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Prey to Ambivalent Government Attitudes and Loan Sharks

Angela Finlayson

Family history research has its frustrations. A useful compensation for reaching dead ends about individuals is to unearth more about background social conditions. When I found that one of my great-great grandfathers had been a Chelsea Pensioner, and confirmed this from the 1841 Wick Census (which gave his location as Thrumster, his parish of origin as Latheron and his age as 50, thus indicating a birth date of between 1786 and 1791), I thought that it might be easy to trace him. So it might have been if only I had known the Regiment in which he had served and if he had not shared a name, James Sutherland, with numerous other Latheron men and several other Pensioners.

Intermittent short forays into the War Office Records in the Public Record Office at Kew enabled me to eliminate several James Sutherlands as having different years or parishes of birth but did not otherwise help. Nor did they at first yield much of more general interest, unless perhaps seeing smears of dried blood on muster rolls which had been compiled in the field can be said to add a certain element to the authenticity of the search.

Recently, however, following the second edition of a P.R.O. booklet (1) I found a series, WO 22, which I had not previously noted. Unlike most War Office records the index showed this to be classified by area rather than regiment and, at number 139, the name Thurso leaped out at me. It appeared that, before 1842, pensions were sent to be paid out by a variety of local officials such as excise officers and presumably their records have not survived.

After 1842, Staff Officers of Pensioners were appointed responsible for a number of districts. They were required to make regular returns to London recording Pensioners who had moved into or out of their districts as well as those whose pensions had ceased or who had died. For each Pensioner named on these returns there is information on his regiment, rate of pension, date of admission to pension, rank and district to which, or from which, he had moved.

In this series the box of returns headed Thurso seems to cover the whole of the North of Scotland (the next nearest are Inverness, Stirling, Edinburgh and Glasgow). Unfortunately, although the index describes the returns as covering the years 1842-96 I could find none earlier than 1846 or later than 1852 so it is only a seven year period that is covered for the Thurso area. Unfortunately also, there is no overall list of Pensioners already in the area at the beginning of the period.

However, within these limitations, there is some fascinating material which would repay deeper investigation than I had time for. At the family history level, although there is nothing on my James Sutherland there is a note of an older James, from the 3rd Veterans, who had been admitted to a pension of 1/- on 31 July 1816 and who had died on the 22nd of November 1852 aged 72; and a younger James, a sergeant from the East India Company, who was admitted to a pension on 10 September 1828 which was paid until 25 June 1849.

There is similar information of interest to family historians on perhaps another 50 individuals (including some eleven Sutherlands whose details I noted). There is also a list, with less detail, of perhaps another 50 individuals transferred into the Thurso district from Fort George on 28 July 1846.

Of greater general interest, however, are some statistical analyses at the end, set out, like the other returns, on forms provided from London. For 1846 the districts covered in the Thurso box are listed as Thurso itself, Wick, Sweeny (sic - presumably the presence of Colonel Gordon of Swiney made this a more suitable location than Lybster for Pensioners in Latheron parish), Helmsdale. Golspie, Dornoch, Bonar Bridge, Aultnacalgach and Farr Kirk. (Kirkwall and Lerwick were added in 1848).

Pensioners within each of these local districts were considered as falling into three categories:-

those Fit for Local Service 91

those Fit for Reserve Only 77

those Totally Unfit 244

making a total for all districts of 412 in 1846.

These figures could be related to the statement by Mackay Scobie (2) that, for many years after the Napoleonic wars, well over 2000 was being paid quarterly to pensioners in Caithness and Sutherland by bank agents in Dornoch and Thurso. Other sources have suggested that, because the pensions were paid quarterly in arrears, many Pensioners lived in debt at the mercy of loan sharks.

It would seem that the Government was apprehensive about the possibility of local unrest. Some return forms contain two-line local summaries of correspondence received from London reflecting this unease. One summary indicates that there had been enquiries as to whether any of the Pensioners were inclined to join illegal societies; another suggest official discouragement of emigration, while a later summary indicates some change of policy as emigration may be assisted. More practical matters were also under discussion with a reference to Pensioners' uniforms wearing out and the possibility of supplying them with a 'plain suit' after five years. (Mackay Scobie refers to Pensioners, when collecting their pay, as usually wearing vests made of old regimental tartan or red coats with medals or regimental insignia.)

The new Staff Officers were required to classify Pensioners within districts according to the amount of their pensions; their occupations if any; occupational earnings; their distance from the places where pensions were paid; and the total number of wives and children under and over 14.

In 1852, when there were 465 Pensioners, 340 wives were reported, together with 886 children aged over 14 and 327 aged under 14, making in all over 2000 individuals, quite a sizeable proportion of the northern population.

Twenty seven Pensioners were recorded in 1846 as having won Waterloo or other medals. Pensioners' Mortality Records are broken down by district and age for each of the years 1846-1852.

Staff Officers were also expected to report whether Pensioners were of 'good, indifferent or bad character' - there was no indication as to how this information was to be obtained but the return for 1852 shows only seven entered as 'indifferent' and one as 'bad', the Staff Officer professing himself as lacking information on 114 others. Elsewhere in the returns Pensioners were to be classified as 'industrious or anxious for employment' or 'idle or careless'.

Detailed analysis of these returns would take a considerable time and, since all the materials in this one box, WO 22/139, relates to the north of Scotland, it seems a pity that it is only available in London. There would seem to be a case for having it transferred nearer to the territory that these men believed themselves to have been defending.

1. Public Record Office: Records of Officers and Soldiers who have served in the British Army. 2nd edition 1985
2. I. Mackay Scobie: An Old Highland Fencible Corps. 1914.