Some Details of life in 1860

Sappers’ Pay in the Colony of British Columbia
by Tim Watkins

 1.  Notes on Period Currency

A peculiarity of colonial British Columbia was the use of English and American currency interchangeably.  A grasp of both systems and their relative values is essential to understanding prices of this period.

English Currency

The basic unit is the pound (now £; formerly l. ), made up of 20 shillings (s.).  The shilling in turn is made up of 12 pence (d.).  Thus prices are given in 3 digits: 1l.8s.2d. would be one pound, eight shillings and two pence (or ‘tuppence’).

Consumer transactions were generally conducted with coinage.  The one-pound coin is a gold ‘sovereign’.  An oddity of the English system was the ‘guinea’, worth slightly more than a pound (21 shillings instead of 20).  The actual gold guinea coin was not minted after 1813, but the guinea had acquired a certain cachet as the gentleman’s preferred coin and therefore lived on as a concept for the rest of the century.  Luxury items like racehorses and sporting rifles were generally valued in guineas, while more utilitarian transactions were conducted in pounds.

The coins more commonly in circulation were as follows, in descending order of value:

the ‘crown’ (5 shillings, or ¼ of a pound)
the ‘half-crown’ (2½ shillings, or 2s. 6d.)
the ‘florin’ (2 shillings)
the shilling (or ‘bob’ in common parlance)
sixpence ( ½ of a shilling)
thruppence and tuppence bits
penny (plural ‘pence’; over an inch across, much larger than the US penny)
ha’penny (½ d.) and farthing (¼ d.)

The workhorse coinage of the common man was the bob or shilling piece, and its component sixpences and pennies.

American currency

The pound in 1860 was roughly equivalent to five American dollars.  Conveniently, that makes the shilling roughly equal in value to the American quarter, which it resembled in size. 

Thus, the sapper’s colonial pay was referred to by the men as $1 per day, while the official rate was the English equivalent, 4 shillings per day.  When British Columbia debated minting its own coinage, and even struck a few sample coins in 1862, the unit of currency it chose was the dollar.

One point to bear in mind is that the English penny is worth twice as much as 1¢ American.  A copy of the Columbian newspaper cost 10¢ or 6d., both of which prices were printed on the masthead.  Strictly speaking, ten cents should equal only five pence, but the price presumably reflects the fact the convenience of using the common coins (dime and sixpence)without having to make change.

The Colonist newspaper in Victoria by contrast had published subscription rates which included the very odd “Per Week payable to the Carrier – 37½¢” (for three issues), or “single copy – 12½¢.”  While it is of course impossible to pay 12½ American cents, that sum is equal to half a shilling, or sixpence.

American currency also was usually in the form of coins.  The US government would not issue its own paper currency until after the start of the Civil War, and bills issued privately by banks and businesses could be of dubious value.  The hoarding of US coinage once the war started exacerbated the shortage of cash in B.C.

2.   Payday for the Sappers

Basic Pay

The basic rate of pay for a sapper of the Royal Engineers in 1861 was 1 s. 2½ d. (one shilling, tuppence and ha’penny) per day.  This works out to over £22 per annum before stoppages.  A corporal’s annual pay thus totalled about £40, serjeants £52, and colour serjeants nearly £62.  A pay rate for each individual in the Columbia Detachment can be found in the Nominal Roll on this site.

Good Conduct Pay

A soldier who has not incurred any punishment for a specified period would receive a Good Conduct badge, in the shape of a chevron pointing upwards (i.e.,  ^ ), worn on the lower sleeve just above the cuff, and not to be confused with the rank badge generally worn above the elbow.

In 1854 GC badges were awarded after 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 years’ of punishment-free service.  For each badge, the soldier earned an extra penny a day.   In 1860, the required number of years was varied to 3, 8, 13, 18, 23, 28, 33, and 38.

On the June 1861 muster, the majority of the sappers in the Columbia Detachment earned an extra 1d. daily, and most of the corporals made an extra 2d.  Sapper Hall’s tunic preserved in the Chilliwack Museum still bears his three GC badges, once worth threepence per day (a misunderstanding of these three GC chevrons caused the tunic at one point to be mislabeled as that of ‘Serjeant’ Hall).  Good Conduct pay was not available to serjeants, whose rank and higher basic pay presupposed their continuing good conduct.

Colonial Pay

To prevent men from being lured to the gold fields, and to offset the high costs prevalent in this colony, men of the Columbia Detachment were eligible to receive colonial pay of 4 shillings per day.  Given the prevalent use of US currency, most sappers referred to the bonus as “a dollar a day”.  This was paid by the Colony of British Columbia directly, and thus was always in arrears and a source of discontent to the governor.  It may be that this bonus was only payable while performing work for the Colony, leading to Col. Moody’s accounting to the Governor of the ‘Nature of Employment’ of his men.


The Regimental pay an officer of the RE received was equivalent to  £125 per annum for a lieutenant, just over £220 for a captain, and £330 for a colonel.  Although vastly more than an enlisted man received, these sums could be insufficient to maintain a fashionable gentleman’s lifestyle and frequently had to be supplemented by private means.

The officers of the Columbia Detachment also received stipends from the Colonial government - £250 per annum for the lieutenants and £350 for the captains.  As Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works, effectively the second-ranking civil servant in the colony, Col. Moody received £1,200 per annum.  Like the enlisted men, however, the officers often had to wait until the colony could actually produce these funds.

3.    Average Incomes and the Cost of Living

In England by 1870, the range of working class wages from a low of £35 per annum for farm and general labourers up to some £90 for skilled workmen like the makers of watches, jewelry and optical instruments.  The income of the growing mercantile middle class would be between £100 for a junior clerk up to and beyond £400 for a successful professional man or tradesman.

In British Columbia, wages were increased dramatically.  Matthew MacFie in his 1865 guide to the colony stated:  “In all cases labour commands at least three times the remuneration it does in England, and often much more than that.”  He gives the following examples:

Bakers: £8 - £12 per month
Butchers: £12 - £16 per month
Jewellers: £1 per day
Waiters: £5 – 10 per month
Lumbermen: £10 per month
Carpenters: £1 per day in the Interior, and 12s. 6d. in New Westminster
Blacksmiths: £1 to £2 per day in season
Miners: $10 (£2) per day in Cariboo in season

Thus, even with colonial pay, an RE carpenter earned half to one-third of what he could make in business on his own in New Westminster, and could double his income again in the Cariboo.

Of course, much of a colonist’s extra income was eaten up by the high cost of living in the colony.  Food prices were found by MacFie to be only “moderate”: beef was to be had at 9d. per pound generally, rising to 40¢ in Cariboo.  However, clothing and other necessaries could be very dear.  Room and board in a hotel cost £2 per week at New Westminster, and a whopping £6 per week in Cariboo.  The sapper must have take some consolation in the fact his rations, accommodation and clothing were provided by Her Majesty.

Notably, many of the sappers who mustered out in 1863 did very well in B.C. by taking advantage of their trade skills combined with hard work and shrewd investment.  Several like Bonson and Wolfenden enjoyed a prosperous middle-class lifestyle that belied their working-class roots.