War Veterans In The Wilderness


Hearty, strong immigrants, United Empire Loyalists hacking a solid farm out of the woods, the simple life of Upper Canada: These are the images that draw us back to an idyllic time when anyone with an ambition could carve a home in Canada’s wilderness.

But the peopling of the Canadian frontier in the 1820s was much more complex. Land speculators hoarded entire townships of the best farmland and squatters fought to hang onto their land. And around the same time, a sad and forgotten wave of immigrants was shipped to Canada, perhaps the worst group of pioneers London could have assembled.

These were the years of Charles Dickens’ tales of urban squalor, a time when thousands of petty thieves and political dissidents were seized from their families and transported to Australia. And this was the era of poet Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy Atkins, the soldier who was a hero when his country needed him and an embarrassment in times of peace.

Indeed, there were many old soldiers on the streets of British cities who were an embarrassment to their government. These men had served honourably in the regiments that fought Napoleon’s army in Spain and at Waterloo, but a decade after the war was over, their country found them a burden and decided to get rid of them.

To get any kind of pension, a war veteran had to be a patient of London’s Chelsea Hospital. William III established the hospital in the 17th century as a convalescent home and hospice for soldiers who had suffered grievous wounds. In 1828, the British government, which teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, decided to thin the rolls of the Chelsea by enticing its patients to emigrate to the colonies.

In September of that year, Secretary of War Sir Henry Hardinge wrote to R.W. Hay, Under Secretary of State for the Colonial Department, approving a plan to ship the disabled veterans out of Britain if it was strictly voluntary. “The man is to be required to declare that the arrangement proposed by him has been made by his own desire and with his own consent; that he has been made fully to understand the nature of it,” noted the letter.

The veterans would get four years pension in cash if they agreed to leave Britain. To make sure they got on the ships, half the money was to be held back until they arrived in the colonies. The next year, the British parliament passed legislation that allowed disabled military pensioners to sell their benefits­averaging about one shilling a day­for a one-way ticket to Canada, a few gold sovereigns, and a piece of land in the wilderness.

But it’s difficult to see how these men, some of whom had been in the army for 30 years, could have any idea what awaited them in Canada, or could understand the physical strength and mental determination needed to clear a farm and grow crops. British records show that at least half of them had lost a limb during war service. Others had gunshot or artillery wounds, back injuries or psychological problems. Few of the former soldiers knew anything other than army life: Regular rations of food and rum, small but steady pay, and endless hours of drill. Farming, or even gardening, was not normally part of the life of a British private or non-commissioned officer.

None of the soldiers had been to Canada. The British soldiers who served here in the War of 1812 had been discharged years before and those who wanted to stay were given some of the best land. The lure of cash and a change from the miseries of London enticed thousands of veterans to apply for the buyout. Emigrants had to tell the authorities their age, their trade, where they wished to go and how they planned to get there. They also had to show that they would be able to support themselves until their farms produced enough to support them.

The veterans also had to prove, through letters from their home parish, that they were in relatively good health and of sound character. Land in Upper and Lower Canada, the Maritimes, Newfoundland and Western Australia–among other places–would be set aside for the Chelsea pensioners. Some 3,161 pensioners and their families went to British North America. Another 81 sailed to the United States and 674 emigrated to Australia.

The plan quickly turned out to be a debacle. Indeed, the arrival of the first shiploads of pensioners provoked anger among colonial officials who had to deal with the problem. Cholera had broken out on the old lumber freighters that carried the veterans. About 50 of the men had died at sea, and their widows arrived at the provincial government offices in Quebec City demanding their husbands’ pensions.

Since most of the soldiers had no marriage documents or had lived common-law, the colonial officials would not hand over the money. And, even if they wanted to, the local bureaucrats could not pay because the payment orders had been sent out on a later ship.

The cholera spread through the slums of Quebec where most of the pensioners stayed until they got their money. Businesses shut their doors and farmers would not bring food to the city. When the payment orders did arrive, there was little cash in the colonies. However, there was enough money to launch a massive, riotous drinking binge that lasted for weeks. Many of the veterans spent their buyout without leaving the dock areas of Quebec’s Lower Town. Within days, the colonial officials, most of whom were former soldiers, realized the plan was a massive failure that had been dumped into their laps.

And so the governors, the men labelled in Canadian history books as enemies of responsible government and coddlers of the Family Compact, the home-grown version of Britain’s aristocracy, began a seven-year campaign for the veterans, pleading for some show of heart by the British government.

In Quebec City, the governor, Lord Matthew Aylmer, saw the crowds of drunken disabled ex-soldiers and immediately realized something had to be done, or “the intentions of the government to enable these men to become serviceable to themselves and families will be defeated, and that the commutation of pensions, instead of accomplishing that object, will be found in numerous instances to be an encouragement of dissolute habits, and an indirect mode of creating paupers of the worst description, at once a burden to the public and a disgrace to society.”

Of those who stayed, “three out of five will do tolerably well,” one colonial official wrote. The rest were already begging or stealing in the streets of Montreal and in the skid rows of the larger towns in Upper Canada. “The pensioners have occasioned much embarrassment,” Upper Canada’s lieutenant-governor, General Sir John Colborne, wrote to the undersecretary of the Foreign Office a few months after the first veterans arrived in Ontario. “We now have about 300 of them collected in the Newcastle district; many of them had not more than five pounds to receive out of the commutation money, and are either too old or too idle to work.”

By the next summer, there were some 3,500 pensioners and their families in Canada. All but 250 were in Upper Canada. Another 150, mostly “single men, and on the whole, the most useless,” had taken a quick look at Canada, spent their money on a binge, and had caught the next ship back to Britain.

At the very least, wrote Colborne in 1832, the arrival of these poor people would make his administration look bad: “Some modification of the present system must take place, for the sending to the province of so many discontented old soldiers may embarrass the local government.”

The commuted pensioners did add to the troubles: Anger over land speculation; the resentment over the vast amount of land set aside for the Anglican Church; the complaints about the shabby towns, poor roads, and the lack of decent schools and hospitals.

A survey of a township–on the frontier north of Barrie, Ont.–found 50 pensioners in “absolute distress.” Only one of these veterans was a single man. Several had six children. Another 21 families had given up and left the township to beg in the towns. Sixty more families showed up in the summer of 1832, but they were so ill-equipped to begin clearing land that the local settlement agent thought it useless to locate them.

In 1836, the cash-strapped local authorities spent 1,374 pounds to keep the pensioners from starving and freezing. Many of them repaid the government by bearing arms against William Lyon Mackenzie in the rebellion that broke out the following year: “During the late disturbances,” reported A.B. Hawke, Upper Canada’s chief agent for emigration, “the commuted pensioners capable of bearing arms, without a single exception, came forward in defence of the province. Many of them travelled for miles without shoes (their feet only being protected by such old clothing as their circumstances could supply, in the depth of winter,) to offer their services. Whatever vices they may possess, they have always shown that they are faithful subjects.”

But the local bureaucrats couldn’t pry a farthing from the War Office or the Colonial Office. Edward Shuel, who served 23 years in the 58th Regiment of Foot, was paralysed along one side of his body. He pleaded for the reinstatement of his one-shilling-per-day pension, asking for the Lords Commissioners of Chelsea Hospital to show “compassion and pity on this desperate man, to take him into consideration as he is the actual support of a wife and six children, without any means whatever.”

He got the early 19th century equivalent of a form letter turning him down.

On March 6, 1833, Lord Aylmer clipped an article from the Quebec Gazette and sent it to London. The editor wrote: “The extent of the delusion under which they, as well as the British government, have been acting, is astonishing; for there is no one who will say that either they or the British government contemplated the fate that has overtaken them. We have said, and we repeat it, that no one is fit for settling on land in Canada but those who have been brought up to agricultural labour, or been in the habit of placing no dependence on anything but their own labour and care…

“Why was a pension granted at first, instead of a sum of money? Was it not because it was known that the habits of these men, formed in the long period of military service in which they have been engaged, render them unfit to secure their future permanent subsistence with a sum of money? Was it not the honour of the nation required that those who fought its battles in many a bloody field should not be suffered, upon any contingency, to be reduced to beg their bread from door to door, a melancholy example to those who might thereafter be called upon to hazard everything for the support of the national character?

“The government took upon itself the trust of guardians to these people, no longer fit to take care of themselves, and it ought not to have co-operated in the delusion of which they are the victims. We think it is still bound in honour to do something.”

The government did stop commuting pensions the same month that the Quebec Gazette condemned the practice, but the British government did nothing to mitigate the disaster that was unfolding on the Canadian frontier and in its cities. The government did, however, clamp down on the granting of land to healthy discharged soldiers. An exception was made for the men who worked on the Rideau Canal in Eastern Ontario. They had each been promised 100 acres as a bonus at the completion of the project.

When, in 1834, the 7th and 15th companies of sappers and miners were about to be discharged, a rumour swept the army camps that the soldiers were to get the same treatment as the Chelsea pensioners. These men refused to accept their papers, and demanded to be taken back to England. The non-commissioned officers and men were told they would forfeit their grants if they didn’t stay in Canada and accept them within a year. Most didn’t care.

The Rideau Canal builders knew about the plight of their comrades in the woods, who begged in the army camps and passed around petitions to serving soldiers. Colborne, whose private correspondence shows his immense sadness over the veterans plight, received a letter signed by 63 pensioners in the Newcastle district. “The greatest part of your petitioners are, from want of means, wounds, and bad health, rendered unfit to provide for their helpless families. Many of their comrades who have braved all dangers in defence of their king and country, have given themselves up to despair and died in the woods, monuments of the greatest wretchedness, leaving behind them widows and orphans to pine away in hopeless solitude and want.”

Colborne sent the petition to London, but the answer was the same. The government’s reply, from Under Secretary John Hay to Colborne: “I am directed…to acquaint you…that these pensioners have already had all that the law allows in commutation of their pensions, no further assistance can be afforded them.”

A year later Colborne was pestering his superiors again, warning on June 1, 1835, of “the miserable and disgraceful condition of certain discharged soldiers, at the present depending on charity for their support, who consented two or three years since to accept a commuted allowance in lieu of their pensions, and were encouraged to proceed to this province, although maimed or unfit for any kind of hard labour.

“On arrival in Toronto of the soldiers who had commuted their pensions, they were conveyed by my directions to the districts in which they could be advantageously located and procure employment, while they gradually brought their own land into cultivation. Those who were strong and healthy, industrious and sober, have remained on their land, but the maimed and infirm soon abandoned their locations, where they had become either a burden on the neighbouring settlers, or were in danger of perishing in the woods and took up their residence in Toronto, as a place in which they could subsist on charity, or attract the notice of the local government. They are frequently seen begging in the streets with their children, and inhabiting hovels in the most unhealthy parts of the town. Their families suffer severely from the diseases which prevail in the summer, and from the severity of the winter.”

Colborne had 17 families in Toronto rounded up and sent to the nearly abandoned military post at Penetanguishene on Georgian Bay. They were each given a ration of bread and meat, five acres of land, and a log house worth three pounds. As well, the government issued them fishing rods.

A.B. Hawke, the chief agent for immigration, was sent into the countryside to examine the problems of those vets who were clinging to their land grants. He found some 567 discharged pensioners living in the woods. He visited most of their homes and dropped off winter rations of hard tack and salt pork.

The next year, Colborne was replaced by Sir Francis Bond Head, probably the most maligned colonial officer ever posted to Canada, who had to contend with a provincial assembly that was outraged by the treatment of the pensioners. It passed a resolution demanding reinstatement of the pensions.

But even Bond Head wanted the pensions, “at least of those who are disabled,” restored. “From what I have seen of their distress, and I made it my duty to visit their establishment at Penetanguishene, I can assure your Lordship that if the British government would generously relinquish the hard, advantageous bargain it made with these brave but improvident veterans, their restored pensions would not be long demanded; as, in all human probability, a few Canadian winters will forever silence all that the three branches of the Legislature now humbly supplicate of his Majesty in favour of these men.

“The commuted pensioner in Upper Canada is an improvident veteran, with whom the British government has providently made a hard bargain. Having spent his best days in the service of his country, from severe service and hard drinking, he has not remaining strength to gain in this climate sufficient subsistence, and consequently every winter he suffers most bitterly both from cold and hunger. The braver he is, the less he complains. But his sufferings have at last attracted such general commiseration that last year the Legislature felt it their duty to address his Majesty on the subject.

“If relief be withheld from these poor, worn-out, improvident men, another winter or two will be more than any of them can bear. When all are gone, the transaction, as far as the pecuniary saving, will undoubtedly be at an end, but I respectfully assure your Lordship it is generally considered here that a little blot will remain on the brilliant history of this province, which it will then be too late to efface.”

In the fall of 1837, there was a general crop failure, adding to the miseries of pensioners and to the discontent among the general population of the colony. But when rebellion broke out later that year, the old soldiers’ loyalty remained with the same government that had treated them so shabbily.

Lord Durham, who arrived in Montreal in 1838 to compile his famous report on the political situation in Canada, took time to write to the government on behalf of the pensioners. Many, he said, had been lured to give up their pensions with false promises of an easy life in Canada. Instead of becoming yeoman farmers, they were dependent on the kindness of established settlers for their survival. “Both justice and humanity demand that some effort should be made to put an end to such a state of things, nor would the restoration of the pensions of these men require any large expense, or frustrate in any considerable degree the economic expectations on which the arrangement was founded.”

Durham and Hawke went so far as to send a list to London of all the pensioners, their units, and their years of service to prove that most of the soldiers had spent their adult lives in the army and were too old and sick to have been successful pioneers. Notices were put in the colonial newspapers imploring people to go into the bush to try to find the pensioners, so that the list would be complete.

On Dec. 21, 1838, Major-General Sir George Arthur wrote to Lord Glenelg: “Their condition is indeed such that it is painful to witness; for although it has been in a very material degree produced by the habits of military life, and the inconsiderate and improvident character common to soldiers, the mind naturally recurs the value of the services that many of these veterans have rendered…. Hence an impression has gained depth in this country that the arrangement by which the old soldier was invited to exchange his fixed daily rate of pension during the term of his existence for a stipulated sum of money, though no doubt well-intended, has left him in want and misery, and bears upon him extreme severity. The money placed at his control he was, by his whole previous course of life, rendered unfit to manage with discretion; and he was also without experience or knowledge in the arts of agriculture, he unavoidably fell into a hopeless state of embarrassment and distress.

Arthur urged the government to revise its agreement with the pensioners, with a view of restoring to them forthwith the pensions they have commuted. Unfortunately, these pleas were in vain. The colonial office kicked the issue to the treasury, and the treasury handed it off to the army, and the army said no.

However, two years later, the government began to bend. Lords Glenelg and Howick were still opposed to putting the veterans back on the pension list, but agreed that something should be done. But not much: No cash, only food and clothes, and that small charity would be extended only to the most dire cases so “as not to offer temptation to those who, by proper exertion, might provide for themselves, to become a charge on the public.”

But a change of government brought some relief to the hundreds of half-starved veterans living in shanties in the bush or in hovels in the cities. In May, 1839, a committee of the House of Commons began examining the issue, and within a year a reduced pension was reinstated. Unfortunately, many of the pensioners were already dead from tuberculosis, cholera, malnutrition or exposure. Since then, the veterans of that era have drifted out of history. One note from the pages of history describes an elderly Napoleonic war veteran who turned up at an army commissary in Barrie, hoping to get a little money, food or clothes. He was promptly thrashed and tossed into the street.

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