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The English Volunteer Movement of the French Wars, 1793–1815: Some Contexts

  • J. E. Cookson (a1)

Probably the greatest popular movement in Georgian Britain was that formed around military volunteering during the wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Often cited is the number of volunteers enrolled in 1803–4, nearly 400,000. These were the most active participants. Outside the ranks there existed an even larger mass of organizers, subscribers and supporters, including sometimes female committees; at this time volunteering was one of several developments which brought Britain recognizably close to ‘total’ war in terms of its population's war-involvement. Yet historians have said little about the movement. We have not progressed very far beyond the gospel according to Victorian and Edwardian nationalism in which Napoleonic volunteering was depicted as the British people's inevitable response to the threat of foreign invasion, proud testimony of their ‘warlike spirit’, ‘love of freedom’ and ‘patriotic unanimity’. The only critical evaluation there has been remains based on an article by J. R. Western, published as long ago as 1956. This refined the established ‘wave of patriotism’ version by linking volunteering with the counter-revolution of the 1790s directed against popular radicals. Volunteers were depicted as armed loyalists, their corps as the successors of the loyalist associations and the movement as a whole as a key component of an extensive and dominant ‘party of order’. The most recent work on the anti-radical reaction barely disturbs this interpretation. While it is not denied that the threat of foreign attack was also instrumental in producing volunteers, the emphasis continues to be on volunteering, at least in its early phase, as an outgrowth of counter-revolutionary loyalism.

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1 For the ladies committee for flannel clothing in York see York Courant, 19 Dec. 1803, 16 Jan. 1804; for a similar committee in Birmingham see Hart, Charles J., The history of the 1st Volunteer Battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and its predecessors (Birmingham, 1906), p. 72.

2 The volunteer movement as an anti – revolutionary force’, English Historical Review, LXXI (1956), 603–14. The best standard accounts remain Berry, Robert Potter, A history of the formation and development of the volunteer infantry (London, 1903); Sebag-Montefiore, Cecil, A history of the volunteer forces (London, 1908); Fortescue, J. W., The county lieutenancies and the army, 1803–14 (London, 1909).

3 Dozier, Robert R., For king, constitution and country: the English loyalists and the French Revolution (Lexington, Ky., 1983), pp. 138–71.

4 See especially two articles by Colley, Linda: ‘The apotheosis of George III: loyalty, royalty and the British nation, 1760–1820’, Past and Present, no. 102 (02 1984), 94129 and ‘Whose nation? Class and national consciousness in Britain 1750–1830’, ibid. no. 113 (Nov. 1986), 97–117.

5 Morris, R. J., ‘Voluntary societies and British urban elites, 1780–1850: an analysis’, Historical Journal, XXVI, 1 (1983), 95118.

6 Gooch, John, Armies in Europe (London, 1980), pp. 50–5.

7 Andreski, Stanislav, Military organisation and society (London, 2nd edn, 1968); Titmuss, Richard M., ‘War and social policy’, in Essays on ‘the welfare state’ (London, 3rd edn, 1976), pp. 7587; Marwick, Arthur, War and social change in the twentieth century (London, 1974).

8 Colley, , ‘Whose nation?’, p. 115.

9 Girouard, Mark, The return to Camelot: chivalry and the English gentleman (London, 1981). A social profile of the eighteenth-century officer corps has yet to appear. The officers of the early-nineteenth-century army were not predominantly aristocratic, landed or even wealthy: see Strachan, Hew, Wellington's legacy: the reform of the British army 1830–54 (Manchester, 1984), p. 110. The militia in the 1790s soon had to take what officers it could get. Western, J. R., The English militia in the eighteenth century (London, 1965), pp. 227–8, 230.

10 Fortescue, , County lieutenancies, pp. 98110, 119.

11 Beckett, Ian F. W., ‘The amateur military tradition in Britain’, War and Society, IV, 2 (1986), 116.

12 Ibid. p. 3.

13 Hertford, Herts Record Office, Hitchin Volunteers papers, esp. letters to and from William Wisherc in 1798; Busby, J. H., ‘Local military forces in Hertfordshire, 1793–1814’, Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research, XXXI (1953), 1617, 20–1; Cambridge Chronicle, 13 Oct. 1798.

14 Bedford, Buckingham and Hereford. I overlook Rutland and Huntingdon.

15 Dozier, , English loyalists, p. 149.

16 Copy of Dundas's circular letter to lord-lieutenants, 15 May 1798, addressed to the duke of Manchester, Huntingdon, Cambs R.O., Manchester papers, DDM 80/11/20. Durham raised 7 town corps out of 10, the East Riding 3 out of 6, Cambridge 2 out of 3, Hertford 6 out of 10, Gloucester 10 out of 16, Somerset 11 out of 28, Cornwall 7 out of 21. See Ward, S. G. P., Faithful: the story of the Durham Light Infantry (London, 1963), pp. 1618; Norfolk, R. W. S., Militia, yeomanry and volunteer forces of the East Riding of Yorkshire 1698–1908, (York, 1965), pp. 45–7; London, British Library (B.L.), Hardwicke papers, Add. MSS 35670, ff. 72–3, 418–19; Busby, , ‘Hertfordshire’, p. 165; Bullock, H., ‘Gloucestershire volunteers, 1795–1815’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, XXXVIII (1960), 7682; Fisher, W. G., The history of Somerset yeomanry, volunteer and territorial units (Taunton, 1924), pp. 6697; Thomas, Charles, ‘Cornish volunteers in the 18th century’, Devon and Cornwall N & Q, XXVII (19561958), 229–36, 326–31, XXVIII (1959–61), 10–16.

17 Cox, J. Charles, Three centuries of Derbyshire annals (2 vols., London, 1890), I, 402–18; lieutenancy book of duke of Grafton, p. 112, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk R.O., HA 513/5/144.

18 Corfield, , The impact of English towns 1700–1800 (Oxford, 1982), pp. 89, 14; return of volunteer corps dated 9 Dec. 1803, Parliamentary papers, 1803–4, XI.

19 Return of yeomanry and volunteer corps of Cambridge, 11 June 1804, London, Public Record Office (P.R.O.), Home Office papers, H.O. 50/97. For Suffolk's return see note 17 above.

20 Sebag-Montefiore, , Volunteer forces, pp. 344–5.

21 Borsay, Peter, ‘“All the town's a stage”: urban ritual and ceremony 1660–1800’, in The transformation of English provincial towns, ed. Clark, Peter (London, 1984), pp. 228–58.

22 Diary of James Oakes, 7, 10 May 1802, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk R.O., HA 521/6; ‘Particulars of the ceremony of presenting colours to the Loyal Chelmsford Volunteers’, Chelmsford, Essex R.O., library folder (military). See also Hart, , Warwickshire Regiment, pp. 3640, for the presentation of colours to the Birmingham associations in June 1798.

23 Wilson, R. G., Gentlemen merchants: the merchant community in Leeds 1700–1830 (Manchester, 1971), p. 245; Cox, J. Charles, ‘Belper regiment-grenadiers’, Journal of Derbyshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, XII (1890), 61–2; Welford, Richard, Men of mark twixt Tyne and Tweed (3 vols., London, 1895), 1, 425–31(for John Buddie, major commanding the Wallsend Volunteer Rifle Corps); Bamford, A. Bennett, ‘The Loyal Chelmsford Volunteers’, Essex Review, XXXVI (1927), 8896.

24 Hart, , Warwickshire Regiment, p. 59.

25 James Currie to Thomas Creevey, 30 Nov. 1803, Liverpool, Liverpool R.O., Currie papers, 920 Cur. 26. In Manchester after 1803 the whigs commanded the Manchester Light Horse (Shakespear Philips) and Manchester Independent Volunteers (George Philips). The tories raised two large infantry regiments, the 1st and 2nd Manchester Volunteers, commanded by James Ackers and John Silvester. Joseph Hanson, who involved himself in radical politics in 1807–8, commanded the Manchester Rifle Corps.

26 Proceedings of Lincolnshire's, ‘Committee of Expenditure’ 17941795, Lincoln, Lincolnshire R.O., Brownlow papers, 4 BNL Box 5; minutes of meetings of ‘subscribers for strengthening the internal defence of the country’, 1794–7, Ipswich, Suffolk R.O., HD 79/B1. Cambridge voted to spend £1,500 on raising cavalry and £500 on reinforcing the militia. Cambridge Chronicle, 19 Apr. 1794. Rutland, Huntingdon and Bedford made similar decisions, ibid. 5 Apr., 3 May 1794.

27 For the proceedings of two ‘committees of the lieutenancy’ see Lee, J. W., ‘Devon on guard, 1759–1815’, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, XL (1908), 226–37; CramnerByng, J. L., ‘Essex prepares for invasion, 1796–1805’, Essex Review, LX (1951), 127–34, 184–93, LXI (1952), 43–7: 57–74.

28 Hudson, Ann, ‘Volunteer soldiers in Sussex during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, 1793–1815’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, CXXII (1984), 179.

29 Coventry and Warwick provide examples, earl of Warwick to Charles Yorke, 12 Aug., 28 Sept. 1803, P.R.O., H.O. 50/89. I am indebted to Mr Austin Gee for these references.

30 The Radcliffe family owned Hitchin Priory and much land in Hertfordshire. Hitchin museum has a letter of Sir Charles declining the command of the volunteers. Lady Radcliffe presented colours to the corps in 1799, and the family headed the subscription list in 1803.

31 Colley, , ‘Whose nation?’, pp. 109–11.

32 Extracts from the Leeds Intelligencer, 1795’, Thoresby Society Publications, XLIV (1956), 80; Emily Hargrave, ‘The early Leeds volunteers’, ibid. XXVIII (1923–7), 272–3; Berry, , Volunteer infantry, pp. 314–16. There was a similar review in 1796 at Wakefield. See R[obertshaw], W[ilfrid], ‘Review of volunteers at Wakefield in 1796’, Bradford Antiquary, N.S. VI (19331939), 90.

33 Lee, , ‘Devon’, p. 230.

34 In Leeds 340 out of 800 agreed to transfer; in the Hinckford Hundred battalion (Essex) 365 out of 525; in Wisbech 152 out of 231; in Whittlesey 86 out of 132. Hargrave, , ‘Leeds volunteers’, pp. 311–12; Wright, A. C., ‘Essex and the volunteers’, Essex Journal, VII (1972), 80; William Watson to Lord Hardwicke, 1 Nov. 1808, B. L., Hardwicke papers, Add. MSS 35676, fos. 153–4. This last letter said ‘all the young men’ in the Wisbech and Whittlesey corps had joined the local militia, and additional militia volunteers were also ‘all young active men’. The local militia enrolment book of the Ely subdivision, 1809–14, reveals that about half the men were 20 years of age or under, and three-quarters were listed as ‘labourers’ or ‘servants’. Cambridge, Cambs R.O., Ely and South Witchford subdivision papers, 283/uncatalogued.

35 For example, see a copy of Lord Salisbury's circular letter to the C.O.s of volunteer corps in his county, 22 Jan. 1809, Herts R.O., Hitchin Volunteers papers.

36 Berry, , Volunteer infantry, pp. 58–9.

37 Copy of duke of Portland's circular letter to lord-lieutenants, 10 Apr. 1797, Essex R.O., Tendring Loyal Volunteers papers, D/DHa 01/5; Portland to lord-lieutenants, 15 Jan. 1798, B.L., Hardwicke papers, Add. MSS 35669, fo. 158. For the government's recommended plan of association in 1797 see Annual Register, XXXIX (1797), chronicle, pp. 237–8.

38 The key documents here are the Defence of the Realm Act (38 Geo III c.27), Dundas's circular letter to the lord-lieutenants, 6 Apr. 1798 (for a copy see B. L., Hardwicke papers, Add. MSS 35669, fos. 290–5) and an accompanying paper, Proposals for rendering the body of the people instrumental in the general defence’ (Annual Register, XL (1798), chronicle, pp. 184–9).

39 Sebag-Montefiore, , Volunteer forces, pp. 211–14, deals with pay and clothing allowances. For the government's encouragement of service within the military district see Dundas's circular letters of 12 Mar., 6 Apr. and 15 May 1798, B.L., Hardwicke papers, Add. MSS 35669, fos. 246–8, 290–5; Cambs R.O., Manchester papers, DDM 80/11/20.

40 Examples are the United Loyal Association of Doddington (Cambridge Chronicle, 19 05 1798), the Ely Association (B.L., Hardwicke papers, Add. MSS 35670, fos. 23–4) and the Royston Association (H. Wortham to W. Wilshere, 20June 1798, Herts R.O., Hitchin Volunteers papers). For London see Sebag-Montefiore, , Volunteer forces, pp. 210–11.

41 Dundas to the duke of Manchester, 15 May 1798, Cambs R.O., Manchester papers, DDM 80/11/20.

42 Sebag-Montefiore, , Volunteer forces, p. 199, n. 2.

43 Lord Euston to Lord Hobart [June 1803], Suffolk R.O., lieutenancy book, HA 513/5/144. The ‘printed proposals’ referred to in this letter are not in the H.O. entry books. Fortescue, , County lieutenancies, p. 60, n. 2.

44 Sebag-Montefiore, , Volunteer forces, pp. 239–40, 388–90.

45 Ibid. p. 224 for volunteer strength, excluding local associations, at end of 1800. The figure of 60,000 is an estimate taken from the parliamentary return of corps dated 9 Dec. 1803. See note 18 above.

46 Glover, Richard, Britain at bay: defence against Bonaparte, 1803–14 (London, 1973), pp. 87–8, sets out the strategic problems that a French army of 167,000 posed.

47 The circular letters and regulations relating to the volunteers from June 1803 to Feb. 1804 are in Parliamentary papers, 1803–4, XI, 117–202.

48 In 1806 a parliamentary return (ibid., 1806, X, 229–331) listed 1300 units, only 200 fewer than there had been in Dec. 1803. On amalgamations, Suffolk's lord-lieutenant considered ‘the Beauty of the arrangement consists in its being a matter of Choice in those who command the different Companies’. He wanted ‘the fullest assurance from the Officer who is recommended to command the Corps that the most perfect understanding exists with regard to every part of the proposed arrangement’. Lord Euston to Charles Tyrell, 9 July 1804, Suffolk R.O., lieutenancy book, HA 513/5/144. For the terms of proposed unions see Anderson, John Eustace, A short account of the Mortlake company of the Royal Putney, Roehampton and Mortlake Volunteer Corps, 1803–6 (Richmond, 1893), pp. 10, 12; Stockport Rifle Corps minute book, 23 Sept. 1803, Chester, Cheshire R.O., DDX 311/1.

49 ‘Minutes of Proceedings of a Board of Enquiry’, 9 Apr. 1804, Matthew Brackenbury to Benjamin Keene, 12 Apr. 1804, Keene to Charles Yorke, home secretary, 4 May 1804, P.R.O., H.O. 59/97. ‘…the whole Town of Sutton is at present so much agitated by what has happened that I see nothing to be done but to disband the whole’ (Keene to Yorke, private letter, 4 May 1804, ibid.).

50 Circular letter to lord-lieutenants, 30 July 1803, Parliamentary papers, 1803–4, XI, 149.

51 For the list of Suffolk units see the lieutenancy book, p. 113, Suffolk R.O., HA 513/5/144. Lord Euston to Lord Rous, 12 Mar. 1804, ibid.

52 A total of 250 corps are listed as having gone on permanent duty up to 5 May 1804 in two parliamentary returns, Parliamentary papers, 1803–4, XI, 209–19, 233–49.

53 Hart, , Warwickshire Regiment, p. 52.

54 The 1799 muster roll is in B.L., Hardwicke papers, Add. MSS 35672, fos. 363–4, the 1805 militia lists in Ely and S. Witchford subdivision papers, Cambs R.O., 283/uncatalogued. The numbers and occupations of men of ‘military age’ (17–55) are recorded in ‘Defence of the Kingdom Enrolment’ book, ibid. There is further evidence of the influx of labourers into the volunteers in 1803 in Fortescue, , County lieutenancies, pp. 110–11, Hudson, , ‘Volunteer soldiers in Sussex’ p. 173, Beckett, , ‘Amateur military tradition’, p. 7.

55 For example, in the Ely Volunteers, out of 25 N.C.O.s. on the 1806 muster roll whose occupations were recorded in the 1805 militia lists, 6 were labourers or servants. Four, incidentally, were ‘victuallers’ or ‘publicans’.

56 Morris, , ‘Voluntary societies’, p. 101–2. Further generalization about the voluntary societies is largely derived from this article.

57 Fortescue, , County lieutenancies, p. 199. Companies at Sutton, West Wratting and Little Swaffham were disbanded. For the worst incident see note 49 above.

58 Emsley, Clive, British society and the French wars 1793–1815 (London, 1979), pp. 145–6. In Devonshire, where volunteering in the 1790s was distinctly ‘plebeian’, the volunteers proved to be unreliable during the food disorders of 1800–1. Bohstedt, John, Riots and community politics in England and Wales 1790–1810 (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), pp. 4951, 52, 53, 63–4.

59 Sebag-Montefiore, , Volunteer forces, pp. 263–6; Hudson, , ‘Volunteer soldiers in Sussex’, pp. 172–3, 175, 178–9.

60 Fortcscuc, , County lieutenancies, p. 124; Glover, , Britain at bay, p. 210; Wilkins, H. J., History of the Loyal Weslbury Volunteer Corps 1803–14 (Bristol, 1918), pp. 3640; Peploe Ward, etc., to the Bishop of Ely, 16 Aug. 1804, Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Ely diocesan records H2/6. A statement of account for the Hitchin corps dated 10 Oct. 1805 shows that £1,077 was collected in subscriptions out of a total expenditure of £2,457. Herts R.O., Hitchin Volunteers papers.

61 Account ‘Wilshere with Hitchin Volunteer Fund’, 23 Sept. 1805, ibid.; An account of the cause and institution of the yeomanry cavalry in Suffolk…', vol. 2, pp. 134–5, Ipswich, Suffolk R.O., HD 80/3/2.

62 Parliamentary debates, 1st ser. XI (1808), 47.

63 There were 68, 643 effectives in 1812. Sebag-Montefiore, , Volunteer forces, p. 350.

64 Parliamentary debates, 1st ser., I (1804), 979.

65 Sebag-Montefiorc, , Volunteer forces, p. 344.

66 Ibid. p. 266.

67 Harrison, Mark, ‘The ordering of the urban environment: time, work and the occurrence of crowds, 1790–1835’, Past and Present, no. 110 (02 1986), p. 134–68, notes a decline of ‘royal and military occasions’ in Bristol after 1815. He also claims that there were fewer such occasions in the 1800s than in the 1790s, though does not consider whether later in the war there was a heavier investment in spectacle and ceremony. For accounts of peace celebrations in 1814 see Cambridge Chronicle, 15 07 1814 (Cambridge); Oakes diary, 17 June 1814, Suffolk R.O., HA 521/9 (Bury St Edmunds); The town book of Lewes 1702 – 1837, ed. Smith, Verena (Lewes, 1973), pp. 199201; John Sykes, Local records of remarkable events which have occurred in Northumberland and Durham (2 vols., repr. Stockton-on-Tees, 1973), II, 79–81 (Durham and Newcastle).

68 Hobsbawn, E. J., The age of revolution (London, 1973), p. 119.

69 Cunningham, Hugh, The volunteer force: a social and political history, 1859–1908 (London, 1975); A nation in arms: a social study of the British army in the First World War, ed. Beckett, Ian F. W. and Simpson, Keith (Manchester, 1985), p. 9(for the predominance of white-collar occupations in the voluntary recruiting movement of 1914–16).

70 This remark is made by way of noticing Clark, J. C. D., English society 1688–1832 (Cambridge, 1985), which argues that until 1832 England remained an ancien régime, fundamentally unaffected by industrialization, secularization or ‘the rise of the middle classes’.

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