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'Taking the Queen's Shilling'

As in the past joining the British Army was rarely an attractive proposition, recruiting sergeants would result to ruses, often with a publican’s help, to snare unwilling prey. That is what happened to an unsuspecting, ‘railway navvy’ during a rowdy Saturday night in the Three Choughs Inn, Blandford in November 1858. He was with a group of construction workers who were employed to build the new railway line from Wimborne to Blandford. The ‘navvies’ were not particularly popular with the locals and had a reputation for fighting, heavy drinking and general rowdy behaviour.

Taking the King, or Queen’s Shilling’ has long been slang for enlisting in the British Army as for many years a shilling (5p) was akin to a signing-on payment made to new recruits. The recruiting sergeant would ensure his target became drunk and would then slip a shilling into a back pocket. The next day the unfortunate and hung over victim would be hauled before a magistrate who would confirm that he was the British Army’s latest recruit. Sometimes the coin would be hidden in the bottom of an ale filled tankard. Having drunk the contents, the luckless victim was considered to have ‘taken the King’s shilling.’ To prevent this happening, some tankards had glass bottoms.

On this occasion in Blandford, the unfortunate victim was sufficiently sober to realise what had happened. He refused to give his name to the recruiting sergeant and endeavoured to get away. A policeman arrived and the construction worker was taken into custody. Upon arriving at the lock-up, seven or eight of his ‘navvy’ colleagues tried to secure his escape. According to the Dorset County Chronicle, County policeman Worsdell and Borough policeman Pethan, assisted by some locals, managed to take six into custody after some severe fighting.

All appeared before the Borough Magistrates the following Monday and received sentences of differing lengths of hard labour. While the unfortunate ‘navvy’, who had ‘taken the Queen’s shilling’, left to begin his new involuntary career in the British Army. The Dorset Chronicle reported:

The policemen behaved, throughout the affray, with great firmness, and deserve much praise for their conduct.’ 

In contrast, some recruits joined the British Army just for the bounty. During the Napoleonic War, there was the case of a man who enlisted sixteen times and would then desert. Being caught at last, he was brought to trial in Portsmouth and sentenced  by general court-martial to be shot.

(Illustration: Three Choughs Inn in more modern time.)



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