You are allowed to inlist men of five feet six inches provided they are able bodied, Broad Shoulders well Limbed... Young Lads of five feet High will be allowed of provided they are Well Limbed and Likely to Grow.
British regiments sent officers far and wide in Great Britain seeking suitable men to fill the ranks. Each officer received a set of instructions from the regiment's commanding officer describing the types of men to look for and how they were to be managed once enlisted. Only a few original examples of recruiting instructions from the eighteenth century survive, and while they vary a great deal they do share some general characteristics. Usually they include an instruction concerning how tall recruits should be.
The passage above is from instructions for the 7th Regiment of Foot in 1775. The regiment was in America, but had a few officers back home enlisting men to keep the ranks full. Their height requirement of five feet six inches was typical of peacetime recruiting, as was the caveat about young men being allowed to be shorter if they were "likely to grow." This, and all of the other instructions, were guidelines; an officer could accept any man who he thought would make a good soldier, regardless of age, size or any other consideration, but the recruiting instructions outlined the preferred attributes. There was an element of risk, though, in going outside of the guidelines, because a recruit could be rejected by the regiment when he was sent to join it.
1775 and 1776 saw a dramatic increase in recruiting in order to increase the size of regiments committed to the American war. Instructions went out to over 200 officers from more than 40 regiments, all probably echoing similar guidance. We don't have the orders given to officers of the 46th Regiment, but a list of men they enlisted in January 1776 does survive. From it, we know that they did take the chance on a few young men being "likely to grow." One of them was John Dempsey, a sixteen-year-old from Geashill in Ireland.
During times of peace, there was no prescribed enlistment term; recruits went into the army as a career, and remained soldiers until they were no longer healthy enough to serve. On 16 December 1775, however, as an inducement to enlist more men for the American war, a Royal proclamation was made that men who enlisted after that date could be discharged when the war ended, if they had served for at least three years. This proclamation may have tipped the scales for men who were ambivalent about joining the army. Dempsey enlisted just eleven days later, on 27 December.
Dempsey was only five feet four-and-a-half inches tall, but he was also young enough to have some growth left in him. The officer who recruited the brown-haired, blue-eyed lad with a fair complexion was from the same town, and may have known Dempsey's family well enough to anticipate his full-grown height. The recruiter took the risk. Dempsey was sent with other recruits to America, where he disembarked in New York in late October 1776 and joined his new regiment.
The 46th Regiment served in several campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776, 1777 and 1778. Towards the end of the latter year, it was one of several regiments sent on an expedition to the West Indies in response to France joining the war. The plan was for those regiments to return to the army in New York, but the course of the war kept most of them in the West Indies for the remainder of the war.
A number of significant actions occurred in the West Indies. One of them was a sea battle off the coast of Grenada in July. Many men of the 46th and other regiments had been put on board British warships to act as marines; John Dempsey went on board HMS Medway, a 60-gun ship. During the battle he was wounded in the leg, a wound from which he recovered, but which would continue to dog him throughout his life.
By 1782, combat and climate had taken its toll on the regiments in the Caribbean islands. The men of the 46th Regiment who were still fit for service were drafted into other regiments, and the remainder sent back to Great Britain. Dempsey and a number of his comrades joined the 55th Regiment of Foot, a corps that had been on the western side of the Atlantic a few months longer than the 46th had been. But the war was almost over. On 10 August 1783, Dempsey was discharged "in consequence of his majesty's proclamation of the 16th December 1775;" he had served three years as a soldier, and the war was over, so his obligation was ended.
Having spend all of his adult life as a soldier, however, and with no trade to fall back on, Dempsey enlisted once again, this time into the 6th Regiment of Foot. In Dublin, after only six months, he was discharged again because of his "ulcerous leg, which renders him unfit for service." He received a pension which provided a subsistence income, and his whereabouts for the next ten years are not known. In 1794 he joined a regiment called the Irish Fencibles, a corps raised solely for operations within the kingdom of Ireland. In this regiment he was appointed corporal, and managed to limp along for seven and a half more years until the regiment was disbanded in July of 1782. Once again being discharged, "still having the sore leg occasioned by being wounded aboard the Medway Man of War then served as a Marine." He returned to the pension rolls for the remainder of his life.
The recruiter had taken a good chance back in 1775 when John Dempsey was only sixteen years old and a bit shorter than the standard. He grew to be five feet seven inches tall, and gave the army fifteen years of his life.Learn more about British soldiers in America!