Life at Windsor Barracks

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As some visitors to 1812 and all that may already know, I recently edited the Napoleonic-era memoir of Sergeant Thomas Jackson, who served with the Staffordshire Militia at Windsor Castle before losing a leg in the botched 1814 storming of Bergen-op-Zoom with the Coldstream Guards. The Eventful Life of Thomas Jackson was published by Helion & Co in March 2018 and is available both online and in some book shops.

In this blog post, I figured I would share Jackson’s description of life in Windsor barracks. Anthologized in Roy Palmer’s classic Rambling Soldier (1977), this passage offers a vivid reconstruction of the daily routine of early nineteenth-century redcoats:

“As I have promised to tell the soldier’s life in his barrack, suffice it briefly told. Some barracks are very comfortable, and others are not so. The best I ever saw were those at Windsor; a palace compared with many others. Windsor barracks will hold about eight hundred men; the building is four stories high. The rooms are spacious; those on the ground floor take in two companies of men, probably ninety each, rank and file. The sergeants have separate rooms. The men’s rooms serve for mess, sitting, and sleeping rooms. Below (same size) is their cleaning room. The sleeping rooms each hold twenty-nine beds. The attics were appropriated to married soldiers. The rooms were kept remarkably clean and rubbed bright. Drum beats to rise at six in summer, and turn out. Each bed is folded, and sheets and blankets also laid in neat folding pleats. Knapsacks are neatly packed, and hung on pegs over the bed. The arms stand in a rack by the bedside. It was pretty to see the neatness and uniformity of these rooms. But, by the bye, no breakfast is got for the soldier at nine: the mess-drum beats at twelve. When I first went there I used to think that drum the most joyful music I ever heard. The mess was half a pound of boiled meat per man, a can of broth, and a pound of bread; he might either eat it or save it for supper. Two cooks cut out each man’s mess on a coarse brown plate. An officer attends to see all seated at table, and a corporal, pointing to a mess, will ask, “Who shall have this?” A man, with his back turned, replies – naming one.[1] Perhaps a bony mess will sometimes fall to the lot of an unlucky hungry one, when any thing but pleasant looks are shewn; however, the pump makes up the deficiency. Now the dinner drum and fife always played the tune of “O the Roast Beef of Old England,”[2] but it was “all gammon,” for I never tasted a bit of roast till the Jubilee, at the cost of “the good old king.”[3] After dinner – romps, foolish talk, and corrupting each other. Tattoo beating at nine. All in barracks, and roll call; every man standing at his bed, and his name on the foot. The full pay of a private is one shilling and a penny per day, to find him meat, drink, washing, shirts, shoes, stockings, and sundry other things. The diet was well adapted to keep us from growing too corpulent and inactive.”

To find out more about Thomas Jackson’s Narrative, check out my blog post on the publisher’s website.


[1] This messing procedure was meant to ensure fairness, giving every man an equal chance of receiving a choice or gristly cut of meat. See for instance Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket (London, 2001), p. 281.
[2] The tune ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’ was written by Henry Fielding for his play The Grub Street Opera, first performed in 1731, and was adopted by the British Army as the ‘Dinner Call’ played by fifers and drummers to summon soldiers for their early afternoon meal. See, for instance, Samuel Potter, The Art of Playing the Fife… (London, 1817), p. 16.
[3] King George III’s Golden Jubilee, held on 25 October 1809, celebrated the beginning of the monarch’s fiftieth year on the throne.

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