This paper examines the Corps of Commissionaires which was founded in 1859 by Edward Walter, a retired British army officer, and which was devoted to securing employment for ex-servicemen. Following the Crimean War, there was mounting public concern around ex-servicemen, whose military service had left some broken by disability, alcoholism or destitution. The commissionaire was promoted to employers as an idealised ex-serviceman, whose masculinised identity was conceived in opposition to the prejudices that British ex-servicemen could encounter. Becoming a commissionaire offered a secure future, contingent on him conforming to behavioural standards which were rigidly enforced through the Corp’s quasi-military regulations. This paper argues that there was a tension between this idealised identity, and the reality of the men it recruited; a failure to resolve this tension impacted on the development of the Corps, and had consequences for some of its recruits, who were dismissed for their failure to live up to this ideal. This ‘failure’ left some destitute and reliant on charity; the eventuality that the Corps had sought to eradicate for its recruits. This paper addresses questions of how the Corps’ masculinised military identity was formulated, the means by which this was maintained, and how it was promoted to employers. An analysis of Walter’s private correspondence will examine the influences that led to the formation of the Corps, its ways of working and the patronage networks he established amongst prominent military and civil figures. In addition, analysis of its publicity materials and personnel records, will illustrate how the Corps’ image belied the reality of the tension between its organisational identity and some commissionaires, and also situate the commissionaire within changing cultural conceptions of British ex-servicemen during this period.
In a field which has prioritised analysis of disabled British ex-servicemen, this paper investigates the experiences of those who were disabled and able-bodied. In taking the analysis beyond the rehabilitative environment of charities for disabled ex-servicemen, it considers the role played by non-charitable employment as a signifier of masculine identity. This paper is the first time that scholarship regarding the British Corps of Commissionaires has been made public.
Nick returned to the academic world in 2018, having worked in advertising since he graduated from Leeds with a BA (Hons) in Political Studies in 1990. He undertook an MA in Modern History at the University of Kent, and graduated with a distinction in 2020. The title of his dissertation was ‘View from the Mersey: Representations of the Great War Veteran in Liverpool, 1919-1939’, for which he received the School of History prize for the best dissertation. . He returned to Leeds in 2021 to undertake a WRoCAH funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with Corps Security; originally known as the Corps of Commissionaires.. Nick’s PhD allows him to extend his study of this group of men, and by looking at the period 1859-1945, he combines analysis of those commissionaires who fought in the Crimean War, later colonial conflicts, and those who served in the First and Second World Wars.
All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking in advance is required.