Revolutionary War Historical Article

Eight Pence a Day
The Pay of the Private British Soldier during the War for American Independence

by: Douglas R. Cubbison

Editor's Note: Reprinted by Permission of the Author. This article also appeared in the July/August 2007 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter.

The matter of his pay was a subject with which nearly every British Private Soldier was intimately familiar. At the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, when aggressive cost cutting measures were implemented by the British Military that substantially altered the terms of the soldier’s pay under which the soldiers had enlisted, garrisons throughout North American mutinied (Note 1). In large part because it was such a convoluted system, this is a subject with which most living historians and re-enactors are totally unfamiliar. Accordingly, this missive is intended to serve as an introduction of that topic.

This article will delineate the pay system as it existed after 1771, and before 1783. Pay reform acts passed in 1771 and 1783 bounded the pay system as it existed throughout most of the War for American Independence. An important caveat is that Colonels commanding Regiments, and Captains commanding Companies, enjoyed considerable latitude in the financial operations of their respective units. Although regulated to some extent by military administration and laws (most particularly the annual Mutiny Act), the Colonels and Captains essentially ran their organizations as independent financial entities. Accordingly, there were considerable differences between regiments, and even between individual companies within a regiment. This article will attempt to describe the pay system as it was most commonly established, but it must be recognized that widespread variations were the rule rather than the exception.

First, before describing the pay system, it is important to briefly introduce the monetary system operating in late 18th century North America. The core currency was a penny. Twelve (12) pennies comprised a shilling, twenty (20) shillings a pound, and twenty-one (21) shillings a guinea. Common subdivisions were the farthing (a quarter of a penny), the halfpence, two-pence, and six-pence. Other units of currency were the florin (two shillings), crown (five shillings), half-crown (two shilling and sixpence), third-Guinea, and half- Guinea. Typically, any coin valued under three-pence were copper, any coin between that amount and a crown were silver. Any coin larger than a crown was minted from gold. Complicating matters was a chronic shortage of specie (as coinage minted from precious metals was referred to). Many coins recovered from archaeological sites dating to the period are rubbed almost entirely smooth from extensive usage (Note 2). In addition to resulting in a booming counterfeit industry, a diverse range of foreign specie was in widespread circulation in the fourteen North American colonies (Note 3). The most common was the Spanish Dollar, resulting from the extensive commerce with the West Indies and South America. Typically, a Spanish Dollar was valued between four (4) shillings, and four shillings and six-pence. Thus, a quarter of a Spanish Dollar was worth one shilling, and a "piece of eight" represented six-pence. Similarly, Portuguese money was in common circulation from the same sources. Within Canada, French money originating from the days of New France remained in circulation. New York’s close affiliation with the Netherlands provided a large supply of Dutch coinage within that colony. The presence of German mercenaries with the British Army in North American introduced various varieties of German and Austrian currencies. Valuation of these various specie was quite problematic. Typically, foreign coins were assigned values corresponding to British coinage of similar size and metal. Throughout the 18th Century, clever Paymasters had made fortunes manipulating the exchange rates between divergent currencies (Note 4).

During the War for American Independence, a Private in the British Army was paid eight pence per day. This pay was allocated in two divisions: Off- Reckonings; and Subsistence. Off-reckonings comprised two pence per day. The Private Soldier never saw this portion of his pay. It was reserved for a variety of purposes for the use of the Colonel commanding his regiment. Off-reckonings consisted of the following deductions (Note 5). One day’s pay (eight pence) per year was taken from each private soldier to pay for the maintenance and operation of the Chelsea Royal Hospital for Pensioners. Two pence per pound of his pay was also withheld to pay for the Regimental Agent, who administered the finances of the regiment for the Colonel (Note 6). The remainder referred to as "net off-reckonings" was paid directly to the Colonel for the soldier’s annual issue of clothing (Note 7).

The Colonel retained the "net off-reckonings" not spent on clothing (Note 8). Subsistence, consisting of six-pence per day, was the only amount of his pay that the soldier actually received or handled. The deductions from his subsistence, and what remained of his pay after these deductions, comprised the core of a soldier’s pay, and thus this article.

First, a deduction referred to as "arrears" was removed (or "stopped" to use 18th century verbiage) from a private soldier’s weekly pay. Each Captain for his own company established the amount of these arrears. Obviously, this stoppage thus varied, but six pence per week was a typical rate (Note 9). The purpose of this arrears was specified as: "…the captain may deduct for shoes, stockings, gaiters, medicines, mending of arms, etc., and loss by exchange in the remittance of their pay, but nothing else, except for such things as may be lost or spoiled by the soldier’s negligence" (Note 10). Since the Captain maintained the fund and could be expected to draw interest on the balance remaining in the fund, and since the Captain’s subordinate officers and Non Commissioned Officers determined what deductions a soldier was responsible for, it should not be difficult to believe that the Private Soldier saw little, if any, of his arrears ever paid to him in specie. Following his deduction for arrears, a soldier had three-shillings per week (36-pence) available.

Next, additional weekly deductions were remitted to the women of the Company for laundry (six-pence per week was a typical rate), (Note 11), and expended for barbering and hair powder (one-pence per week was a typical rate). Following these two additional expenditures, which a soldier was required to pay to maintain his military appearance, twenty-nine (29) pence remained per week.

Soldiers were expected to pay for their own rations. In response to the rising price of bread, the Army issued each soldier a six-pound loaf of bread every four days, for which he paid five-pence. The Army paid the baker (normally a contractor) the difference between this five-pence, and the actual cost of the bread (Note 12). This left the soldier with a grand total of 20-pence and one farthing for the remainder of his weekly pay and rations.

And here was the single greatest variation in a soldier’s pay, the amount for which a soldier could be expected to spend on rations (Note 13). The actual price of rations depended upon locality, availability (and thus competition) of vendors or sutlers, and season of the year (obviously, food was less expensive at harvest season when it was more readily available). Typically, the more isolated the post, the more expensive rations would be. Estimates of the amount necessary to obtain the specified daily rations vary, but were generally between 3 1/2 pence per day and 4 1/2 pence per day (Note 14). When a soldier was on board a King’s Transport he was issued 2/3 of a seaman’s ration, for which his pay was stopped three-pence daily (Note 15). Obviously, simple arithmetic determines that even if a soldier spent only three-pence per day for provisions, he would have gone into debt every week. And this left nothing for the soldier to spend on what was regarded as necessities such as tobacco, much less purchase any luxury items.

At times, the soldier’s subsistence would be stopped a certain amount and the full ration issued directly to him. The increase of this stoppage for rations to four-pence a day in North America in 1763 resulted in the mutiny mentioned in the first portion of this article. When the order was read to the garrison of the 40th Foot in Halifax in early September 1763: "The soldiers as one threw down their arms, declaring . . . that it was impossible for them to serve in this Country upon such terms, the small remainder of pay not being sufficient to afford them clean linen, much less the supply of necessaries required in this cold climate." When the same order was read to the garrison of the 45th Foot in Louisburg: "The men asserted that it was impossible for them to subsist were they to pay for their provisions, and refused to do duty" (Note 16). As a result of the discontent and open mutiny fomented by this large stoppage, it was soon reduced to a more modest two-pence and half penny per day (Note 17). At this rate of stoppages for ration, a soldier would have had a still extremely modest two-pence and halfpence and farthing (2 3/4 pence) available to spend on himself at the end of a typical week.

To put this into perspective, as early as 1758 a soldier could be expected to pay for certain luxury items: Madeira Wine - 18 shillings per gallon; - -West Indies Rum – 10 shillings per gallon; - - American (Rye) Whiskey- 5 shillings per gallon; - - American Rum – 5 shillings per gallon; - - Chocolate - 2 shillings, 6 pence per pound; - - Refined (white) Sugar – 2 shillings per pound; - - Brown Sugar – 1 shilling, 3 pence per pound; - - Leaf Tobacco – 9 shillings per pound; - - Roll Tobacco – 1 shilling, 10 pence per pound; Snuff - 3 shillings per bottle; - - Smoking Pipe – 1 pence each (Note 18).

Although this appears quite constrained, it should be noted that the Army issued the soldier specific items necessary to his comfort and survival. Each mess (typically five men) were issued with a tent, mess kettle (with linen bag), and hatchet (Note 19). During the American Revolution, every soldier in North America was given three pints of spruce beer per day without charge (Note 20). While in the field, each tent was supplied with two trusses (36 pounds each) of straw. Once a week, for two weeks, this was refreshed with fresh straw at the rate of one truss (36 pounds) per tent. On the third week, each tent would receive a completely new issue of two trusses of straw. Each soldier was provided four pounds of firewood (also called "fueling" or "firing") per day (Note 21). In addition to his annual issue of clothing, and initial issue of blanket, military arms and equipment, each soldier was issued with a knapsack, haversack, and canteen (with strap) annually (Note 22). When soldiers were quartered in barracks or winter quarters, they were to be supplied with candles, firewood, straw, vinegar, salt, and other necessary equipment such as cooking equipment, buckets, mess gear, additional blankets, bedding and camp furniture (Note 23).

It should come as no surprise that there were any number of illegal manipulations that soldiers could engage in to augment their income, including open thievery, burglary and robbery; vending spirituous beverages; selling of their clothing and equipment; false enlistment followed by desertion with their bonus money; gambling, etc., Although it does not appear to be obviously nefarious, "hiring out" to serve another soldier’s duty was expressly forbidden by the Articles of War of the British Army (Note 24).

These aside, there were a wide and diverse range of means by which soldiers could legitimately augment their meager pay. Experienced officers such as Captain Bennett Cuthbertson encouraged their soldiers to purchase rations by messes of five-men, since presumably purchasing food in bulk rather than individually would reduce prices (Note 25). Soldiers were also not only permitted, but encouraged, to grow their own food. Nearly every permanent post or fortification had an attached garden (Note 26).

Unfortunately, almost no modern reconstructions of historic forts, or military living history sites, contain such gardens. One notable exception is Fort Ticonderoga, which actively interprets the King’s Garden (Note 27).

Although fatigue parties were considered to be a component of a soldier’s normal duties, they would be compensated for specific services. For constructing a road, soldiers were paid six pence a day until 1778, when the rate was raised to nine pence a day (Note 28). During the conduct of a formal siege (whether defending or attacking), soldiers were also paid additional sums to recompense them for the dangers inherent in 18th century siege work (Note 29). A rather elaborate table existed for such services: One night’s work in the trenches – eight pence; One day’s work in the batteries – one shilling, four pence; One day’s particularly dangerous work – two shillings, six-pence; For planting and filling a gabion under fire – six-pence; For making a fascine and picket – three pence; For weaving a hurdle – eight pence; and For making a gabion – one shilling, four pence (Note 30).

To encourage soldiers in particularly necessary duties, they might also be awarded what amounted to work incentive bonuses. For example, during the closing days of the French and Indian War, Rogers’ Rangers received one gill of rum per day, and five shillings for each cord of wood that they could cut and carry on bateaux into Quebec (Note 31). An augmentation of rum for working parties was a frequent motivator.

With the permission of their Company Captains, soldiers were permitted to hire themselves out for regular employment to private citizens or businessmen at prevailing wages, when not performing necessary military duties (Note 32). Within the Army, skilled soldiers could derive additional pay from performing common services such as cleaning another soldier’s arms; or functioning as a tailor, cobbler, or artificer (skilled tradesman such as blacksmith, tinsmith, etc.). The rates for tailoring or cobbling varied from regiment to regiment, but an Army standard of one shilling three pence per day for skilled artificers was established (Note 33). Every officer was permitted a certain number of servants, most typically private soldiers from the regiment. In addition to receiving a range of privileges that tended to vary widely, soldiers were usually paid one shilling per week as servants (Note 34).

It was a relatively rare occurrence, yet soldiers could sometimes be rewarded with prize money. In one windfall, private soldiers that participated in the capture of Havana, Cuba from the Spanish in 1762 received prize money of just over four pounds a man (Note 35).

Although not readily apparent as a means to supplement their income, marriage could sometimes assist a soldier (Note 36). Women serving with the British Army were typically paid as washerwomen, and could earn as much as thirty pence per week if washing for a mess of five men. Women were sometimes detailed to serve with hospitals, laundress, and one shilling and eight pence per day where the standard rate of pay was sixpence per day as a hospital nurse, one shilling per day as a hospital cook (Note 37). Additional rations were typically issued at the rate of one half a ration for women and one quarter a ration for children (Note 38).

It should be obvious from this article that the British Army of the 18th century was actually a particularly complex business, operated by the government itself, and by the Colonels and Captains who served as subordinate commanders. The soldiers were the common laborers, and their pay was barely adequate (Note 39). Still, means existed through hard work and diligence such that they could build a comfortable life in service to the King. For those of us attempting to recreate the British private soldier, we should carry limited money of small denominations. Most soldiers might have had a few farthings and halfpence to spend, six-pence would have been uncommon, shillings rare, and for a private soldier to have a guinea would have been extraordinarily. As Captain Cameron has designated the 2005 campaign season to be one of learning for the Company of Select Marksmen, this article should serve as a starting point to comprehend that most important aspect of any soldier’s life - his pay.


(1) Peter Way, "Rebellion of the Regulars: Working Soldiers and the Mutiny of 1763-1764" The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. LVII, No. 4 (October 2000), 761-792; and Paul E. Kopperman, "The Stoppages Mutiny of 1763." The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine p-69 (1986), p-241- 254.

(2) Donald P. Heldman, “Coins of Michilmackinac” Historic Archaeology 14 (1980), p-82-107.

(3) For example, the "Big Dig" archeological project at Boston has recovered evidence of counterfeiting. For this refer to the Internet Web Site, accessed December 6, 2003.

( 4) Godfrey Davies, "The Seamy Side of Marlborough’s War." The Huntington Library Quarterly 15, No. 1 (November 1951), p - 21-44.

( 5) Unless otherwise noted, all information on off-reckonings is from the following sources: Way, "Rebellion of the Regulars," 777; Glenn A. Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III, 1760-1793". Ph. D. Thesis, University of Oxford, 1984 (Transcript at The David Library of the American Revolution, Washington’s Crossing, Pennsylvania) p-44; and John Williamson, "A Treatise on Military Finance, Containing the Pay, Subsistence, deductions and Arrears of the Forces on the British and Irish Establishments, And All the Allowances in Camp, Garrison and Quarters, With An Enquiry into the Method of Clothing and Recruiting the Army, And An Extract from the Report of the Commissioners of Public Accounts Relating to the Office of the Pay Master General" (London: T. Egerton, 1782. Microfilm copy at U.S. Military Academy Library, West Point, New York), p-11-13. Among the reforms instituted in 1771 were that additional off-reckonings deductions for the War Department’s Paymaster General, and for the Regimental Surgeon, had been repaid as a "King’s Bounty" to the soldiers.

(6) Alan J. Guy, "Regimental Agency in the British Standing Army, 1715-1763: A Study of Georgian Military Administration, Part I." Bulletin of the John Rylands University, Library of Manchester p-62, no. 2 (Spring 1980), 443; and Williamson, Treatise on Military Discipline, p-86.

(7) For a soldier’s annual issue of clothing, Justin Clement is performing research for the Marksmen.

(8) Alan J. Guy, "Oeconomy and Discipline." Officership and Administration in the British Army, 1714-1763 (Manchester: University Press, 1985), p-147-157.

(9) Williamson, Treatise on Military Finance, p-43; Steppler, "Common Soldier in the Reign of George III", p-236; Captain Bennett Cutherbertson, "A System for the Complete Interior Management and Economy of a Battalion of Infantry" (London: 1779; reprint edition Sullivan Press, 2002), p-15. A typical orders issued in 1757 regarding these stoppages read as follows: "The Commander In Chief, being convinced that the weekly stoppage are of great benefit to the men, by enabling them to be provided with good shoes, gaiters, linen and other necessaries, and to serve as a fund for making good the too frequent waste of ammunition, the loss of arms and accouterments through idleness and neglect [directs a weekly stoppage of six pence for private soldiers]. And it is the Commanding Officers see that the Captains account with their men regularly every two months of the said stoppages, and at the end of every four months pay them such balance, as may then be in their hands. The Commanding Officers of Companies are strictly forbid to make any other stoppages or deductions from their men, than the above regulated stoppage, except when it shall be ordered by the sentence of a Court Martial." Richard Kane, "A System of Camp Discipline, Military Honours, Garrison Duty, and Other Regulations for the Land Forces" (London: J. Millan, 1757), p-27.

(10) Williamson, Treatise on Military Finance, 43. Almost identical language is referenced in Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III", p-43.

(11) Way, "Rebellion of the Regulars," p-782; and Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III," p-43.

(12) Cuthbertson, "System for Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry", p-22; Williamson, "Treatise on Military Finance", p-53; and Steppler, "Common Soldier in the Reign of George III", p-48. By 1765 the actual price of a six-pound loaf of bread was seven-pence.

(13) For detailed information on soldier’s rations, I highly recommend Gregory S. Theberge, "To Nourish His Majesty’s Troops: The Mess, Kitchen and Provisions of the Common British Soldier during the American War for Independence." The Brigade Dispatch XXX, No. 1 (Spring 2000) p-2-20.

(14) Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III", p-46, 49, 90.

(15) Williamson, "Treatise on Military Finance", p-57-58.

(16) Way, "Rebellion of the Regulars," p-781-782.

(17) Kopperman, "Stoppages Mutiny." p-248. This amount remained a typical deduction for rations in America through the War of American Independence; Theberge, "To Nourish His Majesty’s Troops," p-2.

(18) Barton J. Redmon and Carrie MacDougall. "Culinary Habits of the Redcoat on Campaign during the Seven Years War in North America." Paper presented at Braddock Road Preservation Association’s French and Indian War Seminar, November 2, 2002.

(19) Cuthbertson, "System for Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry", p-28; and Theberge, "To Nourish His Majesty’s Troops," p-12.

(20) Williamson, "Treatise on Military Finance", p-59.

(21) Ibid., p-53-54. In accordance with typical practices of the day, when Captain Cameron calculates pay for the Company of Select Marksmen, he affords each soldier an allowance for "hard-lying" when straw and firewood is not issued.

(22) Theberge, "To Nourish His Majesty’s Troops," p-12.

(23) Ibid., p-3-4; and Williamson, "Treatise on Military Finance", p-40-45.

(24) Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III", p-89.

(25) Cuthbertson, "System for Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry", p-19-23.

(26) Ian K. Steele, "Betrayals, Fort William Henry and the Massacre" (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p-101; and Kopperman, "Stoppages Mutiny," p-243. The British Army actually shipped seeds to soldiers so that they could grow their own food during the American Revolution. Edward E. Curtis, "The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution" (1926; reprint edition New York: AMS Press, 1969), p-89.

(27) Internet web-sites garden.htm;; and, accessed December 6, 2003. This suggests, of course, that members of the Company of Select Marksmen should endeavor to add historic agricultural and gardening techniques to their suite of more typical military skills.

(28) Williamson, "Treatise on Military Finance", p-60-61; and Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III", p-91.

(29) Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of the George III," p-86.

(30) Williamson, "Treatise on Military Finance", p-61-63.

(31) Allan S. Everest, "Moses Hazen and the Canadian Refugees in the American Revolution" (Syracuse University Press, 1976), p-10.

(32) Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of the George III", p-87-91; and Cuthbertson, "System for Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry", p- 109-111.

(33) Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of the George III", p-85-86, 91.

(34) Cuthbertson, "System for Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry", p-111-112.

(35) Way, "Rebellion of the Regulars," p-774-776; and T. H. McGuffie, "A Deputy Paymaster’s Fortune, The Case of George Durant, Deputy Paymaster to the Havana Expedition, 1762." Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research p-32 (Winter 1954), p-144-147.

(36) Cuthbertson, "System for Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry", p-112-113; and Paul E. Kopperman."The British High Command and Soldiers’ Wives in America, 1755-1783." Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 60 (1982), p-14-34. Captain Cuthbertson specifically noted: " …honest, laborious women are rather useful in a Company."

(37) Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III", p-107.

(38) Theberge, "To Nourish His Majesty’s Troops," p-3.

(39) For an intensive analysis of this, see Way, "Rebellion of the Regulars."

Author Douglas R. Cubbison is the historian for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. He also served as Cultural Resources Manager at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point - - he has authored two books and sixty-plus articles. He kindly gave us permission to reprint this article.


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