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Modern Britain

AD 1789-1815 Waiting for Napoleon

by Robert Hallmann, taken from Bloody British History: Chelmsford, 2 June 2013

'France must destroy the English monarchy, or expect itself to be destroyed by these intriguing and enterprising islanders... Let us concentrate all our efforts and annihilate England. That done, Europe is at our feet...'

These words of Napoleon echoed through the shires in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. England and France were at war almost continuously from 1793 to 1815, and there were real fears that the 563-kilometre Essex coastline was being earmarked for invasion.

National contingency plans were drawn up and it was decided that King George III would come to Chelmsford if the French landed in Essex, along with the prime minister and the home secretary. The queen and the king's daughters would cross the River Severn, and take refuge in the Bishops' Palace at Worcester.

A militia was raised by ballot. Parish constables had to present lists of men eligible to serve, usually those aged between eighteen and forty-five. Lists were posted on church doors. Reluctant men could appeal if they had a valid reason. In Chelmsford, such reasons included 'being deaf', 'having five children under age', and being 'blind in one eye and weak in the other'.

In 1797 landowners with more than ten horses were required to provide one mounted soldier to form a local cavalry unit, but to begin with Essex's fighting force was woefully ill-equipped: there were wildfowling guns, axes, billhooks, pitchforks...

Meetings were held in the Shire Hall on 3 April 1798 for the purpose of forming the volunteers, and the group declared that they would be 'faithful and bear allegiance to his majesty King George III (and him will defend) to the utmost of our power against all conspiracy and attempts against his person, crown and dignity by the hostile attacks of foreign enemies or the wicked designs of seditious and disaffected persons'.

They also vowed 'to serve during the present war and for six months afterwards'. Their resolve: 'Be ready whenever our service is required'.

On 9 April 1798, Thomas Frost Gepp was elected captain, John Oxley Parker Jr was elected first lieutenant, and George Welch was second lieutenant. A captain was appointed to exercise the soldiers. Drill days were to be Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.

Britannia between Death and the Doctors
Britannia between Death and the Doctors shows an ailing Britannia being approached by Death in the guise of Napoleon, while her politicians squabble (LC-USZC4-8794)

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Unfortunately, Robert Strutt, having provided himself with a uniform and being elected a member of the corps, refused to sign the roll of conformity (agreeing that he would abide by the rules), 'having neglected to attend drills several weeks previous' to his being reported sick. It was unanimously resolved that Mr Strutt's conduct was highly inappropriate, disrespectful to the corps, and his name was 'expunged' from the books.

For others it was an honour to be part of the corps. John Seaman was taken on as a drummer at six pence per week. Charles Hollingsworth enlisted as 'piper', but was unable to provide himself with a uniform; he was clothed out of 'the corps' fund'.

Preparations on the ground were also progressing. In order to block an advance on London from a possible landing on the Essex coast, barracks were built in several places in and around the town. The Ipswich Journal of Saturday 10 September 1796 reported: 'upwards of 200 men are working almost night and day at our new barracks'. A barracks occupied the site of the old friary at the town end of Moulsham Street, accommodating 4,000 troops of the 44th East Essex Regiment.

Defensive fortifications were planned and construction supervised by the Royal Engineers to the south of Chelmsford in 1803. This included two star-shaped artillery forts on the ridge south of Moulsham, one at Widford (commanding the Clacton Road), and one at Galleywood, on the racecourse astride Margaretting Road, blocking the Maldon Road and hopefully protecting London's north-eastern flank.

Return from Invasion
Return from Invasion - a contemporary cartoon showing 'Boney' returning to France, tattered and woebegone, with an English soldier kicking the Napoleonic posterior (LC-DIG-ppmsco-07204)

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon's imperial throne is supported by the Imperial Eagle (bottom left), one of which was snatched by the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812. It is now displayed at the Essex Regiment Museum (LC-USZC2-2871)

The Dreaded Lash!

Flogging was a common punishment in the army during the latter part of the eighteenth century. As many as 500 or 1,000 lashes could be applied for the most trivial offences as recently as 1812, when a General Order limited the number of strokes which could be ordered by a regimental court martial to 300.

After 1832, more than 500 or 600 lashes were rare. In 1808, one incident alone saw several men who had attempted to desert sentenced to a gruesome 1,000 lashes each. As five seconds was slowly counted between each lash, the punishment lasted three hours and thirty minutes.

The martial laws of England were described by many as 'the most barbarous in Europe'. A flogging could be so severe that men were often disabled for life. Sometimes they died under the punishment.

A contemporary description gives some idea of the brutality of the old flogging with the cat-o'-nine-tails:

Henley, for desertion, received 200 lashes only. Acute inflammation followed, and the back sloughed. When the wounds were cleaned, and the sloughed integuments removed, the backbone and part of the shoulder-bone were laid bare. Another man was taken down, at the recommendation of the medical officer, after he had received 229 lashes, and sent to the hospital, where he died in eight days, his back having mortified.

The offender is sometimes sentenced to 1,000 lashes. A surgeon stands by to feel his pulse during the execution, and determines how long the flogging can be continued without killing him. When human nature can stand no more, he is remanded to the prison (hospital), for from the shoulders to the loins it leaves him one wound [which] is dressed, and, as soon as it is sufficiently healed to be opened in the same manner, he is brought out to undergo the remainder of his sentence.

From a small county town with a fair share of trade and judicial traffic, Chelmsford suddenly found itself host to more men than it could regularly keep abreast of. Local papers were keen to report on all military movements. The Ipswich Journal of 27 March 1795 reported that 'our barracks are beginning to fill, upwards of 500 officers and privates are lodged in them and 700 more are expected in them every day'.

On Saturday 3 November 1798, it was reported that the 4th Division of Surrey militia 'marched into our barracks; and yesterday the 1st Division of the Northumberland militia marched into the old barracks: our garrison is now augmented (with) 105,000 effective men'.

Troops marched though or were billeted at Chelmsford on their way to Colchester and then on to Harwich, so that soldiers sometimes outstripped the accommodation Chelmsford Barracks could provide. A newspaper report of 13 April 1798 described the situation:

The regular barracks at each wing of this town being full of troops, new ones are ordered to be run-up with all possible dispatch for the reception of 3,000 more infantry. The commander-in-chief of the eastern division has sent quartermasters to requisition all the principal barns, granaries, etc, in and near the town for the immediate recommendation of a large body of troops which are ordered for that coast.

Bonaparte's invasion
Bonaparte and the French armies imagined fleeing the defending regiments during the invasion of Britain (LC-USZ62-111311)

British cartoon

48 hours after landing! - British caricaturists made short shrift of Napoleon. Here is an 1803 vision of what John Bull would do to him, should he dare to cross the water (LC-USZ62-112)

In Chelmsford as a military thoroughfare, crime rose, along with gambling and drunkenness - from both soldiers and civilians alike. Military punishments for such crimes were often severe. Here is a story from the Ipswich Journal, 11 August 1797:

Yesterday two private soldiers of the 49th Regiment of Foot in our new barracks were committed to the county gaol for violently assaulting and committing rape on the body of a young woman of this town who was walking with a lad in the parish of Springfield on Tuesday evening last. The soldiers kept the lad prisoner alternately upwards of two hours while they committed the horrid act. The two men were recruits who had lately joined the regiment from Chatham; they had since their arrival robbed their comrades and deserted, for which each received 400 lashes and were then turned over to the civil power.

In 1810 a householder complained of unbecoming behaviour of militia men in the guardroom opposite to where they lived.

In the years after 1795 - and up to the victory at Waterloo - there was an unending stream of companies entertained at the popular Black Boy Inn, but in the year 1800 The Gentleman's Magazine carried the following horrific report:

A fire attended with most calamitous circumstances broke out on Monday evening at one of the stables in the Black Boy Inn, Chelmsford. Several hundred Hanoverian soldiers halted that night in the town and its vicinity and from the great numbers billeted on the Innkeepers they were compelled to lodge them in the stables and out-houses; those quartered at the Black Boy had retired to the stables allotted them with their pipes and it is supposed that the fire dropping from one of them communicated to some loose straw which set the premises in a blaze.

Napoleon and Josephine feast upon England
Napoleon and Josephine feast upon England, from plates containing the Bank of England, St James', and the Tower, whilst the hand of God declares judgement on the French forces: you have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting (LC-USZC4-8790)

A splash of blood

By the activity exerted by all ranks on the occasion the conflagration was prevented from extending beyond the premises but we are sorry to add 24 of the soldiers are missing, fifteen of whose dead bodies were dug out on Thursday.

Chelmsford's old and 'infamous' watering hole, the Black Boy Inn, formerly the Crown Inn, at the junction of the High Street and Springfield Road, was a staging post on the Colchester-Harwich road. It had been renamed the Black Boy in the sixteenth century and served as post office since 1673. Early in the eighteenth century it was pulled down and rebuilt. It was always popular, however, and frequented by the great and the good. Charles Dickens mentioned it in his Pickwick Papers, and the duke of Wellington changed horses here. It is thought to have had a brewery.

Napoleon never attempted his planned invasion, and the preparations and the Loyal Chelmsford Volunteers were never put to the test. Although the war was not to end until 1815, the corps was consigned to history in 1809.

The defence works were decommissioned around 1813. Much was destroyed by the construction of the London-Chelmsford railway line in the middle of the nineteenth century, but battery earthworks survive on Chelmsford Golf course and Galleywood Common. Only street names remind of the barracks today, and the many pubs which sprang up during this period to cater for thirsty infantrymen.

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Bloody British History at the History Press