The lists of trades recorded for British soldiers in the 1770s and 1780s, usually reflecting the line of work they had pursued before joining the army, includes all of the major skills of Great Britain's industry: weaver, flax dresser, tailor, shoemaker, smith, carpenter, sawyer, mason, comedian... comedian? Yes, among the pensioners who served in the American Revolution was at least one made who gave his trade as "comedian."
Archibald Maclaren was a native of Inverary in Argylshire, on the west coast of Scotland. We have no information on his early life, until he arrived in America in September 1777 as a recruit in the 26th Regiment of Foot; he had probably enlisted early that year. At five feet five inches tall, the twenty-one year old was an inch below the usual peacetime height standard for soldiers, but wartime manpower needs brought an acknowledgment that many robust, eager highlanders were "little fellows" (as stated in an inspection return for the 82nd Regiment in 1778), and so men of smaller stature were welcomed into the ranks.
Maclaren must have shown some ability as a soldier, for he was put directly into the 26th Regiment's light infantry company, a post that usually required at least a year of military experience. During the next two years his regiment was involved in several major engagements and numerous smaller ones. Maclaren was wounded three times, once in the head, but we have no record of in which battles or whether on three separate occasions. We do know that his wounds did not keep him down. When the 26th Regiment was sent back to Great Britain in late 1779, he went with it, and by the first half of 1780 he had been appointed to serjeant. Clearly he was a capable soldier.
While on recruiting service in Scotland, Maclaren found time to write a play, a farce called The conjurer, or the Scotsman in London. It made use of regional characterizations, but turned around some common tropes by portraying a Scotsman in the big city as cunning and clever rather than simplistic. The work was published in Dundee in 1781, and was probably performed by a touring company before opening in Edinburgh in 1783.
1783 also saw the opening of his second play, a "musical entertainment" called Coup de Main, or the American Adventurers (published in Perth in 1784), in Dundee. And with the end of the American War, a military drawdown allowed him to take advantage of the wartime enlistment provision that men who had served at least three years could be discharged at the close of the conflict. Having been wounded during the war, he was eligible for a pension, but to obtain it he had to travel to London and appear before the Pension Board at Chelsea Hospital, where he would present his discharge, the paper from his regiment stating that he had completed his enlistment obligations and recommending him for a pension. In an 1811 essay he wrote of what occurred next:
But the very day on which I had purposed to commence my journey to London, I was seized with a fever, which confined me six weeks, and to augment my disaster, I found my landlady had lighted her pipe with my discharge, at which she seemed so little concerned, that she gravely told me - she always lighted her pipe with Jock's copy-books when they were all written upon: this was a heavy stroke, for the Regt. had by that time returned to America, and my discharge was no phoenix—from the ashes of which I could expect to see another rise: so what was to be done?
The 26th Regiment had actually gone to Ireland in 1783 and did not depart for British North America until four years later, but no matter; Maclaren was left without the essential documentation he needed to go before the pension board. Needing a source of income, and having already established a name for himself in the theater in Dundee, he joined an "itinerant troop of players" based in nearby Montrose. His essay continued,
Ye (perhaps well meaning, but I hope mistaken) enemies of the drama, unless ye can divest yourselves of your propensity to eat and drink, censure me not when I tell you that I joined Mr. Sutherland, whose company bore a very respectable character, which was occasionally heightened by the acquisition of several shining stars from London, viz. the late Mr. John Palmer, and his brother, the facetious Dick Wilson, the humorous Lee Lewis, Mr. Cautherly, Mrs. Barresford, Miss Fontenelle, &c.
He apparently played English characters poorly due to his own heavy highland accent, but did well with Scottish, Irish and even French characters. His acting career was short-lived, however, for, as he wrote,
But after a successful career of several years, through, either the misconduct or misfortune of the manager, we were all left to shift for ourselves.
"Several years" was an exaggeration, unless he was including his time as a playwright (and possible as a performer) while still in the army. In November 1784 necessity caused him to return to his prior profession:
The most eligible situation that offered, in my then condition, was a Serjeantcy in the Dunbartonshire Highlanders, which I accepted and attended the Regt. to Guernsey and Ireland
This corps, also called the Dunbartonshire Fencible Infantry, took Maclaren onto the rolls as a serjeant in November 1784; although fencible regiments were by definition not eligible for overseas service, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and some Scottish fencible regiments were sent there to help quell the 1798 rebellion. When that conflict was ended, Maclaren left the regiment on 27 December 1798, but his aspirations of a pension were once again dashed:
...as the wound in my head became at times somewhat troublesome, I was once more discharged; but still my unfriendly stars continued to twinkle upon me—for in the course of my passage to Bristol (as if fire and water had combined to ruin me) my knapsack, which contained my discharge, by the carelessness of an officious passenger, fell overboard.
Having written a farce called What News from Bantry Bay? while serving in Ireland, the forty-two year old Maclaren now turned himself fully to writing, publishing eleven more plays from 1789 through 1799. His work made frequent use of wordplay derived from regional accents, sometimes even including passages in Gaelic. They were mostly printed in Scotland - Paisley, Greenock, Perth - but one in 1799 had a Bristol publisher. He apparently was getting some recognition throughout the kingdom. He had also married and had several children, the first in 1796. In 1799 he moved his family to London where his one-act drama Negro Slaves was performed at the Amphitheatre, a venue near Westminster Bridge. This work, with a Scottish character speaking out against the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery, may have roused some controversy in a nation that derived considerable wealth from overseas plantations staffed by slaves.
In London, he continued to increase both his family and his catalog. By the end of 1820 he had sired eleven children, five of whom survived, and authored an astonishing fifty-three more plays. He sold these to patrons and anyone else who would buy, and eked out a modest living. In 1803, he began writing introductions that described something of his situation, from which we find valuable insights on the work of a struggling writer in London. Initially they were brief, like the two sentences that first appeared in 1803:
Being discharged from the Army, in consequence of my Wounds, the little Productions of my Pen are my only source of support for myself and Family. To the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, who have either subscribed for, or purchased any of my Copies, I beg leave to offer my grateful thanks.
In 1805 he elaborated a bit more:
Being discharged from the Army, (where I served many years as Serjeant) in consequence of my wounds, the little productions of my pen are my only present support for myself and family. To the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, who have either subscribed for, or purchased any of my Copies, I beg leave to offer my most grateful thanks. I am not insensible that I am more indebted to their generosity, than to any merit in any of my little weak attempts. And as for the few who have - but why should I complain? If every body was to buy, I would grow too rich; and if nobody was to buy, I should starve; so, between those that do, and those that do not, thank Providence I make a shift to move on towards the end of my long journey.
Apparently in response to questions frequently asked by prospective buyers, in 1811 he wrote an essay in the April issue of a London literary magazine called The Satirist: Or, Monthly Meteor, in which he explained his lack of another source of income. Titled "To the Public," it began:
If you are an old soldier, why don’t you live upon your pension?” said a gentleman to me 'tother day. Now, my good reader, as in all probability you may be inclined to propose the same question, I shall endeavour to tell you, in as few words as possible, how I happen to have no pension, and yet I am an old soldier.
After describing the losses of his discharges, presented above, he continued, revealing that he had recently renewed his efforts to obtain a pension:
Some time after my arrival in London, I applied to His Royal Highness the Duke of York, who was graciously pleased to intimate to me by the pen of Col. Gordon, that it was not in his power to interfere with the board, unless I could procure a recommendation from the Regiment in which I had last served; — but that was a task not to be accomplished, till I fortunately met Col. Scott, who very willingly granted me the following certificate:
"I certify that Serjeant Archibald Maclaren served in the Dunbarton Fencible Infantry, under my command, for the space of six years: during the whole of which time he behaved himself soberly, honestly, and in every respect as a good soldier; and that he was regularly discharged by order of the faculty, the wounds he received in the 26th Regiment in America, rendering him no longer fit for actual service. I also firmly believe, that Serjeant Maclaren lost the discharge which I gave him from the Regiment. FRANCIS J. SCOTT, Lt. Col. Late Dunbartonshire Infantry.”
This certificate, accompanied by an humble petition, I carried to Sir David Dundas, who ordered me to leave my address. -Elated with this fair prospect, I flew home to communicate the news to my family, – and so confident was I of success, that my wife and I began to conjecture how much I should be allowed per day, and my young ones, (of whom there are two boys and four girls) to lay out, by anticipation, a small portion of my pension, in purchasing necessaries which they stood somewhat in need of. But, poor things! their hopes and their joy had their birth and their burial in one fortnight — for when I called for an answer, I was told by Mr. Lynn, that nothing could be done without a printed discharge. There was another stroke! for on my return from Chelsea, I found that Colonel Scott (who thought the written certificate sufficient) had left town. — "But why not apply to the 26th?" you may say: I’ll tell you the reason, — Sir William Erskine, the Hon. General Sir Charles Stuart, General Gordon, and, in short, all the officers who knew me in that Regiment, are removed beyond my reach, either by death or preferment. Now, my good reader, think not that I publish this with a view to throw any reflections upon the gentlemen who rejected my humble petition: - my sole design is to shew you that I have no provision made for me by government; but I am proud to proclaim that I have received many private favours from most of the Royal Family, as well as from many of the nobility, gentry, and others, for whose goodness I shall seize this, and every other opportunity to express my sincere and life lasting gratitude.
The following year he reprinted his 1811 drama called Tricks of London giving it a new title, The Ways of London: Or Honesty the Best Policy, and including an introduction that indicated the reason behind the new name, relating the challenges of his work:
Will you, for this last time, pardon my repeated intrusion; for in truth, if I could find any other way to provide for myself and family, I should neither give so much trouble where I owe so much gratitude, nor yet run the risk of meeting with insults where I owe no gratitude at all. To convince you of the truth of what I say, I beg leave to tell you a story; Some time ago, a little blackbird built his nest contiguous to a farm house; the farmer, whose good wishes were not altogether confined to himself, would sometimes drop a few grains of wheat among the chaff for the benefit of his sable visitant, and surprising as it may seem to some people, I have been told that this very farmer has been often heard to say, that at the end of the season, he never could perceive that his stock was any way diminished by these little acts of generosity. Thus far, thus good, we shall say, but the farmer died, and that was bad for the poor blackbird, for the ensuing spring, when he had occasion to renew his foraging, the farm was possest by a man who was so far from considering the necessities of others, that he laid a snare and encaged the poor intruder. The consequence was, that his feathered partner pined with grief, and the young ones died of hunger. Now, my good reader, I am persuaded that you will be very apt to call this a mere fiction — well, let it even be so, and I will tell you a fact: One day, as I went out to distribute my copies, I took the liberty to call at the house of a gentleman who had often encouraged my little productions, but he was not there, his friends had conveyed him to a neighbouring church yard, and the gentleman who succeeded him, not only threatened to prosecute me for my intrusion, but in the fulness of his heart, threw my pamphlet into the fire. I could ill spare it at the time, for I had but ten copies remaining, and little or no paper provided for another Publication. On my return home, I found my dear little Mary, a girl of eight years old, expiring upon her mother's knee. I sat down with an heavy heart, and an empty pocket; hope was set never to rise again for me, I thought, but at the very midnight of despair, when all was dark and dreary in my mind, a generous, noble benefactor, (the recollection of whose many acts of goodness shall never die in my heart, as long as my heart lives within me,) sent me a present which enabled me to go on with my Publication. Should ever the executioner of my pamphlet, or any of his Benapartical disposition, see this, it will shew them, that here is a kind providence which befriends even the meanest of mortals, I often found it so, for though I have no provision made for me by government, I am grateful to say, that several of the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, have often encouraged my little attempts.
He concluded by restating that he'd lost his military discharges, and reprinted the certificate he'd obtained from Lt. Col. Scott.
Maclaren's 1813 "dramatic piece with songs" The Prisoner of War, or a most excellent Story included a new introduction, bringing readers up to date on his continuing tribulations with the pension board:
I write for neither fame nor wealth, my utmost ambition is to procure a subsistence for myself and family. In some of my former Addresses I took the liberty to inform the Public that both of my discharges had been lost, and that subsequent to my arrival in London I had procured a written certificate, which I presented to Sir David Dundas, without effect — And now I have to add, that about a month ago, I was favoured by Lieut. Col. Scott, with a printed discharge, which I enclosed for His Royal Highness the Commander in Chief, from whose Office it was transferred to the Secretary’s Office, Chelsea, from which last place, I was directed, by letter, to appear to answer such questions as might be proposed to me - On the wings of expectation, I flew to obey the summons, fully prepared to answer to — How long did you serve — where were you Wounded, &c. &c. &c. But to my utter astonishment, no such questions were asked — very far from it. A ‘young‘ gentleman of eighteen or nineteen settled the matter in a more concise manner, for tearing a slip from the bottom of my own letter, he wrote thereon, “This man’s discharge will not do, being agreeable to neither the new nor the old form.” This important piece of intelligence, together with my discharge, he desired me to carry to the Duke of York’s Office. Now my good readers, though my services were not doubted, and my wounds were too conspicuous to be disputed, you see that owing to a small deficiency in point of form, I am cut off from all hopes of obtaining the veteran’s reward. But no reflections — perhaps they did well, and perhaps they did ill, in rejecting my claim; but in spite of all the perhapses that ever can be perhapsed, I cannot help thinking that I was as much entitled to the pension as many of my more fortunate brother soldiers who have it. Disappointment is the fate of man, and I have had my share of it, yet why should I repine, as long as I can say that several of the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, encourage my little attempts.
The following year, in a drama called The Last Shift, or the Prisoners released, one of four plays he published in 1814, he shortened his introduction:
I am often asked, why I have no Pension for my wounds and services. All the answer I can make, is, that my discharge was lost, and that, though I have procured another, with an excellent Certificate, my claim, by some fatality which I cannot account for, was rejected, or perhaps neglected; but to console me for the disappointment, I have to say, that several of the Royal Family, Nobility, Gentry, and others, encourage my little productions, which are indeed my only means of support for myself and family.
Some time between 1814 and 1816 his fortunes with the military administration changed. He was able to obtain an acceptable discharge, which described him as having black hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion. He went before the examining board, and was granted a pension of nine pence per day since he had been a serjeant for much of his career. This new income did not stop him writing, but instead changed the tenor of his introductions.
Starting in 1816, he no longer justified the lack of a military income, but instead explained why for two decades he had been soliciting sales to support a young family. Showing his wit, in a drama called The Debating Club he composed in introduction in a question-and-answer format:
Public: What Necessity can you have? Don't your children grow up like other people's? How comes it, then, that you always tell me you have a large family? Answer me that!
Author. In the course of my military life, I observed, that when the destructive hand of death had thinn'd the ranks, the vacancies were filled up with young recruits. In like manner has my family decreased and re-increased during the seventeen years I've been in London. Three months are not elaps'd since I saw my eldeset son, a youth of twenty years old, alid in the ground, and yet I have five children still remaining; four of them under eleven years of age...
And in The Man Trap; Or, a Scene in Germany: a Dramatic Piece, with Songs, in Two Acts. he wrote,
Once more I find myself under the pathful necessity of intruding upon your good nature. During my seventeen years residence in London, I have experienced many instances of public Kindness, and a great deal of domestic distress. “Have you got no Pension?” is a question quite familiar to my ear: Yes, I have (and I have laboured for it) as much as will pay my room rent; and when it is paid, I sit down with great satisfaction, and no little pride, for I am always proud to get out of debt; but notwithstanding my pride and my satisfaction to boot, when I look round my room I see four little young things, under eleven years of age, both able and willing to eat, when perhaps I have not four farthings in my pocket to gratify their natural propensity. In that case what can I do: why, having atchieved so much with the small sum I derive from what I may call the labours of my sword, I must endeavour to make out the rest with the labours of my pen. Those who have read my former Pieces will perhaps say — that my last was my worst, and I'll not attempt to deny the charge. The best marksman does not always hit, nor yet does the worst always miss: therefore, be kind enough to cast an eye over the trifle which is attached to this, and if you like it, that is to say, you find a few flowers among many nettles, I hope your candour will approve the first, and your good nature pardon the latter. The price is but small, yet small as it is, I am very sure the receiving it would benefit my pocket much more than the granting it would injure yours.
The last of his lengthy introductions that we have found appeared in the 1817 musical Live and Hope; or the Emigrant prevented:
How happy is the man who writes with pleasure and prints with confidence! he is like a general who leads an army to the field, not in the least doubtful of victory. My case is quite the reverse; for though I remember, with gratitude, that I have often met with friends in the course of my little business, I cannot forget, that I have also met with enemies; for a Dramatic Piece, even if it should contain sentiments that would not disgrace a sermon, will ever be condemned by a certain description of people. But this far I’ll say for myself, however low my attempts may prove, in point of composition, I have always avoided every thing that might be thought to offend the most delicate mind. I have praised virtue, ridiculed folly; and, strange as it may seem to some people, I have heard several good judges say, that they never met with any of my little attempts that wanted a moral. But hold, my pen. I fish not for praise — but for a subsistence; and in order to accomplish that object, I offer my little productions for sale, accompanied by the following four dogrel lines -
All those that want must ask to live,
All those that have may keep or give;
All those who bear a gen’rous heart
Half share the pleasures they impart.
Apropos! — before I finish this address, I must answer a question frequently proposed by some good-natured people, who seem very anxious to detect me in a falsehood: - ‘You had a family when you came to London,’ said they; ‘are they forever to be young?‘ ‘No, they are not; nor will some of them ever be older, for they sleep in St. Ann’s Church Yard, and in Tottenham Court Road Church Yard.’ At once to unravel the seeming mystery, I have five children dead, and five living, four of the latter under twelve years of age; and as it cannot be supposed that they can provide for themselves, both my inclination and my duty prompt me to use every lawful means in my power for their support: but upon you, my good Readers, it must depend, whether I shall be able or unable to put my design in execution.
After another question-and-answer introduction in 1818 in which he indicated that his plays were not being performed, Maclaren adopted a standard introduction that he used, with minor variations:
In answer to several questions that are frequently proposed to me, I beg leave to offer the following statement: I was born in the Highlands of Scotland' I served in the army fifteen years, and some months; I was Sergeant ten years, and some months; I have three wounds all in my front, and my pension pays my room rent. Of eleven children, I have five dead, and six living; five of the latter, under fourteen years of age. For these, my generous Reader, have I so often repeated my intrusions - intrusions, no more troublesome to you, than they are painful to myself.
Which he later shortened to:
In answer to several questions that are frequently proposed to me, I beg leave to offer the following statement: I was born in the Highlands of Scotland' I served in the army fifteen years, and some months; I was Sergeant ten years, and some months; I have three wounds all in my front, and my pension is nine-pence per day.
In this late stage of his life he exaggerated the length of his service somewhat, but there can be no denying his remarkable literary output. By the time he died in 1826, Archibald Maclaren had published at least eighty-three plays, some revisions of a few of those plays, two prose works dealing with the history of the Irish rebellion, and three collections of poetry, making him one of the most prolific Scottish authors of the age. Quite an accomplishment for an old soldier and self-described comedian.
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