Access Heritage Logo (formerly the Discriminating General)
link="#396377" vlink="#396377" alink="#396377" style="line-height: 150%; word-spacing: 0" rightmargin="8"> <

Our Products:

Our Sites:

Articles by Category

Army Life
Forts and Historic Sites
Politics and Treaties
Uniforms and Equipment


Introduction to the War
Summary of the War's End
Chronology of Events
Reenactments and Units
Chart of British Regiments


Listen to Sound Clips
Read Book Reviews
Take a Quiz
View an Animated Battle
Watch Video Clips

Featured Products

British Swords
Muskets and Pistols
1812 Prints, Maps, and Plans
Uniforms and other 1812 Replicas



Drink Up! Alcohol and the British Soldier
 in the Canadas during the War of 1812

by Gareth Newfield

British soldiers relaxing at a sutler’s booth, 1808. (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

The British soldier of the War of 1812 period was renowned as a prodigious consumer of alcohol.  Writing in 1811 amid the Peninsular War, it was no less than the future Duke of Wellington who made the famous assertion, “British soldiers are fellows who have all enlisted for drink – that is the plain fact - they have enlisted for drink.”[1]  Yet while many who served in Upper and Lower Canada during the War of 1812 were no less fond of alcohol than their counterparts in Europe, their choice of and the availability of alcohol were often determined by economic and military factors unique to North America.

Supply and Demand in the Canadas

                     Before 1800 troops on home service in Great Britain received five pints of “small” (weak) beer per diem as part of their barracks allowances, paid for by deductions from their weekly pay.[2]  In Upper and Lower Canada, however, this was impractical due to the small brewing industry and rudimentary transportation networks.  During the first decade of the nineteenth century few commercial breweries existed in either province; most were situated in Lower Canada (near Quebec, Trois Rivières and Montreal), while few were established in Upper Canada during the early years of settlement.[3]  Domestic brewing was far more prevalent, but unsuited to mass production.[4]  Moreover, from the perspective of military logistics beer was an inefficient means of providing troops with alcohol given its low alcohol-to-volume ratio, while the transportation of sufficient quantities to meet demands over the colonies’ rudimentary roads and waterways was prohibitively difficult.  Thus it is perhaps not surprising that beer is seldom noted in Commissariat Department accounts.[5]  Excepting in the few garrisons located near centres of commercial brewing, the provision of small beer did not occur regularly.

           As a substitute, soldiers could receive an allowance of spruce beer.  Introduced to the British Army as an anti-scorbutic during the eighteenth century, this decoction of spruce, molasses and yeast possessed significant advantages, particularly ingredients that were cheap and universally available in Canada, and a simpler method of brewing that could be undertaken locally by the soldiers themselves.[6]  One British military treatise published in 1796 noted that, “exclusive of the ration the soldiers are commonly supplied in North America, with three pints of spruce beer each per diem, gratis (free).”[7]  Rations were presumably measured and dispensed from large tin “beer cans;” in Canada these were procured at the regimental level rather than provided by the Barracks Department, as in Britain.[8]  Still, spruce beer was unpopular when more potent alternatives were available; as early as 1793 one traveler noted spruce beer was “not in esteem” among the civilian populations in both Upper and Lower Canada.[9]  Thus its widespread consumption by the military appears to have declined markedly towards 1800.

A View of the British Fleet Anchored at Quebec Looking from Wolfe's Cove toward Cape Diamond [graphic material]  (item 1) 
Naval and merchant shipping at Quebec, 1814.
(Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1990-582-2)


Rum was the only form of alcohol regularly issued by military authorities in the Canadas during the pre-war period.  It was imported from the Caribbean via Quebec, where the Commissariat Department purchased in bulk, typically early in the spring “on the arrival of the vessels from the West Indies” following the thawing of the St. Lawrence River.[10]  The quantity purchased varied according to the projected annual needs of the army, Indian Department and Provincial Marine (each supplied by the Commissariat), and also according to political circumstances; in 1801, it was estimated that 5,000 gallons were required for both provinces for approximately two years, while between 1807 and 1808, amid tensions caused by the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, 3,000 gallons were deemed necessary for the annual consumption in Upper Canada alone.[11]  From Quebec, rum was distributed by the Commissariat to garrisons and posts according to a scale of estimated consumption.  Soldiers performed much of the labour during transport, and this system was sometimes open to abuse; in 1803 the commissary at Fort Erie reported one incident of theft by a detachment of the 49th Regiment transporting barrels of rum up the Niagara River: 

When they arrived here, Morgan and every man in the Boat were in liquor; one man … was so drunk that he could not stand.  On coming out of the boat he fell to the Ground, and lay there until some of the Men of this post lifted him up and carried him to the Barracks … I examined the barrels and found that some of them had been pierced, and were not near full; Captain Ormsby … immediately came and saw them and threatened to send the Lance Corporal [Morgan] to Niagara.[12]

 Rum was issued as a stimulant to soldiers engaged in demanding physical labour or exposed to inclement weather, and was granted for free as an indulgence to the soldier.  On paper this remained official military policy well into the early nineteenth century; one popular treatise specified troops in North America were only “sometimes issued with rum, in such quantities as the commander in chief for the time being thinks it expedient to order.”[13]  There is, however, considerable evidence that rum was issued quite liberally in Canada due to the extreme climate, leading troops to believe themselves entitled to its routine allowance.[14]    

 The Neptune Inn, Quebec, 1830. (item 1)

The Neptune Inn at Quebec, depicted in 1830. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-133)

           In March 1800 the British Government instituted the supplementing soldiers’ pay with “beer money” to eliminate the financial and logistical burden of supplying troops with small beer.  Thereafter, “an allowance of one penny a day, in addition to his pay” was made to each enlisted soldier on home service.[15]  In the Canadas this was readily spent in the numerous local establishments located throughout both provinces.  Not surprisingly, certain businesses came to be particularly associated with military personnel; in Quebec the Neptune Inn was popular among soldiers of the garrison, while soldiers of the 41st Foot were noted in 1804 as regular patrons of illicit “dram shops” in settlements along the Niagara Frontier.[16]  This commercial relationship did not exist without producing friction between soldiers and the local population; in Newark, residents often complained of the antics of Irish Catholic soldiers who, lacking their own church, got drunk while their Protestant counterparts attended divine service on Sundays.[17]

          Tavern, inns and business afforded soldiers access to a variety of alcoholic beverages, including beers, gin, punches, brandy and wines.  Surviving merchants’ account books occasionally provide a measure of insight into their purchases and tastes.  For example, one Sergeant Purcell of the 41st Foot obtained a bottle of port from an Amherstburg merchant in 1803, a comparatively expensive purchase for an enlisted soldier, and likely intended for a special occasion.[18]  Conversely, other NCOs of the regiment are recorded as purchasing various implements and ingredients that could possibly have been used to assemble and operate an illegal still.[19]  Indeed, in Upper Canada troops often developed a taste for locally produced rye whiskey.  Although not usually considered fit for military consumption, it was the common alcoholic staple among civilians, many of whom “brought the taste for intoxicating liquor” through immigration from the United States.[20]  Abundant crops enabled farmers to produce vast quantities of whiskey, while taxation of its production was a key source of revenue for the Government.[21]  Whiskey was therefore cheap and universally accessible, and public drunkenness was widespread; “In travelling through the country, you will see every inn and tavern … filled at all hours with drunken, brawling fellows,” one early traveller noted, “and the quantity of ardent spirits consumed by them will truly astonish you.”[22]  The ubiquity of liquor in Upper Canada naturally concerned military commanders.  While commanding the 49th Foot at Fort George, Colonel Isaac Brock famously sought to construct a garden and even a handball court within the garrison “with a view of keeping the men as much as possible from the town [of Newark], … the nest of all wickedness.”[23]  Yet amid the close proximity of drinking establishments to most garrisons, efforts to provide soldiers with more wholesome distractions were often futile.

British troops escorting a deserter pause for a drink at a local tavern, c. 1810.
 (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

           Military authorities nonetheless appear to have made few attempts to regulate soldiers’ drinking habits by appointing licensed regimental sutlers and / or concurrently establishing barrack canteens.  A ‘sutler’ was defined as a contractor who sold “all sorts of provisions to the soldiers” (including food and drink) by warrant of commanding officers, and were therefore “subject to military regulations” respecting prices and general conduct.[24]  General Orders published in 1811 further codified this practice by calling for sutlers to operate out of designated facilities, and placing their administration under control of the Barracks Department:

No Wine, Beer, or Spirituous Liquor, is to be sold within the Barracks to the Non-commissioned Officers or Private Men of any Regiment stationed therein, except at the established Canteen, where a regularly licensed Sutler is appointed by the Commissioners for the Affairs of Barracks, for the purpose of Supplying the Soldiers, at fair and reasonable Market Prices, with Provisions, Liquors, & c. which are required to be of the best quality.  No Tippling is to be allowed in any of the Barrack-Rooms allotted for the use of the Non-Commissioned Officers and Soldiers.[25]

 In the Canadas, however, the operation of regulated military canteens in frontier garrisons was incongruent to the tacit British policy of encouraging direct commerce between soldiers and civilians in order to develop local economies.  The basic lack of barrack space in many of the smaller Canadian posts (particularly in Upper Canada) may also have prevented the establishment of canteens.  Therefore sutleries and canteens were generally uncommon outside the larger urban garrisons such as Quebec and Montreal, where the more established barracks afforded the necessary facilities and entrepreneurs had better access to commercial goods.[26] 

The War of 1812

             Following the outbreak of hostilities with the United States in June 1812, an allowance of alcohol was included in the field rations issued to troops on active service.  Initially the amount was often determined by the local commander; during the expedition against Detroit, for example, Major-General Brock ordered that each soldier would “receive one Gill of spirits per day” while embarked on American soil.[27]  Yet towards the autumn, British authorities sought to restrict soldiers’ access to alcohol, both as a measure of economy and to prevent indiscipline.  Orders such as those issued at York, requiring sentries to “examine each soldier’s wife that comes in, & prevent her bringing in any liquor” were typical of efforts to prevent illicit consumption.[28]  Moreover, rum was officially withdrawn from the field ration on 9 October 1812 for similar reasons.[29]  Only troops performing particularly arduous duties (such as transporting supplies by boat) were granted exceptions, although consumption was still strictly regulated:

His Excellency the Commander of the Forces is Pleased to direct that in consideration of the advanced Season of the year that a Gill of Rum be added to the Ration of Provision of troops employed in Batteaux.  Officers in charge of detachments are strictly enjoined to superintend the daily issue of this part of the Ration, and under no circumstances is the soldier to receive more than the daily allowance at an issue.[30]

Not surprisingly, these measures proved unpopular; the degree of discontent among the troops is perhaps indicated by the publication of a General Order November 1812 reminding them “the Issue of Rum to the Soldier is an act of Grace upon which he cannot found a right.”[31]  


A bateau on the St. Lawrence River. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. Acc. No. 1981-42-25)

In Upper Canada, where the threat of invasion was most immediate, authorities barred even civilians from selling alcohol to soldiers, except by special license.  This, however, did not deter the most hardened drinkers; following the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812, the “disorderly and Intoxicated State of many Soldiers of the Line” at Fort George and posts along the Niagara River forced Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe to prescribe harsh penalties for those obtaining alcohol illegally:

The Soldiers of the Army are informed that so long as the Enemy may think proper to threaten the safety of the Fort [at] Niagara, the Major General has thought proper to forbid Persons on the Line of Defence between Niagara and Fort Erie from selling Spirituous Liquor by license and under such restrictions as may be thought to serve the good of His Majesty’s Service.  All Soldiers therefore attempting to obtain by threats or violence from persons whatever Spirits contrary to the established mode will assuredly be punished with the utmost severity.[32]


Fort George, Upper Canada. (item 1)

Fort George in 1812.  (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1970-188-505)

 The British policy of economy and stringent control continued throughout the winter of 1812-1813.  General Orders published on 2 December 1812 reminded commanders the purpose of “the indulgence of the Ration of Rum” was to “be limited to the Troops on duty at the advanced Out Posts, and under peculiar circumstances of fatigue or exposure in bad weather.”  Although unpopular, such restrictions had the unintended effect of significantly improving soldiers’ health.  Dr. James Mann, an American military surgeon stationed on the Niagara Frontier recalled this phenomenon in contrast to the physical condition of American troops, who had more ready access to liquor:

Deserters from the British army, of whom some hundreds came to our posts, exhibited marks of high health; while those of our soldiers were pallid and emaciated. The difference was too obvious to have escaped the observation of the officers of the army. It led me to seek the cause. Upon enquiry it was learnt, that spirits were no part of the ration of the British soldier; that these liquors could not be procured in the upper province of Canada for money. While, in addition to their daily rations, our soldiers, when they had money in their pockets, had free access to spirits at the stores of the sutlers.[33]

It was not until 6 September 1813 that an issue of one half gill of rum was officially reintroduced into the general field ration for troops in the Canadas.[34]  Still, shortages of alcohol persisted in Upper Canada, particularly at the more remote posts; in December 1813 the commandant of Fort Michilimackinac wrote to request a supply of liquor, as it was nearly unobtainable in the region.[35]  As the war progressed, the Commissariat in Upper Canada was increasingly forced to purchase local rye whiskey – often of indifferent quality – amid shortages of spirits in the province.  Indeed, the dependence upon locally-produced alcohol became evident during the winter of 1813-1814, when a ban on distilling enacted by the Legislature due to poor harvests temporarily halted the alcohol ration among the Right Division.[36]  As before, the only exceptions were troops facing extreme exposure to the elements, who received “one Gill of Spirit, per man, per day.”[37]

          Notwithstanding official restrictions, determined, enterprising soldiers were usually able to obtain alcohol by various means.  Assistant-Surgeon John Douglas of the 8th Foot noted that young soldiers, “being often addicted to intemperance” were prone to pneumonia and other diseases common to the Canadas, and also witnessed several cases of “men, who were in a state of intoxication, [who] perished from the severity of the winter’s cold” during the war.[38]  Similarly, Private Shadrach Byfield of the 41st Foot frequently carried liquor with him, and famously “played a game of fives, for a quart of rum” following the amputation of his arm in August 1814.[39]  Still, while incidents of illicit and excessive consumption were not uncommon, the general scarcity of alcohol is a phenomenon frequently remarked upon in contemporary accounts of the war.

          Towards the summer of 1814 regulations eased as the British supply situation in the Canadas improved and imported liquor became more widely available.  Accordingly, in July 1814 a board of officers reviewing supply policies deemed it, “expedient and advisable that Rum should be issued to the Troops serving in the Canadas, at the rate of one Gill to each effective Regimental Officer, Non-Commissioned Officer & Private per day … to afford the Solder every comfort which the arduous duties of the service may require.”[40]  At the same time, military officials were again careful to make soldiers understand they were “to consider this an indulgence and gratuity and not forming a part of [their] regular rations.”[41]  On campaign local commanders might supplement this basic issue with a further allowance of rum for medicinal purposes. During the siege of Fort Erie, Lieutenant-General Sir Gordon Drummond ordered the issue of “additional half Gill of spirits” to the troops engaged in the siege lines, and further directed that “an additional dram will be given to the men on first turning out in the morning” in camp.[42]  In fact, Drummond attributed the good health of his men during the early stages of the siege to this liberal allowance of alcohol: “Hitherto they are uncommonly healthy – This I am confident must in a part measure be attributed to an extra allowance of half a Gill of Spirits, & which I propose to continue so long as I have means & the Troops continue in the field.”[43]

File:Gordon Drummond.jpg

Lieutenant-General Sir Gordon Drummond. (Archives of Ontario, 693127)

           The regulations for the universal issue of one gill of rum per soldier per diem remained in effect in the Canadas for the remainder of the war.  Yet following the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent and the final cessation of hostilities in early 1815, the British Government immediately curbed expensive wartime “indulgences” in the colonies.  General Orders issued on 1 March 1815 cancelled the universal issue of rum, reinstituting the nominal peacetime practice of supplying alcohol only to troops on fatigue or enduring exposure, and then “only on particular occasions or the special sanction of General Officers commanding Stations or Brigades.”[44]  Still, these discretionary orders were loosely interpreted, and as before the War of 1812, the indiscriminate issue of rum continued until the abolishment of the allowance in 1830.[45]


[1] Heinl, R.  Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations (Washington: US Naval Institute Press, 1966), p. 97.

[2] De Watteville, H., The British Soldier (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1954), p. 92.

[3] Denison, M., The Barley and the Stream: The Molson Story (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1955), p. 101; Merritt, R., Butler, N. & Power, M., The Capital Years: Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1792-1796 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), p. 207; Guillet, E., Early Life in Upper Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1933), p. 100.

[4] Heron, C., Booze: A Distilled History (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2003), p. 19.

[5] Newfield, G., Culinary History of Early Niagara (Parks Canada Manuscript Report, Ontario Service Centre, October 2010), p. 58.

[6] Whitfield, C., Tommy Atkins: The British Soldier in Canada 1759-1870 (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1981), p. 43.

[7] Williamson, J., A Treatise on Military Finance (London: T. Egerton, 1796), p. 155.

[8] Henderson, R., ‘Marching on its Stomach: Diet and Messing Arrangements of the British Army in Upper Canada at the Opening of the War of 1812,’ Military Collector & Historian 49, No. 4 (Winter 1997), 175-182, p. 179.

[9] O’Leary,T. Canadian Letters: Description of a Tour Thro’ the Provinces of Lower and Upper Canada in the Course of the Years 1792 and ’93 (Montreal: C.A. Marchand, 1912), p. 46.

[10] Craigie to Hunter, Quebec, 3 April 1801, Library and Archives Canada (henceforth LAC), Record Group (RG) 8 I, Vol. 1701, p. 121.

[11] Ibid; Craigie to Green, Quebec, 4 September 1807, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 111, p. 167.

[12] Warren to Green, Fort Erie, 11 October 1804, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 109, p. 63.

[13] Williamson, ibid.  This proviso is repeated in editions of this book published up to 1809. 

[14] Whitfield, ibid.

[15] James, C., The Regimental Companion (London: C. Roworth, 1811), Vol. I, p. 308, citing Royal Warrant, 17 March 1800.

[16] Whitfield, p. 48; Carter Edwards, D., The 41st (the Welch) Regiment 1799-1815  (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1986), n.p.

[17] Carnochan, J., History of Niagara (Belleville: Mika Publishing, 1973), p. 201.

[18] Account for Sergeant Purcell, George Ironside Account Book 1802-1805, Detroit Public Library, Burton Historical Collection, ZS 667 L4 1802-1805, p. 193.

[19] Accounts for Sergeants Jones & Bent, George Ironside Account Book 1802-1805, ibid, pp. 215, 228.

[20] Jones, O. & Smith, E., Glass of the British Military (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1985), p. 11; Garland & Talman, ‘Pioneer Drinking Habits,’ p. 343.

[21] Merritt, Butler & Power (eds.), The Capital Years, p. 205;

[22] Garland, M. & Talman, J., ‘Pioneer Drinking Habits and the Rise of Intemperance Agitation in Upper Canada Prior to 1840,’ Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records 27 (1931), 341-62, p. 342.

[23] Brock to Green, Fort George, 6 October 1803, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 547, p. 87.

[24] James, C., A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary, (London: T. Egerton, 1805), n.p., ‘Sutler.’

[25] Anon., General Regulations and Orders for the Army (London: Adjutant General’s Office, 1816), p. 201.

[26] Newfield, pp. 73-74.

[27] Militia General Order, Amherstburg, 15 August 1812, LAC, RG 9 IB3, Vol. 2, p. 24.

[28] Garrison Order, York, 18 October 1812, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 1203, p. 23.

[29] General Order, Montreal, 9 October 1812, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 1168, p. 295.

[30] General Order, Montreal, 25 October 1812, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 1169, pp. 11-12.

[31] Whitfield, p. 48.

[32] District General Order, Fort George, 20 October 1812, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 1203 1/2A, pp. 55-6.

[33] Mann, J.  Medical Sketches of the Campaigns of 1812, 13, 14  (New Haven: H. Mann and Co., 1816), p. 37.

[34] Irving, L., Officers of the British Forces in Canada during the War of 1812-15  (Welland: Welland Tribube, 1908), p. 242.

[35] Bullock to Freer, Michilimackinac, 29 December 1813, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 681, p. 329.

[36] Division General Order, Headquarters, Right Division, 1 February 1814, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 688D, p. 9.

[37] Division General Order, Headquarters  Niagara Frontier, 3 February 1814, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 688D, p. 7.

[38] Douglas, J., Medical Topography of Upper Canada  (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1985), pp. 16, 27.

[39] Gellner, J. (ed.), Recollections of the War of 1812: Three Eyewitnesses’ Accounts  (Toronto: Baxter Publishing, 1967), pp. 31, 41

[40] Recommendations of a Board  of Officers, Montreal, 18 July 1814, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 231, pp. 101-2.

[41] Ibid.

[42] District General Order, Camp before Fort Erie, 5 August 1814, LAC. RG 8 I, Vol. 685, p.120.

[43] Drummond to Prevost, Camp before Fort Erie, 21 August 1814, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 685, p. 127.

[44] General Order, Quebec, 1 March 1815, LAC, RG 8 I, Vol. 1178, p. 128a.

[45] Whitfield, pp. 43-44.


Copyright: Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) 2010

Contacting us

Copyright: Unless otherwise noted, all information, images, data contained within this website is protected by copyright under international law.  Any unauthorized use of material contained here is strictly forbidden.  All rights reserved.