J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Soldiers and the King’s Half-Penny

Last month Alex Burns, currently doing doctoral work on the Seven Years’ War at West Virginia University, shared his research on how well—or how poorly—ordinary soldiers were paid in the eighteenth century.

Some extracts:
Their pay certainly ranked in the lower strata of eighteenth-century incomes but was above or roughly the same as other groups in a similar social class: such day laborers or husbandmen. Pay varied between states. For example: the Austrians paid their common soldiers 5 or 6 creutzer, British paid their men six-pence a day, when adjusted for stoppages [i.e., deductions to pay for uniforms and other goods supplied to the soldiers], while the Prussian army paid their men 8 groschen a day. Yearly pay ranged from 12-14 Pounds a year in the British army to 24 Thaler a year in the Prussian Army. Soldiers in the Continental Army were promised a bit more, around $29 per year, but in practice, this was the equivalent of a few Spanish milled dollars. The average soldier earned around $1,500 per year, when adjusted to today's currency. . . .

Indeed, when measuring these sums, it may be easier to understand eighteenth-century wages through the lens of purchasing power, or labor value. When measured in these ways, the £12 is more like a yearly wage of around £20,000 in 2018 currency. So, while not rich by any standard of measure, these soldiers were not exactly destitute either. . . .

It may be more illuminating to see what a daily soldier’s wage could purchase. 1 pence could purchase a measure of gin, enough coal to heat a room for a day, or a enough firewood to heat a home for a day. 1.5 pence could purchase a pound of soap. For half of day’s wages (3 pence), you could purchase a dinner of bread, cheese and beer. Items priced about sixpence in eighteenth-century London included: a pound of cheese, a pound of hair powder, a lower-class dinner out consisting of meat, bread, and alcohol. Amenities available for 8 pence included:, a middle-class dinner out and a pound of butter. If able to save for five days, a soldier could afford to buy a pig.
Understandably, soldiers complained that they were paid very little. However, unless they had some sort of lucrative skill or pension, civilian life paid even less.

[The photograph above shows a half-penny coin issued in Britain in 1770, courtesy of Tony Clayton’s Coins of the U.K.]

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