Hi, Jo here. I'm in the middle of edits for my next book, and short of time, but I remembered that back a while someone had asked about how men bought ranks in the army in the Georgian and Regency period. That's an easy topic because I researched it once at the Canadian War Museum library. I checked who'd asked, and it was Elaine Ransil. Elaine, you win a book for having a topic used.
Let's start out simply.
Men paid to attain officer ranks in the British army. They started at the bottom, generally as youths, when someone purchased a slot at the lowest rank, which was cornet in the cavalry and ensign in the infantry. This was popularly called "buying a set of colours." Thereafter, they purchased the next highest rank from someone who held it when that man was either retiring — "selling out" — or moving up the ranks by buying the next highest.
Hence, the Purchase System.
They money paid in over the years can be seen as an investment, or even a pension plan, because when a man sold out he kept what he was paid for his rank at the time.
It's easy to see it as a corrupt system, but in many ways it worked and of course there were all kinds of variations and nuances. For a start, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers never had the tradition of purchase. Nor did the navy.
So let's get to the details.
From the 17th century onward many wanted to get rid of payment for army commissions in part because advancement didn't depend on ability, but mostly because people bought ranks for schoolboys and even infants. It was a good investment for the lad, but not much use in battle.
In the early 19th century, the Duke Of York instituted changes designed to regulate the purchase system, especially to get rid of the boys and idiots. Anyone who wanted to buy a pair of colours had to apply to the Commander in Chief through his secretary, or in the case of the Horse Guards or Household Cavalry to the colonel of the regiment. The minimum age was set at 16 and the maximum at 18.** The applicant was vetted, and if he passed, his name was entered in a register which also noted whether the commission was to be gained by purchase or not.
**(I'm not sure what happened if someone over 18 wanted to join the army at officer level. Perhaps, since demand for places always exceeded supply, it was impossible. That does cast doubt on novels where the troublesome young gentlemen in their twenties are sent into the army to put their high spirits to better use. )
Note the phase "by purchase or not" up there. The colonels of the Horse Guards and Household Cavalry, or the Commander in Chief, decided who had to pay, but there were guidelines. In 1801, the British military collefe, Sandhurst, had been formed and the graduates with the highest marks got first chance at the non-purchase commissions. Those graduates who did not qualify for free commissions still got priority for the purchase of one. Other cases which got priority were Queen's Pages Of Honor, who gained automatic admission into the Guards; orphans of military officers; and non-commissioned officers of long and distinguished standing.
On active service,an officer could be promoted by merit. This was aided by the fact that if an officer died in service the money invested in his rank was lost, and thus a free place appeared lower in the ranks.
Once in as an ensign or cornet, a man who wanted to move up had to produce a recommendation from a field officer before he could purchase the next rank up. He would also have to serve 2 years as a subaltern (ensign, cornet, or lieutenant) before being allowed to purchase captain, and serve a total of 6 years before being able to purchase major.
How was purchase managed?
By army agents, and the person selling a commission was not supposed to have any say in who bought it. A commission was supposed to be offered to the candidate with seniority. If the senior officer could not afford the cost he had to stand aside. In one case, an officer was so popular the men in the regiment chipped in to provide the money needed. No money exchanged hands between individuals. The purchase price went to the army agent, who paid it to the selling officer.
There were commission brokers. This was illegal, but common. They were usually ex-officers who knew the system and knew some influential people. For a fee, they would identify the most likely openings and get the recommendations needed.
Tom's father buys him an ensign's colours in the foot guards. This has become vacant because Lt. Col. Cathcart is retiring and everyone is moving up. Tom's father pays £1,200 into the fund that will go to Cathcart. Major Fane moves up to Lt. Col. paying the difference of £700 to Cathcart's fund. Captain Dunn moves up to major; a more expensive proposition at £3,500 difference. Lieutenant Gross moves up to captain at a differential of £2,750, and Ensign Lowly makes Lt. by paying £850. (These figures are for mid-19th century.)
Thus Cathcart pockets his investment of £9,000 — the "cost" of a Lieutenant Colonel's rank in the Foot Guards. This is, however, probably little more than he has paid out along the way, and with no interest or increase unless the value of commissions in his regiment has increased. So, a retirement savings plan, but not a particularly good one.
Things I haven't figured out yet.
Why did men who died in action lose their investment? I have to assume it was because their dependents would get pensions, but if a parent or kindly uncle laid out a substantial investment for an officer who then died, they'd get nothing back. Again, I can only assume that this was considered a sum given to the man for his life with no expectation of return.
The other oddity is that the purchase system stopped at Lieutenant Colonel. If a man was promoted from Lt. Col to Major General, he lost his investment. This led to many officers retiring at that point rather than lose all, and thus the loss of experienced officers.
Can't resist including the lovely cover of the omnibus edition of my three military men called George. Two novels and a novella for only $8 in e-book.
Here's a little snippet from a magazine showing how it rippled up.
20th Reg. Foot, Ensign Charles Coote, to be Lieutenant, vice John Reddan , by Purchase.
Ditto, Clifton Wheat, gent. to be Ensign, vice Charles Coote; by Purchase.
(Wheat has entered the army and Coote has moved up.)
21st Reg. Foot. Captain-lieutenant James Bethune to be Captain vice Thomas Horne, by Purchase.
Ditto. First Lieutenant Thomas Taylor to be Captain-lieutenant, vice James Bethune; by Purchase.
Ditto, Second Lieutenant, George Edward Schlagel to be First Lieutenant, vice Thomas Taylor; by Purchase.
Ditto, Alexander Thomson, Gent, to be Second Lieutenant, vice George Edward Schlagel; by Purchase.
(However, here it would seem Thomson has leaped over ensign to enter as lieutenant. Perhaps this is what happened with some men over 18.)
This rather blurry chart shows the price of commissions in 1821. Click on it to enlarge.
If you want to know all about the military in 1821, including wages and the costs of everything, this book is for you.
So there's what I've found out about the military purchase system. If you know more, please share.
Do you enjoy military heroes? The majority of wealthy men of our time, especially titled ones, didn't join the army or navy and yet it can be hard to resist. The book I'm editing, Too Dangerous for a Lady, has an ex-military hero and he met his friend Braydon there. (Both at one time working with/for Hawk Hawkinville, the man on the right in the Three Heroes picture.)
Yes, it's a Rogues book, but the main Roguish connection here is the heroine, Lady Hermione Merryhew. Are you a fan of the Rogues and can't figure out the connection? It'll come to you!
Here's a sneak peek at the stepback for the cover (the inner one). I think it's particularly evocative.