Our culture’s preoccupation with alternative histories often makes the proposal seem more fascinating than the reality. But what-could-have-been can be not just entertaining but also historically revealing. (Take, for instance, the proposed uniforms of Lieut Col John Luard, the mid-19th century military reformer, whose infantry helmets and utilitarian clothing anticipate what would be worn in 1914, but were reactions to his personal experience of what had been worn in 1814.)
Among the flurry of tracts and pamphlets of the mid 18th century arguing for a national militia in preference to a standing army, a few writers tried, in passing, to suggest what a militia man should wear. In A Proposal for a Regular and Useful Militia (Edinburgh, 1745), the anonymous pamphleteer proposed:
“As an Uniform is very proper for Troops of all Sorts, his Majesty may at the national Charge furnish the Foot with a Hat and a Frock of Blue Kersey, and the Horse with a Hat, Coat and Cloak, the Cloak of the same Colour, and the Coat of the same Cloth and Colour, to last four Years at least, to be wore always on Field Days, and on Sundays and Holydays if they please.”
If the militia of the parish was to exercise one Sunday, the same clothes might as well make a Sunday outfit for the other weeks, courtesy of the Crown. Blue was the natural choice for clothing that would emphasise civic duty and identity.
A more elaborate scheme was outlined in Samuel Martin’s A Plan for Establishing and Disciplining a National Militia in Great Britain …, (London, 1745). Martin’s militia was to be two layered: the light cavalry and infantry of a “superior militia” (men of property), and the infantry and heavy cavalry of the “subordinate militia” of the common people, the subordinate companies electing annually their officers, drawn from the superior corps. For these four classes, he proposed as follows:
I would recommend a plain scarlet dress with gilt buttons, a gold laced hat, and light boots, for the habit of the superior cavalry; for the accoutrements, such saddles as our horse-officers now use, with plain scarlet furniture; a light carbine and pistols of musquet bore …
I would recommend [for the superior infantry] only a plain blue cloath coat trim’d with gilt buttons, an hat laced with a gold lace of an inch broad, and white linen gaiters. … To admit no distinction of dress between the officers and soldiers of the militia, except the scarf or sash, seems agreeable both to oeconomy and good policy; for by that means all officers may save the needless expence of gaudy clothes, and be more secure in the day of battle, when the enemy cannot distinguish them at a distance from other men of the corps.
[The subordinate heavy cavalry] to be well mounted, arm’d, and accouter’d, as our regular horse now are, but in uniform blue, faced with red, and trim’d with white metal buttons.
I propose, that each man of the inferior infantry be cloathed in a uniform blue or green coat with white metal buttons, which may serve for a Sunday, and military dress.
… cockades of different colours may be provided for the subordinate militia, horse and foot, suitable to their ensigns, by which each regiment of the county, and each company of subordinate foot may be distinguished from others.
In places, this is not so much whimsical as far sighted, particularly on the reduction of distinctions between officers and men. Once again, blue is the dominant colour, and a Sunday best is provided for the “common people” into the bargain.
As for the reality, we know surprisingly little about the actual appearance of the new militia men of the late 1750’s; no form of regulation seems to have defined the clothing their colonels were to provide, and the allowance per private – a guinea in 1758, raised to 30 s in 1760 – was, as J R Western points out in his exhaustive political history, The English Militia in the Eighteenth Century (1965), barely enough for a coat and hat. The classic image is provided by the plates in George, Viscount Townshend and William Windham’s A Plan of Discipline, Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk (London, 1759). I guess that the pleasingly fluent drawings may be by Townshend, an amateur artist and cartoonist, as well as a friend of the militia cause. They show something much simpler and more economical than the dress of the regular: a single breasted coat with simple three button slash cuffs and pockets, and a hat with no lace. This unembodied private has not even yet spent his “marching guinea” on a pair of gaiters. (The coat buttoning – one at the throat, two mid chest, three at the waist – seems odd, but is shown consistently thus.)
So much for Norfolk, but that doesn’t mean that other regiments were clothed exactly the same. Later descriptions of their initial clothing tend to be vague and unsourced, and may be unreliable, so it’s hard to know. At any rate, within the space of a re-clothing their appearance became assimilated to that of the regulars, while during long periods of wartime embodiment the militia became, in effect, a second standing army.
Such reformist enthusiasm for cheaper, simpler clothing found an echo twenty years later in a brief vogue for “light uniform” or “drill dress”, the trending thing among the county militias at Coxheath camp in 1778; the West Yorkshire regiment were reported in
a very neat white uniform, turned up with light green, which we hear was presented to them by her Majesty.
While the Duke of Devonshire awarded the Derbyshires with
a light Uniform which will be their Property when they depart, and which particularly serves them during their Encampment on Account of its Lightness.
Shortly after, in one of his semi-mystical pro-militia pamphlets (Tracts, Concerning the Ancient and Only True Legal Means of National Defence, by a Free Militia, London, 1781), the radical Whig and abolitionist Granville Sharp, among his proposals for reform of the problematic City of London militia, proposed a universal drill dress:
The Appearance, also, of the City Militia might be rendered more respectable, by the addition of drill-jackets, with some proper distinction of uniform facings, to denote the ward or district of each company.
And indeed, as I noted in this post, we find at that time the London Associators in a white drill dress faced blue, and the Newgate Street Association in white faced orange. Such a cheap, light and practical style of clothing might have made a sensible default outfit across all auxiliary forces, but it was not to be; subsequent generations of associators and volunteers found their own sartorial route, while the white jackets of the militia were put aside for fatigue wear, and became “slop dress”.