Daily Life of Soldiers and Officers


Drink and Women

A soldier's canteen, 1847

Caption: A soldier's canteen, 1847

The only escape, for many soldiers, from such an implacably regulated and structured life was liquor. Among other spirits, they consumed incredibly large quantities of bad but highly alcoholic rum. 78 The taverns in the towns where the garrisons were located - Quebec City had 500 of them in 1830 - were patronized mainly by soldiers and seamen. In addition, mobile canteens followed the regiments into the field.

From the late eighteenth century on, the army, in an attempt to control the problem of alcoholism, favoured the establishment of "regimental canteens," which were no more than drinking establishments designed to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of soldiers in barracks. In the 1830s regulations became stricter; alcohol could no longer be served between noon and curfew, and never to soldiers who were drunk, nor to women nor children - which says a great deal about practices up to that point. It did not cost much to get drunk: in 1842, at the Laprairie barracks, a glass of beer or a glass of rum cost a cent and a half. To encourage the men to drink beer, which is less intoxicating, an increase in the price of alcohol was ordered. But in 1848, with this measure largely unsuccessful, the selling of liquor was simply banned in the canteens. The prohibition did not change much, however: alcoholism continued to be a major problem in the army.

Approximately nine out of 10 British soldiers were young bachelors. There is no doubt that many sought the company of women who could give them easy and quick access to their favours with no strings attached. Throughout the British Empire prostitutes therefore haunted the taverns patronized by soldiers and seamen. There were many women in Canada who practised "the world's oldest profession." At the beginning of the nineteenth century it is estimated that there were 500 to 600 prostitutes in Quebec City alone. There were probably even more in Halifax, where there was a large naval base in addition to a major garrison. Venereal disease thus became one of the scourges of the army.

Between 1837 and 1847 more than 25 percent of all soldiers admitted to military hospitals suffered from sexually transmitted diseases. Twelve years later the proportion was 42 percent, a level that could be defined as epidemic. While also having to find a way to deal with the moralistic arguments of the Victorian era, military surgeons combatted these diseases practically: inspecting the prostitutes in the garrison towns and treating preventively. Their efforts yielded solid results, because the rate had declined to 29 percent in 1864 and 20 percent three years later. The army also finally saw that the best way of preventing such epidemics, and of solving other problems as well, was to make it easier for soldiers to marry by providing them with a proper living environment.

Additional Images

The Adjutant's enquiry, 1840