Shillin’ a Day

(notes by Roger Ayers)

Publication History

First published in Macmillan’s Magazine, in December 1889 and several other publications in the following weeks. It is Verse No. 554 in the ORG.

Collected in:

  • Barrack Room Ballads and Other Verses (1892)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919 and 1932)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition (1939) vol xxxii, page 227
  • Burwash Edition vol xxv
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) ed. Thomas Pinney, Vol I, page 222.

Peter Bellamy’s recording is here.

This poem has the same theme as ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’, first published a year later. Both poems feature a Troop-Sergeant.

Verse Form

The poem has two ten-line stanzas, with a chorus of three lines after the first stanza and a ‘full chorus’ of seven lines after the last verse. There are regular variations of line length and also internal rhymes, which contribute to the liveliness of the whole poem.

Richard le Gallienne writes:

Of one kind of ballad, Mr Kipling is clearly a master; that is the singing ballad, with swinging jingle choruses and catchy refrains, and written in dialect;

Charles Carrington (p. 356) cites it as:

A simple example of the use of a music-hall song for a music-hall theme … as it goes to the tune of ‘Vilikins and his Dinah’, or any other Irish jig.

Subject Matter

The main stanzas are written in the first-person, giving the thoughts of a married, retired cavalry troop sergeant-major with many years service within the British Empire who, unable to find proper employment, is trying to supplement his army pension of one shilling a day, by working as a member of the Corps of Commissionaires. This was a form of charitable institution, established in 1859 to provide some sort of employment for ex-soldiers, initially for those who left the Army after the Crimean War. The jobs provided were largely limited to ‘commissionaire’ (or doorkeeper), or as a messenger – a job normally done by young boys. (See Notes on. the Text). His wife works as a charwoman.

The two choruses are in a second voice reflecting an unsympathetic, but at the time a not uncommon, public view of this situation.


When Kipling returned from seven years in India to live in London in October 1889 he had acquired a very good understanding of the things in life that were of concern to the ordinary soldier in India, one of which was the thought of returning to Britain after six or twelve years service, with no guarantee of employment and only pitifully small reserve pay or, after a full career of twenty-one years, a very modest pension. In addition, short-service men were banned from re-enlisting so they had no chance of legally returning to the life to which they had become accustomed. In the years before the Boer Wars of 1899-1902, military service had a very low status and limited appeal, and ex-soldiers had considerable difficulty in securing civilian employment.

It is difficult to be specific about the pay of a troop-sergeant major in 1890 owing to variations for different qualifications but it would have been a little over four shillings a day. The pension of a shilling a day that Kipling quotes might actually be a little low for the ex-soldier he depicts. But it makes a catchy title.

The publication of “Shillin’ A Day” in a number of both British and American magazines within three months of his return to England may be an indication of Kipling’s feelings on seeing how the ex-soldier was treated generally and, as Angus Wilson writes with respect to “Shillin’ A Day” and the later “Back to the Army Again”, in these verses Kipling is making ‘… a sharp rebuke to what he had seen in England of the neglect of the ex-soldier who had fought for her.’

Notes on the Text

[Stanza 1]

[Line 1] I’ve heard the Revelly: The first routine bugle call of the soldier’s day was called ‘Reveille’ from the French word for ‘to wake someone up’.

[Lines 2 to 4] This is a list of places within the British Empire that appear to be chosen more for their alliterative or rhyming qualities than their importance as military stations.
Birr: is in County Offaly in central Ireland and Bareilly, to rhyme with Reveille, is now in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian state bordering Nepal. Lucknow, with a Divisional HQ, and Etawah are both within the same state, all three within 150 miles of each other.
Leeds: with little 19th century military history, is in Northern England and Lahore, where Kipling himself worked on the Civil and Military Gazette, is in Punjab, now within the borders of Pakistan. Peshawur: now Peshawar, was a major station within Afghanistan, and Hong Kong was the most eastern British military station.

[Line 5] all ending in pore:
Ralph Durand (p. 37) explains:

The Sanskrit pura, ‘a town, city or village,’ is found in more or less its original form in several Indian languages, e.g. Bijapur, Berhampore, Punderpoor, Avanoor, Tanjore, Trichinopoly, etc. The Greek polis, ‘a city’, probably comes from the same root.

[Line 8] nervis: nervous.

[Line 9] I’m cast from the Service:  a somewhat bitter description of the termination of the speaker’s Army service which could have been early discharge due to injury or ill health or final retirement at 21 years.


[Lines 1-3] Lines written in an envious civilian voice, which considers a shilling a day to be well worth having.

[Stanza 2]

[Line 2] the Ghazi: Mohammedan fighters with a fanatical belief that, if killed fighting ‘unbelievers’, their souls will be instantly rewarded in paradise, not unlike the modern ‘Jihadi’.

There are a number of references to the Ghazi in Kipling’s works, one of the most detailed being in “The Drums of the Fore and Aft” in Wee Willie Winkie, first published in 1888, a year before “Shillin’ a Day”.

[line 3] Hell for leather: desperately fast. It is  claimed here that Kipling introduced this phrase into written English. OED identifies what seems to be one earlier instance, but cites two from Kipling, neither from this poem. [D.H.]

[Line 6] my wife must go charin:  His wife must find work as a ‘charlady’, a cleaner or home help, poorly paid and often employed only on a casual basis.

[Line 7] and me commissairin: Ralph Durand (p. 38) puts the position well:

Serving as a commissionaire or messenger. The Corps of Commissionaires was founded in 1859 by Captain Sir Edward Walter, K.C.B., with the intention of providing occupation for old soldiers who were unfit for heavy work. The fact that long service with the colours tends to incapacitate a man for any decently paid occupation is one of the main reasons why men do not care to enlist. It is a tragedy that many men of excellent character and intelligence, who have served their country well, can find no more dignified occupation on leaving the service than the opening or shutting of a hotel or restaurant door, or should be obliged to compete against small boys for posts as messengers.”

[Line 10] By the Grand Metropold: a made-up name for an hotel combining two popular hotel names; The Grand and The Metropole.

[Full chorus]

[Lines 1 to 7] The civilian voice again, this time with an air of disbelief that such a thing could happen and, with the last line, perhaps a hint that the Queen, or her ministers, should do something about it.

©Roger Ayers 2018 All rights reserved