The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 4 No 6 - December 1979

The Problem of Purchase Abolition in the British Army 1856-1862

by Carl G. Slater

By 1856, the great disillusionment generated by the severe casualties and the numerous frustrations incurred by the British army in the Crimea had brought the issue of military reform into national prominence. Although the nation’s confidence in the British soldier’s ability to overcome any foreign enemy was confirmed by The Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman, it had become dubious whether the stalwart redcoat could continue to endure against the excessive incompetence and inefficiency of his own army’s administration. For the unprecedented newspaper coverage of the Crimean War had revealed to the British public the distressing facts of army disorganization that the soldiers themselves had long known.(1)

Used sporadically in Europe and the Near East as a tool of diplomacy, and often in remote parts of the world to fulfil the policing responsibilities of empire, the bulk of the British army had remained relatively inactive since 1815 when, under Wellington, it had attained its greatest glory. During the ensuing four decades, however, it had remained the army of Wellington — an eighteenth-century fighting force virtually oblivious to technological and administrative improvements. The Crimean experience was a rude and abrupt awakening from this stupor and demonstrated the necessity for a total overhaul of the military establishment. The functions and purpose of the army required redefinition; its administration demanded simplification and its echelons needed professionalization from the lowest ranks to the highest commands. Such ends could be attained only by extensive reform throughout both the civil and military branches of the service. Yet the issue that dominated the entire army reform controversy was the continuance of the long-standing tradition of promotion by purchase.

It is the purpose of this essay to provide a brief background of the operation of the purchase system, and then to examine more fully the government’s official attitude toward the reform of that system prior to 1868. More specifically, the focus of this study will be upon the official investigation of the purchase system undertaken in 1856 and 1857. It will be seen that although no reform was actual]y intended by the Palmerston ministry, the investigation conducted was quite thorough, and its conclusions influential on the eventual abolition of the purchase system in 1871.


Unlike the continental military forces of the nineteenth century, officers’ commissions in the British army were, in a broad sense, marketable commodities. In most cases, though not in all, applicants for commissions in the cavalry and infantry of the line and in the guards were required to lay out a specific sum of money for their initial rank of ensign or cornet. This practice generally applied to each additional step of promotion (excluding advancements due to deaths in the upper ranks) until attainment of the rank of lieutenant-colonel, which signified regimental command.

Although the origins of the purchase of commissions may be traced back to the middle ages, (2) its general adoption by the army is usually dated at March 7, 1683-84 when Charles II, by Royal Warrant, conferred his sanction upon the embryonic purchase system.(3) Still, during the ensuing reigns of William III and Anne, the progress of purchase within the service remained uncertain and informal until George I finally introduced elements of official systematization. His Royal Warrant of February, 1719 established a definite tariff of prices for each regiment and reimposed certain restrictions upon the sale of commissions first enacted in 1711. Prior to this time, a considerable number of promotions within the infantry, cavalry, and guards regiments had been based upon private financial arrangements between the officers themselves. By the new regulations of 1720, the Crown formally acknowledged purchase as a viable means of promotion within the army, but simultaneously laid an undisputed claim to the collection and disbursement of purchase money.(4) In 1766 a Board of General Officers issued a uniform price list for commissions in all purchase regiments, and the prices established at this time(5) remained essentially the same until they were substantially raised in 1821.(6)

By the nineteenth century, the purchase system had established itself as the most common means of promotion within the army, applying to about seventy-five per cent of all men appointed to fill commissions.(7) Despite the implications of its title, purchase was not simply a matter of buying and selling commissions in an open market. A definite scheme of qualification and advancement did exist, even if only theoretically. It was intended to exert some form of regulation upon the distribution of commissions to ensure at least a minimum of professional competence among purchase officers. Applicants for the initial appointments of cornet and ensign as well as for the subsequent advancement to captain (following suitable service in the intermediate rank of lieutenant) were required to pass written examinations.(8) Promotions to captaincies and majorities were also contingent upon a prescribed number of years’ service within the respective subordinate ranks of lieutenant and captain.(9) Purchase, finally, followed the orderly progression of rank and applied initially to only the senior officers within each rank. If such an officer proved unable to meet the expense of promotion, the option for advancement by purchase passed to the next in line according to seniority within the respective rank. If none of the officers within this rank could meet the purchase price, the promotion went to a suitable applicant from another regiment who could afford the advancement. Upon an officer’s retirement (even a non-purchase officer if he had served for at least twenty years), he sold his commission, theoretically receiving in return a sum of money equivalent to the amount he had invested in the purchase of his promotions based upon the prices established by official regulations.

The purchase system was restricted to regiments of the infantry and cavalry of the line and to the guards. Ideally open to all aspirants — though naturally not all could meet its heavy financial requirements — the purchase system provided a modified form of advancement through seniority as well as ability to pay. It was non-existent in the ordnance corps and in the Indian army, where promotion was based upon strict seniority. Nor was it the sole means of advancement in the regular army, since a vacancy created by a death in an upper regimental rank brought the normal rule of seniority into play and enabled everyone in the subordinate ranks within that regiment to advance a step. Purchase applied only to regimental advancement and stopped at the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Promotion beyond this position to the ranks of colonel and general officer was based exclusively upon seniority.

The actual operation of the purchase system was characterized by numerous evasions and violations of its rules and regulations. Prior to 1849, when Wellington introduced the practice of written examinations,(10) an officer’s competence for promotion by purchase had only to be certified by his commanding officer and approved by the Commander-in-Chief. Such a procedure was a simple formality, and there are probably few if any instances on record of an officer otherwise eligible for purchase being refused his promotion on the grounds of ineptitude.(11) During the eighteenth century, it was also common practice to purchase commissions for children. This was conceived originally as a means of providing for the male orphans of deserving officers, but it quickly degenerated into a major abuse that was not abolished until the Duke of York’s administration as Commander-in-Chief at the end of the century.

But of all the irregularities and abuses stigmatizing the operation of the purchase system, the most flagrant and widespread was the problem of over-regulation payments. The British army officer was probably the worst paid in the world.(13) Although the cost of living had increased four fold between 1750 and 1850, the pay of officers had remained virtually static, creating severe hardships for those men striving to subsist solely on the basis of their meagre remuneration. Such officers were sometimes driven deeply into debt, the result of the sizable loans which they were compelled to contract in order to meet the exorbitant expenses of their chosen profession. Under these circumstances, a system of over-regulation payments arose and flourished as a method of providing a form of supplemental income.

Consequently, it became customary for officers, when meeting the regulation price of a commission during peacetime, to make an additional payment to the officer selling out. This was a completely private transaction of which the authorities could claim no official knowledge. It was also quite illegal. But this fact in no way prevented the development of a distinctive over-regulation price list prevalent throughout the army.(14) The tariffs laid down by Warrant, therefore, were merely the minimum values of purchase commissions, while the actual values were considerably higher. In fact, at times true prices soared to astronomical heights, depending upon the prestige of a particular regiment.(15) The Government was not blind to the problem of over-regulation payments, and official efforts to abolish the practice began as early as 1766. But all executive and legislative attempts to stop or even control the practice proved to be futile, indicating that over-regulation payments would continue to exist as long as the purchase system itself remained in effect.

For all of its flaws and abuses — and there were many — the purchase system nevertheless endured for approximately two centuries. This can only be explained by the fact that it gave the country what it wanted — a cheaply financed officer corps that in no way threatened the established order, mainly because the social background of the officers themselves generally comprised a principal prop to that order. Because most commissions were purchasable and salaries were so outrageously low, it was fairly obvious that only men of independent means could actually afford a career in the army. Provision was made to some extent for indigent but talented individuals, but, for the most part, the English did not desire to see command of the military devolve upon a body of mercenaries.(16) It was far more preferable, both economically and politically, to draw the officers from that part of society most concerned with the preservation of its order and stability, the wealthy and landed classes.

It was thus the intention of the purchase system to avoid the employment of mere, untrustworthy soldiers of fortune through the enlistment as officers of men possessing the finest qualities of English gentlemen. ‘It is the promotion by purchase which brings into the service men of fortune and education — men who have some connection with the interests and fortunes of the country, besides the commission which they hold from his Majesty. It is this circumstance which exempts the British army from the character of being a ‘mercenary army and has rendered its employment for nearly a century and a half, not only not inconsistent with the constitutional privileges of the country, but wise and beneficial.’(17)

Hence, the Duke of Wellington’s faith in purchase. The system’s failure to provide for officers of a high professional aptitude was one of its more obvious shortcomings. If promotion was largely dependent upon the size of a man’s fortune, any wealthy fool might find himself leading a substantial number of troops into battle. The case of the Earl of Cardigan is probably the best example of the purchase system at its worst.(18) The great majority of purchase officers naturally fell between the two extremes represented by Wellington and Cardigan. For the most part, while deficient in adequate professional training, the officers still generally fulfilled the tasks assigned them by the civil and military authorities. As a result, the British officer enjoyed one of the highest reputations for courageous and valorous conduct in Europe, and in eighteenth-century warfare, the possession of such traits often proved sufficient to win battles.

The obvious defects of purchase — promotion on the basis of wealth rather than ability and the general absence of professionalism within the service — were eclipsed by the relative success of British arms during the eighteenth century. The purchase system adequately furnished officers capable of inflicting defeat upon the nation’s enemies, a fact most demonstratively borne out by 1815. But the glory of the Peninsular War and of Waterloo concealed the overall inefficieneies of army administration of which the purchase system’s defects comprised only one example. It was only after a substantial period of international peace permitted the deep entrenchment of these abuses within a relatively inactive service, that the purchase system and the general question of army reform became a pressing issue of national concern.

With all of the problems that purchase created, the system still seemed to provide the relatively inexpensive and socially acceptable army desired by the country. Although all officers were not drawn from the wealthier classes, the financial demands of the service — both in the purchase of commissions and in the often extravagant expenses incurred in the maintenance of the officers’ mess — rendered extremely unlikely the rapid advancement of officers who lacked substantial independent means. Purchase thus symbolized the heavily aristocratic and monetarily-dominant nature of the officer corps which, over the years, had come to assume aspects of a rich men’s club, flagrantly violating the regulations and laws created to control it. By the middle of the nineteenth century, and despite all of the other defects in army administration revealed in the conduct of the war against Russia, it was the purchase system that had become a key focal point in the movement for army reform.


Even before the Crimean War, the purchase system had become the subject of inquiry — both private and public, official and unofficial. The army had indeed vindicated itself quite admirably in the monumental struggle against Napoleon, and the notion of army reform in the wake of such triumph and glory appeared superfluous, foolhardy, and — most important — unnecessarily expensive. But the subsequent years of international peace within Europe brought the army into a relative state of inactivity that permitted the problems associated with purchase to reappear in an even greater intensity. The existence of these problems, reflecting the archaic and anarchic administration of the army, culminated in the publication of private pamphlets and government-issued reports that probed the merits and demerits of the purchase system. The result was the development of opposing schools of thought advocating the total abolition or preservation of purchase, or the application of some via media that would correct its most obvious faults while still retaining its essence.

Critics of the purchase system stressed the fundamental inconsistencies in a promotion system based mainly upon seniority, favour, and money to the detriment of merit, aptitude, and professional knowledge. Advancement by such questionable means within so vital a service as the army would virtually ensure the presence of incompetence, inefficiency, and senility in the higher ranks.(19) Purchase, in addition, left the peacetime army officered almost exclusively by amateurs of high social standing and independent means, men who regarded their army careers as a temporary youthful pastime. The maintenance of discipline by commanding officers over such unruly subordinates was, to say the least, difficult, while the purely financial foundation of promotion furnished little, if any, inducement for mental exertion or professional distinction among purchase officers.(20)

Hence, the only feasible solution to the dilemmas posed by the purchase system was its total abandonment and replacement by a new promotion system based upon the criterion of merit.

‘On the whole then it appears that this system of promotion, which has been maintained in deference to a short sighted and huckstering policy, has not even the advantage of being economical; while on the other hand it manifestly ignores talent and thus impairs the efficiency of the army to the great detriment of the public service. If the aristocracy knew their true interest, they would furthermore abolish a practice which is discreditable and pernicious to their order, and fearlessly encounter the generous and ennobling rivalry of merit.‘(21)

The advocates of purchase quickly responded to these vehement assaults. One rejoinder even went so far as to defend the system by virtue of the divine right of the aristocracy to staff the officers’ ranks of the army. More realistic, however, was the contention of several defenders of purchase that the system’s most obvious abuses originated not from purchase itself, but in the deviations from the rules and regulations intended to govern its operation. For, when operating properly, the system was not based merely upon a simple exchange of cash in return for a higher position, but was geared to provide for a just and impartial selection of an educationally qualified individual.

‘The money paid is neither more nor less than the premium or fee of entrance into the army, on the same principle as that paid by the alumnus, pupil or apprentice . . . to an attorney, conveyancer, surgeon, architect, or tradesman (not to allude to the case of true sale and purchase in the church), with the difference in favour of the army of the previous examinations and reputed fitness’.(23)

Viewed in this light, the army would still retain its rightful aristocratic composition, while the few officers who advanced by means of non-purchase commissions would comprise something of an elite within the officer corps. But the reformers’ insistence that purchase be entirely abandoned in order to open the officers’ ranks to the middle class was totally impractical. So drastic a reform would entail a significant increase in the officers’ pay necessary to sustain men of middle-class backgrounds in the heavy expenses imposed by the obligations of their rank. The result would be the end of England’s cheaply financed army.

‘England must rest assured that by no class will her army be so well or so cheaply officered as by the English gentleman, but fair opportunities must be afforded him of learning his profession in practice, and he must likewise be taught to regard his pay as, in itself, an adequate means of subsistence.’(24)

It was generally the advocates of the purchase system who prevailed in these debates, especially prior to the Crimean War. One of the principal reasons for their success was the influence of the Duke of Wellington, whose opinions on any military subject were not to be taken lightly. In a memorandum appended to the Report of the Select Committee on Army and Navy Appointments in 1833, the great Duke extolled the virtues of the purchase system. He particularly stressed its provision of a fairly steady and self-regulatory rate of promotion and retirement without the infliction of a heavy financial burden upon the state in the form of pensions, bonuses, and/or other remunerations for retiring officers.(25) Seven years later, Wellington presided over the Commission for Inquiring Into Naval and Military Promotion and Retirement, and with his fellow commissioners arrived at a similar conclusion:

'... The advantages of speedy promotion to the superior regimental ranks may to a considerable extent be secured by the system of purchase, even under circumstances which, in some respects, may be considered unfavourable to its development.’(26)

The only officially proposed modification to the promotion system prior to 1857 was the Report of the Commissioners on Promotion in the Army issued in 1854. Purchase was not a subject under consideration, although the report was significant in its recommendation concerning the principle of selection by merit for promotions above the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Such promotions (to colonel and general officer) had hitherto been based upon strict seniority, with the result that by the time most men had attained the rank of general, they were well past their physical and mental prime. To prevent the most responsible positions in the army from falling to men of declining capabilities, the Commission recommended that subsequent appointments to the rank of general officer be given to the fittest officers available for the particular duties involved, without reference to seniority. Promotions to colonel, furthermore, would be based solely upon years of actual service rather than seniority, with a minimum of three years in actual command of a regiment being the necessary prerequisite for elevation to this rank.(27)

A definite principle of selection in the promotion of senior officers had thus been recommended to the sovereign by an authorized investigative body. While not totally abandoning the rule of seniority, the commissioners had notably amended it with the concept of selection. They had, in consequence, conferred a degree of official recognition upon what would prove to be one of the principal points of contention in the later debates over the abolition of the purchase system. Yet that system, for the time being, remained inviolate, a principal bastion defending aristocratic control of the army.

It was under these conditions that the army was dispatched to the Crimea where, despite three victories on the battlefield, its high command proved incapable of capturing the key city of Sebastopol. The staggering number of casualties inflicted upon the British troops at this time resulted from a combination of the extremely bitter Crimean winter and, more significantly, from the total breakdown of the army administration, which failed to ensure the provision of even the barest necessities for the soldiers’ survival in the harsh climate.(28) The Aberdeen government could not withstand the combined public and political pressure nurtured by the extensive newspaper coverage of the war and ultimately yielded to the new Palmerston ministry.

With the shadow of the Crimea cast upon the service, the question of army reform attained a greater sense of urgency and necessity. The War Department consequently underwent an administrative consolidation that somewhat reduced the excessive number of offices and agencies through which it had formerly operated. The purchase system, in particular, was subjected to a new evaluation. This was manifested initially in private publications that revived the debate upon its propriety and effectiveness in securing the advancement of the most qualified individuals, and in maintaining overall morale within the service. Then, in 1856, the purchase issue was brought before Parliament.


Sir George de Lacy Evans, one of the foremost soldiers of the age, possessed the unique distinction of having risen through all ranks of the service on the basis of merit. In one year alone, 1815, he attained the ranks of captain, major, and lieutenant-colonel, all achieved within a period of six months for services rendered previously in the Peninsula and more recently in America and at Waterloo.(29) Coming forward as an advanced radical reformer, he was elected to Parliament in 1833 where he was to serve intermittently until 1865. As a general during the Crimean War, he was present at the Alma and at Inkerman where, once more, he acquired numerous decorations and honours. On March 4, 1856 Evans spoke in the House of Commons upon the evils of the purchase system, emphasizing its unfairness to meritorious officers in particular and its impracticality to the country in general. He then proposed the following motion:

‘That a Select Committee be appointed to consider, examine evidence, and report to the House on the expedience of abolishing the System of Sale and Purchase in the Army, and on the means that may be adopted for the accomplishment of that object.’(30)

Once the motion had been seconded, a brief debate ensued on the relative advantages and disadvantages of purchase. The system’s advocates — among them Sir John Fitzgerald and Frederick Peel (the Under-Secretary for War) — stressed the longevity of the system, a factor that would render its abolition exceptionally difficult. Peel, in particular, denied that purchase operated detrimentally to the national and military interests, cited its benefits of rapid promotion to non-purchasers, and rejected the notion that increased educational standards were dependent upon the termination of the system. He maintained that purchase, seniority, and selection already existed in co-ordination, and that the elimination and/or the exclusive adoption of one of these facets would precipitate administrative chaos and considerably augment military expenditure.(31) Colonel James Lindsay claimed that abolition would ruin the army’s esprit de corps by its consequent destruction of the regimental system. He did acknowledge the flaws within the system and urged that it be improved by the introduction of higher educational qualifications and by more stringent examinations upon entrance into the army.(32)

On the other side of the question, Lord Stanley stressed the injustice and consequent demoralizing effect of the supersession of qualified officers who lacked sufficient funds to purchase promotion, and he urged the establishment of a committee to determine upon a suitable alternative to purchase.(33) Henry Rich claimed that only the non-purchase officers acquired suitable experience which qualified them for advancement, since purchasers often avoided service abroad and also lacked a sense of devotion to the service.

As the debate progressed, numerous references were made to the advisability of establishing a royal commission rather than a parliamentary committee to deal with this issue. Sidney Herbert especially elaborated upon this alternative. This former Secretary-at-War (and future Secretary of State for the War Department) had presided over the 1854 Commission on promotion in the army. He now urged the necessity of dealing delicately with the problem of army efficiency. While denying some of the more serious charges laid upon purchase by its detractors, he recognized the need for a thorough investigation of the system that would consider alternative methods of promotion and retirement in order to ensure the advancement of suitably qualified individuals. A committee, however, would fail to do justice to this important topic, since it would lack a sufficient number of members fully cognizant in the details of this subject; nor would its findings carry sufficient weight with the army. He therefore advocated the establishment of a commission comprised of knowledgeable officers and civilians.(35)

Palmerston finally brought the debate to a conclusion. The Prime Minister conceded his opposition to purchase in theory, but emphasized its long existence as an integral component of army administration, a factor requiring great consideration before abolition could be decided upon. He personally favoured a system of purchase combined with examination to insure the gentlemanly character of the officer corps. His own convictions notwithstanding, he believed the subject merited investigation by a commission which could also study the armies of other European nations. For these reasons, he requested that Evans withdraw his motion, promising to establish the necessary commission.(36) Evans quickly complied.


The Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the System of Purchase and Sale of Commissions in the Army was accordingly established in 1856. It initially appeared, therefore, that the government was on the verge of undertaking a significant reform in army organization, since the thorough investigation proposed would have to reveal the gross inequities in the then system of promotion and retirement. Such expectations were to be frustrated, however, as Lord Panmure — the Secretary for War — reported to the Queen:

‘The Commission was proposed rather in deference to the opinions of the House of Commons than from any expectation that any change could or ought to be made, and in constituting it, the object is to select men in whom the House of Commons has confidence and in whose hands as a body the system of purchase is safe.’(37)

Thus, according to Panmure, the Commission was created only as a sop to the army reformers, as there was never any real intention of abolishing the purchase system. The government’s failure to act upon the Commission’s recommendations at this time confirms the validity of Panmure’s statement.

The Duke of Somerset presided over the Commission, among whose other nine members were Lord Stanley, Sidney Herbert, and Sir de Lacy Evans.(38) The investigation itself consisted of the testimony of twenty-six individuals interviewed by the commissioners. Included within the persons interrogated were several high-ranking officers of the various branches of the army as well as certain key military and governmental administrators, and a representative of the army agency through which the details of the purchase and sale of commissions were actually conducted.(39)

Issued in 1857, the Commission’s Report comprised an in-depth study of the system’s operation. It considered the arguments for and against purchase and its alternatives, provided a comparison with the French system of promotion and retirement, gave an exposition upon a new system for the British army, and, finally stated the Commission’s recommendations based upon all of this data. The Commission found that purchase was detrimental to army efficiency in its emphasis upon wealth for advancement rather than dutiful exertion and merit. There was, consequently, small incentive for officers to acquire a truly professional interest in their careers. In addition, the fact that their commissions represented considerable financial investments could impede their performance in actual combat, since the officers would be risking not only their own lives but very possibly their families’ means of subsistence. For the families of officers killed in action received little or no compensation from the government except, at times, a return of the original money invested in commissions (regulation prices only). The system also produced extensive trafficking and bargaining among the officers, practices that did not reflect a proper sense of honour nor fostered a professional attachment to the service.

All of these customs and practices were especially harmful to the poorer officers who, unlike some of their more affluent associates, were more sincere in their devotion to the army as a profession. Purchase, furthermore, enabled officers to obtain regimental commands solely on the basis of their financial resources despite their lack of professional aptitude, while at the same time professionally qualified officers could be deprived of such promotions simply because they were unable to meet the payments. This situation, in turn, could seriously affect the higher commands of the army if they were filled with wealthy but inept officers.

‘Such a basis for the establishment of an army is not impolitic in a country whose military force is necessarily small when compared with continental states, and whose power therefore depends upon rendering its army efficient in the highest degree by the selection of officers distinguished for their personal qualities and for their professional acquirements.’(40)

Despite these serious drawbacks to the system, the commissioners also determined that most officers still preferred the maintenance of purchase. No other system, it appeared, would so facilitate retirement or accelerate peacetime promotion which would otherwise stagnate under a seniority system, or guarantee against the favouritism that would prevail under selection.(41) The French system, which entailed such promotion as well as compulsory retirement for each rank at specified ages, was thus regarded unfavourably, and an alternative scheme for promotion and retirement — containing elements drawn from the French model — was simply referred to the Secretary-at-War for further examination.(42)

It is not surprising that the commissioners decided against the general introduction of a selection principle for promotion. The army had been administered under purchase for too long to abandon it suddenly in a total overhaul for a system of only questionable benefit and one which might very well upset the entire regimental organization of the service. In any case, the present officer body was accustomed to purchase and would greatly resent its replacement by a selection method that would seriously jeopardize the officers’ pecuniary stakes in their commissions.

Selection, therefore, could not be introduced unless the government was prepared to buy out those officers unwilling to serve under the new system, an expense that might even exceed £8 million.(43) Instead, the commissioners moderated their proposals, recommending that the rank of lieutenant-colonel no longer be purchasable, but subject to appointment by selection of the Commander-in-Chief who was to be held accountable for his decisions. They proposed that the period for holding such commands be limited to eight to ten years. Officers relinquishing their commands after this time would not be liable to suffer any monetary loss, while the government must be prepared to purchase lieutenant-colonelcies from officers then holding such ranks whenever they wished to dispose of them.

The commissioners went on to recommend stricter examinations before the granting of the first commission, and an additional examination before promotion to lieutenant. These requirements could be implemented as supplemental qualifications to purchase. The ruling principle throughout all of these proposals, however, was moderation.

‘All of these changes, inasmuch as they introduce the principle of advancement by selection, tend toward the abolition of the purchase system. When experience shall have proved that officers appointed to the command of regiments, and to situations on the staff, have been chosen with due regard to their professional requirements, to their past service, and to their present fitness, the distrust of the principle of selection will be lessened, and one great obstacle to the change of system will be removed.... Until the effect of the change above recommended shall have been tried and its practical results approved, it wotild be in our opinion injudicious to interfere further with the usual course of regimental promotion.‘(22)

The adoption of these proposals, furthermore, would provide some opportunities for testing promotion by selection. The satisfactory operation of this system would thus conciliate army opinion and disprove the charges of its conduciveness to jobbery and patronage.

The publication of the Report sparked additional controversy, first manifested in a dissenting opinion issued by three of the commissioners themselves — Edward Ellice, Lieutenant-General Edward Buckley Wynyard, and Major-General Sir Henry John Bentinck. The basis for their dissent was the proposed abolition of purchase for the rank of lieutenant-colonel. They viewed this modification as merely a half-way measure that aggravated an already intolerable situation and created new problems pertaining to pay and retirement without resolving existing ones.(45) For if the purpose of the proposed abolition was simply to secure the appointment of professionally qualified officers to regimental commands, such extensive reform was unnecessary, provided the Commander-in-Chief adopted a more critical attitude and vetoed the promotion of all officers he considered unfit for higher commands.(46) But if purchase were indeed an evil, it should be totally abandoned immediately rather than undergo a dubious modification that could produce only questionable benefits.

The most outspoken critic of the purchase system proved to be Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Sir Charles Trevelyan, who, with Sir Stafford Northcote, had previously conducted a famous investigation of the civil service. During the course of the Commission’s investigation, Trevelyan had testified at length upon the inequities of the purchase system and upon the advantages of a system of regulatory selection modelled somewhat upon that of France. Trevelyan’s cause celebre was the more extensive opening of government service to the industrious and professionally deserving members of the middle class, an enterprise he believed to be advantageous not only to a particular social group, but to the nation itself. Purchase, he maintained inhibited the extension of advanced military training to this important section of the populace. For, despite its proven abilities in mercantile and manufacturing endeavours, the middle class could not afford the excessive expenses of both promotion and maintenance within the officers’ mess as could the landed interests. In addition, purchase inflicted heavy and superfluous expenses upon the nation as a whole, amounting to £540 102 per year in the maintenance of an unnecessarily large non-effective system which provided for the officers’ retirement.(47)

Purchase, Trevelyan had asserted to the Commission, was thus detrimental to army efficiency and to the national economy, while the flagrant violations embodied in over-regulation prices added a Further stigmatism to the already questionable nature of promotion and retirement. At a time when it was becoming more desirable to render army service more attractive to potential officers and enlisted men by raising its professional standards, the purchase system, with its emphasis upon wealth as the basis for promotion, operated at cross purposes with the national interest. Rather than encourage enlistments and expectations of eventual advancement, purchase had constructed ‘an artificial wall of separation between the officers and privates of the army.’(48) The solution was to abolish purchase entirely and to open the officers’ ranks to the enlisted soldiers themselves. This proposed reform would in no way exclude the aristocracy from the ranks of the officers. Rather, it would encourage the enrolment of even more young men from that class seeking both an active and intellectual career. Improved social relations between the classes would be the inevitable result, with the army itself becoming more fully embodied within English society.

Lord Panmure, the Secretary for War, responded to Trevelyan’s plan by appointing a committee to examine the proposals he had described. The Committee’s Report, issued in 1858, concerned itself mainly with the financial aspects of Trevelyan’s scheme. It concluded that while certain officers may rise faster by selection, the majority would be subjected to a corresponding retardation in promotion and a definite monetary loss upon retirement by their inability to sell their commissions.(49) Trevelyan had believed that his plan would reduce the government’s yearly expenditure upon the army. Yet the committee maintained that the demands of full-pay retirement would increase annual costs by £220 000 to which were to be added the costs of compensating officers for their loss of right to sell their commissions.(50) These amounts were impossible to estimate, but had to be borne by the public nevertheless.

An additional report by Sir Alexander Tulloch, one of the committee members, conducted a more detailed evaluation of the reforms proposed by Trevelyan. Although acknowledging the existence of flaws and abuses within the purchase system, especially the problens of over-regulation payments, Tulloch was vehemently critical of Trevelyan’s suggestions. Trevelyan, he alleged, had based much of this testimony on the erroneous contention that officers simply received back upon the sale of their commissions the money they had originally laid out. Hence, they would not hesitate in resigning when reaching a specific age if their commissions had cost them nothing.

This premise did not consider the plight of more than twenty-five per cent of the officers permitted to sell their commissions despite the fact that they had purchased only some or even none of them. Such officers would consequently be deprived of the substantial and highly profitable return they had been led to anticipate upon their retirement.(51) If adopted, Trevelyan’s scheme would have the effect of hindering retirement, since older officers were given no inducement to leave the service. Under such circumstances, only the officers of much shorter service would consider retirement, and since these would constitute — for the most part — men in the junior ranks, their removal would do little to quicken general promotion.

Tulloch concurred with the rest of the committee in its contention that Trevelyan had seriously underestimated the public expense entailed in the abolition of purchase and in the adoption of a new system of promotion and retirement in the army. Yet it was mainly the financial arrangements of this new retirement system to which Tulloch objected, for he did express his approval of Trevelyan’s notion of compulsory retirement at specific ages according to rank. He also recommended the exercise of a stricter regulatory control over the activities of the wealthier officers who often bid up the prices of commissions.(52)

The committee’s and Tulloch’s reports incited new rejoinders from Trevelyan,(53) but the urgency over the question of purchase abolition had diminished considerably in the course of the past two years. Trevelyan himself departed for India in 1859 to assume the governorship of Madras, thus momentarily depriving the abolition movement of one of its leading spokesmen. It was left mainly to Sir de Lacy Evans to continue the campaign against purchase into the next decade. And his efforts came to an end in 1862, when Palmerston concluded a debate on a motion to end purchase upon an emphatically negative note:

‘I quite admit that if the system of purchase did not exist in the British army, no one would probably think of introducing it. But I do not agree with the noble Lord [Stanley] in saying that a thing which would not be thought of originally, might not, when opinions and habits become attached to it, work well, although theoretically objectionable. That, I believe, is the case of the system of purchase.’(54)

Throughout his lengthy career of government service, Palmerston had consistently been one of the prominent advocates of aristocratic control of the army. His apparent concession to Evans in 1856, agreeing to the establishment of the investigatory commission, may be explained by the inordinate amount of criticism to which the government had been subjected because of the war. Nevertheless, by 1862, the Prime Minister probably believed, with justification, that sufficient time had elapsed to cool the reformist ardour and to produce greater public apathy towards the resolution of the purchase question. Thus, it was possible for him to reassert in more definitive terms his faith in the purchase system, which he had never really abandoned. Despite all of their previous efforts, then, the army reformers were compelled to acknowledge that purchase would continue to exist and function at least as long as Palmerston remained in office. The movement for abolition had momentarily come to a standstill.


With Palmerston’s death and Trevelyan’s return from India in 1865, the campaign against purchase acquired a new impetus that finally culminated in victory six years later. A long and difficult struggle still remained before abolition would become a reality, but the movement of the 1850s had already laid considerable groundwork. This was especially evident in the publication of the Commission’s Report, which by no means could be regarded as eminently satisfactory to the advocates of purchase. For instead of conferring unanimous praise upon the system, the commissioners noted many of its flaws and disadvantages, and recommended some corrections if not the complete abolition of purchase. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect any thing more at this time, considering the conservative attitude of the government towards reform in general and toward army reform in particular. In any case, no action was taken upon the Commission’s recommendations.

Regarded from present-day standards, the arguments for the abolition of purchase appear to be the only logical and sensible programme for army reform. Yet the present-day viewpoint also includes the advantage of hindsight which greatly facilitates the resolution of any formidable dilemma. No such beneficent influence existed for this problem in the 1850s. Those writers, publicists, investigators, and statesmen who defended purchase did so because to them it seemed, with all of its faults, to be the most effective and economical means of staffing the army. It had served the country well in the past and, with some adjustments, would continue to do so in the future. Its critics, despite the logic of their arguments, were nonetheless indulging in speculation. They could not know for certain that the reforms they proposed would truly fulfil their idealistic prophecies for a more efficient army. The benefits of middle-class employment in the officers’ ranks so persistently advocated by Sir Charles Trevelyan and subsequently by his son, George Otto, were so far only hypothetical. ‘Leap in the dark’ was a favourite phrase of the politicians during the 1860s, and to the defenders of the purchase system its abolition represented a perfect example of such a questionable action.

Despite its immediate failure, the significance of the anti-purchase campaign of the later 1850s lies in the fact that the once nearly universal acceptance of purchase was no longer in existence. In 1833 the Duke of Wellington had fully upheld the virtues of the purchase system which was still generally regarded by the nation as the most efficient and economical method of securing promotion and retirement in the army. In 1867 Sir Charles Trevelyan vehemently condemned purchase, calling for its immediate and total abolition. He urged the adoption of a system based upon selection,(55) and by this time he had a receptive and sizeable audience. In the thirty-five years following Wellington’s exemplary justification of purchase, the system had come under fire and, as time passed, its survival was becoming more questionable.

Nevertheless, the defenders of purchase were still able to hold their own. The lack of any action upon the recommendations of the Purchase Commission, and the subsequent parliamentary debates on the subject of purchase during the 1860s, more than amply demonstrated the strength of the system’s advocates in the House of Commons; their position in the House of Lords was even more formidable. It required the accession of a new government in 1868 and the example of another war (in which, ironically, Britain had no part) to provide the impetus necessary to secure the abolition of purchase in 1871. And even then an unorthodox political manoeuvre, embodied in the government’s issuance of a Royal Warrant, was required to extort the House of Lords’ reluctant acceptance of the termination of the purchase system.


Regulation Prices - January 1,1766

First and Second Troops of Horse Guards

CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
First Lieutenant-Colonel5 500400
Second Lieutenant-Colonel5 100800
Cornet and Major4 300200
Guidon and Major4 1001 400
Exempt and Captain2 7001 200
Brigadier and Lieutenant or Adjutant and Lieutenant1 500300
Sub-Brigadier and Cornet1 2001 200
 Total5 500

First and Second Troops of Horse Grenadier Guards
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel5 4001 200
Major4 2001 100
Lieutenant and Captain3 100100
Guidon and Captain3 0001 300
Sub-Lieutenant1 700300
Adjutant1 4001 400
 Total5 400

CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel5 200950
Major4 2501 150
Captain3 1001 100
Captain-Lieutenant2 000250
Lieutenant1 750150
Cornet1 6001 600
 Total5 200

Dragoon Guards and Dragoons
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel4 7001 100
Major3 6001 100
Captain2 5001 100
Captain-Lieutenant1 400250
Lieutenant1 150150
Cornet1 6001 600
 Total4 700

Foot Guards
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel6 700400
Third Major  
Second Major with rank of Colonel3 6001 100
First Major  
Captain3 500900
Captain-Lieutenant with rank of Lieutenant-Colonel2 6001 100
Lieutenant with rank of Captain1 500600
 Total6 700

Marching Regiments of Foot
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel3 500900
Major2 6001100
Captain1 500700
 Total3 500

General Sir Robert Biddulph, Lord Cardwell at the War Office 1868-1874 (London: John Murray, 1904), 84-85,


Regulation Prices — 1858

Life Guards

CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel7 2501 900
Major5 3501 850
Captain3 5001 715
Lieutenant1 785525
Cornet1 2601 260
 Total7 250

Royal Regiment of Horse Guards
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel7 2501 900
Major5 3501 850
Captain3 5001 900
Lieutenant1 600400
Cornet1 2001 200
 Total7 250

Dragoon Guards and Dragoons
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel6 1751 600
Major4 5751 350
Captain3 2252 035
Lieutenant1 190350
 Total6 175

Foot Guards
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel9 000700
Major with rank of Colonel8 3003 500
Captain with rank of Lieut.-Colonel4 8002 750
Lieutenant with rank of Captain2 050850
Ensign with rank of Lieutenant1 2001 200
 Total9 000

Regiments of the Line
CommissionsPricesDifference in Value
Lieutenant-Colonel4 5001 300
Major3 2001 400
Captain1 8001 150
 Total4 500

Edward Barrington de Fonblanque, Treatise on the Administration and Organization of the British Army, with Special Reference to Finance and Supply (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1858), 133.


Over-Regulation Prices 1870


Lieutenant-Colonel1 3001 7943 049
Major1 4001 6003 000
Captain11002 0063 106
Ensign450 450
 4 5005 97510 475

Lieutenant-Colonel1 3001 0002 300
Major1 4008002 200
Captain1 1006001 700
Ensign450 450
 4 5002 5007 000

Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, XII (Reports from Commissioners, l), Cmd. 210, 1870, ‘Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into Over-Regulation Payments in the Army,’ xii.


1. J.W. Fortescue, A History of the British Army (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1930), XIII, 158-159.
2. John Harvey Bassett, ‘The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660-1871,” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Boston University, 1969), 28.
3. Report of Commissioners for Inquiring into Naval and Military Promotion; Forming a Supplement to the United Service Journal for April 1840 (London: Harrison & Co., 1840), xxxiv. Hereafter cited as Report of Commissioners ... 1840.
4. General Sir Robert Biddulph, Lord Cardwell at the War Office, 1868-1874 (London: John Murray, 1904), 82.
3. See Table I.
6. Biddulph, 82-83. See Table II.
7. Army and Navy Appointments Select Committee, "Appendix to the Report of the Committee,” United Service Journal (October 1833), 10. Hereafter cited as Report of the Committee ... 1833.
8. Observations on the Purchase System in the Army and on Jacob Omnium‘s Letter to "The Times” (London: George Earle, 1837), 28. 9. Edward Barrington de Fonblanque, Treatise on the Administration and Organization of the British Army with Special Reference to Finance and Supply (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1838), 131-132. 10. Great Britain, House of Commons, Parliamentary Papers, XVIII (Reports from Commissioners, III), 183 session 2, "Report of the Commissioners Appointed to lnquire into the System of Purchase and Sale of Commissions in the Army,’’ 92. Hereafter cited as Report of the Commissioners ... 1857.
11. De Fonblanque, 134n. 12. Charles M. Clode, The Military Forces of the Crown; Their Administration and Government (London: John Murray, 1869), II, 91.
13. Major Arthur Griffiths, The British Army: its Past History, Present Condition, and Future Prospects (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpen. 1878). 236.
14. See Table III.
15. Over-regulation prices could be double the regulation prices or even higher.
16. Clode, ll, 64.
17. Report of the Committee ... 1833, 12.
18. See Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Charge of the Light Brigade, (original title: The Reason Why) (New York: Signet Books 1953), passim.
19. The One Thing Needful (London: James Ridgway, 1855), 10-11
20. The Purchase System and the Staff (London: James Ridgway, 1833), 21.
21. Ibid., 28.
22. Veles, Col. Mitchell's Argument for the Abolishment of Promotion by Purchase in the Army: Considered in a Letter Respectfully Addressed to the Editors of ‘‘The British Critic","The British Magazine,’’ and ‘‘The Christian Remembrancer" (London: James Burns, 1842), 6-8.
23. Observations on the Purchase System ..., 8-9.
24. John William Crowe, Our Army; or Penny Wise and Pound Foolish (London: T Hatchard, 1856), 11.
25. Report of the Committee ... 1833, 11.
26. Report of Commissioners ... 1840, xxix.
27. Great Britain, House of Commons, Parliamentary Papers, XIX (Reports from Commissioners, i), Crnd. 845-846, 1854, ‘‘Report of the Commissioners on Promotion in the Army,” 11-12.
28. See A.J. Barker, The War Against Russia 1854-1856 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 194-211.
29. "Evans, Sir George de Lacy,” The Dictionary of National Biography, VI, 927.
30. Great Britain, 3Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, CXL: 1807. Hereafter cited as 3Hansard.
31. Ibid., CXL: 1813-1819.
32. Ibid., CXL: 1833.
33. Ibid., CXL: 1821.
34. Ibid., CXL: 1826-1827.
35. Ibid., CXL: 1845.
36. Ibid., CXL: 1849.
37. The Panmure Papers, ed. Sir George Douglas, Bart and Sir George Dalhousie Ramsay (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908)11, 198-199.
38. The others were Edward Ellice, Edward Buckley Wynyard, Sir Harry David Jones, Sir Henry John William Bentinck, George Carr Glyn, and Edward Robert Witherall.
39. Among the persons interviewed were the Duke of Cambridge (the Field Marshal Commander-in-Chief), Major-General Sir Charles Yorke (Military Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief), Lord Panmure (the Secretary of War), Philip Melville (Secretary to the Military Department of the East India Company), Charles Hammersley (representing the house of Messrs Cox and Co., army agents), Lieutenant-Colonel Claremont (the former Assistant Military Commissioner with the French army in the Crimea), and Sir Charles Trevelyan (the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury).
40. Report of the Commissioners ... 1857, xxiv.
41. Ibid., xxiv-xxv.
42. Ibid., xxix. 43. Great Britain, House of Commons, Parliamentary Papers, XXXII (Accounts and Papers, III), Cmd. 289, 1854-33, ‘Return of the Amount of the Value of All Regimental Commissions in the Cavalry and Infantry Specifying the Number of Regimental Commissions of Each Rank, and the Gross Value of the Same,’’ I.
44. Report of the Commissioners ... 1857, xxxv —xxxvi.
45. Great Britain, House of Commons, Parliamentary Papers, XIX (Reports from Commissioners, II), Cmd. 236, 1837-38, ‘Report of the Right Honourable Edward Ellice M.P., Lieut-General Edward Buckley Wynyard, C.B., and Major-General Sir Henry John Bentinck, K.C.B. “ 4
46. Ibid, Cmd. 237. 5.
47. Report of the Commissioners ... 1857, 270.
48. Ibid., 228.
49. Great Britain, House of Commons, Parliamentary Papers, XXXVII (Accounts and Papers, V), Cmd. 413, 1857-38, A copy of the Report upon the evidence given by Sir Charles Trevelyan Before the Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Purchase and sale of Commissions in the Army,” 7.
50. Ibid., Cmd. 416-417, 8-9.
51. Ibid., Cmd. 432, 24.
52. Ibid., Cmd. 440, 32.
53. Great Britain, House of Commons, Parliamentary Papers, XV (Accounts and Papers, 11), Cmd. 17, 1839 session 1, ‘Copy of the Statement by Sir Charles Trevelyan to General Peel of Reasons for Differing from the Report of the Committee Appointed by Lord Panmure to Examine the Proposals Submitted by Him to the Royal Commission on the Purchase and Sale of Commissions in the Army,’’ 5.
54. 3Hansard, CCXVII: 219.
55. Sir Charles E. Trevelyan, The Purchase System in the British Army, second edition (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1867), passim.

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