BRITAIN’S VOLUNTEER MOVEMENT 1794 – 1815
By Steve Tamplin
In March 1794 parliament responding to the invasion threat posed by revolutionary France passed an act that called upon ‘gentlemen of weight or property’ throughout the realm to initiate local defence plans that included the establishment of volunteer military formations. Three types were envisaged, namely infantry companies to man coastal artillery batteries, infantry companies to augment the regular militia, and cavalry. Volunteering developed rapidly in the early years - by May 1794 72 volunteer infantry and 32 yeomanry cavalry units had been formed, rising to 104 infantry and 50 cavalry by the end of the year. By late 1797 the Britain’s volunteer establishment stood at 51,000, rising to 116,000 in 1798 and 146,000 by 1801. Overall national membership of volunteer corps reached a high point in 1804 with 380,258 men under arms.
The ‘Gentleman or Yeomanry Cavalry’ was predominantly rural, middle class and self financing, and assembled for training for an hour or two once or twice a week. They were generally commanded and officered by the local gentry often with their tenants and mounted servants and others of the local artisan classes forming the rank and file. Yeomanry troops were armed, equipped and styled predominantly as Light Dragoons i.e. with curved light cavalry sabres, cavalry pistols, light dragoon ‘Tarleton’ helmets and short jackets. A separate force known as the Provisional Cavalry was formed in 1796 to augment the existing yeomanry corps and to encourage voluntary recruitment. Totally independent of the yeomanry (although on occasions they trained together) it was raised on a county by county basis by a compulsory levy on horse owners from which existing volunteers were exempt. The scheme worked. In Buckinghamshire, for example, cavalry volunteers were raised in lieu of three quarters of the Provisional Cavalry quota, and troops of county yeomanry increased from six in 1794 to fifty in 1798. The number of cavalry volunteers throughout Britain grew from 9,750 at the start of 1798 to 22,600 by July, sufficient for the Provisional Cavalry to be disbanded. By 1804, when total membership of the UK volunteer force reached its peak, there were 33,992 yeomanry cavalrymen in 604 Troops nationwide, ranging from Clackmannanshire’s single 40 strong troop to Devon’s 1,873 yeomen in 33 troops.
Because of their immediate availability to the local authorities the volunteers were assigned law enforcement and anti-riot duties during periods of civil unrest, a role that made them hugely unpopular with working people. At no time was this more savagely demonstrated than in 1795 when a crowd beat to death Private Thomas Purves of the Newcastle Volunteers for no other reason than he was wearing his uniform in public. The 1790s were dogged by widespread unrest caused by the increase in basic food prices following a succession of failed harvests, and the volunteers were kept busy preserving property, goods and public order. The London Chronicle in August 1795 reported upon a particularly serious disturbance in Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire:
Thursday evening a wagon loaded with corn, purchased by a person in Leicester, passing through the town, was stopped, and coveyed by the populace to the church. Information was immediately transmitted to the Mayor, who, with the Rev. T. Burnaby ( one of the Magistrates of the county) and the Leicester troop of Cavalry, proceeded to the place of their destination. On their arrival they found a vast assemblage of people in the church-yard, who refused to part with the corn. The Magistrates remonstrated with them for a considerable time, and promised to accommodate them with a part if they would disperse, but this they absolutely refused. The Riot Act was then read. Unwilling still to proceed to extremities, it was proposed that eight quarters of corn should be left, which was agreed to, and the remainder was put into the wagon. On their going off, however, the cavalry ( who before had been insulted ) were assailed with brick bats, and some shots fired upon them from the adjacent house, one of which wounded Mr. Stringer in the knee. The cavalry fired in return, and eleven victims fell; three were shot dead on the spot, and eight dangerously wounded.
Fortunately most incidents were dealt with using a minimum of force, indeed a member of the Castleford Yeomanry (Yorkshire) was almost drowned in the River Aire in 1796 when he refused to use his sword to arrest the radical activist Michael Sidebottom. Generally speaking the arrival of troops - be they regular or volunteers - was usually sufficient to deter trouble and restore order. During the autumn of 1801 the 1 st (Shifnal) Troop of the Brimstree Loyal Legion was deployed to protect Shifnal market. In a farewell address to the corps’ on its disbandment in 1802, the commanding officer, Major Thomas Parker, recalled:
Nor can I allow this opportunity to escape me of remarking on one occasion, whereupon the services of the Corps were most conspicuously useful; I allude to that day, when the enormous high price of provisions having spread despair and distraction around us, had provoked some misguided inhabitants of this populous neighborhood to threaten the Shifnal market with interruption. I am proud to acknowledge the spirited exertions of the Shifnal Troop, at that juncture, in accomplishing the fullest muster upon the shortest notice possible, and of the Apley Troop which was under arms for the same purpose, had their assistance been necessary, and of the infantry who were also in readiness. The happy consequence of such timely protection was, that instead of the market being interrupted, it afforded an asylum to many who had been terrified by the disturbances at neighboring towns; and it was emphatically said, that “our markets became more like fairs.”
The Brimstree Loyal Legion was an example of a new type of volunteer corps that were formed from 1798, when Secretary of War Sir Henry Dundas encouraged the county lieutenants to form additional volunteer corps known as ‘armed associations’. He recommended that these new volunteers be organised by ‘gentlemen of property and respectable farmers’ under the guidance of the Lords Lieutenants, and were to consist of ‘none but known and respectable householders’ or men who could produce at least two such referees. The requirements that corps be formed by ‘gentlemen of property’ was qualified by an insistence that officers commanding armed associations if not already holding the King’s commission, should own land within the county valued at £50 or more, should rent land valued at £1000 or more, or should be the sons of such qualified men, and should reside in the same locality as their corps. The officer’s commissions specifically stated that they were not to take rank in the army or that there corps should be subject to regular military discipline, except on their own accord. They were self regulated, self financed (usually by means of membership subscriptions) and elected their own officers. The local nature of the armed associations meant that their conditions of service were more limited than those of the yeomanry and volunteer infantry, in as much as they were to serve only within a few miles of the towns in which they were raised and were not expected to serve to the limits of the county or military districts. The intended duties of these new formations were to carry out the duties of regular troops, militia or volunteers when these were called away, and to carry out local policing during periods of unrest. There was also a hope that these new formations would encourage the labouring classes into volunteering thus extending the social scope of what until then an overwhelmingly middle class force. By the autumn of 1801, however, the preliminaries of peace were being discussed with the French Consul, and these negotiations prompted a government circular to be communicated to every volunteer corps in Britain:
It is impossible for His Majesty on the happy event of the Ratification of the Preliminaries of Peace, between him and the French Government, not to repeat in the strongest Terms the deep and lasting Sense which He entertains of that steady Attachment to our established Constitution, and that Loyalty, Spirit and Preference which have been manifested by the several Corps of YEOMANRY and VOLUNTEERS in every part of this Kingdom; and that it is His Majesty’s Pleasure, when your Corp’s is next assembled, that you should read this letter to them, and return them thanks in His Majesty’s Name, for a Conduct which has contributed essentially towards maintaining the Public Security, and enabling His Majesty to bring the Contest in which he has been engaged, to an honourable and advantageous Conclusion.
His Majesty has, at the same time, commanded Lord HOBART to state, that there is every Reason to hope that a Continuance of the same Disposition which has produced the Signature and Ratification of the Preliminaries of Peace, will speedily lead to a definitive Treaty; but until that Period arrives, it is indispensably necessary that there should be no Relaxation in the Preparations which have been made dfor the general Defence; and further to express His Majesty’s firm Reliance, that the Several Corps of YEOMANRY and VOLUNTEERS will continue to hold themselves in readiness for immediate Service, and to be regularly trained and exercised as often as their circumstances will respectively admit.
Lord Hobart, who had succeeded Dundas as Secretary of War, considered the yeomanry cavalry a very useful force but was less convinced about the volunteer infantry who he considered were “by no means so well composed or regulated”. Therefore the infantry volunteers and armed associations were disbanded on the Peace of Amiens (March 25 th, 1802) while the yeomanry remained. However, when war resumed in May 1803 a new wave of volunteerism swept the nation.
French invasions plans were resurrected with the resumption of war. By late 1803 more than 100,000 enemy troops were stationed on the northern coast of France, and by the spring of 1804 up to 2,000 invasion craft were believed to have assembled in French channel ports for planned landings in Kent and Sussex – no wonder that home defence dominated British military strategy throughout 1803 and 1804. The volunteer infantry was revived and to encourage recruitment the government threatened a compulsory ‘levy en masse’. By providing exemption for a district if sufficient men joined up this encouraged recruitment, particularly in hitherto under-represented rural areas. The government initially accepted all offers of service recommended by the county Lord Lieutenants but such was the overwhelming response that it limited the number in each county to six times the military quota. By the end of 1803 380,000 volunteers – infantry, cavalry and artillery – were under arms. Mark Philips in Resisting Napoleon: The British Response to the Threat of Invasion 1797 – 1815 ( Aldershot. 2006) explains the reasons behind this:
Certainly, fear of invasion impelled people to volunteer, but volunteering was often a canny, pragmatic response to the crisis, a systematic avoidance of more authoritarian forms of military service, and a reluctance to put the nation before family and locality. Of course not everybody cared to join up. In 1803 no more than 1 in 5 did so. But failing to volunteer in 1803 made one vulnerable to the ballot, a dangerous predicament for a man who couldn’t raise the £10 - £15 needed to find a substitute. In this context, volunteering might be seen as a form of play-safe patriotism.
In effect the volunteers of 1803-04 became soldiers to avoid becoming soldiers !
As the threat of invasion declined after 1805 so did the volunteer infantry movement. Government funding was largely withdrawn and with it the enthusiasm and morale of much of the membership. Companies assembled for training less and less frequently and the haphazard and often ill disciplined nature of the whole system became evident to all. In 1808 a new force, the Local Militia, was created with the aim of providing a better trained and better organized home guard. Most of the existing volunteer infantry companies were amalgamated and converted into 269 new regiments of Local Militia, who unlike the regular militia were not compelled to serve outside their own counties. All men aged between 18 and 30 were to be raised by ballot unless sufficient numbers of new recruits volunteered, and unlike with the regular militia, balloted men could not provide substitutes or join insurance societies, but could pay a fine graduated according to their income. Existing volunteers were encouraged to transfer to the Local Militia and a bounty of two guineas was paid, although this was restricted the following year. Although many of the volunteers were reluctant to transfer, three-quarters of the enrolments in 1808-09 were from existing volunteer corps, and by 1811 the Local Militia totaled 213,609 men. The regiments were trained annually in the Spring. In 1813 the remaining volunteer infantry formations were disbanded, and the Local Militia themselves were disbanded in the spring of 1816. Unlike the volunteer infantry, the yeomanry cavalry was retained after 1815, and many of the smaller independent troops were amalgamated to form larger regiments, many of which remain in service to his day.
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