Old soldier John Williamson took one look at the tangled patch of Canadian forest wilderness he had exchanged for his army pension entitlement for and walked away.

 The former member of the 78th Highlanders had been lured to Canada — along with just over 3,000 army veterans in the early 1830s — as part of a misconceived and badly managed scheme run by the British Government. The treatment of the old soldiers, many of whom had fought under the Duke of Wellington at such storied battles as Waterloo, Talavera and the storming of Badajoz, became a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic.

While what British and Canadian civil servants, politicians and ex-army officers made of the bungled scheme soon piled up in the public record, the original voices of the weary veterans themselves have seldom heard. Williamson in his privately printed memoir was one of the very few of the ordinary soldiers caught up in the fiasco to make his views public and even named it “Narrative of a Commuted Pensioner”.

In total more than 4,000 ex-soldiers were persuaded to give up their life-time pensions for land in the British colonies and a lump-sum payment equal to no more than four years’ pension. The lump sum averaged around £55; not a lot of money even in 1831.

 Sergeants were entitled to 200 acres of land in British North America or Australia. Privates and corporals were assigned 100 acres.

Bureaucratic ineptitude meant that for many years no one could be certain how many Commuted Pensioners, as they were known, there were in the British colonies. What was known was that the bulk of them, 3,161, had applied to go to Canada.

 Williamson’s 100 acres were part of the Wentworth Township on the Quebec side of Ottawa River, north of Carillon.

“A very cursory glance at the situation served to convince me of the impracticability of my scheme of settling there, the lot was literally a wilderness without a human habitation near it,” he related in his 1838 book, printed in Montreal.   

“It would indeed have been the height of folly in me, unaccustomed as I had long been with country work, being disabled from wounds, and somewhat past the prime of life, to have taken up my residence in such a situation. I, therefore, came to the conclusion to return to Montreal, and discard from my mind the idea of deriving any benefit from my land.”

Williamson claimed that he travelled back to Montreal from Carillon in the company of the Governor General of Canada at the time, Lord Aylmer. Williamson said the former military man lent him a sympathetic ear.

“His Lordship told me that I had acted a very foolish part in commuting my pension, and observed, that it was unfortunate that it had ever been put into the power of pensioners to do so, and said that he would use all his influence to have the few remaining commuted pensioners restored to their former situation,” wrote Williamson.

 Aylmer and his fellow colonial administrators had very rapidly become disillusioned with the scheme as a growing number of paupers, almost all completely unsuited to pioneer life in the Canadian bush, were dumped on the quaysides of Quebec City in 1831 and 1832.

 The idea of encouraging veterans to emigrate to the British colonies had first been officially mooted in 1828. Secretary at War Sir Henry Hardinge, a former officer who had fought against the French in the Peninsular War, believed that among the 96,844 army pensioners in 1828 there were around 20,000 able-bodied men who would make suitable colonists. He proposed that the local poor law board administrators in Scotland, England, and Wales advance the cost of the passage for these veterans to go to the British colonies, and in return would receive half of their pension payments until the fare money was repaid. The veterans would keep the other half and the full pension would be restored to them within eight years. But the British government in 1830 opted instead for a complete pension buy-out scheme open to veterans from throughout the British Isles, including Ireland, which did not have the extensive network of poor law administrators key to Hardinge’s scheme.

 In addition to the savings made from no longer being liable to pay the veterans pensions for the rest of their lives, the 1830 scheme also cost less to administer than Hardinge’s proposal.

 Hardinge told the British House of Commons in 1834 that he believed the emigration scheme as implemented was “cruel” and “unjust” and had led to men who had served their country well being reduced to begging or breaking rocks to put food on the table.

“There is no class of men so reckless or so thoughtless as these old soldiers; and I think that it would not have cost the War Office much inquiry to have foreseen what would be the effect of the temptation so imprudently held out to these persons,” he had told his fellow Members of Parliament in an earlier speech condemning the scheme.

 The Secretary at War in 1834, Edward Ellice, said he agreed that “Soldiers had not that prudence, that skill, or that bodily vigour, that were necessary to qualify men to become settlers.” He told Hardinge that he had arranged for pensions to be restored to veterans who had managed to repay the money they had received when they surrendered their pensions. He did not add that the veterans had been charged interest on the sum being repaid.

 The supposed would-be settlers often presented a sorry sight as they spilled from the cholera-infested ships which had carried them across the Atlantic. Around 50 veterans and an uncounted number of their family members died from cholera on the voyage. A number of veterans arrived owing the ships’ owners for the rum and spirits they had consumed on credit. Some of the wives were not much better than their husbands when it came to alcohol abuse. A Mrs. MacPherson died of alcohol poisoning shortly after arriving in Quebec City from Scotland.

 Charities and churches in the city found themselves scrambling to cope with a growing number of widows, orphans and paupers. The way the scheme operated did not help. The veterans had been given part of their lump sum to buy their passage to Canada. The balance was to be paid in Canada and was intended to buy farming equipment and the supplies needed to stay alive until the first harvest was brought in. Bureaucratic bungling meant that the paperwork needed to calculate the balance owing was sent to Halifax and often arrived in Quebec City six to eight weeks after the veterans and their families.

 The taverns of the city proved too much of a temptation for the waiting veterans. All too often they squandered any money they had, and any advance they had been given on the second instalment, in the taverns. They also fell prey to conmen or robbers. Even after the required papers arrived from Halifax there were further delays. It was discovered that the various bureaucrats dealing with the veterans in Britain had different notions of what paperwork was required. Vital documents that should have been sent to Canada had been retained in Britain.

 The British Government appeared more concerned about the men who pocketed the first instalment and never left Britain, or collected the second payment in Canada and then returned home. These men were no longer entitled to a pension and became burdens on the primitive welfare system in Britain.

 Sir John Hobhouse, Secretary at War in 1831, told the House of Commons that in contrast the veterans who stayed Canada were now thriving.

“With respect to the pensioners who were sent out to Canada for the purpose of being located, it appears from letters recently received at the Colonial Office, that they were going on extremely well, and had conducted themselves with the greatest propriety since they had been sent to those settlements,” he said.

“I believe when they first landed they were guilty of some irregularities and excesses; but this, perhaps, might be anticipated from this class of persons after a long and tedious voyage; but since that time they have conducted themselves with great steadiness.”

He estimated in 1832 that the commutation scheme was saving the British taxpayer £55,000 a year, at a time when Army pensions cost the British Government £1.5 million annually.

 But the truth was that the former soldiers were not good pioneer stock and the scheme was a disaster. The British Army did not encourage men to think for themselves and initiative was frowned on. One soldier in the 94th Foot who had dared speak directly to an officer was informed by him: “Damn you sir. You have no right to think; there are people paid to think for you — do what you are ordered, sir, right or wrong.”

Sir John Colborne, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, wrote that it had been “cruel” to tempt the ex-soldiers into surrendering their pension rights in exchange for a lump sum.

 John Williamson agreed.

“My experience now teaches me that the materiel of the old soldier rendered it impossible for any other result to follow such a scheme,” he wrote. 

“While serving in the army, which in most cases constitute a considerable portion of the man's life, he has had no care in providing for his own wants, every thing being found for him; he has, therefore, no thought of tomorrow, and to the provident care of money he is a total stranger. The natural consequence of all this is, that any considerable amount of money coming into his possession is squandered away as if it were never to have an end.”

Many of the veterans were also physically unsuited to the hard work required to hack a farm out of the bush. Almost 70% of them were already over the age of 40 when they arrived. No fewer than 95 of them were over 60 years old. Some were missing limbs or had been lamed. At least one was totally blind. Some veterans were reported to be partially paralyzed or suffering from hernias. All, however, had been passed as fit by doctors in Britain.

 It also became clear that not all the veterans understood the terms of the scheme. Some believed the lump sum was an advance on four years’ pension and it would be restored in the fifth year — not very different from Hardinge’s original proposal. As it turned out, the cost of the emergency relief for the veterans and their families in the form of clothing, food, and bedding could run to around 50% more than the men had been entitled to as army pensioners. 

 But the authorities in Britain stubbornly maintained that the surrender of pension rights was irrevocable. Some even suggested that emergency relief to the pensioners was misguided. One senior War Office official wrote to his counterpart at the Colonial Office in 1837 that “no small portion of the distress which is now so strongly complained of may fairly be attributed to the injudicious manner in which assistance has been given to these persons, thus encouraging them in improvident habits, and teaching them to rely rather upon the Government than upon their own efforts.”

Even the land grants proved a major headache. John Williamson, who had found work in Montreal after his arrival in Canada, reckoned that few of his compatriots even saw the promised land.

“Some were prevented by disease from proceeding farther; many delayed setting out from day to day, until their means became exhausted when they were unable to reach their destination; while others commenced a scene of riotous living which lasted until all their money was expended, and themselves brought to the verge of the grave,” he wrote.

“It is thus seen that few, ever reached or took possession of the land allotted them.”

Lord Aylmer believed that men like Williamson who found honest employment in Canada were unusual among the veterans.

“It has been found generally that these men are persons of irregular and disorderly habits and are extremely improvident in matters connected with their welfare,” he wrote to his bosses in England.

 Many of the veterans sold their 100-acre grants at knockdown prices. One official suggested the price of a bottle of rum was enough to secure a parcel of land that should have fetched £25. Established landowners and farmers complained that the value of their property had been lowered and the land grants were stopped in 1834.

 The Canadian authorities estimated that perhaps 300 veterans, one-in-ten, did make an attempt to clear and farm their land. But only the toughest, fittest, and most determined had any chance of success. One writer reported that the trees in her township were 80 feet tall and 12 feet in circumference. To clear such land was beyond the physical capabilities of broken-down veterans who had never previously swung an axe, wielded a saw, or touched a plough in their lives.

“We have said, and we repeat it, that no-one is fit for settling land in Canada but those who have been brought up in agricultural labour, or have been in the habit of placing no dependence on anything but  their own labour and care.” noted the Quebec Gazette in an 1833 editorial.

 It quickly became apparent that many of the veterans had no idea that the land involved had not already been cleared for immediate cultivation before they arrived.

 The success stories, such as that of former Sergeant Roger McHugh of the 27th Inniskilling Regiment, whose grandson George represented Ontario’s Victoria South constituency in the House of Commons and was senator for 25 years , were far outnumbered by the failures. The colonial authorities and charity relief agencies were swamped with reports of veterans and their families begging on the streets of Canada’s cities and towns.

 In 1835 a sweep of Toronto saw 17 Irish veterans and 51 of their family members hauled off the streets and transported to a remote army outpost at Penetanguishe on Lake Huron. There they were housed in shacks and given a small amount of land to cultivate in the hope the community would become self-sustaining. But by 1837 most of the community, now numbering around 100, were still living on government rations. In 1846 only one tired-out former sergeant remained.

 Elsewhere, colonial officials were divided over the best way to stop the pauperized former pensioners and their families from freezing or starving to death. Old soldiers had been put to work building township roads but this could only ever be a temporary fix. Some officials argued that supplying the veterans and their families clothing and rations was better than giving them cash hand-outs. But it was found that many of the veterans preferred not to haul these supplies the 30 to 40 miles back home from the government depots and were immediately selling them to buy alcohol.

 When arch-reformer Lord Durham took up the veterans’ case in 1838 he claimed three-quarters of those who came to Canada were dead.

 Durham added his voice to the condemnation of the British Government for ever believing the veterans would make suitable colonists.

“The idea of forming agricultural settlers in a new country from a class of men to which these pensioners belong, could, I must suppose, have proceeded only from an entire ignorance of the state of these colonies, and of the tasks that a settler has to perform, - an ignorance of which it is not easy to discover an adequate explanation, since there were at the command of the Government many means of acquiring all the requisite knowledge,” he proclaimed.

“The labour to be performed by a settler in the wilderness is of an arduous and painful character, and demands great physical and mental energy, combined with a facility of adaptation to new circumstances seldom found in men of mature years or settled habits.”

Durham said the authorities in Quebec had been caught unawares by the arrival of the first veterans and arrangements for their reception were “defective.” While the British taxpayer may have gained from the scheme, a heavy financial burden had been placed on the Canadian authorities.

 Legislators in Upper Canada added their weight to the calls for the pensions to be restored. It was even argued that the cost of doing this would be minimal because the Canadian winters annually took so a heavy toll on the former pensioners.

 A proper head count was ordered following Lord Durham’s intervention and in 1839 advertisements were placed asking the surviving pensioners to identify themselves. Eventually a list of 654 veterans claiming to be in need of help was drawn up. In 1840 the British Government reluctantly agreed to pay the veterans a pension of around fourpence each a day. For most veterans this was less than half of the original pension they had given up. Bureaucrats constantly worked to trim down the number of men receiving even the reduced pension. British government ministers still had little sympathy for the old soldiers who had commuted their pensions. “The bargain was certainly improvident; but the pensioners did not make it without being fully aware of the nature of the contract,” the Secretary at War between 1846 and 1852 and a former officer in the Cameron Highlanders, Fox Maule, told fellow MPs in 1847.

 By 1852 all pension payments had ceased.

One of the supposed benefits of the original scheme had been to create a pool of army veterans to help defend Canada. When William Lyon MacKenzie launched a rebellion in 1837 a number of veterans, often shoeless and in rags, had indeed volunteered their services to the authorities. John Williamson was among them. He became a drill sergeant with Maitland’s Battalion of the Montreal Volunteers. Williamson died in 1840 still never having touched a plough.

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