2 Oct. 2013: Civilians under arms in the French wars

What were the roles of the Militia and the Volunteers in support of the Regulars at the height of the invasion crises?

Margaret Bird’s illustrated talk ‘Civilians under arms in north Norfolk 1798–1805‘ shows how one area from Wells to Cromer and inland was mobilised. It will be given to the Wells Local History Group on Wednesday 2 October 2013 at 7.30 pm at the Granary Theatre, in the old maltings in Staithe Street, Wells-next-the-Sea, NR23 1AU.

Visitors are welcome. The cost for members is £1.00, and for non-members £2.50 per person.

Two companies of Wells Volunteer Infantry

Wells-next-the-Sea was seen by the military commanders of the Eastern District at the time as being on the invasion coast—just. Many of Norfolk’s harbours round from Great Yarmouth were silting badly, both then and as seen at the banner showing Wells in 2014. Yet the danger for East Anglia had greatly increased after the French annexation of Holland soon after the start of the French Revolutionary War in 1793. Wherever deep water could be found there were fears of a landing.

Wells had two companies of Volunteers. The first, with Prussian arms, was found during the 1803 inspection to have ‘steady, well-disciplined’ men. The inspecting officer was less complimentary about some others, such as the ‘totally undisciplined’ large new corps at Southrepps.

Most towns nearby had Volunteer infantry, including Walsingham, Fakenham, Holt, Cromer, Aylsham and North Walsham. East Dereham had two troops of cavalry; Holkham also had a troop, with 39 horses in 1803. Felbrigg, led by William Windham, were sharp-shooters; the Gunton & Blickling Rifle Corps served as a single unit.


The talk will examine the level of commitment of the Volunteer officers, who were busy men with careers and vocations which did not sit well with the demands of even part-time military service. William Palgrave junior seen here, the brother-in-law of Dawson Turner, was by 1803 Collector of Customs at Great Yarmouth, a post shown in the records in the National Archives to be a very demanding one in wartime.

William Palgrave jnr in uniform 1798

William Palgrave junior in 1798 aged 27, as the lieutenant commanding the Yarmouth Volunteer Cavalry. The Wells 1st Company uniforms were red, black and silver; the 2nd Company had green, black and gold

The doctor at Fakenham resigned his commission after only a few weeks when it became clear his unit had to mount guard at Great Yarmouth. He may have thought his patients needed him more than his country did. Similarly Mary Hardy’s son William, after the briefest of flirtations with the Holt Volunteers, chose to concentrate on his maltings and brewery. The State probably got more out of him in that role. It was principally the duties on malt and beer which kept the Army in the field and the Navy at sea.

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Margaret Bird

Margaret Bird in 2016

The editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes

You can read about the historian Margaret Bird on the link above

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