“Regular officers and soldiers in a uniform were an everyday sight, prominent even during peacetime, and during the the Napoleonic wars, their ranks swelled by embodied militia, Yeomanry and volunteers, they gave the land a bright frosting of scarlet, blue and gold.”
During the great uncertainty of the Napoleonic Wars the government was obsessed with the fear of a French invasion of England. All along the Kentish and Sussex coastlines fortified Martello towers were built, ditches were dug and flooded and the “wooden wall” of the Royal Navy patrolled. All across England militas drilled and local men formed companies of volunteers under local gentry or nobility. Read on to discover the original Huntingdonshire “Home Guard” of the Napoleonic wars.
Fyrd, Trained Band, Militia
The concept of a militia was practically unchanged from the Saxon and early Norman statutes. In 1285, Edward I provided a national force of amateurs for home defence, who would be required to train annually and defend their locality. These groups would be known as trained bands, fencibles, militias and volunteers over their history and would continue unbroken from 1285 up to the 18th century.
The quality of these men was variable —they were provided with little budget, however some counties and cities with richer commanding officers were able to become serious semi-professional units, such as the London trained bands of the English Civil War. Colonel Ward’s observations on a trained band drilling in 1639 could be repeated almost any year thereafter:
“after a little careless hurrying … [they] charge their muskets, and so prepare to give their captain a brave volley of shot at his entrance to the inn; whereafter having solaced themselves for a while after this brave service every man repairs home, and that which is not so-well taught then is easily forgotten”.
Following the upheaval of the Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution, the now United Kingdom moved to keeping a permanent army and the militia became increasingly neglected.
The 1757 Militia Act
By the mid eighteenth century, the decline of the militia had led to it becoming utterly untenable as a military force even for basic defence. Training was non-existent, as was rank structure, and there was no equipment beyond mouldering antiques from the last century. The informal arrangements that were in place were swept away and instead formalised militia service was drawn up, whereupon each parish would provide a quota of men paid for by local tax. The legislation was not popular (it was seen to be step towards conscription) and anti-militia riots broke out across England over summer 1757.
This new system was considerably fairer than the old, as the men were drawn by lot from a pool that excluded: those under eighteen or over forty five, clergy, peers, constables, apprentices and men with more than three dependents. They would serve for three years, be equipped with uniform and weapons, and the parish would support their families in their absence. Militia service was not popular with professional men, who would often pay a substitute to serve in their stead. Failure to fill quotas by parishes incurred hefty fines and so generous stipends were offered for volunteers in some areas.
Each county was expected to raise a quota of men based on their relative size or perceived vulnerability – 1,640 men for Devonshire, whilst little Rutland supplied just 120 men. The exact size of the Huntingdonshire militia regiment is unknown, but they fall second only to the West Yorkshire regiment in the militia list, suggesting that they were at least half a battalion which is to say around 250 – 300 men or five to six companies.
These men would be expected to train for 28 days a year, during which time they were billeted in public houses and subject to full military discipline. During times of disquiet or concern, militia regiments could be embodied for full time service and would often be used to garrison key towns and cities, freeing up regular troops. Whilst the men of the militia they could be promoted to non-commissioned ranks, the core of the militia regiment was a small staff of veteran sergeants from the regular army. Their officers were retired officers, landowners, gentry or nobility, often the close friends and family of the local Lord-Lieutenant (who acted as commanding officer). To be allowed to serve at all, officers had to own land or be in line to inherit land in the county.
The 1793 Militia Act
In all, some 19,000 men were on active militia service in 1793. These men were a burden on the public finances and whilst they could be said to be a second rate defence force, they were expressly forbidden from joining the regulars or serving overseas. The new 1793 militia act sought to change that.
The new act actively encouraged militia men to join the regular army by offering very generous bounties for those who did – 18 guineas for militiamen upon transfer in 1804 (almost £2,000 by today’s reckoning)! To encourage for officers to transfer, they would be commissioned into their new regular regiment if they took sufficient volunteers with them. This was known as “raising the rank”.
From this point onwards, the militia effectively becomes a recruitment pool for the regular army. Militia regiments would be addressed by different army officers and recruiting parties – all competing to offer the most appealing prospect. Doubtless this is how in 1814, fourteen men of the Huntingdonshire militia (at this point apparently garrisoned in Reading) ended up joining the 14th (Bedfordshire Regiment), later fighting at Waterloo.
For those who could not be convinced by words and generous bounties, there were other inducements. One tactic was to introduce onerous drills and training exercises for the militia, which had the dual purpose of increasing the general preparedness and ability of the recruits and inducing them to sign up with the regulars to escape the harsh regime!
The Volunteers and Army of Reserve
In 1798, Britain was facing the full ire of Revolutionary France. With the genuine risk of invasion looming, the “Defence of the Realm Act” (1798) was passed. This was, in effect, a kind of census as it drew up county-by-county the number of men able and willing to fight in case of invasion.
An unexpected side effect of the act was that many of these men took up arms immediately, beginning to form volunteer groups which drilled in towns, villages and hamlets across England. Within a few months there were 116,000 new volunteers under-arms, causing some consternation within Parliament that an armed and organised force on this scale posed dangers in itself!
By 1803, the number of volunteers reached its peak of 176,000 active volunteers with a further 480,000 inactive volunteers, willing only in the event of an invasion. In this year, Parliament also introduced an Army of Reserve. This were distinct from the militia and was effectively reserve battalions for regular army regiments. The idea was that these men would ‘choose’ to join the regular army, however in reality they were forcibly balloted to join what was in effect a regular regiment. This was so close to conscription that it went down very badly and was shelved within a few years.
A huge number of men who were not already serving in a military capacity were enlisted into this confusing and contradictory “defence force” across the United Kingdom. Huntingdonshire was no exception. As well as the existing militia regiment, Huntingdonshire had its own reserve regiment, a volunteer cavalry regiment. There were also innumerable volunteer forces (possibly as many as a company for each town/large village in the county). In the 1801 census, the total male population of Huntingdonshire was approximately 18,000. A conservative estimate would put over 3,000 of these men under arms, serving as volunteers or reserve soldiers in the following units…
The Huntingdonshire Volunteer Cavalry (1794-1815)
In 1794, John Richards of Brampton, the High Sheriff of Huntingdonshire, convened a meeting at The Crown Inn where it was agreed to form a volunteer cavalry for the county. This force of horsemen would;
“chearfully obey His Majestys Commands, and subject to military law in all respects, within this Kingdom only, during the continuance of such Invasion, provided that one fourth of the corps shall remain within the County”
To qualify for entry into this prestigious force of volunteers you had to be a Yeoman, which is to say a person with an annual income or assets worth £100 (about £13,000 by our standards), and you had to own or have access to a horse. As with the militia, those eligible to serve could instead pay a substitute to do so for them. Although it may seem obvious, in April 1797 Charles Norman found out the hard way that his paid substitute, George Hitman, also had to have a horse! When this was found to be lacking, his last minute replacement’s replacement cost him a hefty £27 and 6 shillings.
The volunteer cavalry force was drawn up slowly, doubtless impeded by the actual duties of the senior officers and figures in the force, and the difficulties in producing uniforms and weapons during wartime. Finding sufficient horses must also have been troublesome at times, especially for cavalrymen whose horse died, leaving them without. Many local troops began training on their own initiative; the 28 men of Toseland and 35 of Huntingdon were drilling a year before the general muster in Huntingdon in June 1798.
At this event the whole volunteer cavalry corp appeared. Considering that a regular regiment had a theoretical strength of 1,000 men (of whom 600-800 would be on any given campaign), the returns filed by Owsley Rowley, chief tax collector for Huntingdonshire, showed an impressive turnout.
The numbers by hundred were:
Huntingdon (Borough of) – 61
Hurstingstone – 329
Toseland – 264
Norman Cross – 228
Leightonstone – 259
Totalling a staggering 1,141 men. This is all the more awe-inspiring when it is remembered that Huntingdonshire is one of the smallest counties in England.
The cost of this cavalry was significant. Huge sums of money were expended on both the volunteer cavalry and the volunteer infantry, and Rowley was responsible for gathering the unpopular land tax that covered those costs. The risk of highway robbery or assault made the job so dangerous that the government issued cutlasses to tax collectors. It is likely that Rowley was escorted by some of these weekend cavalrymen as he went about his duties, which he did in full cavalry uniform with a brace of pistols!
Aside from these duties, the Yeomanry Cavalry seemingly never saw action in either a policing or military capacity. They were kept on the books until 1828, but they seem to have been effectively disbanded by the peace of 1814.
The Huntingdonshire “Army of Reserve” (1803 – 1806)
The introduction in 1803 of the “Army of Reserve” was (as already mentioned) rather unpopular. Effectively another chance to be balloted into service if you had been lucky enough to dodge the militia ballot, it caused a good deal of grumbling across the country. Nonetheless, Huntingdonshire raised by public subscription a sufficient sum to raise (another!) regiment of 800 men.
Like the militia, these men were liable to serve only in the United Kingdom, received uniform, weapons, training and only had to serve for a finite period. Similarly, these men could transfer to a regular unit and it would seem plausible that the conditions were such to encourage just this. Certainly by December 1803, sixty men had transferred to regular army units, for which they would have been paid a bounty. With soldiers transferring out, substitutes being found (some from as far afield as Yorkshire!) and soldiers dying or deserting, the administration must have been a nightmare. The more-so as the bounties were paid by our old friend Owsley Rowley who had to reclaim the money from the government.
Despite the relative recruitment success of Huntingdonshire, nationwide, the scheme was deemed a failure. The target of 50,000 reserve men was missed with just 45,000 being signed up of whom over 90% were paid substitutes! By the end of the year, the total numbers were down to 35,000 due to transfer out, death and desertion (although deserters risked being forcibly enlisted if caught). The reserve regiments were reconstituted into militia garrisons and scattered across the country to see out the remainder of their service.
The Huntingdonshire Local Militia (1803-1816)
Not content with a senior command role in the Volunteer Cavalry, Lord Sandwich also set about forming a volunteer infantry force. In the summer of 1803, notices appeared in towns and villages across Huntingdonshire calling for volunteers.
One such notice was seen by Litchfield Moseley, a 41 year old farmer. Moseley, “greatly encouraged by his lordship”, set about forming a company of volunteers based in Somersham. An evening meeting at The Rose and Crown (with a free drink to all attendees!) seems to have got the ball rolling and within a few months Captain Moseley had 61 volunteer soldiers, each with his own haversack and canteen – weapons and uniforms would follow later.
Companies like these had sprung up in every town and large village across the county and the administration must have been herculean. This perhaps explains why the Somersham company still did not have sufficient muskets even two years later. No detail is known about their uniforms except the cost (66 suits of clothes had cost £23 2s 0d) which the men would have paid for themselves. Other volunteer companies went in for cutting edge fashion, often not in the traditional red cloth, such as light infantry style cut jackets, frogging, braid and even – in one Sussex volunteer company – green velvet!
The Somersham company were inspected in October 1804 by Brigadier General Stewart, when any able-bodied men were “encouraged” to take the King’s Shilling and enlist into the regulars. Those left tended to be older or infirm, and the steady attrition of dead and discharged members shows their general unsuitability for active service. When they were next inspected in 1805, those men with muskets were issued cartridges for a firing drill. The expected ability of the volunteers is reflected in the fact that they were only given blank cartridges!
The volunteers would drill as often as they could, march for inspections by local dignitaries and take part in wider exercises with other companies. When the unit left Somersham for exercises they would have made a brave sight, uniformed and armed with their wagons declaring “Somersham Volunteer Company”. Doubtless this pomp and the pay offered (the same as regular soldiers during exercises) allowed the company to maintain its numbers over the course of the war – always around sixty men.
Like the Yeomanry Cavalry, the Somersham Volunteer Company were never called upon in a military or policing capacity and in 1816 were officially disbanded.
Unlike the regular soldiers who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, the experience of these volunteers is neglected and practically unknown today. Much like the Home Guard, over a century later, they were often the subject of mockery for their part time amateur service — but these brave men, often at great expense and effort, were willing to do their bit in the event of an invasion and no more could be asked of them.
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
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