Tag Archives: William Windham

“… an Uniform is very proper”: imagining the Georgian Militia

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.

The well dressed militia man, from the Norfolk drawings

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”.

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Supplying the Supplementaries

As the Supplementary Militia legislation of 1796 created new swathes of levies to reinforce the existing battalions, counties were obliged to clothe and equip them for training, and in the beginning this was done on the cheapest possible basis.

Lord Lieutenants were authorised by government  to provide a “slight clothing”, the cost not to exceed £1 5s 9d per man. If they couldn’t be bothered to organise this from scratch, suitable outfits could be ordered from the clothiers of the existing embodied militia regiments and the accounts passed to the War Office. As the going rate for a militia private’s “suit” (coat, waistcoat and breeches only) was several shillings in excess of this allowance, it was clear that corners would have to be cut. Something on the lines of the simple outfits authorised the same year for regular recruits – a closed jacket, trousers and a round hat – might fit the budget.

Shropshire Supplementary Militia 1797

Shropshire Supplementary Militia, 1797

Two bills preserved among the Powis papers in the Shrewsbury Archives detail what Lord Clive, commander of Shropshire’s militia regiment, actually ordered from his clothier for the county’s 1,550 new levies in March 1797. The recruits were to wear “Red Cloth Round Jackets lined thro with Padua, White Cloth Waistcoats ditto, white Cloth Long Trowsers, with leather Caps & feathers.”

Conveniently, clothier Thomas Saunders priced this outfit at £1 5s 9d, the exact limit authorised. However, the archive contains a second version of this bill, Lord Clive’s private copy, which reveals that he paid Saunders a shilling less than this per suit, but then claimed the full allowance from the War Office. The great British tradition of a small rake-off for the militia colonel netted his Lordship a tidy profit of £77 10s on this transaction – about £8,500 in today’s money.

The image here is my rough attempt at a reconstruction of this outfit. I’m assuming that a “round jacket” involved no skirts, that the leather caps were the basic undress or light infantry type, and that a white feather, undyed, would have been the cheapest option.

As for accoutrements, the Ordnance supplied tan leather sets for all. While regulars were supplied with buff leather straps and slings, the allowance for the militia stretched only to the cheaper tan, but militia colonels often declined these, stumping up the extra for buff sets from their own pocket – or, more accurately, out of the profits made on their clothing accounts, as exampled  here. But the supplementary militia had to make do with tan. To relieve the “unmilitary” appearance of tan belts, colonels sometimes resorted to blacking them. When drafts of supplementary men were incorporated into the main militia regiments, they were re-clothed to match and re-accoutred with buff belts.

In the Spring of 1798 Secretary at War William Windham admitted to a Parliamentary Select Committee examining army clothing costs, that at midsummer, when the old militia regiments were due for re-clothing, a full outfit would also have to be ordered for the embodied supplementary militia. A couple of jackets devised for Lancashire Supplementary battalions in 1798 are shown in this post.