Monthly Archives: April 2016

Providing for the Provisionals

During the Great War against France, the auxiliary forces of this nation were sanctioned by a constant flurry of legislation, often conflicting, that created or augmented militia, supplementary militia, local militia, fencibles, volunteers, armed associations, yeomanry and provisional cavalry, not to mention the army of the reserve and a proposed levée en masse. Of these the Provisional Cavalry must rank among the least successful.

Under the Provisional Cavalry Act of 1796 anyone who owned ten or more horses was required to provide one man on a horse for the county’s regiment; those owning fewer were grouped to the same purpose. Not surprisingly this measure proved less than hugely popular, and the following year an exemption was granted to any county whose yeomanry cavalry had reached three quarters of its provisional cavalry quota. Given the popularity of yeomanry service among the rural squirearchy and their farmers, and the exemption granted to volunteers from the provisional cavalry levy, in many counties the provisional cavalry was never embodied or soon disbanded.

Gladstone prov cavy plate
Yeomanry historians who mention their county’s provisional cavalry regiment sometimes suggest that its uniform is a mystery, but in fact a prescribed dress for the whole force was devised by government and adopted where required. It was cheap, cheerful and dark green, consisting of:

“Green jacket, faced with scarlet, and corded white, price 19s; green cloth pantaloons, 10s; leather cap and feather, 2s. 6d.; half-boots, 18s.”

A total of £2 9s 6d, compared with the four pounds estimated for the provisional cavalryman’s horse furniture. The records of a number of counties indicate that these patterns were adhered to at this price, though a Shropshire reference gives the pantaloons as “feathered red”, while the Staffordshire lieutenancy appears to have undercut the cost of a Tarleton “leather cap” by opting for a “round hat looped up on one side with a green feather.”
I’m not aware of any contemporary image of a provisional cavalry trooper, but Gladstone’s history of the Shropshire Yeomanry includes a much later plate purporting to show two such (above). The turban is shown as black, the feather as red over white, the facings and red turnbacks as edged in white, with a narrow white stripe (not red as recorded) to the pantaloons. How far this is accurate to any period image or to the detail of the government pattern, I’m uncertain. (The 1969 Blandford Cavalry Uniforms by the Wilkinson-Lathams includes a plate clearly based on this, but manages to introduce a number of random discrepancies.)

For the dress of officers, we have, naturally, a little more evidence, though details here must have been shaped by the preferences of the wearer and his tailor.


A fine officer’s helmet of the Lancashire Provisional Cavalry in the National Army Museum (shown here) has a red turban, but has no surviving plume. It flaunts the county distinction of the Prince of Wales’s feathers, as do the Cheshire officers’ helmets (likewise with red turbans and plumes not visible) shown in portraits at Tabley House of Sir John Leicester (above, allegedly by Reynolds) and Ralph Leycester (below), dressed in differing silver braided  versions of the uniform. (A high res image of a mezzotint of the Leicester portrait that may help to clarify details can be found here.)


In the Welch and Stalker tailor’s book at the Victoria and Albert are patterns for officers of the Dorset and North Devon regiments. The drawing for the former can be seen here on Ben Townsend’s site. A distinct regimental variation “as made for Coll. Williams & the Earl of Strafford”, this jacket of “S[uper] fine Boteille Green Cloth” is edged and trimmed in silver cord, with plated chain epaulets.

There will be other examples that I’m not aware of, but the few shown here should be enough to dispel any misconception that the Provisional Cavalry was either non-uniformed or heterogeneous, no matter how misconceived it may have been as a military initiative.

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Sadler’s chimerical Sharpshooters

As it happens, this blog takes its title from the dedication page of Loyal Volunteers, Ackermann and Rowlandson’s gigantic 1799 compendium of London armed associations. I’ve always thought one of the more interesting entries to be plate 46, which shows a member of Sadler’s Sharp Shooters – “a Light Infantry Man defending himself with [James] Sadler’s Patent Gun & long cutting Bayonet.” The figure is chic in a Tarleton and dark blue jacket and pantaloons with red trim. The “patent gun” appears rather short, but the bayonet is enormous.

sadlers
Some copies of Loyal Volunteers also contain an unnumbered and spectacular plate portraying “Sadler’s Flying Artillery” (high res image here) showing the nearest we get to Georgian tank warfare – two guns of Sadler’s own invention mounted on a light carriage drawn by two horses. In the text to the first plate this is described as “the celebrated War Chariot, in which two persons, advancing or retreating, can manage two pieces of Ordnance (three-pounders) with alacrity, and in safety, so as to do execution at the distance of two furlongs.” Options for “advancing or retreating” were enabled by setting the guns on a turret; to reverse their fire the gunners simply switched seats. As James Sadler had not got round to inventing armour plate, I’m uncertain about their “safety”, but you can’t have everything.

war chariot
The patent gun and the flying artillery were real enough, their virtues detailed by their inventor in his own Account of Various Improvements in Artillery, Fire-Arms, &c of 1798. According to Mark Davies’s biography of Sadler, both “musquet” and “moving battery”, or “curricle flying artillery”, were unveiled on June 4 1798, the King’s birthday. With the backing of Secretary at War William Windham, the latter was demonstrated successfully before royalty in 1798 and 1800, and may possibly have been shipped abroad with the army on the expedition to Holland in 1799 at the behest of the Duke of York and under the care of Sadler’s son, James junior.

sadler

James Sadler

Equally real, perhaps even larger than life, was James Sadler himself – aeronaut, inventor, chemist, naval technologist, steam engineer, creator of “philosophical fireworks”, barracks master and confectioner. There is, not surprisingly, a good deal of information available online about this extraordinary man; much more could be said about him than I have space for here, and Google will soon find it for you.

But if the guns and their inventor were real, how actual were the Sharp Shooters? I have to own up to some big doubts. Rowlandson’s fine plate is dated September 1798, but its accompanying text of August 1799 admits tartly that the corps was, even one year on, “but inconsiderable in number” and “in so imperfect a state as not to admit of illustration satisfactory to the Public.” However, it was “intended to extend them to a degree of respectability,” after which they would hopefully “join with the Westminster Associations”. A tad dysfunctional, then!

The text lists no officers (included with every other plate), not even the “ingenious Machinist” himself, but blags quaintly that the corps “is shortly to be officered by the Honourable the Board of Ordnance.” I can find no officers for the Sharp Shooters in the Gazette, members of the Board of Ordnance or not, and according to Mark Davies both the patent rifles and the war chariot were used in 1798 by the Pimlico Volunteers, with whom Sadler had some sort of connection.

sadlers medal 2There exists, however, a medal for the Sharp Shooters, for “Best Shot at Ball Practice,” awarded to a Corporal William Staples, which was sold a few years back at a prestigious auction house. However, the figure on the medal is dressed in a round hat with a tall feather, while the award is dated September 30 1802 – a time at which the corps might be expected to have stood down, like every other volunteer unit, following the Treaty of Amiens earlier that year, rather than hold a shooting match. I’m no expert on volunteer medals, but I have read that some are known fakes, and it must be simple enough to engrave something feasible on a silver blank. In Irwin’s War Medals and Decorations of 1910 this actual medal is said to be then in the collection of a Colonel Gaskell, so if it’s a fake, it’s a vintage fake.

If genuine, it may be the single surviving piece of evidence to confirm the existence of Sadler’s corps as a functioning military outfit outside the pages of Rowlandson’s Loyal Volunteers. Or were the chimerical Sharp Shooters merely a good intention? Or an ingenious PR fiction created to publicise their director’s inventions?