In support of the Commandants: subaltern officers of the Moreton Bay settlement, 1824 – 1850
Rod Pratt, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2021

The purchase system of promotion

Today, it is common for military officers to undergo years of education and gruelling training to obtain their first commission, but back in the period between Waterloo and the Crimean War, variously called the ‘Long Sleep’ or the ‘Great Peace’ by British military historians, the criteria for a promotion in the army was largely by means of the purchase system.

(Image courtesy of Rod Pratt)

It should be noted that the purchase system was peculiar to the army alone as the other branches relied upon more rigorous methods. The ‘scientific corps’, that is the artillery and engineers, required intelligent and educated men due to the nature of their service, and both needed extensive study and examination. Similarly, the navy had a long-established tradition of lengthy apprenticeships beginning when one was quite young and involved the study of quite demanding navigational mathematics. The most common way of becoming an army ensign at this time was simply to purchase your commission. No training, no experience or education was necessary, all that mattered was whether you had the funding, had attended the ‘right’ public schools and your parents had the right social connections. It is therefore no surprise that officers tended to come from the aristocracy, the landed gentry or aspiring middle-classes as the cost of an ensigncy, as well as the expenses of uniforms, weapons, accoutrements, mess bills, regimental charities and countless other incidentals, excluded any but the wealthier strata of society. This did not mean that those from aristocratic families always purchased their promotions, any more than those of humble origins were excluded from holding a commission.

(Image 1: The title page of Major Cotton’s first book, Nine Years on the N.W. Frontier of India (1868). Held in author’s collection. Image 2: Courtesy National Army Museum (UK) 1978-10-45, Image 3: An English artist’s imagined landing of Major Cotton with his detachment of the 28th Regiment at Brisbane Town in 1837, complete with sandy beaches, palm trees and obliging natives. Courtesy The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Regimental Museum. Information supplied by curator, Robert Dixon)

For example, Sydney Cotton and Peter Bishop both came from privileged backgrounds, with Cotton’s own lineage reading like a page from Burke’s Peerage. His cousin, Sir Stapleton Cotton (often described as ‘Wellington’s right arm’) was raised in the peerage to Baron Combermere in 1814, with Sydney Cotton appointed his Aide-de-Camp when serving in India from September 1825 to November 1827. Likewise, Peter Bishop was born at Bishopcourt, Ireland, into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and married Julia Talbot, sister to the Earl of Shrewsbury. The point of comparison here with Cotton and Bishop is that both came from well-connected and wealthy families yet neither man ever used the purchase system to obtain promotion. By contrast, there were officers like Owen Gorman who began his career as a private in the 58th Regiment, and must have possessed the acumen to rise through the non-commissioned ranks to sergeant-major and then to quarter-master. The position of quarter-master could be held by either a senior non-commissioned officer or a subaltern, and it appears Gorman used this position to gain his ensigncy by seniority in 1830, without purchase at the advanced age (for an ensign) of 31.

While obtaining an ensigncy imposed an initial financial burden on the officer or his family, it was possible, if one was patient, to obtain further promotions simply by the process of seniority as with each promotion, every officer moved one step higher in the regimental ladder. The most senior lieutenant became a captain, while the second most senior lieutenant now became the most senior in line for promotion to captain once a vacancy arose. Of course, it was entirely possible that once a captaincy became vacant, a lieutenant with the finances could purchase this over the head of the most senior lieutenant. Obviously, this ‘jumping the que’ method of advancement was not popular with those who were passed over. Alternatively, one could obtain promotion by means of volunteering to serve in a regiment going to an ‘unpopular’ posting such as the West Indies, which due to the climate was known as the ‘British soldiers’ graveyard’. Likewise, convict escort duty to the Australian Colonies could be a rapid means of promotion as some officers transferred out of the escorting regiment, thus creating vacancies.

Although against regulations, the asking prices for an ensigncy or lieutenancy went down in price so as to attract potential officers who lacked the financial backing to afford a commission in any other regiment. This would seem to have been the path taken by Lieutenant John Nagel who opted to serve in the unpopular East Indies. As Nagel had been born at Jaffna Patram on the Island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the climate may not have affected him as much as an officer direct from Britain.