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Researching Individual Army Wives and Widows


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GCCE1854

This post is a combination of some great info that used to be available on the Victorian Wars Forum (now no longer online). Thankfully, I had saved some of this and am going to repost a combination of useful facts from an old thread there by this title. Saved text is shown in italics below. Please add to this discussion!

 

It can be very challenging to research army wives and widows, and understanding their entitlements can be tricky. Here are some helpful answers to commonly asked questions.

 

Wives' Entitlements
When serving overseas, regiments were entitled to take a quota of enlisted men's wives with them. The exact number varied but the numbers were pretty small and there was often a ballot to see whose wife would get to come with them "on the strength". These wives travelled with the regiment, drew army rations for themselves and their children and were quartered in barracks with their men in a curtained off area. Unless an officer's wife chose to offer an alternate venue, it was common for babies to be born in the barracks - this must have made life interesting for all within earshot!

Wives could also travel/live with the regiment unofficially (ie. at their own expense), and there are examples of the wives of both officers and enlisted men doing so. Officers accompanied by their wives were allocated more spacious quarters in a specific part of each camp or cantonment, away from the so-called single men's quarters. (Why so-called, you ask? In early Victorian India, many British officers and men who were officially classified as single actually lived with a wife or mistress of local ancestry, although such arrangements became less common and/or more discreet in the later Victorian era.)

Even being "on the strength" didn't get you full food rations or clothing, so many wives had to find a way to earn money to support themselves and their children, for example, by taking on jobs with the regiment ranging from laundress through to regimental school mistress. And while officers' wives may not have relied on it to put food on their table or advertised the fact, quite a few women heading off to remote parts packed trade goods such as exotic plant seeds, textiles and so on, so that they would have something to barter with at local markets or to present to influential people such as other wives.

 

(Some interesting bits can be gathered about this from the the 1954 film "Carrington, V.C." starring David Niven.)

Widows' Entitlements
If a woman from the UK was widowed while travelling on the strength, and sometimes even if she wasn't, her regiment would usually pay for her transport back to the UK along with any underage children. If their father had been a well-regarded NCO or enlisted man, children might also be put on the boys' roll for the regiment, effectively guaranteeing them a job when they reached a suitable age (usually 14 or 15), or be placed in a school such as the Royal Hibernian Military School. Not all RHMS and similar students went into the military, by the way, as many went into trade.

Regardless of whether she was on the strength and where she came from, a woman recognised as a man's wife was entitled to his back pay and proceeds from the sale of his personal effects, if any. That was it, however. No widow's pension was payable for most if not all of the Victorian era. I am not clear when things changed in the UK, but it wasn't until 1914 that Australia introduced a war widows' pension. Even then the husband had to be killed in active service and, until 1915, the widow had to be financially dependent on him.

In the absence of a pension, soldiers' dependents often ended up in workhouses or on the street. Admission to the workhouse was not automatic either. Destitute wives/families were normally only admitted to the workhouse in the parish where the husband/father had been born. This meant some families had to travel long distances from the regimental depot to the relevant parish, risking charges of vagrancy if they had not obtained a signed pass of safe conduct from the Commanding Officer of the regiment in question.

Taking all of the above into account, it is perhaps not surprising that many widows chose to remarry fairly quickly, usually but not always within their husband's regiment. Indeed, there are cases of women marrying a number of times within the one regiment.


Conclusion
Whilst somewhat depressing in parts, this short summary should cover the most common issues that come up when researching individual army wives/widows and children, and suggest some places you might look for relevant records.

 

 

Extract from Lord Chelmsford's General Orders in relation to soldiers' wives and children travelling in South Africa (GO No. 37, dated 19th February 1879, Times of Natal, 21st February 1879):

"The following scale for the conveyance of families on the married roll will be adhered to in this command:– In an ordinary buck wagon of the colony, 10 women and 10 children, or 8 women and 14 children; in a Commissariat Department mule wagon, from 4 to 5 families.
The accommodation being appropriated at the rate of two running feet in the length of a wagon for one woman and one child, or for three children.
The baggage of the families will be conveyed in the same wagon with the women and children, and no additional space will be allowed for it."

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