Daily Life of Soldiers and Officers



Interior of soldiers' barracks at St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, 1854

Caption: Interior of soldiers' barracks at St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, 1854

There was nothing luxurious about British army barracks in Canada. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the practice was to cram as many people as possible into the available space. In 1845, however, minimum space requirements were established for each soldier, although it would take another 15 years before the measure was implemented, because new barracks had to be built.

The inside of a barrack resembled a large dormitory, with whitewashed walls and wooden floors. Each room would generally contain a whole company of soldiers - between 50 and 100 men; the beds were placed to the sides of the room, with the centre occupied by the tables and benches used for meals. Shelves were placed on the walls above the beds to give the soldier a place to put his haversack and headdress. The uniform and harness were suspended on hooks. The musket was usually placed close to the bed, sometimes in a rack. In Quebec and Ontario, the room had a cast-iron wood stove to ward off the rigours of winter; in the Maritime colonies, which were considered more temperate, fireplaces continued to be the main source of heat until the 1840s, at which time wood stoves were also brought into service. The same bucket was used as a urinal and for washing, which led to many eye infections. In 1840 the authorities began to provide the soldiers with washbasins.

Until 1824, wooden beds were designed for two soldiers. Double bunk beds were also occasionally used. Then the single bed came into use; it was made of iron and could be folded to create more space. However, it took some 30 years for the single bed to be introduced in Canada, because wood was plentiful. Each bed had a straw mattress, a pillow, two sheets, two blankets and a small woven rug, usually green.

The married soldiers' wives and children lived in the barracks, in virtually total promiscuity. The rules granted them no rights, and everyone managed as best they could. Married couples generally occupied the corners of the room and hung a blanket or sheets on a line as a partition to give them some privacy, a privilege that could be withdrawn at any time. Children had to find space for themselves, often taking the bed of a soldier who was on guard duty. This state of affairs continued until 1856, when the army finally agreed to provide beds and bedding for children living in barracks. 77

Married soldiers often obtained permission to live in town, where, although they could afford nothing more than a hovel, they at least had some privacy. Beginning in 1848, the army allocated a few pence per day for their rent, and also began providing rooms in barracks to accommodate two or three families. In Canada the first barrack allocating one small room per soldier's family was erected in Halifax in 1868; this was the forerunner of the well-known PMQs on our military bases, which were initially called "pavilions" rather than "Private Married Quarters."