26 March 1726. Last week as a labourer was going over Black-Heath to work, he met 4 fellows who press’d the poor man, but he begging heartily, and telling them his family must starve, &c. they yielded to his intreaties, provided he would give them some money, which he complying, they marched off. In a quarter of an hour he falls into another gang, with a Lieutenant, who likewise stopp’d him, upon which he bemoans his condition, saying, it was very ill fortune to be press’d twice in a day, that he had not one farthing left, having given half a guinea and three shillings to the other press gang. The Lieutenant hearing the story, went in quest of those who had extorted the money from him, and found them carrousing at an ale-house, and that they were sham press-masters; upon which he order’d the labourer his money, set him at liberty, and carried off the other chaps. [Mist’s Weekly Journal]
The payment of a shilling was offered to tempt lowly paid workers to leave their trade and join the British Army or the Royal Navy. The average daily wage during the Napoleonic period was 2d, that’s two pence or tuppence and at 12d (twelve pennies) to a shilling, this represented six days wages in one go. Once the shilling had been accepted, it was almost impossible to leave the army.
So the expression « to take the King’s shilling » meant that a man had agreed to serve as a soldier or sailor.
A career in the army or navy was not especially desirable at that time so recruiters used all sorts of tricks, mostly involving strong drink, to press the shilling on unsuspecting victims. The man could escape his fate by paying his recruiter « smart money », however in the 1840s this amounted to £1 (twenty shillings), a sum which most recruits were unlikely to have.
Dropping the shilling into a man’s beer was a popular method of forcing a man to take the shilling, so landlords started serving beer in tankards made of pewter with a glass bottom. Men could check that there was no coin lurking at the bottom of the tankard.
A further possible advantage of the glass bottomed tankard was that you could see your enemy coming at you when you were supping.
* Blog Post, written for fun & fancy rather than serious historical research, inspired by Shantyman Ian & his collection of glass bottomed tankards.