Monthly Archives: November 2017

“Applicable to any emergency”: the forgotten infantry volunteers of the 1820’s

With the renewal of hostilities in 1803, the yeomanry, volunteers and armed associations of the 1790’s were revived, a little more tightly regulated. In 1808 most of the volunteers converted to local militia on the institution of that force, and in 1816 local militia and surviving volunteers alike were wound up. Or at least, that’s the standard narrative. In fact, a handful of new, postwar infantry volunteer units were raised at the end of the decade, though, like their ancestors of 1759 and 1782, they have largely escaped our attention.

In Ireland, unsettled by nationalist dissent, the volunteers had never been disbanded, and a host of loyalist corps, some founded in the 1790’s, continued to parade into the 1820’s. In Scotland and England, where economic disaster fuelled political unrest, the Peterloo events prompted a revival of the volunteer movement, but for internal policing rather than for defence against invasion. The bulk of these corps was formed in Scotland – more than twenty altogether, ranging from single companies and undersized battalions to the full regiment of Glasgow Sharpshooters. Raised in 1819 and 1820, many had faltered and disbanded by the mid twenties.

In London the Honourable Artillery Company continued its peculiarly privileged existence, but was joined in 1820 by a reformed regiment of Royal East India Volunteers, “upon the plan of the regiments maintained by the Company during the late war.” The field officers of the new formation were drawn from the Directors, company officers from officers and clerks, and the NCO’s and privates from the warehouse establishment. By Royal consent, they were to wear an updated version of “the same uniform as was fixed upon by his late Majesty” for the three earlier regiments of EIC volunteers, with Royal facings of blue, the officers’ edged with gold lace.  The regiment was expected to be “particularly valuable as a local force, applicable to any emergency in the metropolis,” but also, maybe more importantly, for “the protection of the valuable property deposited in the extensive warehouses of the Company.”

Its expenses were entirely defrayed by the EIC; by the turn of the ‘thirties these amounted to well over three thousand pounds a year, about the same as the Directors’ gratuities. With the reform of the Company’s affairs in 1834, these payments were stopped, and in March of that year the regiment was disembodied, though as a Royal favour, officers were permitted to retain their ranks and honours.

Beyond the metropolis, the other half dozen new English volunteer units were neither so prestigious nor so long lived. In Somerset, the Bath Riflemen seem to have been the first to form in 1815, surviving for at least ten years as a single company. Another company at Retford in Nottinghamshire may have been attached to the Retford Yeomanry, but was defunct by 1825. In Cheshire a similar arrangement saw a small battalion of infantry in 1819 attached to the yeomanry as the King’s Cheshire Volunteer Legion; this lasted a little longer. In Staffordshire a battalion was raised in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1819, comprising four battalion companies and one of rifles, the uniform of the former “similar to that of Soldiers of the Line”. The Newcastle Volunteers lasted until August 1823.

Something more like a cluster of volunteers was established in West Yorkshire, where the Leeds Volunteers, in a “handsome” uniform, were organised in January 1820, consisting initially of three battalion companies, one grenadier and one light infantry. In April they were joined by the neighbouring Huddersfield Independent Association, or Huddersfield Riflemen, dressed in rifle green with black facings and green epaulettes. Colours were presented to the Leeds Volunteers in July 1821, but the Leeds Light Infantry, as it was later known, was dormant by 1824. The Huddersfield companies survived a while longer.

The King’s Cheshire Volunteers fire a blank volley on the beach

Not surprisingly, very little visual evidence survives for these sparse and short lived units. The silvered officer’s button of the Leeds Volunteers (above) was drawn by Denis Darmanin in 2009 for the Bulletin of the Military Historical Society. In an exaggeratedly romantic canvas of 1824 by James Ward (go here for the full painting), an ageing Sir John Leicester exercises the Cheshire yeomanry on the sands at Liverpool; in the distance, under a suitably dramatic sky, the tiny ranks of the King’s Cheshire Volunteer Infantry, colours proudly flying, engage the passing dragoons and lancers. They are very much in the background.

In the event, the yeomanry proved more adequate than these new infantry units to the task of policing a discontented populace. With the collapse of this postwar wavelet, the volunteer movement rather subsided; not until the early 1850’s did the rifle and drill clubs emerge that would generate the volunteer explosion of 1859.

Advertisements

An unremembered loss

As it’s Remembrance Sunday, here’s an image from the Anne S K Brown collection that rather startled me while browsing. This unsigned watercolour is attributed to Robert Dighton junior, and certainly has the look of his style. The collection’s cataloguer has tagged it as a staff officer in undress uniform circa 1805, which may or may not be right; at any rate, we no longer know who he was.

Dighton junior is better known for the light cavalry officers whose dandyism he details with almost homoerotic enthusiasm, but here the elegant white pantaloons terminate in an artificial leg whose inelegant form insults its living partner. Military images of the period avoid showing dismemberment; the dead and dying tend to fall gracefully and unbloodied, often in classical positions. Dighton’s matter-of-fact portrait is unusual. One wonders how an officer missing half a leg managed to continue in service, unless in an invalid battalion, but the alternative, I suppose, would have been the misery of half-pay.

It would be better if the world had found a way to enjoy the dandyism and avoid the dismemberment, but so far it hasn’t, and that’s a fact. In the final analysis, there’s nothing good about war.


A bit of glory but no death: the Warrington Bluebacks

There can’t be too many surviving blue coats from the armed associations of 1798, so it’s nice to know that the Lancashire Infantry Museum has an example, previously in Warrington Museum, worn by the Loyal Warrington Volunteers of Lancashire. Their site’s image [click to enlarge all images] doesn’t quite show the whole thing, but the skirts were full length and lined dark blue, the turnbacks held by pairs of red hearts. As the “Bluebacks”, under their Captain Commandant Edward Dakin, managed to stretch themselves to an almost regimental panoply of one battalion and two flank companies, the light company would surely have worn a jacket version; headwear was a fur crested round hat, though the grenadier company wore something more “cumbrous” – presumably a fur cap.

The terms of their acceptance at first restricted their services to the defence of the streets of Warrington alone. When, at the Lord Lieutenant’s request, the battalion was consulted on extending this to an entire five mile radius of the town, the men were assembled to do an Alamo, and a chalk line was drawn on the floor. First to cross was intrepid James Ashton of the light company, crying “Come along, lads – death or glory!” To a man, they followed him, and Ashton was for evermore known by his peers as “Old Death or Glory”. In the event, the supreme sacrifice was not demanded within the prescribed ten miles.

The anecdote is told in James Kendrick’s sketch of the volunteers in the Proceedings and Papers of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire for 1854, along with much else of a florid, rhetorical and italicised nature; Doctor Kendrick concludes with a strange diatribe against teetotalism and vegetarianism (“now so rife amongst us”), presumably exemplifying the “refinement” that then threatened to sap the vitality of the youth of England. As a medical man, Kendrick should have known his onions, and perhaps the rifle volunteer movement of five years later would prove his point.


On disbandment in 1801 the colours of the Volunteers, inscribed “Pro Rege et Patria”, were placed over the altar of the parish church, but by Kendrick’s time had “disappeared”. However, some record of them must have been preserved, for they feature, along with the drums, in the background of a fine retrospective portrait of James “Death or Glory” Ashton himself, painted in 1852 by a W Taylor, now in Warrington Museum and online at the Art UK site. An aged Ashton peers grimly out at the viewer from beneath a superimposed and mildly inaccurate reconstruction of the uniform; the colours and drums, however, have a slightly more authentic look to them.