Monday, January 15, 2018
In May of 1777, at the Presbyterian Church of New York, Elizabeth Driscoll married George Morrison, a matross in the Royal Regiment of Artillery. She was the widow of a soldier in an infantry regiment. The marriage record as published by the New York Historical Society in 1881 calls her a widow of the 57th Regiment, but the muster rolls of the 57th Regiment show no man of that name having died or even belonging to the regiment between 1775 and 1777; perhaps the number of the regiment was recorded incorrectly in the original record, or transcribed incorrectly in the publication.
That September, Elizabeth, now Elizabeth Morrison, was at the house of another Royal Artillery wife, Mrs. Connor. Several other men and women from the artillery were there, including a soldier named Edward Bullin. Morrison felt a hand in her pocket, and saw that it was Bullin's; he withdrew his hand, causing a guinea - a gold coin worth twenty-one shillings - to fall from her pocket to the floor. This clearly distracted her, and she picked up the coin rather than immediately question Bullin's motives.
A woman's pocket was usually a sort of pouch tied around the waist, not unlike a modern pocket except that it was a separate garment unto itself. It could be worn outside of or underneath petticoats. In this case, we assume it was underneath, for Morrison "imagined he was taking a freedom with her" rather than thinking he was trying to steal. The next morning when she counted her money, she found that she was missing a substantial sum: "six Guineas, three half Johannes’s, two Dollars, six English Shillings & an English half Crown." Six guineas was more than half a year's typical wages for a soldier's wife's job like working as a hospital nurse. We don't know Morrison's profession, but this was a lot of money for anyone of her station. That her pocket contain Portuguese Johannes, and dollar coins from an unspecified nation in addition to English coinage, shows the diverse currency in circulation in New York at a time when the value of these coins was based on the quantity of precious metal they contained. Also gone was her handkerchief.
Within the next few days, though, several people noticed that Edward Bullin seemed to have more money that was usual for him. When he bought some liquor from a woman (apparently another Royal Artillery wife), she happened to ask him if he knew whether Mrs. Morrison had gone to Staten Island, to which he gave the cryptic response, "if you see Mrs. Morrison do not tell her you saw me or know any thing of me." As word of the crime and Bullin's behavior got around, he was arrested and taken to the guard house.
Ultimately, it was the handkerchief that proved his undoing. When Elizabeth Morrison went to the guard house (presumably because she learned that Bullin was held there), she saw that Bullin had her handkerchief, the one stolen item that could be identified unequivocally. Bullin was brought before a general court martial and charged with "picking Elizabeth Morrison’s Pockets of six guineas three half Johannes and some silver;" the stolen handkerchief was not included in the charge.
At the trial, Morrison related the incident at Mrs. Connor's house and other witness told of Bullin's behavior and unexplained wealth. Bullin questioned why Morrison didn't accuse him immediately; that's when she deposed that "she imagined he was taking a freedom with her, & did not suspect him of picking her pocket until she recollected the Circumstances of his hand having been in her pocket, when she missed the money next morning." Bullin then asked "What was your reason for accusing me of picking your Pocket, more than any one else in Company?" Her reply was simple enough: "Because I found your hand in my pocket."
Edward Bullin was found guilty and sentence to receive 600 lashes as well as being confined until the money was paid back. If he didn't still have some of the money, or other savings, it would take quite some time for him to earn this much money solely through his base pay - and, being confined, he would not be able to do any other work as soldiers often did to earn additional sums. We have no information about how long he was confined.
And we have no other information about Elizabeth Morrison. She is unusual, in fact, that we know so much about here - he marriage date, from a church record, and the events recorded in the trial proceedings. For most of the several thousand wives who accompanied British soldiers in America, we know nothing at all about them as individuals.
Monday, December 11, 2017
When war broke out in America, Arthur Petty was a soldier in the 13th Regiment of Foot. The regiment was in Minorca, having been there since 1769; in September of 1775 they were sent back to Great Britain. The regiment would not be sent to America, instead remaining in England where their exposure to rebellious colonists came from guarding captured American mariners held in British prisons. Some soldiers of the 13th, however, were drafted into regiments sent to America. Arthur Petty was among them.
Petty joined the 20th Regiment of Foot as that regiment prepared for embarkation in early 1776. The 20th was among the regiments that sailed up the St. Lawrence River and landed in Quebec, relieving a siege that Americans had maintained for several months. The 20th was part of the force that drove American forces out of Canada and up Lake Champlain before the onset of winter stalled their advance. After enduring the winter in posts along the Richelieu river, the 20th Regiment set off on the 1777 expedition under General Burgoyne that ultimately resulted in their capture at Saratoga. Petty, however, was not among the soldiers who endured years in captivity; instead, he was part of the small detachment of each regiment left behind in Canada.
How men were selected to remain behind is not known. Those who were not fit enough to endure the campaign certainly stayed behind, and perhaps that was the case with Petty. By July of 1778 he was fit enough to do duty again, as he and others from the 20th Regiment, seventy men altogether, were drafted into the 53rd Regiment of Foot. Although the 53rd had been on Burgoyne's expedition, they had not been at Saratoga, instead having been posted at Fort Ticonderoga and other posts along the supply lines. A portion of the regiment was captured in September of 1777 in an action called Brown's raid. The drafts from the 20th Regiment helped bring the 53rd back up to fighting strength.
No regimental records survive to tell us about Arthur Petty's character in the 13th and 20th Regiments, but in the 53rd he ran into trouble. After four years in the regiment, Major John Nairne sent a letter from the 53rd's current post at Isle aux Noix on the Richelieu River to the adjutant general for British forces in Canada, at headquarters in Quebec. Nairne's letter, dated 3 September 1782, read in part:
Give me leave also to represent to you that a Soldier of the Regt. named A: P: being such an incorrigible Thief, after repeated punishments in the severest manner to no purpose, is now under the Sentence of a Regimental Court Martial to be Drummed out of the Regiment, and his Captain (Scott) joins me in requesting leave to discharge him accordingly; he has been a Draft from the 20th Regt: is about forty five years of age, not a very Stout man, however he might perhaps be of some use to His Majesty’s Service as a marine, or, in Africa.
Given that most British soldiers enlisted in their early twenties, Petty's age in 1782 suggests that he had been in the army for quite some time, and it's difficult to image that his behavior had been consistently bad throughout. He may, however, have been an exception, either in terms of when he enlisted or how well he endured punishment. Drumming out was the period equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, reserved for cases where the army decided that a man simply wasn't worth the effort of further attempts at discipline. Sometimes men like this, who were able-bodied but incorrigible, were handed over to the navy, presumably because that service offered fewer ways for a man to get into trouble. Men whose lives were not valued might be sent to British posts on the disease-ridden west coast of Africa.
A month later, on 1 October, Major Nairne sent an update to the adjutant general. This time he reported that the regimental court martial's sentence of 500 lashes had been carried out in part. Petty had endured 250 lashes, after which he was given a break. It was common practice to administer large numbers of lashes in several groups, with a few weeks in between for the man to recover somewhat; the goal of lashes, after all, was to punish but not to disable or kill the man. Major Nairne reported that Petty's behavior had improved, so the remaining 250 lashes were forgiven, and that he would be spared the humiliation of a drumming out ceremony.
In spite of this improvement, Major Nairne must not have believed that Arthur Petty would become a good and trustworthy soldier. He was discharged from the regiment that same month.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Benjamin Noble had not learned a trade in his teen years, putting him into the broad category of "laborers" who worked England’s farms and fields, or at whatever other work they could find. He'd had enough of that by the time he was twenty years old, and joined the army. He enlisted in 1765 in the 14th Regiment of Foot, on service at Windsor, west of London and about 45 miles south of his native Bedford; whether he enlisted with a recruiting officer in his home town or elsewhere is not known.
If he enlisted out of a thirst for change, he didn't have to wait long. In 1766 the 14th Regiment left England for Halifax Nova Scotia. By 1769 they had moved to Boston, where soldiers of the regiment, as well as men of the 29th Regiment, were involved in some of the unrest that led to the Boston Massacre the following year. Following that incident, the 14th stayed at Castle William in Boston harbor until 1772, when a new crisis required them.
On the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, Carib tribesmen inhabiting the island had been fighting British attempts to survey and acquire land since 1769. The British government decided to try a big military push, and sent the 14th and several other regiments to the island in late 1772. The ensuing fighting led only to a stalemate, and a peace treaty was signed in 1773. Benjamin Noble was wounded in the campaign.
The ten companies were sent to other places, some to St. Augustine in Florida and others to the Bahamas. As tensions rose in the colonies, in 1775 part of the 14th Regiment was sent to Virginia to serve under Lord Dunmore. Benjamin Noble was now thirty years old, a combat veteran in the regiment's grenadier company. He saw combat again on 9 December when the grenadiers attempted to drive rebellious colonists from a strategic position overlooking a critical bridge in Virginia's tidewater region. The battle of Great Bridge was short, and disastrous for the 14th's grenadiers. All of their officers were dead or wounded. Fourteen other ranks were also killed, and most of the rest wounded, including Noble; unlike fifteen of his wounded comrades, he avoided capture and was able to rejoin Dunmore's little army.
British military efforts in Virginia soon collapsed, and the 14th Regiment, severely under strength after ten years and two wars in North America, sailed to New York to join the British army there. At the end of 1776, they were drafted - that is, the private soldiers who were fit for service were put into other regiments, the unfit soldiers were discharged, and the officers, non-commissioned officers and drummers returned to Great Britain. Benjamin Noble, despite having received two wounds, was still deemed fit for service and drafted into the grenadier company of the 44th Regiment of Foot.
The 44th's grenadier company was detached from the regiment, serving as part of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers in New Jersey. This battalion was among the troops involved in the battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777. Benjamin Noble had wasted no time getting to his new company, for he was in this battle - and for the third time, he was wounded. And for the third time, his wound did not prevent him from continuing in the ranks. He remained in the 44th Regiment during its service in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and then sailed with it to Quebec in 1779.
The 44th Regiment stayed in Canada for over five years, finally returning to Great Britain in 1786. Benjamin Noble and many others in its ranks had been in North America for twenty years. Noble nonetheless continued to serve until 1790, finally taking his discharge on 25 November after 25 years as a private soldier. He went before the examining board at Chelsea and was awarded a well-deserved pension in recognition of his wounds and being "worn out with long service."
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Thursday, September 21, 2017
The army got John Adcock out of prison. It wasn't a dramatic rescue, but a bit of administrative good fortune. Adcock had been convicted of "riot", a crime more or less equivalent to disturbing the peace, and was sentenced to six months in prison in Warwick, England. The fact that Adcock was a private soldier in the 38th Regiment of Foot did not exempt him from being convicted and having to serve his time.
As long as the regiment was on service in Great Britain, that is. In early 1774, while Adcock was in prison in Warwick, the regiment was ordered to America, part of a military force that was expected to quell the rebellious spirit that had taken over Massachusetts. The 38th was currently in Ireland; how Adcock came to be in prison in Warwick is not known - he may have been on recruiting service, or on furlough. When word came that his regiment was to embark for America, his sentence was remitted, and on 31 March 1774 he left Warwick to join his regiment.
The 38th arrived in Boston that summer and encamped with several other regiments on Boston Common, a strong military presence intended to restore order through intimidation. There seem to have been no repercussions for Adcock's having been in a civilian prison. He was, in fact, a good enough soldier that he was appointed corporal on 17 September, but his time in that capacity was short; on 15 October he was reduced again to the ranks. Such short-term appointments were not unusual, and did not always denote poor discipline. Sometimes men were appointed to temporarily replace corporals who were indisposed, and sometimes men who were appointed didn't care for the roll and requested to be reduced.
Whatever the reason for his reduction, it didn't prevent him from being put into the regiment's grenadier company on 15 April 1775, a move probably made to bring the company up to strength for the impending expedition to seize rebel stores in Concord. There's no indication that he was wounded in that action, or in the assault on Bunker Hill in June. The next detailed information we have about John Adcock is from June 1779.
The 38th Regiment's grenadier company, as part of the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers, had spent the winter quartered on Long Island, part of the British garrison centered in New York City. With the opening of the campaign season, the battalion was part of a force sent up the Hudson River to secure British points at Stony Point and Verplanck Point. The grenadier battalion was among the troops that established an encampment on the east side of the river, fortifying Verplanck Point while awaiting their next move.
Something was amiss with discipline in the battalion, however, which led to a spate of desertions. It may have been simply the relative freedom of being out of quarters, or the opportunities for marauding afforded by close proximity to the front lines, or issues internal to the battalion itself. Several grenadiers were caught and brought to trial, but about two dozen got away, including John Adcock.
The 38th Regiment served out the war in America and was among the last to leave New York in November 1784. They returned to Great Britain, and there soldiers who were no longer fit for service were discharged. But amid all of the discharges, a man was added to the rolls: John Adcock, "joined from desertion" on 23 April 1784. We've found nothing about his whereabouts for the intervening years, including how he managed to get back to Great Britain. Quite possibly he had joined an American privateer crew, been captured at sea and sent to a British prison. He may have enlisted in a Loyalist regiment that was disbanded at the end of the war and received passage to Great Britain from the army. There are many possibilities. No matter; his soldiering days were over. Just a month after rejoining his regiment, John Adcock was discharged, and there's no evidence that he returned to the service.
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Something went wrong in Ralph Brunker's career. We don't know what it was, but we have some clues.
Brunker, also spelled Bunker, came to America in 1776 as a corporal in the grenadier company of the 33rd Regiment of Foot. For a rank-and-file soldier, this was a reasonably prestigious post; the grenadier company, ten percent of the regiment's strength, was formed of men who had at least a year of experience, had good physiques including being among the tallest men in the regiment, and were generally reliable soldiers. Being appointed as a non-commissioned officer indicated that Brunker was a trustworthy, well-disciplined soldier; there were only three corporals and three serjeants in a company that included (at full strength) fifty-six private soldiers, so Brunker was in the top ten percent of an already-elite ten percent.
Things began to change for Brunker in the middle of 1777. After a year of hard campaigning with a grenadier battalion, he was transferred out of the grenadiers and into one of his regiment's eight battalion companies. This in itself wasn't unusual; men who had been wounded, fallen ill, or in some other way were unfit to continue the very active duties of a grenadier were always transferred back to the regiment and replaced with fit men. But Brunker was also reduced to be a private soldier before the end of 1777. While this, too, could have been due to physical incapacity, both the transfer and the reduction could have been caused by poor discipline.
A year later, in June 1778, Brunker was put back into the grenadier company, still a private soldier. The 33rd Regiment's grenadier company spent the winter of 1778-1779 as part of a grenadier battalion on Long Island, living in huts and, as is often the case with enthusiastic but bored soldiers, causing a fair amount of trouble with local inhabitants. When they finally went on campaign again in the late spring of 1779, it was difficult to contain the men who had been cooped up for months. When the grenadier battalions established a camp at Verplancks Point on the east bank of the Hudson River, the many of the soldiers set to plundering outside of their own lines. Several deserted. A few were caught a tried by courts martial.
In July the grenadiers moved south and east into Westchester County. The discipline problems continued. It was in this area that Ralph Brunker's career came to an abrupt end. He and another grenadier "went off"; whether for plunder or with an intention of deserting is not known. A local Loyalist named Elijah Vincent, who served as a guide for the army and later became an ensign in the Guides and Pioneers, came upon the two wayward soldiers in New Rochelle. He arrested them and brought them into the grenadiers' camp, where they were put in confinement. They could expect to be charged by a regimental court for being absent from camp, or by a general court for desertion. Either way, the likely punishment was lashes.
Ralph Brunker probably already knew the pain of lashing, the most likely explanation for this next move. And the army's response is indicative that he had already established a reputation as a bad character. An officer recorded, “Two from the Grrs went off & were taken up at New Rochelle by a young man call’d Vincent of East chester who march’d them into Camp, they were lodged in the Qr. Guard & in the Eveng one of them (Bromker the 33d) cut his throat & dyed & was buried in the highway with a stake thro’ his body.”
Monday, August 14, 2017
Stories from the first half of the nineteenth century are notorious for containing exaggerations, convolutions, and outright falsehoods about the American Revolution. The passage of fifty or more years left memories muddled and faded, and tales passed by word of mouth were conflated, elaborated, and sometimes even invented. This means that such stories must be evaluated carefully for plausibility, comparing details carefully with more reliable information. One such story concerns a British serjeant in New Jersey in 1777.
After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, British forces settled in to a string of posts in New Jersey, quartered in abandoned buildings, barns and other shelter in the area around Amboy and New Brunswick. American forces were centered in Morristown, separated from their opponents by a ridge line called the Short Hills. A number of battles and skirmishes occurred during the ensuing months, none of which had an impact on the overall disposition. It was a long, difficult winter for soldiers on both sides.
In May, the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot was quartered in Piscataway, just north of the Raritan River. While most of the soldiers went about the routine duties required to maintain sufficient food, fuel, cleanliness and general readiness, a portion did duty as piquets (or pickets), individuals placed around the perimeter to detect any approaching threats. On the afternoon of 10 May, a threat came, and it was a big one.
A force of some 2000 American troops had carefully made their way towards Piscataway, making use of the terrain to remain concealed for as long as possible. When they could get no closer undetected, the rushed upon the picquets. The highlanders, vastly outnumbered, nonetheless fought back, and were quickly joined by additional men on guard duty who were not already posted. They put up the best resistance that they could, but were forced to retire all the way back to their own quarters, leaving the garrison dangerously exposed. They had bought enough time, however, for the remainder of their regiment to put aside their other task and form for battle. Other regiments quartered in the area joined the fight as well. The tide was soon turned and the Americans were chased back from whence they had come. A dozen men of the 42nd Regiment had been killed, and just over three times that number wounded.
In 1822, General David Stuart published a substantial work in Edinburgh entitled Sketches of the character, manners, and present state of the Highlanders of Scotland: with details of the military service of the Highland regiments. He gave a brief account of the battle in Piscataway, and included this anecdote:
On this occasion, Sergeant Macgregor, whose company was immediately in the rear of the picquet, rushed forward to their support, with a few men who happened to have their arms in their hands, when the enemy commenced the attack. Being severely wounded, he was left insensible on the ground. When the picquet was overpowered, and the few survivors forced to retire, Macgregor, who had that day put on a new jacket with silver lace, having besides, large silver buckles in his shoes, and a watch, attracted the notice of an American soldier, who deemed him a good prize. The retreat of his friends not allowing him time to strip the sergeant on the spot, he thought the shortest way was to take him on his back to a more convenient distance. By this time Macgregor began to recover; and, perceiving whither the man was carrying him, drew his dirk, and, grasping him by the throat, swore that he would run him through the breast, if he did not turn back and carry him to the camp. The American, finding this argument irresistible, complied with the request, and, meeting Lord Cornwallis (who had come up to the support of the regiment when he heard the firing) and Colonel Stirling, was thanked for his care of the sergeant; but he honestly told him, that he only conveyed him thither to save his own life. Lord Cornwallis gave him liberty to go whithersoever he chose.
This story sounds fanciful, but it does contain details that can be compared to a reliable sources. British reports of this action show that the 42nd Regiment had three serjeants killed and three wounded in the action. The regiment's muster rolls show that there was a serjeant named Duncan McGrigor in the 42nd at this time. More telling is that this Serjeant McGrigor was discharged in November 1778, and returned to Great Britain to go before the pension board. The pension examiners recorded that he was forty-six years old, had served in the army for twenty-three years, and was a native of Perth. Most important, he was discharged because wounds rendered him no longer fit to serve.
The actions of the 42nd Regiment on 10 May 1777 received the praise of General Sir William Howe, commander in chief of the British army in America, as recorded in general orders four days later:
His Excellency the commander-in-chief has requested Earl Cornwallis to communicate his thanks to the Forty-Second Regiment, for its spirited behaviour on the 10th instant, when it defeated a body of the enemy much superior to itself in numbers; and he is much pleased with the alertness with which the second brigade got under arms to support the Forty-Second Regiment.
Did a badly-wounded Serjeant Duncan McGrigor really get carried around the battlefield by a plunder-seeking American soldier? We don't know for sure, but the facts we have show that the story is plausible.
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
The lists of trades recorded for British soldiers in the 1770s and 1780s, usually reflecting the line of work they had pursued before joining the army, includes all of the major skills of Great Britain's industry: weaver, flax dresser, tailor, shoemaker, smith, carpenter, sawyer, mason, comedian... comedian? Yes, among the pensioners who served in the American Revolution was at least one made who gave his trade as "comedian."
Archibald Maclaren was a native of Inverary in Argylshire, on the west coast of Scotland. We have no information on his early life, until he arrived in America in September 1777 as a recruit in the 26th Regiment of Foot; he had probably enlisted early that year. At five feet five inches tall, the twenty-one year old was an inch below the usual peacetime height standard for soldiers, but wartime manpower needs brought an acknowledgment that many robust, eager highlanders were "little fellows" (as stated in an inspection return for the 82nd Regiment in 1778), and so men of smaller stature were welcomed into the ranks.
Maclaren must have shown some ability as a soldier, for he was put directly into the 26th Regiment's light infantry company, a post that usually required at least a year of military experience. During the next two years his regiment was involved in several major engagements and numerous smaller ones. Maclaren was wounded three times, once in the head, but we have no record of in which battles or whether on three separate occasions. We do know that his wounds did not keep him down. When the 26th Regiment was sent back to Great Britain in late 1779, he went with it, and by the first half of 1780 he had been appointed to serjeant. Clearly he was a capable soldier.
While on recruiting service in Scotland, Maclaren found time to write a play, a farce called The conjurer, or the Scotsman in London. It made use of regional characterizations, but turned around some common tropes by portraying a Scotsman in the big city as cunning and clever rather than simplistic. The work was published in Dundee in 1781, and was probably performed by a touring company before opening in Edinburgh in 1783.
1783 also saw the opening of his second play, a "musical entertainment" called Coup de Main, or the American Adventurers (published in Perth in 1784), in Dundee. And with the end of the American War, a military drawdown allowed him to take advantage of the wartime enlistment provision that men who had served at least three years could be discharged at the close of the conflict. Having been wounded during the war, he was eligible for a pension, but to obtain it he had to travel to London and appear before the Pension Board at Chelsea Hospital, where he would present his discharge, the paper from his regiment stating that he had completed his enlistment obligations and recommending him for a pension. In an 1811 essay he wrote of what occurred next:
But the very day on which I had purposed to commence my journey to London, I was seized with a fever, which confined me six weeks, and to augment my disaster, I found my landlady had lighted her pipe with my discharge, at which she seemed so little concerned, that she gravely told me - she always lighted her pipe with Jock's copy-books when they were all written upon: this was a heavy stroke, for the Regt. had by that time returned to America, and my discharge was no phoenix—from the ashes of which I could expect to see another rise: so what was to be done?
The 26th Regiment had actually gone to Ireland in 1783 and did not depart for British North America until four years later, but no matter; Maclaren was left without the essential documentation he needed to go before the pension board. Needing a source of income, and having already established a name for himself in the theater in Dundee, he joined an "itinerant troop of players" based in nearby Montrose. His essay continued,
Ye (perhaps well meaning, but I hope mistaken) enemies of the drama, unless ye can divest yourselves of your propensity to eat and drink, censure me not when I tell you that I joined Mr. Sutherland, whose company bore a very respectable character, which was occasionally heightened by the acquisition of several shining stars from London, viz. the late Mr. John Palmer, and his brother, the facetious Dick Wilson, the humorous Lee Lewis, Mr. Cautherly, Mrs. Barresford, Miss Fontenelle, &c.
He apparently played English characters poorly due to his own heavy highland accent, but did well with Scottish, Irish and even French characters. His acting career was short-lived, however, for, as he wrote,
But after a successful career of several years, through, either the misconduct or misfortune of the manager, we were all left to shift for ourselves.
"Several years" was an exaggeration, unless he was including his time as a playwright (and possible as a performer) while still in the army. In November 1784 necessity caused him to return to his prior profession:
The most eligible situation that offered, in my then condition, was a Serjeantcy in the Dunbartonshire Highlanders, which I accepted and attended the Regt. to Guernsey and Ireland
This corps, also called the Dunbartonshire Fencible Infantry, took Maclaren onto the rolls as a serjeant in November 1784; although fencible regiments were by definition not eligible for overseas service, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and some Scottish fencible regiments were sent there to help quell the 1798 rebellion. When that conflict was ended, Maclaren left the regiment on 27 December 1798, but his aspirations of a pension were once again dashed:
...as the wound in my head became at times somewhat troublesome, I was once more discharged; but still my unfriendly stars continued to twinkle upon me—for in the course of my passage to Bristol (as if fire and water had combined to ruin me) my knapsack, which contained my discharge, by the carelessness of an officious passenger, fell overboard.
Having written a farce called What News from Bantry Bay? while serving in Ireland, the forty-two year old Maclaren now turned himself fully to writing, publishing eleven more plays from 1789 through 1799. His work made frequent use of wordplay derived from regional accents, sometimes even including passages in Gaelic. They were mostly printed in Scotland - Paisley, Greenock, Perth - but one in 1799 had a Bristol publisher. He apparently was getting some recognition throughout the kingdom. He had also married and had several children, the first in 1796. In 1799 he moved his family to London where his one-act drama Negro Slaves was performed at the Amphitheatre, a venue near Westminster Bridge. This work, with a Scottish character speaking out against the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery, may have roused some controversy in a nation that derived considerable wealth from overseas plantations staffed by slaves.
In London, he continued to increase both his family and his catalog. By the end of 1820 he had sired eleven children, five of whom survived, and authored an astonishing fifty-three more plays. He sold these to patrons and anyone else who would buy, and eked out a modest living. In 1803, he began writing introductions that described something of his situation, from which we find valuable insights on the work of a struggling writer in London. Initially they were brief, like the two sentences that first appeared in 1803:
Being discharged from the Army, in consequence of my Wounds, the little Productions of my Pen are my only source of support for myself and Family. To the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, who have either subscribed for, or purchased any of my Copies, I beg leave to offer my grateful thanks.
In 1805 he elaborated a bit more:
Being discharged from the Army, (where I served many years as Serjeant) in consequence of my wounds, the little productions of my pen are my only present support for myself and family. To the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, who have either subscribed for, or purchased any of my Copies, I beg leave to offer my most grateful thanks. I am not insensible that I am more indebted to their generosity, than to any merit in any of my little weak attempts. And as for the few who have - but why should I complain? If every body was to buy, I would grow too rich; and if nobody was to buy, I should starve; so, between those that do, and those that do not, thank Providence I make a shift to move on towards the end of my long journey.
Apparently in response to questions frequently asked by prospective buyers, in 1811 he wrote an essay in the April issue of a London literary magazine called The Satirist: Or, Monthly Meteor, in which he explained his lack of another source of income. Titled "To the Public," it began:
If you are an old soldier, why don’t you live upon your pension?” said a gentleman to me 'tother day. Now, my good reader, as in all probability you may be inclined to propose the same question, I shall endeavour to tell you, in as few words as possible, how I happen to have no pension, and yet I am an old soldier.
After describing the losses of his discharges, presented above, he continued, revealing that he had recently renewed his efforts to obtain a pension:
Some time after my arrival in London, I applied to His Royal Highness the Duke of York, who was graciously pleased to intimate to me by the pen of Col. Gordon, that it was not in his power to interfere with the board, unless I could procure a recommendation from the Regiment in which I had last served; — but that was a task not to be accomplished, till I fortunately met Col. Scott, who very willingly granted me the following certificate:
"I certify that Serjeant Archibald Maclaren served in the Dunbarton Fencible Infantry, under my command, for the space of six years: during the whole of which time he behaved himself soberly, honestly, and in every respect as a good soldier; and that he was regularly discharged by order of the faculty, the wounds he received in the 26th Regiment in America, rendering him no longer fit for actual service. I also firmly believe, that Serjeant Maclaren lost the discharge which I gave him from the Regiment. FRANCIS J. SCOTT, Lt. Col. Late Dunbartonshire Infantry.”
This certificate, accompanied by an humble petition, I carried to Sir David Dundas, who ordered me to leave my address. -Elated with this fair prospect, I flew home to communicate the news to my family, – and so confident was I of success, that my wife and I began to conjecture how much I should be allowed per day, and my young ones, (of whom there are two boys and four girls) to lay out, by anticipation, a small portion of my pension, in purchasing necessaries which they stood somewhat in need of. But, poor things! their hopes and their joy had their birth and their burial in one fortnight — for when I called for an answer, I was told by Mr. Lynn, that nothing could be done without a printed discharge. There was another stroke! for on my return from Chelsea, I found that Colonel Scott (who thought the written certificate sufficient) had left town. — "But why not apply to the 26th?" you may say: I’ll tell you the reason, — Sir William Erskine, the Hon. General Sir Charles Stuart, General Gordon, and, in short, all the officers who knew me in that Regiment, are removed beyond my reach, either by death or preferment. Now, my good reader, think not that I publish this with a view to throw any reflections upon the gentlemen who rejected my humble petition: - my sole design is to shew you that I have no provision made for me by government; but I am proud to proclaim that I have received many private favours from most of the Royal Family, as well as from many of the nobility, gentry, and others, for whose goodness I shall seize this, and every other opportunity to express my sincere and life lasting gratitude.
The following year he reprinted his 1811 drama called Tricks of London giving it a new title, The Ways of London: Or Honesty the Best Policy, and including an introduction that indicated the reason behind the new name, relating the challenges of his work:
Will you, for this last time, pardon my repeated intrusion; for in truth, if I could find any other way to provide for myself and family, I should neither give so much trouble where I owe so much gratitude, nor yet run the risk of meeting with insults where I owe no gratitude at all. To convince you of the truth of what I say, I beg leave to tell you a story; Some time ago, a little blackbird built his nest contiguous to a farm house; the farmer, whose good wishes were not altogether confined to himself, would sometimes drop a few grains of wheat among the chaff for the benefit of his sable visitant, and surprising as it may seem to some people, I have been told that this very farmer has been often heard to say, that at the end of the season, he never could perceive that his stock was any way diminished by these little acts of generosity. Thus far, thus good, we shall say, but the farmer died, and that was bad for the poor blackbird, for the ensuing spring, when he had occasion to renew his foraging, the farm was possest by a man who was so far from considering the necessities of others, that he laid a snare and encaged the poor intruder. The consequence was, that his feathered partner pined with grief, and the young ones died of hunger. Now, my good reader, I am persuaded that you will be very apt to call this a mere fiction — well, let it even be so, and I will tell you a fact: One day, as I went out to distribute my copies, I took the liberty to call at the house of a gentleman who had often encouraged my little productions, but he was not there, his friends had conveyed him to a neighbouring church yard, and the gentleman who succeeded him, not only threatened to prosecute me for my intrusion, but in the fulness of his heart, threw my pamphlet into the fire. I could ill spare it at the time, for I had but ten copies remaining, and little or no paper provided for another Publication. On my return home, I found my dear little Mary, a girl of eight years old, expiring upon her mother's knee. I sat down with an heavy heart, and an empty pocket; hope was set never to rise again for me, I thought, but at the very midnight of despair, when all was dark and dreary in my mind, a generous, noble benefactor, (the recollection of whose many acts of goodness shall never die in my heart, as long as my heart lives within me,) sent me a present which enabled me to go on with my Publication. Should ever the executioner of my pamphlet, or any of his Benapartical disposition, see this, it will shew them, that here is a kind providence which befriends even the meanest of mortals, I often found it so, for though I have no provision made for me by government, I am grateful to say, that several of the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, have often encouraged my little attempts.
He concluded by restating that he'd lost his military discharges, and reprinted the certificate he'd obtained from Lt. Col. Scott.
Maclaren's 1813 "dramatic piece with songs" The Prisoner of War, or a most excellent Story included a new introduction, bringing readers up to date on his continuing tribulations with the pension board:
I write for neither fame nor wealth, my utmost ambition is to procure a subsistence for myself and family. In some of my former Addresses I took the liberty to inform the Public that both of my discharges had been lost, and that subsequent to my arrival in London I had procured a written certificate, which I presented to Sir David Dundas, without effect — And now I have to add, that about a month ago, I was favoured by Lieut. Col. Scott, with a printed discharge, which I enclosed for His Royal Highness the Commander in Chief, from whose Office it was transferred to the Secretary’s Office, Chelsea, from which last place, I was directed, by letter, to appear to answer such questions as might be proposed to me - On the wings of expectation, I flew to obey the summons, fully prepared to answer to — How long did you serve — where were you Wounded, &c. &c. &c. But to my utter astonishment, no such questions were asked — very far from it. A ‘young‘ gentleman of eighteen or nineteen settled the matter in a more concise manner, for tearing a slip from the bottom of my own letter, he wrote thereon, “This man’s discharge will not do, being agreeable to neither the new nor the old form.” This important piece of intelligence, together with my discharge, he desired me to carry to the Duke of York’s Office. Now my good readers, though my services were not doubted, and my wounds were too conspicuous to be disputed, you see that owing to a small deficiency in point of form, I am cut off from all hopes of obtaining the veteran’s reward. But no reflections — perhaps they did well, and perhaps they did ill, in rejecting my claim; but in spite of all the perhapses that ever can be perhapsed, I cannot help thinking that I was as much entitled to the pension as many of my more fortunate brother soldiers who have it. Disappointment is the fate of man, and I have had my share of it, yet why should I repine, as long as I can say that several of the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, encourage my little attempts.
The following year, in a drama called The Last Shift, or the Prisoners released, one of four plays he published in 1814, he shortened his introduction:
I am often asked, why I have no Pension for my wounds and services. All the answer I can make, is, that my discharge was lost, and that, though I have procured another, with an excellent Certificate, my claim, by some fatality which I cannot account for, was rejected, or perhaps neglected; but to console me for the disappointment, I have to say, that several of the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, encourage my little productions, which are indeed my only means of support for myself and family.
Some time between 1814 and 1816 his fortunes with the military administration changed. He was able to obtain an acceptable discharge, which described him as having black hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion. He went before the examining board, and was granted a pension of nine pence per day since he had been a serjeant for much of his career. This new income did not stop him writing, but instead changed the tenor of his introductions.
Starting in 1816, he no longer justified the lack of a military income, but instead explained why for two decades he had been soliciting sales to support a young family. Showing his wit, in a drama called The Debating Club he composed in introduction in a question-and-answer format:
Public: What Necessity can you have? Don't your children grow up like other people's? How comes it, then, that you always tell me you have a large family? Answer me that!
Author. In the course of my military life, I observed, that when the destructive hand of death had thinn'd the ranks, the vacancies were filled up with young recruits. In like manner has my family decreased and re-increased during the seventeen years I've been in London. Three months are not elaps'd since I saw my eldeset son, a youth of twenty years old, alid in the ground, and yet I have five children still remaining; four of them under eleven years of age...
And in The Man Trap; Or, a Scene in Germany: a Dramatic Piece, with Songs, in Two Acts. he wrote,
Once more I find myself under the pathful necessity of intruding upon your good nature. During my seventeen years residence in London, I have experienced many instances of public Kindness, and a great deal of domestic distress. “Have you got no Pension?” is a question quite familiar to my ear: Yes, I have (and I have laboured for it) as much as will pay my room rent; and when it is paid, I sit down with great satisfaction, and no little pride, for I am always proud to get out of debt; but notwithstanding my pride and my satisfaction to boot, when I look round my room I see four little young things, under eleven years of age, both able and willing to eat, when perhaps I have not four farthings in my pocket to gratify their natural propensity. In that case what can I do: why, having atchieved so much with the small sum I derive from what I may call the labours of my sword, I must endeavour to make out the rest with the labours of my pen. Those who have read my former Pieces will perhaps say — that my last was my worst, and I'll not attempt to deny the charge. The best marksman does not always hit, nor yet does the worst always miss: therefore, be kind enough to cast an eye over the trifle which is attached to this, and if you like it, that is to say, you find a few flowers among many nettles, I hope your candour will approve the first, and your good nature pardon the latter. The price is but small, yet small as it is, I am very sure the receiving it would benefit my pocket much more than the granting it would injure yours.
The last of his lengthy introductions that we have found appeared in the 1817 musical Live and Hope; or the Emigrant prevented:
How happy is the man who writes with pleasure and prints with confidence! he is like a general who leads an army to the field, not in the least doubtful of victory. My case is quite the reverse; for though I remember, with gratitude, that I have often met with friends in the course of my little business, I cannot forget, that I have also met with enemies; for a Dramatic Piece, even if it should contain sentiments that would not disgrace a sermon, will ever be condemned by a certain description of people. But this far I’ll say for myself, however low my attempts may prove, in point of composition, I have always avoided every thing that might be thought to offend the most delicate mind. I have praised virtue, ridiculed folly; and, strange as it may seem to some people, I have heard several good judges say, that they never met with any of my little attempts that wanted a moral. But hold, my pen. I fish not for praise — but for a subsistence; and in order to accomplish that object, I offer my little productions for sale, accompanied by the following four dogrel lines -
All those that want must ask to live,
All those that have may keep or give;
All those who bear a gen’rous heart
Half share the pleasures they impart.
Apropos! — before I finish this address, I must answer a question frequently proposed by some good-natured people, who seem very anxious to detect me in a falsehood: - ‘You had a family when you came to London,’ said they; ‘are they forever to be young?‘ ‘No, they are not; nor will some of them ever be older, for they sleep in St. Ann’s Church Yard, and in Tottenham Court Road Church Yard.’ At once to unravel the seeming mystery, I have five children dead, and five living, four of the latter under twelve years of age; and as it cannot be supposed that they can provide for themselves, both my inclination and my duty prompt me to use every lawful means in my power for their support: but upon you, my good Readers, it must depend, whether I shall be able or unable to put my design in execution.
After another question-and-answer introduction in 1818 in which he indicated that his plays were not being performed, Maclaren adopted a standard introduction that he used, with minor variations:
In answer to several questions that are frequently proposed to me, I beg leave to offer the following statement: I was born in the Highlands of Scotland' I served in the army fifteen years, and some months; I was Sergeant ten years, and some months; I have three wounds all in my front, and my pension pays my room rent. Of eleven children, I have five dead, and six living; five of the latter, under fourteen years of age. For these, my generous Reader, have I so often repeated my intrusions - intrusions, no more troublesome to you, than they are painful to myself.
Which he later shortened to:
In answer to several questions that are frequently proposed to me, I beg leave to offer the following statement: I was born in the Highlands of Scotland' I served in the army fifteen years, and some months; I was Sergeant ten years, and some months; I have three wounds all in my front, and my pension is nine-pence per day.
In this late stage of his life he exaggerated the length of his service somewhat, but there can be no denying his remarkable literary output. By the time he died in 1826, Archibald Maclaren had published at least eighty-three plays, some revisions of a few of those plays, two prose works dealing with the history of the Irish rebellion, and three collections of poetry, making him one of the most prolific Scottish authors of the age. Quite an accomplishment for an old soldier and self-described comedian.