‘Never in my heart a volunteer …’: the red pantaloons of the Royal Spelthorne Legion

The revival of the volunteer movement in 1803 triggered a competitive pursuit of amateur military celebrity, much advanced by a “Royal” title for one’s corps. In the posher parts of the capital’s overspill, this might even mean a Royal patron. As populous Middlesex spawned an excess of undersized regiments, the Duke of Cumberland’s Sharpshooters jostled for attention with the Duke of York’s Marylebone, and the Queen’s Royal Regiment with the Prince of Wales’s Volunteers. But none of these had an actual Royal commanding officer; that kudos was uniquely enjoyed by the Royal Spelthorne Legion, of which HRH the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) was persuaded, perhaps against his better judgement, to take the colonelcy in August 1803, becoming the only British monarch ever to command a volunteer corps.

His letters of the period to his brother George, Prince of Wales, survive in the Royal Collections, and have been helpfully digitised in the Georgian Papers project. Once you’ve mastered his neurotically cramped handwriting, they make interesting reading. At first it all seemed rather promising. The Duke, based at Bushey House in the Spelthorne Hundred, was soon busily absorbed in putting together his Legion, to consist of a single light cavalry or ‘Hussar’ troop of forty men and an infantry corps of ten companies of eighty – and, of course, in devising its uniforms. And the Prince of Wales promised to present the colours.

William as Duke of Clarence – happier in naval uniform

But even during the initial enrolment of the oddly reluctant citizens of Spelthorne, a degree of strain was evident: ‘… there will be great difficulties, indeed what I have undertaken is no easy task and will require good humour, coolness and at first constant application.’ The attendance of a sergeant would be necessary for ‘keeping ill disposed people quiet’. In October the Hampshire Telegraph reported that the Legion was ordered to march immediately to the Sussex coast; given its state of unpreparedness, it was as well that this alarm was mistaken. In November the first inspection was a mixed success:

We yesterday made a better inspection than could have been expected after all the noise that has been made about the cloathing and the infamous conduct of the taylor who never till yesterday morning sent the uniforms to Sunbury where the focus of sedition had been; we had six hundred and sixty in the field … I should hope to have the whole fitted in a few days …

A re-inspection was hastily organised for the following week, the Colonel ordering all companies to arrive promptly, this time with their men clean shaven. The presentation of colours by the Prince of Wales at Ashford Common on 4 December was lauded by the papers, but not long after (his letters are undated) the Duke’s optimism had clearly drooped dismally, provoking an outburst of underlining. Naturally, it was all the fault of the politicians:

You will recollect I was never in my heart a volunteer but was originally desired by Rae and others to take the command of the Legion: you are too well acquainted with the folly of the late administration and with the still more extraordinary measure of defence adopted by Pitt for me to say any thing: the dissolution therefore of the volunteers cannot be a matter of surprize to you: the officers have no power to make the men attend exercise and the men will not come out without authority … The fact is Volunteers will not and cannot exist: the Minister must know the facts and ought therefore to be called to the severest account for leaving the United Kingdoms without defense against the most powerful enemy.

Though clearly happier afloat in his ‘sailor prince’ role, the Duke struggled on. In March 1804 two drummers were sentenced to 25 and 50 lashes, for absence and for stealing a shirt. Both were pardoned by the Duke. In July a meeting of ‘gentlemen’ was held at the Hammersmith Coffee House to boost the meagre numbers of the Hussars, but at permanent duty in May 1805 they still totalled a mere 34. However, the remaining gaps in the infantry captains and subalterns were filled during 1804, and by 1806 the Legion was recorded as 969 strong. The infantry’s growth may have been its undoing, the Lord Lieutenant writing in November that year that ‘HRH acquaints me that the want of the necessary funds makes it impossible to keep on the infantry of the Royal Spelthorne Legion.’ Around September the infantry had been re-clothed; the allowance would not have covered the cost, and, for whatever reason, no new subscription was opened. The infantry was abruptly disbanded. (Duke William was evidently on a tight Royal budget; in 1803 he had been obliged to ask his brother the Prince to stump up a horse for the Major.)

But ‘the same reasons of necessity [did] not operate’ upon the 37 members of the ‘Royal Spelthorne Hussars’, who were permitted to continue. In December Capt John Chambers very decently stood down to allow the Duke to take command. The elegant but miniature corps survived until 1810, its Royal captain perhaps rather happier in his new role.

It may be significant that none of William’s many portraits show him as a volunteer, and – in contrast to the other Middlesex corps under Royal patronage – no prints of the uniforms were ever published. However, the Duke’s own descriptions survive in his letters. For the infantry:

The accoutrements of the whole corps are to be black: the officers of the infantry will have a neat plain jacket with blue lappels with a gold epaulette blue pantaloons and hussar boots with a black tassel in front and a plate to their black sword belt with a plain GR with the Crown over it and the King’s regulation sword: the Field Officers to have two epaulettes and to wear a sabre round the waist: the serjeants and privates to have jackets according to the regulation without any lace and blue pantaloons and half black gaiters: the drummers laced down the seams and over the arms with white lace … I hope all the volunteers except the Officers the Serjeant and Drum Majors will wear their hair round in their necks.

Willson’s volunteer chart of 1806 confirms the basic colours, and gives the officers’ uniforms  as unlaced. As the corps requested arms and accoutrements from government, the infantry’s black belts would have been Ordnance issue, as were their belt plates, judging by the generic design of the officers’.

The Duke’s sword

A surviving Order Book gives a few more details. While other ranks did indeed wear their hair ‘short and round in the neck’ and without powder, the sergeant major and drill sergeant were to wear theirs short but powdered. Officers’ hair, uncropped, was to be ‘powdered and greased’. Officers were to provide themselves with regimental great coats, the sword and sash to be worn over them. A sword surviving in the Royal Collections is cautiously identified as the Duke’s as Colonel. It is described as ‘a military boatshell small-sword’ with a gilt bronze hilt and the grip bound with silver wire, in a black leather scabbard.

In July 1804 eight drill sergeants were still employed. Sergeants at drill and on duty were to wear ‘Shell Jackets and Frock [forage] Caps’. From March 1804, interestingly, the sergeant major and ‘attested sergeant’, in full or undress, were to wear their great coats slung on their backs. At inspection that April, the senior sergeants (sergeant major, drum major, orderly sergeant) were in long gaiters, suggesting that they wore white breeches; the remaining sergeants wore half gaiters, presumably with their blue pantaloons.

As for the cavalry, the Duke enthused:

The uniform of the troop will be beautiful: it will be [for officers] in red blue and gold what your fine regiment [the 10th Light Dragoons] is in blue yellow and silver: the pantaloons are to be red: the officers to have Felt Caps with red and gold tassels: the privates leather caps like yours and no helmets … the serjeants and privates of the troop the same in red blue and white and silver as your regiment in blue yellow and white and silver.

The model here is the 10th Light Dragoons, the Prince of Wales’s regiment. What is described is a light dragoon jacket of scarlet for officers, with dark blue collar and cuffs, gold lace edging and looping, gilt metal, and scarlet pantaloons ornamented with gold lace. The men’s red jackets, faced blue, and red pantaloons, are edged and ornamented in white lace, with silver metal.

Officers of the 10th in watering caps, by Robert Dighton

The men’s caps are the ‘leather watering cap’ as authorised for regular light dragoons in 1796, and issued every four years from 1803. While ‘watering cap’ may originally have meant a forage cap, a tall cylindrical cap was worn by several light dragoon regiments in the early 1800’s, as an alternative to the helmet, and such caps, with folding peaks for officers, are shown in several images of the 10th. It is interesting to see that those of the officers here are of black felt. The Spelthorne caps have red and gold cords and tassels for officers, and presumably white for the men’s. No cap plate is mentioned; feather plumes, if following those of the 10th, may have been white over red.

The red pantaloons, worn presumably with Hessian boots, prefigure those later adopted by the 10th Hussars, and may have been the inspiration for them. William’s preference for red as a national uniform colour found full expression during his reign from 1830. It’s possible that the troop later adopted proper Hussar features, such as ‘mirliton’ or fur caps and pelisses, but I’ve seen no evidence for this.


Royal Collections, Georgian Papers, GEO/MAIN/44915-23.

Sun (London), 10 September 1804 – notice of the Hammersmith meeting.

C ffoulkes, ‘General Order Book of the Spelthorne Legion …’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol 21, No 81, Spring 1942. This gives excerpts from an order book of 1803-04 and, much more briefly, an accounts book of 1803-09. Their location is not now known. Another Legion order book, of 1805-06, was sold by Dreweatts Auctions in 2014. Its contents have not been published.

Charles Stonham & Benson F M Freeman, ‘The Royal Middlesex Light Horse Yeomanry Cavalry’, Territorial Service Gazette, 8 September 1908, reprinted in West Middlesex Gazette, 17 July 1909.

Surrow boots, sharpshooter shoes and latest pages

Plodding through Volume II of R S Guernsey’s interminable New York City and Vicinity During the War of 1812-15 (1895),  I came across a claim by Sergeant Elias Conklin, of a New York militia rifle company, for reimbursement by the state for the cost of his uniform. His long list of items, with Yankee thoroughness, included one ‘pair Surrow boots’ at five dollars. But what’s a Surrow boot? 

Suwarrow in pointy boots

A good question. Google throws up just one more mention, from the Recollections of a Rev Dr Jeter, excerpted in a couple of US papers in 1879:

The dandies wore boots of a different style. Their legs were stiff, reaching rather more than half-way to the knee, cut at the top and in front in the form of a heart, with a black silk tassel suspended from the lowest point of the indentation. They were called “Surrow boots”; why I know not, nor am I sure that my spelling of them is correct.

So, what we uniformologists term a Hessian boot, but corruptly spelt. What was the original? ‘Suorrow’ brings up a couple more references, and ‘Suwarow’ many more, but switching the ‘w’ to a cyrillic ‘v’ reveals that ‘Suwarow’, or ‘Surrow’ for short, was none other than Alexander Suvorov, the Russian general who, dying in 1800, seems to have lent his name to generations of snazzy boots, at least in the imagination of the cartoonists. 

Given that Sergeant Conklin had been a rifleman, I had wondered if a Surrow boot might be front laced, in the manner of the elusive sharpshooter’s high-laced shoes pondered in this post, but sadly not. However, just such a boot does turn up in a watercolour by Charles Hamilton Smith in his uniform compendium at the V&A. (Thank you, as always, Ben Townsend for the photo.) A small figure of a Hompesch rifleman circa 1800, on close inspection, wears not gaiters but short brown boots, laced zig-zag up the front. Sharpshooter shoes indeed. Somewhere there will be a better image, if I can ever find it.

Latest pages on this site deal with the Shropshire Militia of 1762 to 1805 (later years still to come), and the Provisional Cavalry of 1797, covering a wide range of counties and trying to put some cloth on the neglected bones of those much disparaged horsemen.

The Military Duchess and the Derbyshire Militia

As a gesture towards completism, I’ve added a page to this site covering the Derbyshire Militia from their faltering beginnings in the 1760’s to the close of the Napoleonic period. For anyone interested, the page is here. There is no regimental archival material to hand, and no unit history seems ever to have been attempted, so there are blank areas aplenty. But – if only as padding – my discussion takes a brief excursion to consider the military costume of the Colonel’s wife, celebrity bad girl Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, portrayed a little creatively by Keira Knightley in the 2008 film, The Duchess, and still a bit of a favourite in the history blogs.

I suppose that the actual notion of ‘fashion’ in dress, in the modern sense, can barely have existed before the mid-eighteenth century. It’s curious that in such an early phase it should have found a brief focus in women in uniform at a militia training camp. But then, the whole ephemeral newsworthiness of the Coxheath and Warley Camps of 1778-79, with all the attendant gossip, scandal, satire and raciness, seems one of those monstrous irrationalities that characterise the Age of Reason.

There’s a feast for the academic to chew on here. A noblewoman in a feminised form of male uniform, in the same environment as similarly dressed courtesans: issues of gender, sexuality and class, virtue and vice, and the citizen soldiery set against professionalism. (We read that the Duchess and her followers requested that the regimental bands should play while they dined, but that General Keppler, camp commander and a protege of Cumberland, intervened on the ground that no appearance of comparative luxury should make the private soldier resentful in his hardship.) I expect much of this has been looked at, especially the gender stuff, though I wouldn’t really claim to know.

With the waning of the initial novelty, the Duchess of Devonshire found other projects to occupy her, not least political and personal. But the ‘daughter of the regiment’ look, created in a militia context, became a strangely persistent form of costume.

‘Fashioning Regulation’ plus Shropshire Militia riflemen

It’s nice to be proved right occasionally. In December I predicted that the only thing better than Volume 1 of Ben Townsend’s Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion, his in-depth study of British uniforms of 1800-1815, would be Volume 2. And so it is, with no insult intended to the first. A good hundred pages longer, this time the coverage is deepened, but the high standard maintained and exceeded. The transcribed documents of the yearly ‘Regulation’ chapters are even more fully and thoughtfully contextualised, while the alternating essay-type chapters are symmetrically packed with supporting documents. This is a real encyclopaedia of its

The central focus this time is the Prince Regent’s regulation of 1812, which, for better or worse, comprehensively Europeanised the appearance of his army. Every conceivable piece of evidence on this aspect has been included, and it’s fascinating, for instance, to see the Carlton House descriptions of pattern caps and helmets set against what was finally chosen.

Other discussions include undress clothing (highly useful), officers’ greatcoats and ‘long’ pelisses (ground breaking), the minefield of confusing legwear (excuse the mixed metaphor) and the revelatory evidence of the many prints of British soldiers produced during the Occupation of Paris – previously dismissed as fanciful satires but now opened up as a major new source on what was really worn.

Brilliant stuff, and available now from Helion Books. No doubt it will be discounted in due course – Helion’s books seemingly always are – but is it worth the lengthy wait? I didn’t think so, and I’m pleased I didn’t. I shall be referring to this book for years to come.

A final note – a page is now uploaded here with a fairly tight case study of the rifle companies of the Shropshire Militia, from their formation in 1810. Click here to find it, or try the usual links round the edge. The rest of the Shropshire regiment may follow at some point, but it’s a major task, as much of the evidence – all of it in the case of the rifles – is archival, and putting it together involves juggling an awful lot of snippets from correspondence, bills, invoices, returns etc. And not many pictures.

The Shropshire rifle companies are interesting. Hosting riflemen within an existing regiment may have influenced some aspects of dress, particularly that of the buglers. Or the ‘Bugle Blowers’ as Sergeant Jones the regimental tailor liked to call them …

A mystery volunteer

Here’s an unusual miniature, courtesy of its owner, Guido Smoglian, who is looking to identify the corps in question.

The musket, bayonet, and brush and picker indicate a private, while the uniform has to be that of a volunteer of the 1803 generation. The double breasted jacket might suggest an officer’s, but is a style known for a minority of volunteer corps. As for what looks something like an epaulette on the right shoulder, I admit I’m puzzled, unless what’s intended is a shoulder strap with a gold lace edge and fringe – again, a known volunteer affectation.

The use of a waist belt, with a lion’s head clasp, is unusual. We have a fine view of the 1800 cap, with what may be a generic plate with a crowned garter and cypher, but with bespoke initials – “LWV” in script – in the lower panel. The buttons show the same lettering.

The only traceable corps with exactly these initials is the Lackenheath (Lakenheath) and Wangford Volunteers, who did indeed have blue facings. But of course the “L” may well be for “Loyal”, which opens up the field to include Whitehaven, Withington, Warrington and Wigan, all with blue facings but omitting other W’s with silver lace or unknown facing colours. No button of this design or close seems to be known with a viable identification.

My hunch is for Warrington or Wigan, given that Philips’ First Manchester Battalion of “Fourth Class” volunteers wore a jacket of this cut. But it is entirely a hunch!

Can anyone help us with this identification?

A Very Modern War – plus Staffordshire Yeomanry

It’s generally recognised that the Great War against France of 1793-1815 was a truly globalised affair, involving conflict from Canada to the Cape, from Buenos Ayres to Batavia, from Sweden to Seringapatam. A World War, in fact.

But it was also, in many aspects, and despite later rival claims, the first truly modern war – as these period snippets might help to illustrate:

Meanwhile, just one new page on this site to tag here – on the Staffordshire Yeomanry of 1794 to 1826. It’s a bit of a monster, given that visual evidence is short, archival evidence is lengthy, and I’ve tried to overhaul the whole topic in some detail. Goodness knows who’ll want to trawl through, but anyway it’s there, as a point of reference.

“Whiskered tools of power”: Lord Grantham and The Black Dwarf

In his Fashioning Regulation (see previous post) Ben Townsend notes that in the British service of the eighteen-noughties and teens the alien moustache was generally regarded as a Germanic import. But it seems also that, for some, such foreignness could take on an oppressively political significance – at least judging by a curious episode first chronicled in Wooler’s British Gazette and The Black Dwarf, the papers of the radical satirist Thomas J Wooler, and then picked up widely by the mainstream press of the day.

At the termination of their spell of permanent duty in June 1819, Colonel Lord Grantham had made the customary speech to his regiment of West Yorkshire Yeomanry, lately re-branded as the Yorkshire Hussars (again, see previous post), remarking that –

He could not detain them long in alluding to a circumstance so trifling in itself, as the wearing mustachios on the upper lip, which had been stigmatized by certain persons as an attempt to Germanize them. The fact was, that he, as commander of the regiment, had no wish, nor issued any orders on the subject, but it had arisen from the right feeling and good sense of the corps; who when they had taken the name of Hussars thought they ought also to assume their appearance. He was perfectly aware the existence of such a regiment was not a very agreeable circumstance to certain persons in the neighbourhood …

Such persons, he warned his men darkly, would oppose them “by striving to impress upon their minds that they were the whiskered tools of power.”

But he trusted if ever they had to cut down those gentry, they would let them know that although they were hairy on the upper lip, they could shave close.

(Despite this, he concluded by suggesting that, as farmers, they might opt to lose the moustaches.) This provocation (coming just a few weeks before Peterloo) was promptly picked up by Wooler in The Black Dwarf of 30 June in a commentary couched in “the most insulting and irritating language, though perhaps … not … within the legal and technical character of a libel”. The freshly moustachioed yeomanry, declared Wooler, were –

… things who dare not be men, lest his Lordship should be offended … fawning dependants, or the subtle slaves of the great, with a few fools, and a larger proportion of coxcombs.

There was much more of the same. On 10 July an unidentified stranger appeared at Wooler’s Fleet Street office, demanding to see the writer of the offending article. Wooler “in his usually facetious manner [responded] lightly, and with indifference”. The stranger furiously demanded a published apology for the “scurrilously abusive” language. Wooler challenged him to prove that it was so.

Cruikshank’s topical cartoon [British Museum] has Grantham as a Herculean (and fully mustachioed) giant belabouring Wooler as the Black Dwarf

At this point things turned physical, the complainant aiming several blows with his cane, and Wooler making “a spirited resistance”. The noise of the fight brought up some compositors and printers from downstairs, who collared the attacker; he declined to give his name but offered a visiting card, revealing himself to be Lord Grantham of St James Square.

A Lord! A Lord! escaped involuntarily, with a burst of laughter, from the bye-standers; and … in pity to the title, he was suffered to depart, amid the derision of the spectators …

Some papers expected the affair to be revived in court, but in the event Wooler printed a grudging retraction. On one of Grantham’s own images of his Hussars (above, and see previous post) appears a hint of fluff on an upper lip, though a painting of the period at the National Army Museum has distinct moustaches all round.

Various accounts of this incident appear in, among others, Bell’s Weekly Messenger of 12 July 1819, the Staffordshire Advertiser of 17 July, the Leeds Intelligencer of the 19th, and the Westmorland Gazette and Yorkshire Gazette of
the 24th.

‘Can we not fight without dying in tinsel?’ Plus new pages

Hostile reaction to the “muffeteer” styling of the newly converted Hussar regiments of the British army is knowingly and entertainingly discussed within Ben Townsend’s chapter on “The Rise, Wobble and Triumph of the Hussar Craze” in his excellent Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion, Vol 1, published earlier this year by Helion. (Incidentally, if you’re into British uniforms of 1800-15 and you haven’t bought this book, do so. Right now. The only thing better will be Volume 2.)

This bizarre episode in military couture has much to offer researchers in historical gender studies, appearing to some as an outburst of “effeminacy”, and “foreign” to boot. But there are other interesting strands, too. Here’s a prolonged rant – or at least some selected passages – that I happened across while trawling the papers, by “AN OFFICER … and a decided enemy to extravagance”, submitted to the Editor of the Tyne Mercury, Northumberland and Durham and Cumberland Gazette for 28 January 1806:

Good God! are our Colonels, and even some of our Generals, fit for nothing but to be master taylors? Instead of studying military tactics, languages, or the geography of their country, they are inventing the pattern of a cuff or a pantaloon, or admiring (like a woman), their head-dress in the glass, at the same time ruining the fortunes, expectations, credit, and character of their inferior officers …

On [a light dragoon] officer joining now, he must provide himself, (can it be believed?) with no less than four different head dresses; namely, the real useful, but at present discarded and unfashionable helmet; a most expensive hussar cap; an immense cocked hat; and a fine superbly laced foraging or watering cap … how truly ridiculous it is to see our modern light dragoons strutting about with immense heavy dragoon cocked hats, like sparrows without tails …

… I will next proceed to the jacket, pelisses, and pantaloons. Look at an officer in them. Why, his fortune is on his back, or they are not paid for – one or the other. He is nothing but lace before and behind, up to the elbows and down to the knees … Then to be completely an hussar, an officer must have gold lace and embroidered cartouch belts and boxes, sabre or sabel tashes, and belts, expensive hussar sashes, two or three swords and sword knots, a pair of spurs for every pair of boots, shabrackes and rich horse accoutrements; and some regiments (can it be credited!) have their regimental pipes and tobacco pouches, and even the very whiffing of their tobacco is regulated by the movement of the commanding officer when they are on the parade, according to whichever flank he moves to; the same as eyes right, eyes left, it is, whiff right, whiff left …

… an officer now on joining one of those regiments, must have a ready money fortune of 3 or 400 guineas at least, to enable him to equip himself, or he will know the consequence in a short time … An officer of the old school would never comprehend, and would be astonished at the recapitulation of the jawbreaking names of our new fashioned foreign frippery. Can we not fight without dying in tinsel?

Let us resume our helmets like English dragoons. Let us cast off our foppery. Let us be armed for war, not for parade and show … Let us banish effeminacy far away … Then we shall not be ruined in our fortunes and our character … and we shall cast away all our superfluous articles, or make a present of them to the theatres. What else are they fit for?

The Hussar pipe craze is well documented, but was there anything behind the allegation of “whiffing” by numbers on parade? As for the charge of extravagance, Ben tabulates in his book numerous prices extrapolated from the Meyer tailor’s ledger that easily substantiate this: an officer of the 7th Hussars obliged to part with £57 in 1810 for just a jacket, pelisse, waistcoat, pantaloons and overalls, let alone all the rest of his necessary kit, would have to fork out £4,522 in today’s money, according to the Bank of England’s handy online inflation calculator. Nor were the auxiliaries immune to foppish posing, as suggested by the rather nice etching above by Colonel Thomas, Lord Grantham, of the court dress of the Yorkshire Hussars.

Speaking of Yorkshire, there are two more new pages on this site; they cover the North Yorkshire Militia of 1759-1820 (quite extensively), and (a bit more unevenly) Lancashire yeomanry and association cavalry of 1797-1828. The North York page touches, among other things, on the vexed issue of the regiment’s legendary (or urban legendary?) green clad “riflemen” of 1795. Were they or weren’t they? It’s a niche topic, but there’s no niche so tiny that no-one takes an interest.

The Dorsets and Nancy Dawson

Period newspaper reports of reviews and inspections of militia or volunteers are mostly uninformative but routinely flattering; every unit, no matter how unrehearsed, receives the highest encomiums for going through its motions in a manner that would have done credit to the most seasoned veterans etc etc. But here’s one with a couple of points of rather more interest, from the Derby Mercury of 30 October 1761, in which the King, “mounted on a beautiful Cream-coloured Stone Horse”, reviews the Dorsetshire Militia in Hyde Park:

… the Men were well sized, and made a very noble and martial Appearance; they went thro’ their Exercise, Evolutions and Firings, with a Dexterity which charmed and surprized the numerous Spectators; among other Particulars, the Fifes played several Tunes, as Nancy Dawson, &c. &c. the Drummer beating with one Stick, imitating Tabor and Pipe, and all the Officers and Men in their marching kept the most exact Time to the Music with the Motion of their Feet, in the most delightful and beautiful manner; they likewise represented a Scene as if defeated, and all ran five hundred different Ways at once amongst the Crowd, and all of a sudden every Man in a few Minutes Time was in his Place again, to the Astonishment of the Beholders.

The “astonishing” dispersal and re-assembly is curious; I don’t recall hearing of this before, and, needless to say, nothing like it appears in The Manual Exercise, for the Dorsetshire Regiment of Militia of 1759. I was put in mind of some aspects of modern continuity drill. (But didn’t Ellsworth’s Zouave Cadets of Chicago originate continuity drill in 1859?) Or was this a light infantry movement? But again, this is 1761, and light infantry have not yet been invented, at least not in the British service.

As for the music, the method of drumming is interesting; was the one-man pipe and tabor that it imitated still popular in the mid-eighteenth century? I imagine so. It’s a pity we’re not told of the rest of the folk/pop medley, but Nancy Dawson, or Miss Dawson’s Hornpipe, supposedly by Thomas Arne, was the hit melody of the day, as performed (as Wikipedia tells me) by the eponymous dancer and actress – real name Ann Newton – in the intervals to John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. The title seems later to have become confused with Here we go round the Mulberry Bush, A-roving and other quite unrelated stuff, but the original tune is perfectly distinct; there’s a decent version here, though this fife and drum performance, while clearly authentic, seems a little ploddy, and one wants something rather more lively.

In their first embodiment the Dorsets seem to have been a showy and affluent lot, judging by Reynolds’ portrait of Lieutenant Sir Gerard Napier (above, also huge enlargement here); I visualise the Hyde Park sunlight sparkling from his lashings of gold lace as the regiment steps out in one body, the Motion of their Feet in exact Time to the fife and drum of Nancy Dawson.

What a pretty thing war can be at times! A shame it has to be marred by such cruelty and violence …

Truth, beauty and Percy Reynolds. Plus more Militia!

Browsing back numbers of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research (JSAHR), I found some musings by that peerless compiler and illustrator, Perceval W Reynolds – a sort of uniformological stock take, blandly titled “Our present knowledge of past British uniform dress”. This was in 1927, back in the days when the JSAHR was crammed with historical uniform stuff, and not the highfalutin academic publication it is today. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.)

As a reminder, here’s a couple of Percy Reynolds’ fine watercolours (photos courtesy of Ben Townsend). I’ve never come across an image of PWR himself, so it’s hard to imagine the man, though I have the impression of a scrupulous and shrewdly intelligent mind, more inclined to the technical than to the philosophical. But rounding off his survey of the various sources of information available to the uniform researcher, Reynolds doesn’t hesitate to address the philosophical elephant in the room: why do we even bother? What’s the point of it all?

‘Finally, it may be asked, of what use is the more exact knowledge of the former costumes, when acquired? Of course the main purpose is to elucidate the truth for its own sake, because one is interested in what the bygone soldiers looked like, as well as in how they were trained, and what they achieved.’

There we are. Truth for truth’s sake, end of. I don’t suppose Reynolds was much aware of Freud, and this was decades before before the real advent of semiotics, so he was hardly able to flag up any deeper meanings that could justify his life’s work. Perhaps he looked into the abyss of pointlessness and recoiled, for he goes on, a bit hastily, to chuck in a couple of subsidiary reasons that don’t really cut it: one, knowledge of historical changes may shed light on current developments, and two, identification of a uniform can help to identify portraits where the sitter’s name has been lost to time. Both valid enough in their way, but mere nuts to crack an ontological sledgehammer, I think.

The real force of Reynolds’ comments is in his implication that the truth about anything, no matter how seemingly arcane or insignificant, must have an absolute value. And because of this, much of his discussion of material items, images or documents as evidence is necessarily given over to their weaknesses, to the many ways in which they can betray or distort the historical truth. In this respect, secondary sources are certainly not to be trusted:

‘Everyone who investigates a subject of this kind, also finds that a small portion of what comes before him has to be rejected as mere invention or fabrication, and that a rather large portion is confused or mistaken. He has, in fact, involuntarily to compile a sort of footnote to that “History of Human Error” which a character in one of Bulwer Lytton’s novels was supposed to be writing. In briefly surveying the several classes set out, it is needful therefore to note the traps and uncertainties peculiar to each of them.’

He’s right. Only last night I made the mistake of downloading to my Kindle an e-book on AWI British and Loyalist uniforms that turned out to be no more than an indiscriminate collage from secondary sources, without a single primary reference or period image. That was two quid I won’t get back. I ought to know better.

So, in the spirit of Perceval R, here are five more pages on my chosen Militia regiments:

Cheshire Militia 1759-1816

Gloucestershire: Royal North Gloucestershire Militia (2nd or Gloucestershire Fuzileers) 1760-1814

Gloucestershire: Royal South Gloucestershire Militia (1st) 1759-1816

Warwickshire Militia 1759-1814

East Yorkshire Militia 1760-1816

One or two of these are a bit on the thin side, others far more comprehensive. None are in any sense definitive or complete, whatever that might mean. But as information accumulates on these neglected regiments, it begins to cohere on the page, and with that gathering coherence lost truths from our past are reassembled. Which makes, as John Keats suggested, for a kind of beauty.