Daily Life in New France


Room Arrangements

Fort Chambly

Caption: Fort Chambly

In theory, each room was supposed to contain a fireplace for heat and cooking, a table with two benches, and as many beds as the room would hold. This furniture was not painted. The rooms also contained bread boards, gun racks, and pegs on the walls for the equipment and personal effects of the soldiers. Rooms were also supposed to have glass windows, with wooden shutters. The floors were wooden, without carpeting, and the walls were whitewashed.

Each man's space was very limited. The rooms contained as many beds as possible, and as many soldiers as possible (three) slept in each bed! Behind this arrangement was the recognized principle of the time that two soldiers should rest while the third stood guard, as the engineer Chaussegros de Léry explained in his treatise on fortifications. As always, however, reality did not necessarily accord with theory, and often the three men wanted to sleep at the same time. According to contemporary records, "it [was] like torture for the soldiers in the middle. In summer, they [were] very hot, hardly getting any rest. The sweat [spread] and the resulting bad air cause[d] many illnesses." 87 The artillerymen were better off than foot soldiers, having "only one bed companion because [they] slept two by two" 88 in the canonnier-bombardier companies, according to one of them.

Regulation beds were made of oak. They were 1.30 m wide, 1.86 m long and 32 to 40 cm high. They were covered, in order, by a mattress, a bolster or long pillow stuffed with wool, and a straw mattress, whose straw had to be changed at least twice a year. The covers of these three objects were made of unbleached linen. On top there were two sheets of semi-bleached linen and a white, woollen blanket, with a fleur-de-lis embroidered in the middle, large enough to cover the entire bed because it was 2.7 m long by 2.27 m wide. Despite the regulations, some beds were too small. In addition, sheets were sometimes not washed often enough and straw mattresses not changed according to regulations, with the result that a thin straw dust settled everywhere. In Louisbourg, where the straw was only changed once a year, the rooms became infested with body parasites in the summer, and most soldiers preferred to sleep out on the ramparts under the open sky.

The authorities could innovate if necessary. In order to solve the space problem in the barracks in Louisbourg, they decided to build bunk beds able to accommodate four soldiers, even though they were less wide. This increased the capacity of the rooms, although at the cost of considerable overcrowding. Elsewhere, however, the usual rules were apparently applied.

This, then, was a soldier's lot in the barracks. They had no privacy and very little space. Only sergeants, who slept with their men although separated from them by wooden partitions, had single beds. To provide heat in the rigorous Canadian winters, cast-iron stoves with flue pipes were used in Quebec City instead of traditional fireplaces. In Louisbourg, where the humidity was high, records mention the use of firebacks to reflect the heat of fireplaces. However, soldiers still had to sleep with their uniforms on in the winter. Rooms were unlikely to be decorated, but they had to be orderly and clean.

This chapter on domestic life could not overlook the fact that there was no feminine influence in French barracks because women were not allowed there, unlike the custom in British barracks.

All this may seem very Spartan nowadays. Housing conditions, generally somewhat better in Quebec City and more difficult at Louisbourg, certainly did not meet modern standards of comfort. However, they were at least as good as those of garrisons in France at the time. In comparison with the overcrowded slums depicted in contemporary engravings and paintings in all the countries of Europe, soldiers in New France had decent living conditions for the times.