Saturday, March 2, 2013

John Murray, engraver, 57th Regiment of Foot

One chapter of my latest book is devoted to how British soldiers spent their free time. This is a challenging subject because there were innumerable ways for these men to pass time but relatively little information on the subject; not many soldiers left writings, and even those who did seldom wrote much of their day-to-day activities. From a variety of primary sources, however, we know that some soldiers made gainful use of their free time by finding employment outside of the army. So common was this that some military textbooks devoted paragraphs or chapters to the subject, instructing officers to insure that jobs did not interfere with the soldiers' duties and that working soldiers had alternative clothing so as not to damage their uniforms.

One particularly enterprising soldier was John Murray of the 57th Regiment. He recognized that his skill as an engraver had a ready market in the crowded garrison city of New York, where officers of all standing needed their military and personal accessories marked for both fashion and identification. In February 1778 he placed an advertisement in The Royal Gazette, the city's premier newspaper (some sources incorrectly give the year as 1776, quite impossible as the city was not yet in British hands in February of that year):

John Murray, Engraver, in the 52d regiment, from Edinburgh, takes this method to inform the Public, That he engraves all manner of silver plate, ornaments, gold and silver watch cases, cyphers upon silver and steel seals, ladies' visiting and company cards, message cards, &c. Coats of arms upon copper, for gentlemen's books, office seals, officers gorgets and sword-belt plates, neatly engraved, and the above John Murray promises to perform his work by the greatest dispatch, and also at the Old Country price. 
N. B. He is to be found at Mr. M'Kenzie's, Barrack-Master, Tryon Row, or at his own room in the 57 Regiment, back of the Provost, or at the Printer hereof.

The advertisement contains a typographical error; Murray was in the 57th Regiment, not the 52nd. Although there was a man of the same name in the 52nd Regiment, that regiment was in Philadelphia in February 1778; the mention of "his own room" allows us to determine the correct regiment.

In addition to obvious items like watch cases and gorgets (ornamental crescent-shaped metal plates worn by officers when on duty), Murray mentioned pieces that required reverse images for printing: personalized calling cards, seals, book plates and such could be made using an engraved plate for either printing or embossing on paper. Because goods were expensive in the wartime economy, Murray was careful to note that his prices were the same as those charged in Great Britain.

In describing where he could be found, Murray makes it clear that he was doing his regular duty as a soldier while also working as an engraver; he may have worked in the Barrack Master's office on a no-longer-extant street where the Municipal Building now stands, and perhaps he engraving copper printing plates for the newspaper's publisher, James Rivington.

John Murray was a fairly common name in the British army. When the 57th Regiment embarked in Cork, Ireland for service in America at the beginning of 1776, there were two men of this name in its ranks. Both were still serving in 1778, one in a battalion company and one in the grenadier company. I guessed that the man who placed the ad was the battalion soldier, because the grenadiers were detached from the regiment and were in Philadelphia when the newspaper ad was placed. But that's not proof; a grenadier could've been on duty with the Barrack Master in New York, away from his company.

I'd hoped to find a pension record for one of the men that would list his trade; if a John Murray received a pension and was an engraver, I'd know it was the right man; if he wasn't an engraver, I'd know the other man was. But neither one made it to the pension office; grenadier John Murray died on 26 May 1780, and battalion soldier John Murray died on 1 March 1782, both in New York. The newspaper ad appeared only in 1778, so again no conclusion could be drawn.

Luckily, the advertisement gave a clue that could be correlated with the muster rolls. Muster rolls prepared in Ireland noted the nationality of each man with a "B" for British (which included English, Scottish and Welsh), an "I" for Irish or an "F" for Foreign. Grenadier John Murray was Irish, whereas battalion soldier John Murray was British. The engraver was from Edinburgh (the ad's awkward syntax suggests that the regiment itself was from Edinburgh, which clearly was not the case). John Murray, engraver from Edinburgh and soldier in one of the battalion companies of the 57th Regiment of Foot, was an industrious and enterprising soldier, clever enough to advertise in the newspaper and earn extra money in his free time - until he died in a garrison after the major hostilities had ended.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!


  1. Hi Don,
    What can you tell me about the 57th Regiment that consisted of German soldiers that fought with their British comrades. My Great-great-great-great grandfather was discharged from the 57th in 1786 in Halifax, he was German.

    1. This is a great question. The 57th Regiment did not "consist" of Germans, but like most British regiments it included some in their ranks. These men were recruited in 1775 and 1776 as part of the overall effort to increase manpower after war broke out; you can read more about it here:
      If you tell me your ancestor's name, I'll be able to tell you more about his service - whether he joined the 57th Regiment in 1776, or, as many soldiers did, transferred into it in 1783 when the American War ended; the war's end brought downsizing, but many discharged British soldiers immediately reenlisted into regiments like the 57th that were sent to Canada rather than returning to Great Britain.

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