Taking the King’s Shilling

The Tradition of "Taking the King’s Shilling"

Richard Callaghan, the Curator of the Redoubt Fortress Museum in Eastbourne, Sussex, provided insights into the historical tradition of enlisting in the British services. Known as "taking the King’s shilling," this practice was akin to a handshake before an official contract. It dates back to the end of the English Civil War and the establishment of the British Standing Army. By the time of Wellington, a daily wage was only 2p, so a shilling served as a significant incentive for enlistment. Upon joining, recruits received a larger bounty, although the cost of their uniform was deducted from it.

Recruitment incentives were necessary due to the army’s unpopularity; the red uniform was famously said to attract only whores and lice. In certain regions, army pay was higher than local occupations. For instance, poorly paid weavers in the north and northwest made fertile ground for recruitment efforts.

The navy employed a different recruitment system. While voluntary enlistment was preferred, if numbers were insufficient, counties were required to provide men. Failing that, men aged 15 to 55 were subject to conscription by the Press Gang.

Joining the army for life offered a bounty of £23.17s.6d, making it a profitable endeavor for some. One man famously re-enlisted 47 times, collecting the bounty each time, until he was hanged in 1787.

Occasionally, the shilling was hidden at the bottom of a pewter tankard, leading to the tradition of tankards with glass bottoms. Lady Jane Gordon, the wife of a Scottish regiment colonel, recruited by placing the shilling between her lips, offering it along with a kiss to potential recruits.

Although the official practice ended in 1879, some instances of taking the King’s shilling continued into the 1940s.

Further Reading:

  • David Ascoli, Companion to the British Army (Harrap, 1983)
  • David Chandler and Ian Beckett, eds., The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army (Oxford University Press, 1994)
  • Correlli Barnett, Britain and Her Army (Cassell Military, 2000)
  • Antony Makepeace-Warne, Brassey’s Companion to the British Army (Brassey’s UK, 1995)

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