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Taking the King's Shilling

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160685.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 7:13 am Reply with quote

Have we ever looked into the business about recruiting sergeants dropping shillings into tankards of beer and then pressing into service anyone who drank from them? I don't remember it coming up, but:

1) is the story sufficiently widely-known? I remember being told about it as a boy (to explain why pewter tankards have glass bottoms), and my 14-year-old just asked me about it, so it is out there, but I have no idea whether it's "General" or not, and

2) is it, in fact, a myth? Maybe it's true for all I know, though it doesn't sound like it to me.

Mat - has this one come across your desk?

160688.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 7:22 am Reply with quote

Yes, I'd heard of that Flash, I think it's widespread enough. Never ocurred to me that it may be false; to be honest, I don't think I ever thought it was definitely true either.

160697.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 7:53 am Reply with quote

The BBC is repeating the story on a schools programme:

and on a fact file

I'm uncomfortable with there being no primary sources for it though.

Last edited by Jenny on Wed Mar 28, 2007 8:52 am; edited 1 time in total

160705.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 8:06 am Reply with quote

I did look into it once, but could find nothing conclusive either way. It smells mythical, though, doesn’t it? If the recruitment process was that legalistic - that you had to be able to say they’d received the shilling - then wouldn’t it be sufficiently legalistic that a self-evident trick like dropping it in their beer wouldn’t stand? On the other hand, a similar system does work with summonses, I understand.

Was there, in any case, a literal shilling? Did you actually receive one bob, in your hand, when you signed up? Was this an advance on wages, or was it a golden handshake?

As for is it well enough known - yes, I would say so.

160707.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 8:29 am Reply with quote

My feelings exactly, Mat. If you're allowed to coerce someone into joining by trickery you might just as well be allowed to bop him on the head and not bother with the formality of the shilling. Certainly this kind of thing doesn't work in the law of contract, but I guess that wasn't the relevant body of law in this case.

I think the shilling is supposed to be a golden hello, or bounty.

If you couldn't find the answer then I dare say that the rest of us won't be able to either, unless Fred comes up with something - he may know a specialist in this period.

Frederick The Monk
160736.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 9:36 am Reply with quote

According to the online OED the earliest use of the term is 1707:

1707 HEARNE Collect. 27 Mar. (O.H.S.) II. 2 He did take a shilling, but not with any intent of listing. 1852 THACKERAY Esmond III. v, One fellow was jilted by his mistress, and took the shilling in despair. 1886 FARJEON Three Times Tried 1, I took the Queen's shilling, and became a soldier. 1901 Scotsman 4 Mar. 8/1 A contingent of Volunteer Engineers was sworn in for service in South Africa. Each man was presented..with the King's shilling.

However there is a difference between taking a shilling and fishing one out of your pint.

160743.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 9:50 am Reply with quote

I've posted a challenge on the outer boards for them to come up with a good source, for a prize of two tickets.

160799.  Wed Mar 28, 2007 10:54 am Reply with quote

I'd certainly heard the story - I was just telling it the other day, actually.

Press Gangs were, I understand, notorious for taking their own laws around with them to recruit anyone they liked/didn't like the look of. In 'my version', the tankard's glass bottom was there to enable you to detect the subtly dropped shilling, and therby stop you drinking the pint, presumably because drinking the pint was, in the Gang's eyes, tantamount to accepting payment, and therefore was a legitimate contract for recruit.

Does have a mythical ring to it, especially when told in dark pubs, while admiring the pewter.

161013.  Thu Mar 29, 2007 4:55 am Reply with quote

I did a wee bit of digging around, but couldn't find anything authoritative. Lots of mentions of the "shilling in a pint of beer" story, and even of glass-bottomed tankards, but with no references to back it up.

There's also this site:

Which, whilst referring to later events in the 19th century, does talk of one method of getting people to enlist by getting them blind drunk and slipping a shilling into their pocket:

…your last recourse was to get him drunk, and then slip a shilling in his pocket, get him home to your billet, and next morning swear he enlisted, bring all your party to prove it, get him persuaded to pass the doctor.

Somehow this strikes me as a bit more believable than just chucking some spare change into someone's drink.

163136.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 3:54 am Reply with quote

This just in from Jonathan Ferguson, Assistant Curator, Military History, National Museums Scotland:

On glass-bottomed tankards:
My main sources for the below are journal articles held at the museum, as well as a copy of the 1799 recruitment regulations. First, what is not in doubt:

Most law-abiding people were reluctant to join up due to social stigma, loss of personal freedom, fear of harm, being away from home etc.
Inns and taverns were used as recruitment venues in the C18th and C19th.
Potential recruits were given lots of alcohol! That probably did the trick for many...
The amount of money available was attractive (10 pounds 10 shillings) although recruits would see little of this.
The general lifestyle and opportunities available were misrepresented/romanticised.
Smartest uniforms and best war stories were the order of the day. Sometimes even special parades.
Tacit agreement and a signature or mark on a certificate was required, not just the touch of the shilling itself.
Every recruit had a four day (c 1800) window of opportunity to go before a magistrate and to get together a payment (from family, friends or wherever) or "smart money" (around 20 shillings) to let them off the hook. Recruiters stood to receive a cut of this money, which constitutes motivation for the outright conning of unwilling recruits. This could not be a wide-scale practice, because those recruited by fraudulent methods were more likely to either desert, or foment mutiny, as shown by an incident in Malta in the 1770s where non-native English speakers were grievously misled and mutinied.

In these cases and no doubt others, outright fraud was committed. It's perfectly feasible that unscrupulous recruiters would in limited cases entrap unwary men just to earn extra money from their get-out payment or to make up flagging numbers in the short-term.The regulations (1799) and advice given to recruiting officers shows that such practices were a concern and to be avoided. They specify "not to suffer your party to use any villanies or low practices to trapan recruits, but…punish such are guilty of". Smart money in particular is regulated, and there is a separate letter specifically advising an officer not to allow his men to receive any cut of this, to reduce the temptation to entrap. The punishment laid down in the regulations for sergeants or privates caught using underhand tactics was court martial, and it is made clear that the recruitment officer would be responsible for his men's methods and for the quality of resulting recruits. If too many were buying their way out, were deserting, or were deemed unsuitable, questions would be asked.

What is very much in doubt is that they would have used the "ha, gotcha!" shilling-in-the-tankard "ploy" to do this. There is no evidence at all for this. Ale, cajolement, grand promises and a lack of alternative prospects would have been enough for most, and if a target were to be duped outright, there would be more effective ways (slipping the coin into a drunken target's pocket for example). More importantly, if the reluctant party could afford an expensive glass-bottomed tankard, simply on the off-chance of being targeted, he could surely afford the 20 shilling "smart money" payment. After all, how many times in ones life could one expect to fall victim to this?!

The whole thing is just amazingly unlikely, and amounts to nothing more than forced impressment (something the army stopped doing in 1779). How many men of the target demographic would go to the trouble and expense of having an expensive tankard like that made just on the off-chance? It would be rather easier to just avoid being bought drinks by anyone in a bright red uniform! It is also hard to see the how drinking all your ale and revealing the coin could somehow make you beholden to the recruiter, yet spotting the coin through a glass bottom would make all well! Why would the recruiters not insist upon providing a normal ale with the coin in it, they would spot the glass bottom and substitute another tankard, surely? What we'll never know is whether this myth originated after the fact (most likely), or was a sort of contemporary "urban myth". In either case this myth reflects a long-standing civilian distrust of the armed forces; from which we also inherit misconceptions about the Royal Navy press gangs. You might like to get in touch with the well-known historian Richard Holmes on this subject if possible. He has a brief article here - on the subject of recruitment, as well as a recent book "Redcoat", that may be of use. We don't yet have it in the library, and neither do I have contact details for him I'm afraid.

Justin, do you know Richard Holmes? If not, I don't think it matters as I reckon we have sufficient material on this already.

163138.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:10 am Reply with quote

Justin, do you know Richard Holmes? If not, I don't think it matters as I reckon we have sufficient material on this already.

Bizarrely enough, I do. Not very well though. I spent a weekend with him about 4 years ago when he took a group of us over to France to go and look at the war memorials etc.

He's very entertaining, and I wouldn't be embarrassed in the slightest if you wanted me to try and approach him.

163153.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:47 am Reply with quote

Well there's serendipity for you. What I meant was that I thought the other Justin might know him from historical circles. But great, if you have his contact details and it's easy to do, it can't hurt to get his input.

163184.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 6:30 am Reply with quote

I don't have his number. Other you? If not, I'll find an email for him...

163217.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 7:08 am Reply with quote

In which case, is it possible that the actual glass-bottomed pewter tankards were made and sold based solely on this 'interesting story', thus lending it a touch of history, pedigree, and the ability to tell a story in the pub and appear all insightful.

I bet it is. That would make a good 'which came first' GI question in itself.

The other common view (which seems slightly more plausible) is that it allows you to keep an eye on the room while drinking.

163469.  Thu Apr 05, 2007 7:35 pm Reply with quote

For the notes, a reference to the new glass-bottomed observation platform over the Grand Canyon might be in order:

The glass-and-steel horseshoe extends 70 feet beyond the canyon's edge with no visible supports above or below. Hualapai Indians, whose reservation is about 90 miles west of Grand Canyon National Park, allowed a Las Vegas developer to build the $30 million Skywalk in hopes of creating a unique attraction on their side of the canyon.

For $25 plus other fees, up to 120 people at a time will be able to look down to the canyon floor 4,000 feet below, a vantage point more than twice as high as the world's tallest buildings.


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