Tag Archives: Sir John Leicester

“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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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.