Furniture and Utensils
of a
Soldier's Mess in Barracks
by Robert Henderson


The Barracks Department of the British Army had an approved list of items that were to be supplied to each barracks room in Great Britain.  For British North American garrisons the list of supplied items was substantially smaller.  North American barrack masters were required to supply only tables, forms or benches, and iron pots for messing purposes.  Provisioning of other mess utensils, identified for barracks in Great Britain, was left to the troops who were compensated by an annual mess allowance from the Barracks Department.  Because each corps acquired many of their mess utensils, the number and pattern of them would have varied somewhat from regiment to regiment.

Setting of the Table

Each table in the barracks had two benches, or forms, and was set for dinner with a tablecloth, plates, drinking vessels, forks, knives and spoons, serving dishes, a flesh fork and a ladle.

The size and number of tables in barracks varied from garrison to garrison and from room to room.  If possible the tables were placed in the centre of each barracks room.  Their most typical length was six feet with width varying between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 feet.  It is likely the narrower table was used at Fort George, enabling eight soldiers to sit comfortably.  Each table was constructed from 3 inch square pine scantling and 2 inch pine planks.  Each table had two forms for the men to sit on.  These were 6 feet in length, one foot in width and constructed out of two inch thick pine planks.  For the 3 1/2 feet  wide tables, three foot long forms were added at the table ends.  The tables and benches were washed twice a week and well rubbed every day; carving or cutting on them was forbidden.

A clean, coarse linen tablecloth, integral part of the mess necessaries, was spread on the table "agreeable to orders" before dinner.  While it was typical for the tablecloth to be large enough to touch the floor, a watercolour by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson of the interior of Chelsea Hospital in 1807 depicts pensioners dining on tablecloths with about one foot of linen hanging past the table's surface.  It is probable that each cloth was marked with the company letter to distinguish ownership, especially for washing purposes.  When not in use, the tablecloths were stored with the extras in the mess chest.  In 1811 an interesting incident occurred concerning tablecloths which almost ended in the dismissal of the quartermaster of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles.  The quartermaster was courtmartialed for the price of tablecloths and round towels charged to the men, along with other charges.  While tablecloths of superior quality and nearly the same size were being sold at 7s 10d each in the 8th Regiment and Canadian Fencibles, the Newfoundland Fencibles Quartermaster was charging his men 14 shillings.  The accused was found guilty and was reprimanded by the court.  The documentation pertaining to this incident also reveals a slight difference in the tablecloths supplied to each regiment: the 8th Regiment is specially noted as having tablecloths made of diaper.

While the 1797 and 1807 Barracks Regulations for the Army called for each soldier to be supplied with a plate by the Barracks Department, regulations established for Canada made no mention of their issue.  Plates did not appear on any barracks utensil returns for the forts in Upper Canada. Instead each the men were ordered to acquire their own plates.  The 1806 mess plan for the 6th Regiment shows the soldiers to be in possession of tin plates.  Whether all regiments possessed plates made of dipped tin is uncertain.  Each soldier possessed his own fork, knife, and spoon.  Historically, forks and knives were purchased in pairs either from the regiment's quartermaster or a local merchant.  Archaeological findings suggests the pattern of cutlery varied from person to person and that there was no single regimental pattern.  Fiddle pattern pewter soup spoons were most commonly available to the soldier.

Though not mandatory, it is likely each soldier brought to the table some type of privately-purchased drinking vessel.  Archaeological finds and period civilian examples show typical inexpensive cups or mugs possibly owned by the soldiers to be glass or tin tumblers, tin or earthenware mugs, and horn cups.  With liquor forbidden in barracks, water was drank by the soldiers at dinner: "Water is the direct remedy...for quenching the thirst of man and beast...it is a wholesome beverage; it is the most common, the most convenient, consequently the best drink for soldiers."  One army medical official suggested: "If water be muddy, the addition of a small quantity of alum makes it clear; if flat and mawkish, the addition of vinegar rectifies the imperfection, rendering it pleasant to the taste and wholesome to the habit."  While many of the forts had a well, Fort George had no water source within its walls so that "the very great fatigue the want of water occasions its garrison particularly during the hot weather."

Though barracks regulations in England called for two meat dishes for every 12 men, no meat dishes appear in the barracks schedule for British North America.  To compensate, the 49th Regiment ordered their messes to be supplied with large dishes at a portion needed for a table of eight men.  It is possible these dishes were made of earthenware and used for serving meals or as a salting tub for meat.

The 49th Regiment required their messes to have flesh forks at a proportion of one for every two large dishes.  A typical 15 inch, two prong iron flesh fork can be found in an 1801 manufacturer's sample book (Collection of the Essex Institute).  The 49th Regiment also required their messes to have iron ladles in the same  proportion as the flesh forks.

Other Messing Utensils

A meal for eight men was prepared in a four gallon (15.14 litre) iron pot, complete with bail and handle.  Also referred to as boilers, such pots appear to have been of a "similar description" but not from a fixed pattern, because the Barracks Department in Canada acquired iron pots from military stores in England, merchants in Quebec, and foundries in Canada.  The latter proved to be the cheapest source of supply.  Given that the tables were covered with cloths, it is likely that these pots, blackened by the fire, would not have appeared on the table at dinner time.  The pot's contents were instead transferred to large dishes, and brought to the table.

According to Barracks Regulations one tin beer can was provided by the Barracks Master for every 12 men.  However, North American regulations omitted this item along with a number of other mess utensils.  Shortcomings were expected to be made up by each regiment as they saw fit.  The cost was reimbursed by the Department in the form of an annual allotment of utensil money along with each soldier's mess contributions.

Initially the beer can was for the issue of beer to the soldiers as the name implies.  The size of the ration was measured by the can.  It was essential that the pattern established by the Barracks Department was followed by the contactor or the soldiers' due ration would be affected.  Deviations from the established pattern did occur, as in 1796, at the garrison in Colchester, England:

Through some strange accident or misapprehension of the quantity of beer which every soldier is allowed, the tin cans contained less than the allotted quantity.  The garrison, consisting of several regiments, was for some time supplied in this manner.  A complaint was at last made to the visiting captain of one of the regiments, and by him inserted in his report.  The consequence was that an investigation took place, the utensils were measured, and the deficiency was established.

In 1800, the supply of beer to the troops was discontinued, and was replaced with beer money.  This did not result in the removal of the beer can as it continued to be used as a tin kettle to carry soup or tea to the barracks, guard, or men at work for the rest of the 19th century. It is presumed that the size of the can would serve as a guide in measuring the soldier's mess portion, similar to its earlier function with the beer ration.

Each company would have been in possession of a mess chest for storing utensils, plates, dishes, tablecloths and cooking frocks of each mess. Considered a general charge and property of the company, the cost of the chest was covered by each soldier's annual utensil allowance of 9 =BD pence and the men's weekly mess contribution. The mess chests for the Rifle Corps and 85th Regiment were divided into separate compartments for each mess. The chest was most likely painted Ordnance blue, and marked with the letter of the company, the captain's name, and the regiment's number. It is also likely the chest was kept locked, with the key left in the possession of the company pay sergeant.

The cooks in the company wore frocks when attending to their duties, "the purchase and washing of which are to be a charge upon the subsistence of the men." When not in use, the also stored in the mess chest. The frock resembled a long, loose shirt made of linen, and was worn over the cook's fatigue clothing.  One style of British frock had a neck opening that extended down the rear of the garment in the same way it opened at the front.  This allowed the shirt to be rotated when one side became soiled, making it very practical for food preparation duties.  Based on illustrations and original examples, however, frocks in North America seem to have been made with a front opening only.  It is possible a mixture of the two styles were being used by the regiments in Canada.  Since the frocks belonged to the company, they were probably marked in ink with the company's letter and possibly the number or letter of the mess to further identify ownership.