’s checkered past and his recent marriage to an heiress, Marianne becomes gravely ill.Happy Couple Things work out in the end: Edward, released from his engagement is free to marry Elinor, and Marianne recovered from her illness, realizes the error of her infatuation and eventually marries the much older Colonel Brandon.

Just as easily as I sketched the story line of Sense and Sensibility, critics from the start have been quick to reduce the theme of the novel to a polar opposition: head versus heart. In its contemporary and original review The British Critic wrote: “The object of the work is to represent the effects on the conduct of life, of discreet, quiet good sense on one hand, and an over-refined and excessive susceptibility on the other.Thomas HobbesI hope to show that things are not so simple. The two words of the title are not there by chance: they represent a literary tradition which Jane Austen was very much aware of. In the seventeenth century, philosophers had become preoccupied with the problem of whether man is a wholly self-centered and self-seeking being. Thomas Hobbes believed man was naturally bad. His pessimistic view of human nature held that if man was self-seeking and depraved, enlightened despotism was needed to curb men’s passions. Contrarily, Anthony Ashley Cooper Shaftesbury and his followers held that man was naturally good, possessed an innate moral sense, and that consequently it was society which was at fault (an idea which lead to Rousseau and the French Revolution.) In the realm of literature such ideas would lead to Romanticism and its attendant emphasis on sensibility and imagination as well as its valuing of human impulses expressed freely. In light of this, we could say that today’s society believes Shaftesbury rather than Hobbes.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) (on right, his brother is on the left.) Picture taken from:

But what of Jane Austen and her society? In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Professor Butler argues that by the end of the seventeenth century (i.e.: Jane Austen’s formative years) both world views were battling it out and were in favor alternatively. Shaftesbury’s ideas gave rise to the Sentimentalists (1760’s -1770’s) a group of writers identified as individualistic, libertarian and anti-social. Their novels were seen by many as dangerous because they were vehicles for moral relativism. Samuel Johnson and the conservative critics regarded them with great suspicion because, as Marilyn Butler points out, the sentimental tendency “is indeed to work against the exercise of the ethical sense, and actively to enlist the reader, by half conscious and almost subliminal means, in the party of unlimited toleration.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of Godwin, Mother of Mary Shelley.A glimpse at William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft will help us get a sense of the war of ideas being waged about the time Jane Austen began to write. Professor Butler characterizes Godwin, political essayist and novelist, in the following terms: “Instead of the sentimentalist’s benevolent intuition or fellow-feeling, he believes in the conscious, willed understanding as the essentially human thing, the guarantee of man’s dignity and his sole hope for improvement. He minimizes those aspects of man’s nature which limit the freedom of his mind, such as the pleasures of the senses, tastes and ‘involuntary affections’, which include emotional attachments to family and friends.” As for Mary Wollstonecraft, she writes, in A Vindication of the Rights of Man: “Sensibility is the mania of the day, and compassion the virtue which is to cover a multitude of vices, whilst justice is left to mourn in sullen silence, and balance truth in vain…”

Emma Thompson as Elinor In such a philosophical and literary climate, how does Jane Austen give shape to her characters? Does she truly view reason as being more important than feeling in female affairs? Yes– but not cold Cartesian reason but rather understanding, observation, reflection and poise. The importance of reason in the novel seems to be borne out by the obvious fact that Elinor, the sensible one, is the privileged focus and that the narrative voice, though seemingly objective, is on her side. This is apparent immediately beginning with chapter 1:

“Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding and coolness of judgment which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught. Marianne’s abilities were in many respects quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. Emma Thompson as ElinorElinor saw with concern the excess of her sister’s sensibility, but by Mrs. Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future. Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention; and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.”Kate Winslet as Marianne; Greg Wise as Willoughby.What seems significant in this description of the sisters and mother is the accumulation of words such as understanding, judgment, govern, sensible, moderation, prudent, struggle, exert, strive and forbearance: words seeking to express the degree of effort these women are willing or unwilling to put forth to control the feelings they all have (including Elinor). As a quintessential romantic, of course Marianne deems such efforts as un-natural. Why deny one’s good and true nature simply to please or fit into society? Such are the values in conflict in this “didactic” novel: self versus society. Elinor (and Jane Austen) are on the side of society and politeness. This is what Elinor, who is only nineteen, desires for her sister when she deplores: “Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at nought; and a better acquaintance with the world is what I look forward to as her greatest possible advantage.” (Chapter 11). Upon learning of the pleasant outing Marianne had visiting Mrs. Smith’s house, Elinor repeats her lesson: “…the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.” (Chapter 13). Oddly, Elinor will consent to lie when politeness requires it. (Chapter 21).Hugh GrantBesides civility it is understanding, the power of observation and goodness which are valued when Elinor admires Edward with a bit of Marianne-like enthusiasm: “…he has an innate propriety and simplicity of taste, which in general direct him perfectly right […] The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent […] I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure.” (Chapter 4). She also esteems Colonel Brandon because he is “a sensible man, well-bred, well-informed, of gentle address, and I believe possessing an amiable heart.” (Chapter 10). Her intelligence and method guarantee that she will first think and then hope.

Greg Wise as John WilloughbyReflecting upon the probability of Marianne and Willoughby being engaged secretly, Elinor does not jump to conclusions: “…and Elinor was then at liberty to think over the representation of her mother, to acknowledge the probability of many, and hope for the justice of all.” (Chapter 15). Her self-control and concern for others also allow her to be the comforter of others in their distress. Most importantly for her, reflection leads to happiness: “She who had seen her week after week so constantly suffering, oppressed by anguish of heart which she had neither courage to speak of nor fortitude to conceal, now saw with a joy which no other could equally share an apparent composure of mind, which, in being the result as she trusted of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 10). The young woman who seemed so much older than her age can indeed feel joy. She is not cold or devoid of feelings. She betrays warmth when she speaks of Edward:Hugh Grant “I do not attempt to deny,’said she,’that I think very highly of him –that I greatly esteem, that I like him.” And when Marianne bursts with indignation at her expression of lukewarm feelings, Elinor responds: “…be assured that I meant no offence to you by speaking in so quiet a way of my own feelings. Believe them to be stronger than I have declared; believe them, in short, to be such as his merit and the suspicion — the hope of his affection for me may warrant without imprudence or folly.” (Chapter 4).

Here and throughout the novel we witness a softening of the opposition between sense and sensibility, as Ian Watt has remarked. Elinor has feelings and emotions but they are kept in check. Upon meeting Edward at Barton: “His coldness and reserve mortified her severely; she was vexed and half angry; but resolving to regulate her behaviour to him by the past rather than the present, she avoided every appearance of resentment or displeasure and treated him as she thought he ought to be treated from the family connection.” (Chapter 16).Elinor and Edward Elinor is aware of the temptation to self-righteousness. To follow reason does not mean she will impose her “correct”” view on others: “I will not raise any objections against anyone’s conduct on so illiberal a foundation as a difference in judgment from myself for a deviation from what I may think right and consistent.” (Chapter 15). Elinor can even feel momentary regrets at not being more like her sister: “…and Elinor, in spite of every occasional doubt of Willoughby’s constancy, could not witness the rapture of delightful expectations which filled the whole soul and beamed in the eyes of Marianne without feeling how blank was her own prospect, how cheerless her own state of mind in the comparison, and how gladly she would engage in the solicitude of Marianne’s situation to have the same animating object in view, the same possibility of hope.” (Vol. 2, Chapter 4).

Elinor and EdwardThe reader has access to Elinor’s consciousness and knows of her constant struggle to remain the voice of reason in the household. After reading Willoughby’s and Marianne’s correspondence “she was silently grieving over the imprudence which had hazarded such unsolicited proofs of tenderness, not warranted by anything preceding, and most severely condemned by the event…” (Vol. 2, Chapter 7). Her efforts at sparing her family all are finally revealed when she declares to Marianne: “You do not suppose that I have ever felt much. For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature, knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy whenever it were explained to you, yet unable to prepare you for it in the least […] If you can think me capable of ever feeling, surely you may suppose that I have suffered now.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 1).

Greg WiseIt is, however, without doubt, in the scene where she hears Willoughby’s confession that the sensible Elinor allows herself to listen to her heart: “Willoughby, he whom only half an hour ago she had abhorred as the most worthless of men, Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated forever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself, to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight: by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less.” (Vol. 3, Chapter 9). Such a scene contributes in no small part to increasing the reader’s sympathy for Elinor who is, at times, in danger of appearing too insensitive and even boring to us readers who have read the Brontes and other assorted Romantics.

Elinor and MarianneI have focused on Elinor, showing how she displays both sense and feelings, but there are also a few passages describing Marianne as “sensible and clever” as quoted above in chapter 1. Reason and sense are good things, it seems, but they do not preclude feelings as long as those feelings are examined prudently, kept in check, and not allowed to cloud the judgment of a person or to shock or offend society. Both Elinor and Marianne have a bit of both: sense and sensibility. The fact that Marianne elicits our sympathy in spite of her seeming foolishness would tend to show that Jane Austen valued both sense and sensibility, the latter perhaps in spite of herself. Elinor and EdwardI will end with the wonderful scene at the end of the novel where we see Elinor overwhelmed by feelings as she discovers that Lucy and Robert Ferrars are newly married and that Edward is free: “Elinor could sit it no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.” Her joy is intense, yes, but as a young lady always aware of decorum, she remembers not to run and to shut the door. (Vol. 3, Chapter 12).

Françoise Coulont-Henderson teaches French language and literature in a small liberal arts university in the US. She has discovered Jane Austen late in life.

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Entry into the Officer Corps

All Officers in the British Army began their careers by obtaining their first “Subaltern” commission. Depending upon the regiment, that would be as an Ensign, Second Lieutenant, or Coronet. This article will examine how officers made that first step; promotion to higher ranks will be covered in a separate installment.

Men could become officers in the Army in a number of ways. Those in the Ordnance Corps, such as Artillery and Engineers, were trained at Woolwich Academy, but were not considered to be truly “gentlemen”‘ despite being an Officer (and will not be dealt with in this article). Entry into the Cavalry or Infantry was either by “purchasing” his Commission, or by a number of “non-purchase” options.

Frederick, Duke of York 1759-1827 In examining this subject, it is necessary to divide the era into two parts, those before and after the Duke of York’s reforms of 1796. Before the reforms, there were fewer regulations to determine how young a prospective officer should be, or how they obtained their rank.

The Duke’s reforms created the provision that candidates needed to be at least 16 years of age (although a few younger did slip through, and there was also an upper limit of 21). They were also to be “gentlemen,” able to read and write, be of good character, and vouched for by a superior officer. All applications were to be transmitted through the Colonel (or Officer Commanding the Regiment) to the Commander-in-Chief’s Military Secretary (if at Home) or the General Officer Commanding at the station (if abroad).

While to many modern eyes, the “purchase” system seems archaic, and favouring the select few at the top, people in Jane Austen’s time took a very different view. Medieval in its most distant origins, it continued until the Reforms of 1871. Under this system, officers paid a set price for the rank that they held. The intention was to attract the men of fortune and character who would best know how to look after the nation’s interest. As they “owned” their Commission, it was expected they would be more responsible of their “property” (even though legally it was held by the Crown). As the King had not granted them their position, it also made them appear less likely to be used against the “People.”

Samuel West as Major Edrington, Horatio Hornblower, The Wrong War. Major Edrington, was a Lord who had purchased his commission. To purchase a commission, the required sum of money would be deposited with the relevant “Regimental Agent.” Commissions could be bought either from the Government, or from officers desirous of selling their Commission and retiring from the service. Agents were empowered by the Commander-in-Chief, or the Officer Commanding a Regiment, to handle public moneys in accordance to regulations. They were also authorized to act as the banker and business manager for the individual officers serving in ‘their’ regiments. They were not directly part of the Army, and need not necessarily have served in the Army (although many had). Some Agents acted on behalf of several Regiments. The Agent in turn submitted the applicant’s name and letters of recommendation to the Adjutant General’s office at Horse Guards, where the C-in-C would approve of it. People other than authorized Agents were prohibited from acting in the sale or purchase of commissions.

The Duke’s Reforms also set the prices for each Rank: to be an Ensign in a Regular Regiments of Infantry, £400; in Regiments that had Second Lieutenants, £450; in the Foot Guards: (where Ensigns were the equivalent of Lieutenants in Regular Regiments) £600; to be a Coronet in the Dragoon Guards or Dragoons cost £735, and in the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards, £1050. One can well imagine the extra social status attached to a Commission in the more “elite” units. The penalty for trying to pay more than the set price, was to immediately forfeit the Commission, and to be cashiered. Aiding and abetting constituted a Misdemeanor. Regulation also prohibited any advertising, or making any other promises, rewards, contracts, etc. This would not, of course, prevent any supposedly unrelated deal between two gentlemen from taking place. (These reforms were not, however, entirely without flaws. In March 1809, the Duke of York was compelled to resign as Commander-in-Chief, when it was discovered that his mistress had been trafficking in the sale of Commissions. He was, however, reinstated in 1811 when his successor, Sir David Dundas, proved to be an inefficient replacement.)

Anthony Calf as Col. Fitzwilliam in A&E's Pride and Prejudice. Col. Fitzwilliam (Cousin to Mr. Darcy) was the younger son of the Earl of ---, who had bought his commission. While to modern readers this would seem to favour those at the top of the society, some people at the time felt it was less open to excessive abuse of patronage. It also opened up entry into the Officer Corps for the sons of the rising “middle class”: soldiers, clergymen, professionals, and even tradesmen. While by right of their commission, all officers were “gentlemen.” This would give such men an element of “respectability” that they might not immediately hold by virtue of their birth. However, while some of these could afford to buy commissions, the majority applied for non-purchase vacancies.

There were a number of “non-purchase” ways of obtaining a commission, including: being a “Gentlemen Volunteer,” being promoted from the ranks, as other means. These could occur by the death, disability, retirement, etc., of another officer, creating a vacancy that needed to be filled immediately. Other openings came with the establishment of new Regiments, or the expansion of existing ones. Gentleman Volunteers were young men who applied to the Commanding Officer of a Regiment to serve at their own expense in the hope of filling a non-purchase vacancy when it occurred. They usually carried a musket, but wore a uniform cut in the style of an officer, but with minimal ornamentation. They fought in the ranks, but socialized with the Officers. In other cases an NCO (Sergeant or Corporal) might perform a deed of valour that came to the attention of the military establishment, which felt the individual merited being made an officer. However, the practice was to appoint them to another regiment than the one in which they served in the ranks.

Ensigns raise the flag in battle “Free Vacancies” came in a number of ways. Openings for junior officers might open up in a Regiment, which were filled without purchase, or having previous military service. This was done by applying directly to the Commander-in-Chief, accompanied by the applicant’s testimonials. These vacancies most frequently occurred in colonial formations, or in one of the “Foreign Corps”. Edmund Wheatley for example, obtained one such Ensigncy at the age of 21 in the King’s German Legion (which despite an admirable record on the battlefield, was not considered suitable for “gentlemen”). However, in almost all cases the Commanding Officer’s backing was crucial.

Openings occasionally occurred as the result of a court-martial ending dismissal from the service. (However, usually if a man was cashiered, his replacement came from outside the regiment, so that it might not appear there were other motives behind his removal.) Some Officers transferred from the Militia (where rank was related to one’s income based on property, later extended to trade, albeit at a higher rate). However, one could not normally carry over their existing rank, but had to enter as Ensigns.

Records show not only if a commission was purchased, but also if he was a volunteer, a former NCO, or a private gentleman. Michael Glover, who examined the Gazette, calculated that in the war 4.5% of new subalterns were Volunteers. He also calculated that another 5.42% were ex-NCOs, exclusive of Ensigns from Veteran Battalions (who were almost entirely drawn from the ranks). Thus nearly one in ten of the officers came from the two mentioned categories. This might be even higher if those who were discharged before taking the commission were added.

Jason Everett has been a re-enactor since 1982 with a group representing a red-coated Canadian regiment of the War of 1812. For the past five years he has been its Commanding Officer. Other interests include Modern Ballroom, and Regency Country Dancing.
Military Re-enactment Society of Canada / Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada

Great Britain, Adj-General’s Office, General Regulations and Orders for the Army, 1811.
Bryan Fosten, Wellington’s Infantry(I) [Osprey Men-at-Arms series]
Stuart Reid, “Officers and Gentlemen: Commanding the British Army,” The Age of Napoleon (Nrs. 30 & 32)
Edmund Wheatley (Christopher Hibbert, ed.), The Wheatley Dairy.

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