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The Viscount Needs a Wife
A Regency Romance
April 2016

Jo Beverley is
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Too Dangerous for a Lady
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Information on purchase of commissions in Georgian times.

From research done in the libray of the Canadian War Museum quite a while ago.

Bibliography: Oeconomy And Discipline 1714-1763, Alan J, Guy, Manchester Univ. Press, 1985
The Purchase System In The British Army 1660-1871, Anthony Bruce, Royal Hist. Soc. 1985
This was never cut-and-dried, because it rarely operated according to military regulations.

Back in the 17th century, great efforts were made to stop purchase entirely, but failed. So then they started regulating it. This, too, met with only indifferent success. Around 1795, an aide to the Duke of York (himself an ardent opponent of the purchase system, Mary Ann Clarke notwithstanding) wrote, "There is not a young man in the Army who cares one farthing whether his commanding officer.... approve his conduct or not. His promotion depends not on his smiles or frowns. His friends (ie. family) can give him 1000 pounds with which to go to the auction rooms on Charles Street, and in a fortnight he becomes a captain. Out of 15 regiments of cavalry, and 26 of infantry which we have here, 21 are commanded literally by boys or idiots."

(I couldn't find out any more about this place on Charles Street, but it seems to have been an insalubrious area in the late 18th and early 19th century.)

There were, apparently, many schoolboys who were technically army officers. This was mainly in the earlier part of the eighteenth century, however, when an army commission was considered a good investment, since the officers -- particularly the colonel -- could use the government funds as they wished as long as the troops turned up to serve at the right time.

Army pay lagged, however, and the finances were changed in 1751, so by the late 18th century and into the Regency there was no profit, and in fact, a commission was an expensive acquisition. In fact, the price of a commission if invested would bring in more than the rank's pay. However, by this time, being an officer, especially in the choice regiments, was an entree to a certain social class. (It was said that Lord Ligonier paid 20,000 pounds to acquire high rank in a crack regiment, though some of the money might have been bribes to officials. He lived 1740 to 1782, however, so before the reforms.)

In 1720, the Army gave up trying to ban the purchase system, and tried to regulate it by setting a tariff. In both scenarios, however -- investment and status -- people were willing to pay over and above in order to get what they wanted. Occasionally such deals were subject to prosecution, but generally no one spoke of them and they were ignored.

Not everyone opposed the purchase system, for some thought it kept out the riff-raff, and others thought it side-stepped favoritism by senior officers and the temptation to toady to them. And historians have noted that Wellington's army -- largely formed on the purchase system -- was highly effective.

In 1827, Lord Palmerston wrote: "It is of great constitutional importance that the military force of this country should be identified in feelings and interest with our civil and political institutions, and this can best be affected by introducing among its officers, and especially among those who fill the highest ranks, a large infusion of men belonging to the aristocracy, (that term being understood to include possession of wealth as well as of rank). Because such men must have a deeper interest in the condition to which they were born, than that which they have professionally embraced.

The facility of advancement in the army arising from the sale of commissions holds out to such persons an inducement to enter its ranks and actually tends to place a considerable proportion of them in those higher situations of command where their sentiments, feelings and opinions, influence and direct the men who are below them, and give a tone and character to the profession at large -- the rules of the service upon this subject prevent any abuse in the application of this system, and the poorer officer who cannot avail himself of its advantages never considers it an injustice when by such means a junior officer passes him by. A vacancy by purchase in a regiment is always offered to the senior by rank next below, and it is only upon his declining it, that the second and third etc. have the same option successively presented to them."

(Not saying he's right, but this was clearly a point of view. Sharpe notwithstanding, it was apparently the view of Wellington, too.)

The Royal Artillery and The Royal Engineers never had the tradition of purchase. Nor did the navy.

In the early 19th century, the Duke Of York instituted changes designed not to stop purchase, but to control who was allowed to purchase -- to get rid of the boys and idiots. Anyone who wanted to be considered for a first commission had to apply to the Commander in Chief through his secretary, or in the case of the Guards or Household Cavalry to the colonel. The minimum age had already been set at 16, and apparently the maximum was 18. (I couldn't see anything to indicate what happened if someone over 18 wanted to join the army. Perhaps, since demand for places exceeded supply, it was impossible except maybe, in wartime.) He was vetted, and if he passed, his name was entered in a register which also noted whether the commission was to be gained by purchase or not.

The Horse Guards and the Commander in Chief decided who had to pay, but there were guidelines. In 1801, Sandhurst had been formed, and the graduates with the highest marks got first chance at the non-purchase commissions. Those graduates who did not qualify for free commissions still got priority for the purchase ones. Other cases which got priority were Queen's Pages Of Honor, who were waved into the Guards, one gathers; orphans of military officers; and non-commissioned officers of long and distinguished standing.

Candidates for promotion (ie. subalterns up) had to produce a recommendation from a field officer. He would have to serve 2 years as a subaltern before being allowed to purchase captain, and a total of 6 years before being able to purchase major.

(Subaltern = ensign/cornet, and lieutenant.)

The business of purchase was handled by army agents, and officially was all arm's-length dealing. The person selling a commission was not supposed to have any say in who bought it. This was supposed to be by seniority. If the senior officer could not afford the cost, or borrow it, he had to stand aside. In one case, such an officer was so popular the men in the regiment chipped in to provide the money needed.

Of course, in wartime an officer could be promoted by merit. This was aided by the fact that apparently if an officer died in service, the money invested in his rank (more on this below) was lost, and thus a free place appeared lower down the ranks.

There were, however, commission brokers. This was illegal, but common. They were usually ex-officers who knew the system and knew some influential people. For a fee, they would identify the most likely openings and get the recommendations needed. Mary Anne Clarke, the Duke of York's mistress, was operating in this way. Her fixed charges -- eg. 400 pounds for an ensign, 2,600 for a majority, were on top of the purchase price of the commission.

The way purchase worked: theoretically at least, no money exchanged hands between individuals. The money all went to the army agent, who paid it to the retiring officer whose move was creating the vacancies. Along the way, men moving up paid the difference between the value of the commission they held and the one they were buying.

So, Tom buys an ensigncy in the foot guards. This has become vacant because Lt. Col Cathcart is retiring and everyone is moving up. Tom pays L1,200 into the fund that will go to Cathcart. Major Fane moves up to Lt. Col. paying the difference of L700 to Cathcart's fund. Captain Dunn moves up to major; a more expensive proposition at L3,500 difference. Lieutenant Gross moves up to captain at a differential of L2,750, and Ensign Lowly makes Lt. by paying L850. (These figures are for mid-19th century.)

So, Lt. Col. Cathcart (Rtd.) pockets his investment of L9,000 -- the "cost" of a Lieutenant Colonel's rank in the Foot Guards. This is, however, probably little more than he has paid out along the way, and with no interest or increase unless the value of commissions in his regiment has increased.

Apart from poor guys -- or their families, rather -- losing their investment if they died, there is another peculiarity I couldn't quite follow. If a man was promoted from Lt. Col to Major General, he lost his investment. This led to many officers retiring at that point rather than lose all, and thus the loss of experienced officers. There was an explanation of some complex commission shuffling they could do by going on half-pay, or switching regiments, and then taking the promotion, but I couldn't really follow it.

You'd think that a book about the purchase system would include lots of details as to costs of commissions, but it didn't. There's one complete table for 1854.

This is what I gleaned.

1766 Cavalry
Cornet L600
Lt. Col. L5200
Infantry Ensign L400
Lt. Col. L3500

Compare to 1854, where an infantry ensigncy was L450, and an Infantry Lt. Col. was about L4000; and where a cornetcy in the dragoons was L840, a Lt. Col was L6,175. Values haven't gone up much.

A captaincy in the infantry cost L1,500 in 1810, and L1,800 in 1854.

Here are the figures for 1854. Judging from the above, we should be able to estimate costs in earlier periods. Remember, though, that people were always paying more, either to brokers, or to get into high-status regiments, or to avoid going to unpopular places.

Cornet 1200
Lt. 1600
Major 5350
Lt. Col7250

Cornet 1260
Lt 1785
Capt. 3500
Major 5350
Lt. Col7250

Cornet 840
Lt 1190
Capt. 3225
Maj. 4575
Lt. Col6175

Ensign 1200
Lt. 2050
Capt. 4800
Maj. 8300
Lt. Col9000

Ensign 450
Lt 700
Capt. 1800
Maj 2500*
Lt. Col4000*

Some army pay in the Dragoon Guards (and infantry) in 1797

RANK DragoonInfantry
Col. 599(410)
Lt. Col419(290)
Maj 351(257)
Capt. 266(171)

I only found one mention of widows' (of commissioned officers) pensions. In 1762 it was given as L24 per annum, paid every four months. Apparently there was always more in the widows' fund than needed, perhaps because few officers found it practicable to marry.

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