Thursday, July 2, 2009

Employed soldiers: James McGregor, 22nd Regiment

Literature on the British Army in the American Revolution often discusses the low pay received by British soldiers. These discussions usually overlook a key aspect of military life: there were many opportunities for soldiers to earn extra money by working either within or outside of the army. Opportunities for men with skills like tailoring, shoemaking or gunsmithing were obvious. Men without trade skills earned money building and maintaining roads, working on fortifications, providing labor for the navy, and all manner of similar jobs.

At this time we have no way to quantify the number of soldiers employed in a regiment, or the number of positions that the army had to offer at any given time. We do, however, have enough examples of soldiers being employed to assume that it was common practice. One such example is from the British garrison in Rhode Island in 1777 and 1778. Because the healthful effects of fresh vegetables were well known, on 24 March 1777 the following order was given to the garrison:

Each British and Hessian Regiment will send one careful man, that knows something of gardening, tomorrow at 12 o'Clock to the British Hospital, in order to cultivate a Garden for the British and Hessian Hospitals. One Serjeant from the British and the same from the Hessians. This party will follow the directions of Doctor Nooth, purveyor of the Hospital who has undertaken the cultivation of the Garden. 22d Regiment gives the Serjeant for the British.

The "Serjeant for the British" was James McGregor, a long-serving soldier in the 22nd Regiment. He was born in Duthil, Inverness-shire in 1741 and apparently joined the army as a teenager. When he joined the 22nd Regiment in December 1770, he already had served some twelve years in the army. His non-specific trade of "labourer" and his posting to this duty in the hospital garden suggests that he had experience as an agricultural worker, but was not so specialized as to list his trade as "gardener" like some soldiers did. He certainly had leadership experience; he had led a party of soldiers in repairing military roads in Scotland in 1772, followed immediately by recruiting service. By the time he was in Rhode Island he was married with two children, his family with him in the garrison.

The size of the hospital garden is not known, but it seems to have been profilic enough. By late June turnips were being supplied from the garden, and in September orders were given for

Two Bushells of Potatoes, two Bushills of turnips, 50 Cabbages, and 50 Onions to be delivered every Friday morning at the Hospital Garden, for the sick of each Regiment.

By the following year, Serjeant McGregor was the overseer of the garden. In this capacity he was entitled to additional rations over and above what he normally received for himself and his family. It is not known whether he received extra pay in addition to the extra provisions, but the provisions alone were valuable and could be resold. In November 1778 a clerk of the provisions store was tried by court martial for embezzlement, and the provisions drawn by Serjeant McGregor were among the points of contention discussed in the trial. A witness testified that Serjeant McGregor had been served

122 wt of Biscuit 122 wt of Flour, 1 Gallon and 1/2 a pint of Rice, 6 Gall and three pints of Pease, half a Barrell and 12 wt of Pork, and that he did not recollect what quantity of Rum he had delivered... and did not take any notice of it till he saw whether the Order agreed with what the Serjt. had received; but that he found the Ticket was only for 122 wt of Bread, 69 wt 3.4 of Pork, 6 wt 6 oz of Butter, 6 Gallons 3 pints of pease, 1 Gallon and a 1/2 pint of rice, and 2 Gallons 17/3 jills of Rum

To explain the discrepancy between what was on his ticket and what he actually received, McGregor testified that

about the 24th of last August he got an Order from the Quarter Master Serjeant of the 22d Regiment for Provisions for himself & his wife and two Children for two Months that were due him; that the Provisions he drew above what was expressed on the Ticket was as Overseer of the Hospital Garden, which was due him for four Months; and that he desired the Prisoner to give him half of the Bread that was due him in Flour, which he did. He further says, that in the Receipts he gave for the Provisions for the men employed in the Garden, his Rations were stopt out of it and kept in the Stores.

In response to a question from the court on how he could draw provisions without a ticket, he said

that for most of the time no Ticket was required, and that for the remainder of the time the provisions were due he had given a Ticket Weekly, out of which his Rations was Stopt.

That McGregor requested a substantial portion of his due in flour rather than bread or biscuit suggests that he either planned to save it for a long time or resell it. The quantities described are in troy pounds, equal to about 1.2 of the pounds that we're accustomed to; twelve troy pounds was equal to a stone, while 100 troy pounds equalled a hundredweight.

The clerk was acquitted of embezzlement. James McGregor continued as a serjeant in the 22nd Regiment for another year, taking his discharge around the time that Rhode Island was evacuated by the British. He was paid through 26 November 1779 in accordance with the army custom of providing a few weeks' extra pay to discharged soldiers to provide for their passage home. In November 1780 he appeared before the pension board of Chelsea Hospital in London, where he was granted an out pension in recognition of 21 years 6 months service.

The orders in this passage are from my book General Orders: Rhode Island. Details on James McGregor are from the Chelsea out pension lists, and information from the court martial from the Judge Advocate General papers, both in the British National Archives.


  1. Where can I find more details on Mervin Nooth's stay in Rhode island. Are there more details aboutb his garden there in 1778?

    1. Is there further information about Mervin Nooth in Rhode island.

    2. John Mervin Nooth was appointed Physician to the General Hospital in the British Army in America in 1776. He accompanied the British expedition to Rhode Island in December of that year and was overseer of the army hospital on that island. He remained in this post at least through 1777.
      His middle name is sometimes spelled "Merwin" and his last name appears in some sources as "North", so he can be tricky to track down. My book "General Orders: Rhode Island" (available from ) has a few mentions of the army hospital, as does "Diary of Frederick Mackenzie" (although the index of that book calls him "North").
      Unfortunately I don't have much in the way of details on his service in Rhode Island.

  2. i love your blog ..shall be reading in great detail.

  3. Thank you Don regarding your background information on Mervin Nooth and your response from April 12th,2012 . I have been researching him for 5 years now and he is indeed very difficult to find. I was wondering if you had any information on Charles Blagden another doctor who accompanied Nooth to R.I. circa 1778.

    Denis Robillard

    1. Hi Don. It's been a while since I was on this post. I have been doing some research on the Royal Engineers who were used during that several attacks in New York and Washington heights. I came across a note in the Order book of Dixon, from Engineers who mentioned the "negroes" would be helping to set up the battery positions around 1776. I was wondering if you knew anything about the role negro slaves played in assisting the Royal Engineers during the American revolution.