During periods of war, Britain has long relied on soldiers on home soil to ease the fear of invasion. As far back as Anglo-Saxon times, able-bodied men were bound to serve in a militia army, called the fyrd, mobilised usually as a reaction to raids by Vikings. The fyrd comprised a core of experienced soldiers supplemented by ordinary villagers and farmers. Its function was to defend local lands from invaders. They were not full-time fighters, but bound to serve when the king needed them. Men could be fined if they neglected service in the fyrd on being called up.
The decay of feudal life in Britain during the 16th and 17th centuries led to a rise in mercenary soldiers who could be paid to fight. This might have meant that locally conscripted civilian militiamen no longer played a part in defence. But the British Civil Wars (1639-52), and the reign and deposition of King James II in 1688, showed that a centralised army could be used as an instrument of royal tyranny or political revolution. The part-time militia was preserved as a counter to a small professional army that had to be sanctioned by Parliament. It became an increasingly important institution in civilian life. The Militia Act of 1757 transformed these men further into a better-trained and better-equipped national force, organised by county.
The Militia was very much local in character. Militia officers were gentlemen chosen by the local landowner and the ordinary militia soldiers were local farmers, tradesmen and labourers. These were conscripted by ballot from their own communities – unless they could produce a substitute – to serve for five years.
Uniforms and weapons were provided and regiments were assembled for training and to deal with civil disturbance. The sheer number of eligible men obliged to serve in the militia meant that many more ordinary civilians had experience of military service than they do today
End of compulsion:
Although muster rolls were prepared as late as 1820, compulsory obligation to serve in the Militia was abandoned in the early 19th century. Those who joined would return to their day jobs after initial training, subsequently reporting only for extra instruction and the two-week camp every year. There was never an obligation for Militia to serve overseas like regular soldiers sent on active service, and for all ranks it was a relatively soft option in comparison. However, the Militia still appealed to agricultural labourers and men in casual occupations who could leave their civilian job and pick it up again. And the pay they received could be a useful top-up of their usual wages.
The Militia Act of 1757:
The Seven Years’ War was a global conflict fought between 1756 and 1763. It involved every European great power of the time and spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The Militia Act of 1757, passed at an early stage of the Seven Years War, enabled part-time reserve forces to be raised in each County of the British Isles. Each Lord Lieutenant was to command the Militia of his County and recruiting was the responsibility of him and his deputy lieutenants. Each County was to provide a given quota of men according to its population. The men were chosen by ballot in each parish and had to serve for three years or they could provide substitutes or compound for a monetary payment, and there were various exemptions. The Act replaced earlier less-formal arrangements and led to better records being kept, and the men were selected by ballot to serve for longer periods. Proper uniforms and better weapons were provided, and the force was ’embodied’ from time to time for training sessions.
In effect, Militias were formed to be the “Home Guard” for the British Isles should there be an attack by foreign powers….notably the French. While this was the “primary” reason for the Militia’s existence, it was no doubt thought that in times of civil unrest, the Militia could be used to put down any pro-revolutions by the population. For this reason, most militia rarely served in the area in which they were raised so as not to be put in the situation of shooting their friends, neighbours and family. There were cavalry and artillery militia but most numerous were the infantry militia where a soldier was not required to serve overseas. Despite this ruling, the lure of adventure and ‘possible’ riches made many join up with the regular Line Regiments; indeed, roughly half the recruits for the Army came from the ranks of the Militia.
In 1758 the Admiral of the Fleet, Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford put the “Act for the better regulating of the Militia” into effect and The Norfolk Militia was the first regiment to be formed under the Bill of 1757. It comprised of the 1st Battalion Western Regiment of the Norfolk Militia (West Norfolk Militia) under the command of Lord George Townshend and the 2nd Battalion Eastern Regiment of the Norfolk Militia (East Norfolk Militia) under the command of Sir Armine Wodehouse. Their Colonel in Chief was the 1st Earl of Orford who set the total number of men to serve in the regiment at 960, with the city of Norwich providing 151. These men were detailed to exercise once a fortnight for three years.
The West Norfolk Militia:
In the book called ‘The Norfolk Assembly’ Ketton-Crèmer of Felbrigg Hall quotes Lady Townshend as saying ‘My Lord is at Dereham with his Militia playing soldiers’. He used Raynham Park to review his West Norfolk Militia.
West Norfolk Militia Snippets:
In 1850 the Reverend Benjamin Armstrong was made vicar of the considerable parish of Dereham in Norfolk. In his diary he mentions that the West Norfolk (Dereham Volunteers) held their first outdoor display in the Vicarage grounds in May. Families were invited and four tents which had been used in the Crimea in 1854/5 were erected for the benefit of the ladies. Two bands played at intervals and there were military movements, bugling, running, kneeling and firing.
In June 1859 a public meeting was held in the Corn Hall, Dereham, for the formation of a Dereham Rifle Volunteer Corps. The Reverend Armstrong made a short speech urging people to join. About thirty men did, the eldest an elderly fat banker of 70 years, and the youngest a seventeen-year-old. They were kitted out in a grey uniform. The Corps met regularly to drill and exercise. The following June the Queen reviewed no less than 30,000 Volunteer Rifles in Hyde Park, London. This was to give a warning that an invasion would meet with strong resistance.
The Dereham contingent continued to work hard and helped to put on a Subscription Concert the following November. It was recorded that the hall was full and the Dereham Rifles’ fife and drum band was a great attraction. In September they attended a review of 2,000 volunteers at Holkham Hall, hosted by Lord Leicester, who dined the whole force and 500 private guests too.
About this time competition was starting between the Corps of Dereham and Wymondham and in April 1862 a Rifle Match was staged at Swanton, which Dereham lost. As the day was windy it was said it was chancy shooting anyway! There was a Grand Entertainment given to the volunteers at Letton Hall, where a vast crowd assembled. 150 volunteers sat down to a dinner under a tent and speeches were given. Social events were held to raise money for needy volunteers.
It was a red-letter day when the Dereham Volunteers marched with the Reverend Armstrong to the railway station to form a Guard of Honour for the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Queen of Denmark who were en route to Costessey Hall.
Thorpe Rail Disaster, 1874
Two serving members of the West Norfolk Militia, Sgt Major Frederick Cassell and Sgt Robert Ward, are recorded to have been killed in the Thorpe Rail Accident whilst returning from a fishing trip. Their bodies were recovered and they were buried with full military honours. Robert Ward had previously been part of the Coldstream Guards.
Both the two Norfolk Militias were recognised as being the first to offer to “march wherever they might be most serviceable to the public defence.” Consideration was also given by King George II “that every mark of his Royal Favour should be shown to this Corps” and that they “should be distinguished by the title of Militia Royal”.
It was on the 4th June 1759 when the East Norfolk section of the Norfolk Militia, comprising of 1 Colonel, 1 Lt. Colonel, 1 Major, 11 Captains, 11 Lieutenants, 8 Ensigns, 1 Adjutant, 24 Sergeants, 24 drummers and 466 rank and file, was reviewed by the Earl of Orford on Magdalen Fairstead, just outside Norwich. The event was reported in the press at the time, with the conduct of the men being praised and a statement that the unit could now be ready to march given four days’ notice. Then on Wednesday 4 July 1759 both battalions did just that by marching from Norwich to Portsmouth barracks, to accept orders from Major General Holmes. They marched via Beccles, Ipswich, Colchester, Islington, and Petersfield and arrived at Portsmouth on Tuesday 24 July. During the march, they were reviewed by King George II at Kensington Palace. Then, due to the day-time heat, they again set off soon after midnight, when they were described as being in good spirits.
By August of that year the two Militias were alternately guarding prisoners-of-war and undergoing training exercises. It was also in 1759, when “A Plan of Discipline Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk” was published by William Wyndham of Felbrigg & Lord George Townshend. This text, written for the use of officers in this English rural militia unit, went on to become one of the most important drill manuals employed during the American Revolution.
From 1759 onwards, The Norfolk Militia moved around the country; they were quartered in Cirencester on 5 July 1760, but moved back to guard prisoners in Norfolk in July. On 28 May 1761 King George awarded the two battalions of the Norfolk Militia a “Warrant for Colours”. In November the East Norfolk Militia was ordered to Fakenham, then to remain at Wells and Walsingham for the duration of the Fakenham Fair.
In September 1798 all of the officers and most of the rank and file volunteered for service in Ireland during the Rebellion. Eight hundred men of the West Norfolk Militia were serving in Ireland in 1815 and 1816, and aspects of this were dramatised in the writings of George Borrow‘s book Lavengro.
The Norfolk Militia’s Connection with Norman Cross:
Norman Cross lies near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire but traditionally is in Huntingdonshire, it gave its name to a Hundred and lies near the junction of the A1 and A15 roads. It was the site of the world’s first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp or “Depot” built during the Napoleonic Wars by the Navy. At the time, the Royal Navy Transport Board was responsible for the care of prisoners of war. When Sir Ralph Abercromby communicated in 1796 that he was transferring 4,000 prisoners from the West Indies, the Board began the search for a site for a new prison. The site at Norman Cross was chosen because it was on the Great North Road only 76 miles (122 km) from London and was deemed far enough from the coast that escaped prisoners could not flee back to France. The site had a good water supply and close to sufficient local sources of food to sustain many thousands of prisoners and the guards. Work commenced in December 1796 with much of the timber building prefabricated in London and assembled on site. 500 carpenters and labourers worked on the site for 3 months. The cost of construction was £34,581 11s 3d.
The Norfolk Militia became heavily involved in the transit of prisoners from Yarmouth to the Norman Cross camp, the operation of which included Lieutenant Thomas Borrow of the West Norfolk Militia, who was the father of author George Borrow. Thomas Borrow was quartered at Norman Cross from July 1811 to April 1813 and young George spent his ninth and tenth years in the barracks there.
In October of 1799, whilst escorting French prisoners of war from Yarmouth to Norman Cross, the East Norfolk Militia locked up their prisoners for the night and safe keeping in the Bell tower of St Nicholas Church in Dereham – apparently, this was a regular occurrence during such a duty. On this occasion however, an officer by the name of Jean De Narde, the 28-year old son of a notary from St. Malo, managed to escape from the church. Finding that the Militia had set guards around the perimeter of the Church he climbed an oak hoping that his absence would pass unnoticed and that the party would leave without him, thus allowing him to make good his escape. Unfortunately for De Narde, the Militia, realising that they were missing a prisoner conducted a search of the locality and the Frenchman was spotted – thanks to him leaving his legs dangling from the tree. The Sergeant, who was told to get the Frenchman down, called on De Narde to surrender. Now, whether the prisoner did not understand English or that he did not even realise that he had been discovered, stayed where he was. Unfortunately, as events turned out, the Sergeant shot the Frenchman out of the tree, killing him instantly. The local population were apparently ashamed by this action and thought this deed to be one of unnecessary cruelty, according to the Parish Priest at the time, the Reverend Benjamin John Armstrong . Eventually a monument was raised to the unfortunate De Narde and the family in St Malo informed of his fate.
On the 11th June in 1804, the Royal Artillery, two troops of the 1st Dragoons, 24th Regiment of Foot, Colonel Patterson’s Battalion, the City of Norwich, Regiment of Volunteers (on permanent duty) and the Riffle Corps, had a sham fight at Bramerton; one party (as English) marched by Trowse, and the other (as French) by Thorpe to Postwick grove, and crossed the Yare on floating bridges, formed by wherries placed alongside each other and planked over. The troops were in motion at 6 am.
The representation of an action was on a very extensive scale. The English, of course, were victorious, and were regaled with several barrels of porter and marched back to Norwich. The vanquished returned to Postwick grove where their spirits were ‘recruited’ with brown stout. They then returned to the City about 4.30pm. The concourse of spectators in carriages, on horseback and on foot, was immense.
The Volunteer Infantry and Rifle Corps had been formed two years earlier at a public meeting held in the Guildhall, for the purpose of conforming to the regulations of the Acts for the Defence of the Realm.
(The Norfolk and Norwich Remembrancer, Matchett and Stevenson, 1822
Militia units were fully assembled – or embodied – on a permanent footing during the Wars of the French Revolution (1793-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). During these periods, troops were stationed at strategic locations, especially along the south coast to allay the fear of French invasion. It was in 1805, after Britain had declared war on France on 18 May 1803, when Napoleon did, in fact, turn his attention to invading England and, in preparation, started to assemble an expeditionary force at Boulogne. With the British Isles threatened, the Norfolk Militia were ordered to join the Southern District (Sussex), which covered Kent east of the river Cray and Holwood Hill; Sussex; and Tilbury Fort in Essex. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) was General Sir David Dundas who directed that the East and West Norfolk Militia regiments be placed, along with the Nottinghamshire Regiment of Militia, into the Infantry Brigade of Major General Alexander Mackenzie Fraser whose headquarters were in Winchelsea. The 712 men of the West Norfolk Militia (under Lt. Col. George Nelthorpe) and 698 men of the East Norfolk Militia (under Lt. Col. George Berney Brograve Bt.) were barracked at Clifford Camp.
East Norfolk Militia Snippets:
Following declaration of Peace, the Norfolk Militia was disembodied at Great Yarmouth in 1814, and was not called out again until 1820. Then, in April 1853, 612 men of the West Norfolk Militia, under Col. the Earl of Orford, mustered in Norwich at the Swan Hotel. During this muster they were subjected to verbal attacks by members of the Peace Society and “Liberals”. On the same date, 571 enrolled in the East Norfolk Militia assembled at Great Yarmouth under Colonel the Hon. Berkeley Wodehouse. It was noted that:
“Their appearance was much more respectable than might have been expected, and many of those who were prepared to ridicule them acknowledged that they were a much better class than they expected”.
Again in 1853, an order for the provision of Militia barracks at Great Yarmouth was issued. The intention was to base all three regiments of the Norfolk Militia at Great Yarmouth, but on February 25 this order was rescinded, and it was agreed that:
“…..the present Committee be empowered to receive estimates and tenders for building barracks for one regiment of Militia at Norwich, and for one regiment of Militia and one regiment of artillery at Yarmouth, on such plans as they may think best suited for the purpose.”
This was followed on 16 May 1854 with the East Norfolk Militia being presented with new colours, and these were still being carried in 1898. These colours were presented at a public ceremony held on South Denes, Great Yarmouth, that was attended by 10,000 persons, including civic dignitaries. The day concluded with a ball held at the Town Hall, which had been decorated with the new colours, mirrors and stars formed of bayonets. In 1853 it was noted that the government intended to convert the Board of Ordnance store (an arsenal) at Yarmouth to create the Gorleston Barracks; the site was originally designed by James Wyatt and built in 1806 to supply Royal Navy ships anchored off Great Yarmouth during the Napoleonic Wars. This facility was converted into army barracks to accommodate the Prince of Wales Own Norfolk Artillery Militia in 1853. This regiment comprised of two field officers, 15 sergeants and 408 men of the East Norfolk Militia. The old Great Yarmouth barracks having been converted into an Admiralty hospital.
In 1856, the East Norfolk Militia, comprising of 1 Major, 13 officers, 3 sergeants and 415 men left Great Yarmouth by train, travelling to an encampment at Colchester. At Colchester railway station they were met by the band of the Royal Essex Rifles. On April 23 all the units at Colchester, including the East Norfolk Militia, were reviewed by Prince Albert, but by June 4 orders were issued for the East Norfolk Militia to return to Great Yarmouth for disembodiment. In the same month, the left wing of the West Norfolk Militia returned to Norwich from Fermoy, County Cork; with the right wing reaching the city on the 26th.
On 20 May 1861, the East Norfolk Militia were involved in a serious military riot at Yarmouth, against men of the Royal Artillery. It was reported in the Norfolk Chronicle that this riot included the use of belts and stones, and that 200 Artillerymen, armed with swords and knives issued from the arsenal, had to be prevented from joining the fight by “persuasion and threats”. The report also said that officers from both corps were involved in ending the riot, and that guards had to be placed on the bridge to keep the Artillery out of Yarmouth and the Militia from crossing into Southtown.
The Norfolk Artillery Militia were granted barracks in All Saints Green, Norwich from around 1860, these consisting of Ivory House, a parade ground and stables. These barracks remained in use until the late 1920s.
The Prince of Wales became Honorary Colonel of the Artillery Militia in 1871, and the Great Yarmouth Assembly Rooms became frequently used as the Officer’s Mess, whilst artillery practice was conducted on South Denes. In 1883 Lt. Colonel Lord Suffield and Major Edward Southwold Trafford purchased the building on behalf of the Artillery Militia, and the building remained under the Militia’s ownership until 1918 after which it became a Masonic Lodge.
In 1880 the unit was renamed the 1st Norfolk Artillery Volunteers, then 2nd Brigade Eastern District Royal Artillery (Prince of Wales’ Own Norfolk Militia Artillery) in 1882 and, in 1902, becoming the 1st Norfolk Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers).
In 1901, during the Second Anglo-Boer War, five officers and 134 Other Ranks from the Prince of Wales’s Own Norfolk Royal Garrison Artillery (Militia) were sent to Cape Town, from which they were split up for garrison duty on armoured trains Wasp, Challenger, Bulldog and Blackhat, among other duties including Military Intelligence and escort duties for the Royal Engineers. The Special Service Company of the Militia was commanded by Colonel Thomas Coke, 3rd Earl of Leicester, who had served in the Scots Guards until 1892.
The uniform of the East Norfolk Militia was scarlet turned up with black. An early sketch by Lord Townshend, published in “A Plan of Discipline Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk” in 1759, shows a Private wearing a simple uniform of cocked hat, jacket, breeches and shoes worn without gaiters. A cross belt and waist belt, with bayonet, are worn over the single-breasted jacket, with the latter secured by a single button close to the collar, two at the chest and three at the waist.
Long boots were discontinued, except for mounted officers, on 12 April 1814. On 22 June 1820 epaulettes, buttons and ornaments of dress were changed from gold to silver, although serving officers were permitted to retain their old style of uniform unless called on for actual service. In January 1831 the old uniform was finally discontinued, with orders that all uniforms must meet the latest King’s Regulations and include black velvet and silver epaulettes.
Gold lace was restored to the East Norfolk Militia on 5 June 1882, at the same time as the badge of the then 4th Battalion Norfolk Regiment was changed from the castle and lion to the figure of Britannia.
On the 7th October 1859, as part of the great Volunteer Movement that started in Norwich in that year, the first muster of the Norwich Rifle Corps Club with 22 men present. Three companies were formed, the Mayor’s, the Sheriff’s and Mr Gurney’s. Many in the Quaker community were hesitant to join but stipulated that ‘on no account could they be called from Norwich except in the actual case of invasion or rebellion.’
The uniform consisted of a ‘grey cloth tunic with black mohair braid and buttons down the centra, with a low, upright collar…….this was surmounted by a shako of hair-cloth of the same colour, with a plume like a shaving brush, and……a black patent leather waist belt with pouch bags’ Officers carried a sword in a steel scabbard with brown whistle and chain. The Government later provided the Corps with long Enfield rifles, with which to practice on Mousehold Heath. By the there were 1,200 volunteers who were inspected by the Lord Lieutenant of the County; standing in long lines of grey, the ‘rank and file from various social grades from bank clerks down to those of weekly wage-earners.’
(Mottram, R. H., Portrait of an Unknown Victorian, Robert Hale & Co., 1936.)
TO BE CONTINUED
Feature Photograph: The Genealogist