Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Criminals: Edward Allen, Edward Kitson, William Davis, 46th Regiment

Much is made of the notion that the ranks of British regiments were filled with convicts. This was discussed in some detail in a previous post that did not deal with men who served in America. The fact is that few criminals were in fact recruited, and only a few of that number were sent to serve in the American colonies.

But a few were. This opens the obvious question of how such men fared as soldiers. If we could trace a portion of the career of such a man, we'd have a better impression of their value to the military. Fortunately, we can trace three.

In the summer of 1776 recruiting was was occurring at a furious pace throughout Great Britain. Many regiments had been sent to America, and the size of all of those deployed to America had been increased. The sudden increase in demand taxed the recruiting mechanisms which led to the evaluation of all sources including fit men sentenced to prison for minor crimes. All evidence indicates that only a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred men were drawn from this source; the physical demands of the military limited the number of potential recruits to begin with, and prison conditions rapidly destroyed the health of convicts leaving very few to for the army to choose from.

A recruiting officer from the 46th Regiment of Foot nonetheless located and enlisted "six very fine Lads now confined in Shrewsbury Goal for petty Offences" and wrote to the Secretary at War for and order to have them discharged from jail. Only three of them served with the regiment in America. We can only speculate on what happened to the other three. The recruiting officer's request to allow them to enlist may have been denied for reasons unknown; they could have failed the physical examination required for all recruits; they may have failed attestation before a magistrate either due to their own change of heart or the magistrate's insights; they may have been drafted from the 46th's recruiting parties into some other regiment, a practice that became more common later on in the war but which is not known to have been common in 1776 and early 1777; they may have deserted; they may have had disciplinary issues that caused them to be transferred to corps bound for undesirable locations, the military equivalent of transporting criminals; they may have been discharged due to health issues, which occurred sometimes in Great Britain and sometimes in America after a rigorous sea voyage; they could have died before joining the regiment in America. Regardless of the reason, they provide further proof that although criminals were offered the opportunity to enlist they did not always end up on service in America.

The three who did serve joined the 46th Regiment in the first half of 1777. One of them, Edward Allen, served normally for the next year and a half, at which time the 46th was sent to the West Indies. There is a one-year gap in the muster rolls, after which Allen no longer appears; we know nothing of what happened to him, but he was probably discharged under normal circumstances.

The other two, Edward Kitson (or Kidson) and William Davis, are more interesting. Kitson was appointed corporal in January 1778, a bit less than a year after he arrived in America. He served in this capacity in the West Indies, and then became a serjeant in August 1782. When the regiment returned to England that year, he went on furlough. We don't have access to the subsequent muster rolls, but it is obvious from this career that Kitson was a capable and trusted soldier. William Davis, the third petty criminal to join the 46th, was appointed corporal in November 1782 and was still serving at the end of that year.

Although we haven't found any indication that any of these men received pensions, it is clear enough that they were capable soldiers and that two of them, at least, had long and distinguished careers. The government and the military benefited well by choosing to give them an opportunity instead of simply leaving them in prison.

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