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.
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’.
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.
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.