Tag Archives: Leeds Volunteers

“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.

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The Grand Review on Heath Common

Since prestige confers publicity, the iconography of the great volunteer movement of 1794-1808 is very London-centric. This is true not only of the uniform prints and portraits of obscure colonels, but also of commemorative prints of reviews, among which Hyde Park predominates.

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An exception is this coloured print of a painting by a Mr Hopkins (possibly William Hopkins, miniature painter) of the Grand Review of volunteers of West Yorkshire, held on Heath Common, Wakefield, in August 1796. In November 1798, almost two years after the event, an advert in the Leeds Intelligencer announced:

“GRAND REVIEW Of the GENTLEMEN VOLUNTEERS of Leeds, Wakefield, Halifax, Bradford, and Huddersfield, as commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Lloyd, and reviewed by Lieutenant-General Scott. MR. HOPKINS, Miniature-Painter, No. 27, King-street, Bloomsbury-square, London, begs to acquaint the Ladies and Gentlemen of the above-mentioned Places, and their Environs, that the PRINT of the GRAND REVIEW, from his PICTURE taken on the Spot, is now finished, and to be seen at Mr. Wright’s, Printer, and at Mr. Greenwood’s, Bookseller, Leeds; Mr. Meggitt’s and Mr. John Hurst’s, Booksellers, Wakefield; Mr. Brook’s. Huddersfield; and at Mr. Edward’s, Halifax; where Subscriptions are received.

The above Print contains several Hundred Figures, so richly coloured as to represent a Painting and the respective Corps in their full Uniforms; the Whole forming a grand and interesting Spectacle.”

The enterprising Mr Hopkins’ original painting may be lost, but a few prints survive. In 1976 I looked at the copy held by the Thoresby Society in Leeds, thickly varnished and a bit the worse for wear. Forty years on, this has been donated to Leeds Museum; despite conservation efforts, it has suffered further in the interval, but at least a nice big image is available online here.

Hopkins’ detached perspective means that the assembled ranks appear far smaller than the less interesting foreground figures, but there’s still plenty here to round out our otherwise patchy view of this 1794 generation of volunteers. From the left of the picture stand the Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Royal Wakefield and Halifax Volunteers in that order, all in scarlet faced respectively with blue, buff, blue, blue and black. The Bradford and Halifax “battalion guns” (two brass six pounders in each case) hold the ends of the line, while the West Riding Yeomanry keep the field and chase away stray dogs and naughty boys.

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The front ranks of the Halifax Volunteers – grenadiers at left, battalion company, band and regimental colour at right

The artillery detachments are in blue with round hats, while all the drummers except the Wakefield are in white. All in are short gaiters. The grenadier company of the Halifax are in fur caps, while all the light companies (at the viewer’s right of the rear echelons), and all ranks of the Huddersfield Fusiliers wear Tarleton helmets.

Not at the event (at too much of a distance, presumably) are the Loyal Independent Sheffield Volunteers, the Doncaster Volunteers, York Volunteers and Royal Knaresborough Foresters, all likewise raised in 1794.

Mr Hopkins’ advertisement doesn’t give a price for a copy of this grand and interesting Spectacle. These can’t have been cheap, though; the hand colouring must have been one heck of a chore.

The Yeomanry scares off two boys and a dog, while the Halifax gunners look on


The joy of big lapels

While the familiar post-1799 infantry jacket didn’t allow for much in the way of variation, the immediately preceding transition period, as the long coat morphed by stages into the jacket, was far more fruitful.

Here’s [left] a rather beautiful watercolour (attributed to Henry Eldridge) of an unidentified field officer of the Leeds Volunteers in the late 1790’s, from the collection of Leeds Museum. [Click to enlarge images.] The huge, plastron-like effect of the unusual lapels, with their buttons in threes, is quite a step forward from the orthodox parallel lapels with paired buttons originally worn by the Leeds regiment. The same flamboyant coat, but now cut to allow the lapels to button over in the mode of the time, is shown [right] in the 1802 portrait of Colonel Thomas Lloyd of Leeds (once at York Castle but now in the National Army Museum). Why buttons in threes? I’ve no idea.

But the Leeds Volunteers were not the originators of the style. Here is exactly the same style of coat but faced in green, and a companion jacket, both belonging to an officer of the 1st West York Militia, probably Captain Howard of the light company. Both are now in the Wade Collection of the National Trust, together with a matching red waistcoat with buttons in threes. A portrait [below], attributed to John Downman, of a company officer of the West Yorks around 1800 or soon after shows the same coat buttoned over. But from where the West Riding Militia derived the style, or if it was ever adopted by any other unit, I do not know.

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Though here [below] is something else not too distant – a showy style of lapel worn in the late ‘nineties by both regiments of Gloucester Militia, and described in the Pearse tailors’ books as “Broad at top slanting off at bottom”.

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