A dress coat of the Grimston Hussars

Here’s a rather beautiful item I can’t resist posting, which bobbed up unexpectedly during some recent routine browsing. It was lot 56 in the vast and remarkable historic fashion collection of California collector Helen Larson, sold a year ago by Charles A Whitaker Auctions of Philadelphia, and was, I think, the single military item in the collection, most – or all? – of which seems to have been bought by the FIDM Museum of Los Angeles. Described simply as an anonymous “red wool military coat”, it is in fact an example of that rather overlooked garment, a light cavalry officer’s dress coat, and the buff facings and lining, the silver and buff braid, and the crown and “GY” buttons tie it incontrovertibly to the Grimston Yeomanry of East Yorkshire, the 1803 revival of the earlier East Riding Yeomanry detailed on this page. [Click to enlarge all images.]

When the light dragoon field uniform was radically replaced by a jacket and shell in 1784, the officer’s dress coat remained as prescribed in 1768, though now in dark blue. This oddity was ironed out in 1788, when a new dress coat was introduced; a fine drawing of an 11th Light Dragoons example of 1798, in the Welch and Stalker pattern book at the V&A, shows the new style to have been a version of the 1784 jacket, but with longer skirts and full double turnbacks edged with two rows of braid. (For the texts of the 1784 and 1788 orders, see Hew Strachan’s indispensable British Military Uniforms, pages 112 and 115.) This was certainly an update, but meanwhile the officer’s jacket had moved on to the 1796 closed “hussar” style, leaving the coat still a step behind the fashion curve. Two other drawings in Welch and Stalker, both for yeomanry dress coats of 1801 and 1803, show that the final version of the coat used the richly laced and buttoned jacket style front, but keeping the full skirts, with those curious three branched pendant ornaments introduced on the 1784 jacket.

And that’s what we have here. A skirt ornament (a silver star between script “GY”) has gone, and the scarlet is patched here and there, but it’s still a breathtaking item: the heavy silver braid, interwoven with buff, is particularly impressive, and on the cuffs and turnbacks the double edging is laid onto a scarlet “galloon” to show a scarlet light, which is real quality. It’s the only surviving garment I know of for the 1803 Grimston Yeomanry, or “Grimston Hussars” as they also liked to be known. (It could even be the very coat referred to by William Vaughan, tailor to Captain Thomas Grimston, when he enquired if the new “scarlet regimental frock” should “be made Hussar fashion, same as the last.” ) Is it the sole surviving light cavalry dress coat of its type?

Offhand, I’m really not sure how long these coats lasted in the regular light cavalry; for a start, they seem to have been abandoned by regiments converting to Hussar status. I have a vague recollection of an order prescribing them to be worn with cocked hats, breeches and shoes for “court” occasions – or was that for riflemen? Same thing, I guess. Feel free to set me right.

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George Smart’s Infernal Machine

The brief but startling report below appeared in the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal for Friday 3 February 1804, appended to reports of storms and so forth from the paper’s correspondent in Frant, near Tunbridge Wells, clearly an enthusiast for italics. It re-appeared in a number of papers for that month – the Chester Courant, the Lancaster Gazette, the Staffordshire Advertiser and probably others, since column-filling copy was freely filched in those days, and soon went viral (or as viral as anything could be in 1804), arriving by April almost word for word in The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, and no doubt elsewhere.

INFERNAL MACHINE

A very ingenious young man of the name of Smart, a journeymen taylor in this parish, has invented an infernal machine, which, when placed in any point of contact against an invading force, is capable of destroying a thousand men in a minute. The expence, I am told, will be small when compared with its utility. He leaves this [place] on Monday morning to explain to the Duke of Richmond, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, of[sic] the model of his machine, &c.; it has met the general approbation of all the Gentlemen Volunteer Officers in that neighbourhood; the inventor is a volunteer himself, though a tailor. Should it meet the approbation of the Duke of Richmond, Smart will undertake to conduct it himself into the center of the enemy’s legions; the great merit in the construction of this machine is, that he can remain in perfect safety in the center, while he deals death and destruction to all around him, and he is capable of re-charging in ten minutes; and it can be moved with one horse, with the greatest facility, at the rate of eight miles an hour.

In the British Library copy of this paper the original owner, a compulsive annotator, has noted beneath in wobbly copperplate: “Remark the above”, as well he might.

So far, I’ve been unable to discover the Duke’s reaction, on which the papers seem silent. Not very enthusiastic, one suspects. Nor does there seem to be any image of Smart’s model of his invention, but the description may give some clues. “Any point of contact” suggests something circular, on a turret principle, while “a thousand men in a minute” surely implies a primitive machine gun; note that “re-charging” would take a full ten minutes. And for the operator to “remain in perfect safety in the centre” must have required some sort of protective plating. What comes to mind is a one-man, horse-drawn version of Leonardo’s celebrated armoured vehicle of 1487, or maybe a covered version of James Sadler’s “moving battery”, or “curricle flying artillery” discussed in this post. (Though Sadler’s vehicle required one man to load and one to fire, plus a driver.) I’m left wondering how Smart’s machine would have gone on if and when the horse was shot, which seems the obvious weakness.

If we know no more about the infernal machine itself, we know quite a lot about its inventor, although, beyond his time in the Pevensey Legion, this seems to have been his single military moment. The Tunbridge Wells tailor George Smart (1775-1846) has become something of a rediscovered hero of English folk art, on account of his quirky cloth collage portraits, sold from his cottage, branded as “Smart’s Repository”. An 1830 view of Frant, with the tiny figure of Smart outside the Repository (right of the carriage) seems to be the only image we have of him. The “artist in cloth and velvet figures” was a tireless self-publicist, often in verse:

Come here, I say, come here ye quizzers,
Who laugh at Taylors and at scissors,
And see how Smart makes that utensil
Out-do the Chisel, Brush and Pencil.
With Genius Quick, and true to nature,
He makes a suit for every creature;
And fits alike the whole creations,
In newest style the latest Fashion …

And so on. In his later years, Smart cultivated a conspicuously eccentric character, but his notoriety and affluence faded, and on his death in 1846 he was given a pauper’s burial. A useful outline of his life and career by James Gregory is available here, and a full length study by Hector Medora, focused mainly on the folk art, is downloadable here. A Smart blog, promoting the art book by Jonathan Christie, is here.

Finally, my favourite Smart collage, a version of his Earth Stopper. The effect of the “apparition” on the gent on horseback must be akin to that anticipated by Smart of the appearance of his infernal machine among the enemy legions.


The Reverend Ware’s experimental Machine

In the froth of public excitement over the new volunteer corps of 1803, the novelty of riflemen bubbled large, with small units sometimes attracting disproportionate attention. The Yorkshire press provided a willing outlet for news of the doings of the Stockton Forest Riflemen of the North Riding, commanded, clothed and equipped by an enthusiastic clergyman (evidently with time and money on his hands), the formidable Reverend John Ware. (Further details of the corps on this page.) Risking hyperbole, the Leeds Intelligencer of 30 January 1804 found Captain Ware’s little company to be –

Perhaps … one of the best appointed corps in the kingdom … all active, spirited young men, ready to follow their commander into any danger.

At their inspection that month, their firing prone from cover attracted the particular attention of the Intelligencer’s correspondent, as the corps

… went through their various skirmishings with great accuracy and precision. The novelty of the scene was heightened by a party retiring, being concealed behind the ridge of a
land, commenced[sic] an independent firing as
they lay on the ground, turning on their backs
to load, and firing on their bellies.

At April’s inspection, the York Herald declared itself much impressed by the riflemen’s ambush of the inspecting officer, Lieutenant Colonel Skelly, –

on whose arrival at the ground the corps, being previously concealed among the bushes, commenced an independent firing, when nothing but the report had any tendency to show from whence the shots proceeded.

Two months later, Reverend Ware was able to keep his corps in the public gaze by undertaking a daring logistical trial. The Herald of 9 June announced:

We understand that an experiment will be made by a party of Captain Ware’s Rifle Corps, to ascertain the degree of expedition with which they could travel in case of emergency. They are to start on Wednesday next the 13th inst. from York at six o’clock in the morning to proceed to Hull, when they are to halt two hours, and return again to York, where it is supposed they will arrive about six o’clock the same evening. The excursion will be attended by several military gentlemen.

A rather posher Machine in use by the London & Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, in Thomas Rowlandson’s print ‘Expedition, or Military Fly’

At this point, volunteer corps were expected to supply themselves with vehicles, if only adapted farm waggons, in which their baggage or men might be swiftly moved in the event of mobilisation. Whatever the “Machine” was exactly on which Ware’s men embarked – a converted cart or carriage of some kind? – it was one of a number of similar contrivances tested and applauded nation wide at the time. The Herald of 16 June gave an account of the high speed trial:

On Wednesday morning at six o’clock, a Machine, built in this city for the purpose, started from the Tavern with 22 men fully armed and accoutred, &c. who, with the Machine, weighed 383 stone, or 2 ton 63 stone … The Machine was drawn by four horses, on which were two postilions.

They arrived at Hull within four hours, notwithstanding the traces of the horses broke twice, which caused a considerable delay; besides a further delay of waiting for the post-horses at Market-Weighton, owing to a mistake in the orders.

At Hull the exhausted riflemen paused for a couple of hours “for the purpose of taking refreshment, calling upon Gen McKenzie, &c.,” before returning to York at approximately the same speed, “notwithstanding a delay of 20 minutes by the accident of firing an axletree.” The 81 mile round journey (subtracting recovery time in Hull) was accomplished in eight and a quarter hours. The York Herald sounded a triumphant note:

We believe the above is the shortest time in which such a number of men have been conveyed so great a distance, and reflects much credit on Capt. Ware’s patriotic exertions; as it fully demonstrates in how short a period a number of men may be conveyed to any part of the kingdom, by having similar Machines in readiness at different places.

In an era when a respectable day’s infantry march might be reckoned at 15 miles, this demonstration of ten miles an hour by a horse-drawn personnel carrier over doubtful roads must indeed have seemed impressive, though it’s maybe as well that such “Machines” were never put to the test en masse in the event of invasion.


Bringing out the big guns: the Percies’ wall pieces

This rather wonderful watercolour (click all images to enlarge) turned up on eBay a while ago, offered as a scene of unidentified military training. (The seller’s “watermark” still disfigures the cropped details further below, but I’ve cleaned up the full image digitally, if a bit amateurishly. Enough to give us some idea of the original, anyway.)


The cap insignia and the pantaloons, or “gaiter-trousers”, of white duck are the give-aways. These solemn farmers in rifle outfits are the riflemen of the Percy Tenantry, that outsized and distinctly feudal legion of volunteers first commanded by Hugh Percy, Second Duke of Northumberland. (Their regimental roll, sealed in a glass tube, still sits within the foundation stone of the equally outsized and distinctly feudal memorial column erected in his Lordship’s honour in Alnwick in 1816.) Massively out-legioning the rival Cheviot Legion of Northumberland, the Tenantry by 1805 had ballooned to six troops of cavalry, a company of flying artillery and a full seventeen companies of rifles. A surprisingly large quantity of their bits and pieces still survives, providing a highlight for visitors to Alnwick Castle.

The painting is captioned at lower right in one hand “Military Exercise”, and in another “By T Rogers”. On page 435 of the first volume of Mackenzie’s Historical, Topographical and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland … of 1825, appears a brief input on the neglect of local harbour facilities by “an obliging correspondent, Mr Thomas Rogers”. As an keen observer of the local scene, Thomas Rogers of Long Houghton, then a “straggling village” just four miles from Alnwick, may have been our mystery watercolourist.

Keen sighted readers will already have noticed the outsized firearms – each carried by two men – being walked out with their tripods. These are the famed rifled “wall pieces” – one for each of the seventeen companies – issued from the Tower in 1806. Three men from each company were detailed to “learn the Great Guns Exercise”, training for at least a week per year under Captain John Toppin of the artillery company. In his excellent “Percy’s Tenants Volunteered” (BCMH conference paper, 2009), Guy Wilson tells the story:

To be frank, Toppin didn’t think much of the guns at first. They started practising on Alnmouth sands on 19 January 1807. The first day was not a success. ‘The weather and sea being rough we could not find a single ball’. However, as they gradually got used to the guns accuracy improved, though the weather did not. Firing 135 rounds a day on one occasion they put 56 balls into the six foot … square target at 300 yards … On another day they only managed 39 but there was some excuse. According to Toppin the weather had been ‘extremely tempestuous. The snow drifted so much that often we could not see the Target’. Toppin himself was eventually convinced of their effectiveness and wrote that at 300 or 400 yards ‘the Wall Pieces would do dreadful execution’.

No opportunity came to fire them in anger, but the full seventeen wall pieces served some purpose by making a fine noise at the celebration of the King’s Jubilee at Alnwick Castle in 1809:

Immediately after divine service, the salute commenced with 7 guns from the artillery, which was followed by all the wall pieces, and a feu de joie from the cavalry drawn up under the castle, and afterwards from the riflemen on the walls and top of the castle, which was succeeded by three cheers, and then a flourish from the bugles in the flag tower. This was twice repeated, completing the royal salute of 21 guns; after which the troops and companies returned immediately to their several places of muster, where dinners were provided for them.

Pleasing to see that, as on all proper volunteer occasions, the proceedings were rounded off by a good meal.

 


Still more new pages …

Another plug with tags, for three more new pages here. Normal posts will be resumed as soon as possible.

Two pages on more volunteers of 1803 – infantry volunteers of Cheshire and infantry and artillery of North Yorkshire.

And a first page – a pilot, really – in what may become a short series on the principal yeomanry corps of my chosen counties from the 1790’s to the 1820’s, beginning with the regiment of Warwickshire Yeomanry. (Smaller, independent cavalry units may be found within the general volunteer pages.)


More new pages: Gloucestershire, Liverpool and Warwickshire volunteers

Another plug, with tags, for more new volunteer pages on this site –

A new 1790’s page for Gloucestershire

Three new 1803 pages for  – Gloucestershire (excepting Bristol), Liverpool and Warwickshire

The 1790’s Gloucestershire page includes Bristol volunteers, but the 1803 Gloucestershire page doesn’t, purely for reasons of space. (A Bristol 1803 page could appear somewhere down the line.) The 1803 Warwickshire page includes Birmingham. Volunteer infantry, infantry associations, rifles and some artillery corps are covered here, but yeomanry and association cavalry are not.

Stretches of these pages are a bit thin in places, mainly where info on small and obscure one or two company corps, based in a village and officered by the local squirearchy, has been lost to time. But the city entries tend to make up for that, and I hope the pages will be a useful resource. If I can add to them, I will.

Links also appear in the usual places – up above and in the right hand margin.


New pages: Local Militia, volunteers of 1803

A quick post to flag up (and put down some tags for) a few new uniform pages added to my series for auxiliary forces:

For the Local Militia, pages on East Yorkshire and Worcestershire. And the start of a new set on the volunteers of 1803, beginning with Manchester and West Yorkshire, with a brief introductory page here.

Not the last word on their subjects, by any means, but they’re a start. And with more areas to come, as time allows. Meanwhile, existing pages have had small updates from time to time. As usual, links to pages from Home are either by the tabs up the top, or the Page listing at the right. Sample slide show below.