2 Oct. 2013: More on civilians under arms in the French wars

At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries people living along the coasts facing northern France and the Low Countries feared invasion by Napoleon. How did they respond?

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.

The principle of layered defence

Through the ages the British Government chose to rely on the principle of layered defence during invasion threats.

In the Napoleonic wars the first line of defence was the Royal Navy: by seeking out the enemy afar; by blockading his coasts; and by patrolling home waters. If that failed, the thinking was that the Regular Army stationed on the coast, backed by the embodied Militia, would cope.

In support, and using local knowledge, were the Volunteers (civilian part-timers in military uniform but not subject to military discipline) and the Sea Fencibles (local civilian seafarers, fishermen, ropemakers etc secured from empressment into the Royal Navy).

The Augmentation of the Militia: Mary Hardy's diary, Dec. 1796

On 7 Dec. 1796 Mary Hardy writes of the meeting held by the Deputy Lieutenants for the Supplementary Militia: additional civilians were to be called up. On 12 Dec. a meeting was held at the King’s Head, Letheringsett. Those who might be drawn in the unpopular Militia ballot clubbed together to buy substitutes  [Cozens-Hardy Collection]

Also engaged in administrative roles in home defence were numerous officials such as magistrates, high constables of individual hundreds, petty constables and other parish officers, and parish superintendents—often local clergy.

Each of  these lines of defence had their distinct chains of command, and liaison between them was essential for success. Melding them was the Lord Lieutenant of the county and his Deputy Lieutenants.

George, 1st Marquis Townshend

Norfolk was very lucky to have as Lord Lieutenant at this time Field Marshal Lord Townshend (1724–1807), one of the most distinguished military commanders of his day: he had led the British forces at Quebec in 1759 after the death of Wolfe. With a gift for leadership he also had the tact not to tread on the toes of the numerous bodies theoretically all pulling together.

This talk will examine the role of the civilians, down to the millers who had to supply huge stocks of flour and the innkeepers who were forced to put up soldiers and their horses without full recompense.

The Hardys did well out of the invasion scares. In 1795 they had secured the beer contact for the troops stationed on the coast at Weybourne.


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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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