Friday, June 20, 2014

John Lawson, 22nd Regiment, advocates for veterans

When he stepped onto the wharf in Boston in June 1775, it was John Lawson's second visit to America. The 45 year old serjeant in the 22nd Regiment of Foot had joined the army in 1750 and served in America from the siege of Louisbourg in 1758 until the regiment finally headed back to Great Britain in 1764. He had served with the regiment in Nova Scotia, New York, Pensacola, New Orleans and other places. Now, after ten years in the British Isles, he was back in North America, greeted by a fresh new war, this time against the same colonists he'd fought alongside a dozen years earlier.

This time Lawson's visit would be short. The regiment remained in America until October 1783, but Lawson was called to a different duty. A few months after the 22nd Regiment disembarked, regiments in America were ordered to send a few officers and non-commissioned officers back to Great Britain for recruiting. Being among the oldest serjeants and longest-serving soldiers in the regiment, Lawson was among those chosen for this service. He and a few others, and their counterparts from all the regiments in Boston, sailed back to Great Britain in December 1775.

Lawson spent the next sixteen months working hard to raise men, men who were urgently needed to fulfill the increased size of regiments overseas as well as to make up for wartime attrition. In April 1777 he was discharged from the army and recommended for a pension because he was "worn out," having spent more than half his life in military service. He not only received a pension but was among the limited number of recipients of twelve pence per day rather than the usual five pence, "in consideration of his long and faithful services in the Army, & to keep him from Want." A native of the Glasgow suburb of Cathcart, he returned to his place of birth where he stood to live a reasonably comfortable retirement.

Within a few years, though, he took up a cause on behalf of his fellow pensioners. Army pensions were administered by Chelsea Hospital near London, but the money was distributed through local excise offices. The hospital sent a list of pensioners to each excise office. The excise office collected taxes, and then used the funds for local needs including payment of pensions. Each pensioner went to the excise office twice a year to receive his semi-annual payment; men who didn't show up and provided no accounting of themselves were presumed dead and struck from the rolls. It was a simple and elegant system that minimized overhead and money transfer.

In a fashion typical of public offices of the era, the law allowed excise offices to retain five percent of the pension payments as compensation for their services. Thus, each pensioner received a semi-annual payment of their daily allowance minus five percent. This was the established system, and no one took issue with it. But for pensioners in western Scotland there was a difference: they collected their pensions in Glasgow, but the designated place was in Edinburgh on the other side of the country. The excise collector in Glasgow, answerable to the office in Edinburgh rather than directly to Chelsea, withheld and additional shilling from each pension payment for his own serices, in addition to the five percent withheld in Edinburgh.

Although this had been going on for decades, in 1785 John Lawson made a stand against the practice. He filed a lawsuit on behalf of himself and other pensioners asserting that the extra shilling charge was unfair. The court agreed, and order Lawson and others to be paid the sums that had been withheld since they went onto the pension rolls. Eight years after he left active service, Lawson had won a victory for his fellow former soldiers.

But that wasn't the end of it. The excise office appealed. Lawson then escalated the matter, charging the excise officer directly with being in violation of a statute concerning fair distribution of funds. There may have been some self-interest here; if Lawson was right, he stood to collect a 100 pound reward as the informant against a corrupt official. He had a good case, though, and attorneys on both sides gave reasonable arguments. For Lawson and the pensioners, it was a matter of paying twice for the same service; for the excise collector, it was a matter of providing the benefit of relieving the pensioners from having to travel to Edinburgh. The case dragged on into 1788.

What was the final ruling? Unfortunately, we don't know. The above information comes from documents submitted to the court, but I've yet to find the outcome. What we can take away is that veteran's affairs were an active issue in the 18th century just as they are today, and that some long-serving soldiers soldiered on in the interest of their comrades even after their obligation to the army was done.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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