Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Cinque Ports Volunteers: A Napoleonic Volunteer Regiment

by Jacqui Reiter

Last month I introduced the main auxiliary forces on which the British government relied between 1793 and 1815 to defend the nation against a French invasion. By 1804 up to 90,000 militia (raised by ballot) and over 400,000 volunteers (organised by statute but raised locally) were available to act alongside the regular forces in case of attack.

Today I will focus on one corps of Volunteers in particular: the Cinque Ports Volunteers, formed in 1794, briefly disbanded 1802-3, and reformed 1803-9.

French Map of the Cinque Ports (Wikimedia Commons)

The Cinque Ports Volunteers would have been on the front lines of defence had the French ever decided to cross the Channel. The Cinque Ports was an ancient trade confederation consisting of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich, along with the Antient Towns of Winchelsea and Rye, and the Confederation Towns of Faversham, Folkestone, Lydd, Margate, Ramsgate, and Tenterden. All were in Kent and East Sussex, many within sight of French soil. Their importance in terms of national defence is best demonstrated by the number of castles built over the centuries, such as Dover, Deal, Walmer, and Sandown.

The Cinque Ports Volunteers, 1794 – 1802

The Cinque Ports responded to the government circular of 1794 calling for volunteers by forming Yeomanry (cavalry) and Fencible (infantry, short for “Defencibles”) regiments, along with artillery units at Deal and Sandown.

The Cinque Ports Fencible Cavalry was commanded by Robert Bankes-Jenkinson, a future prime minister (as Lord Liverpool). Nearly 500 men, including officers and NCOs, enlisted. The Cinque Ports Fencibles were sent to Scotland in 1796, where they assisted in the funeral of the poet Robert Burns.

Despite being raised in response to an invasion threat, however, the Fencibles were rarely used for purposes other than peace-keeping and quelling civil unrest, as well as suppressing smuggling. They were disbanded in 1802 on the signing of the Peace of Amiens, which ushered in a truce between Britain and France.

The Cinque Ports Volunteers, 1803 – 1809

In May 1803, however, war broke out again with France. Napoleon immediately made it clear he meant to attempt an invasion of Britain, and positioned 150,000 men along the Channel coast for the purpose. Henry Addington's government turned again to volunteers, and the Cinque Ports once more responded enthusiastically -- this time with the personal involvement of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, former prime minister William Pitt the Younger.

Pitt had accepted the sinecure of Lord Warden in 1792. After resigning the premiership in 1801 and selling his country home in 1802 he retired to the Lord Warden's official residence, Walmer Castle, and lost no time in responding to the Addington government's request in June 1803 for prominent local gentlemen to raise volunteers.
Walmer Castle (Wikimedia Commons)

Pitt wrote in his capacity as Lord Warden to Lord Hobart, the Secretary of State for War, on 27 July 1803:

I have the honour of transmitting enclosed a Memorandum of the proposal which I laid before your Lordship this morning for raising a Regiment of Volunteers within the Cinque Ports, to serve in case of invasion in any part of England, and to consist of three Battalions: and I have to request that your Lordship will submit the same to His Majesty's consideration.[1]

The proposal was accepted, and three thousand men were raised between July and November 1803. The officers were all local gentry and aristocracy, but the rank and file were mostly skilled labourers and artisans who could afford to leave their businesses for long stretches. The three battalions were headed by Pitt's step-nephew, Philip Stanhope, Lord Mahon; Robert Smith, Lord Carrington, Warden of Deal Castle and Pitt's personal friend; and Thomas David Lamb, a local dignitary from Rye.

The Volunteers were required by statute to drill for at least two days a week, or 24 days' service in three months. If there appeared to be a threat of invasion the men were called out on “Permanent Duty” and required to serve on the same basis as regular troops, under martial law, until the threat was over (they would, of course, be paid a shilling a day in compensation for lost earnings – although in the case of the Cinque Ports Volunteers, Pitt estimated the average man did not earn less than 2s6d a day ordinarily).[2] In return the Volunteers received uniforms and weaponry from the government, along with a very important benefit: exemption from the militia ballot.

In the 1790s the local gentlemen in charge of raising the volunteers had been allowed to choose their uniforms, but in 1803 the government wanted more control over the way the volunteers were raised and deployed. They insisted that all volunteer infantry regiments should be clothed in red, like the infantry.[3] The Cinque Ports Volunteers, therefore, wore red uniforms faced in pale yellow and blue pantaloons (white for ceremonial occasions), although none of the Cinque Ports battalions had yet received their uniforms before they were called out for the first time on Permanent Duty from 21 November to 14 December 1803.[4]

In July 1804 Kent was divided into three Volunteer Brigades, and the Cinque Ports Volunteers fell under the Cinque Ports Infantry Brigade under the command of General Charles Hope.[5] Their duties were to garrison forts, redoubts and batteries, including the Martello towers built along the coast between 1805 and 1809. Once again they were also used to deter smugglers and quell civil unrest, although these were comparatively minor features of their remit.

Military men seemed generally impressed with the quality of the Cinque Ports Volunteers, although some of what they said may of course have been intended to flatter Pitt. Not everyone in the army, however, was delighted at the prospect of working with "amateur" soldiers. Pitt allegedly told General John Moore, who commanded the local regular encampment at Shorncliffe, “On the very first alarm of the enemy's coming, I shall march to aid you with my Cinque Ports Volunteers. You have not yet told me where you will place us.”

Moore replied: “Do you see that hill? You and yours shall be drawn up on it, where you will make a most formidable appearance to the enemy, while I with my soldiers shall fight on the beach.”[6]

The Kentish Gazette also seemed underwhelmed by the Volunteers' ability to act as a military body. Remarking on the celebration of the King's official birthday at Deal in June 1804, the newspaper reported in some astonishment: “The Volunteers … fired three remarkably good volleys”.[7]

William Pitt as Colonel of the Cinque Ports Volunteers

Pitt's personal Volunteering zeal was well known. Some found it amusing, but there was an element of respect even in the satire:

Come the Consul whenever he will,
And he means it when Neptune is calmer,
Pitt will send him a damn'd bitter pill
From his fortress the castle of Walmer.”[8]

As for Pitt himself, he was confident. A toast attributed to him at a Volunteer dinner in 1803 went: “To a speedy meeting with the enemy on our own shores!”[9] At public meetings with Cinque Ports dignitaries Pitt expressed his expectations that the men of the Cinque Ports would rise to Napoleon's challenge:

As the Cinque Ports had the honor to form the advanced guard of the nation, their exertions ought, and he trusted would be, such as to enable them fully to resist any attempt the enemy might make at landing … The county ought not to content itself with the limitation of volunteers directed by government, but … should shew itself worthy of the eminent character it retained in history, and by a suitable exertion, at least double its proportion … The situation of this country was widely different from the inland counties, and … one man near the coast was worth ten at a distance.[10]

Pitt's example in leading his own men in the field – in the words of Lady Hester Stanhope, his niece, he “absolutely goes through the fatigue of a drill-sergeant … [and is] determined to remain acting Colonel when his regiment is called into the field” – had its effect on his men.[11] The Cinque Ports Volunteers were lucky to have such an involved and colonel, and they repaid his enthusiasm. When Pitt reviewed the Volunteers at Sandwich in November 1803 to tell them they were being called out on Permanent Duty, they reacted cheerfully to the news:

The battalion being formed into a circle, the First Speaker in the world then addressed them in one of the most eloquent and impressive speeches that could be delivered … and though the wind was very high, his audience large, and very considerably extended, his stentorian voice carried his words home to every animated breast; and no sooner was his harangue completed, than the Margate companies set the example, which was immediately followed by the whole line, of declaring their unanimous approbation of the proposal, by giving their Colone nine of the most hearty cheers that ever proceeded from the lips of the Men of Kent.[12]

Gillray's famous caricature of Pitt and Napoleon (1805). Pitt is wearing his CPV uniform

The end of the Cinque Ports Volunteers

Pitt died in January 1806. The first two battalions of the Cinque Ports Volunteers attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey, marching in the procession with black bands around their arm. They had lost their Colonel, but they were about to lose much more than that.

Pitt's government was succeeded by Lord Grenville's “Ministry of All the Talents”, which appointed William Windham – a long-standing enemy of the Volunteers – as Secretary of State for War. Windham had a low opinion of the Volunteers' ability to withstand an enemy invasion: he much preferred the idea of relying on a strong regular force, with a large auxiliary force, raised by ballot, to supplement it. Windham's 1806 Training Act effectively killed the volunteer movement by removing all government financial support and reducing the hours spent training a year from 85 to 26.

Forced to rely on their own devices, the Cinque Ports Volunteers could not survive. The regiment issued a protest to the Secretary of State: “Resolved, that it appears to us that the plan of Establishment recently proposed to us by the Honourable Secretary  … will be attended with … serious difficulties, with considerable individual expence, and must in a short time, render the Battalion inefficient”.[13]

I have used my utmost endeavours to enduce as large a proportion of [the men] to remain embodied as possible,” Lord Hawkesbury wrote to the Secretary of State in September 1806. “... I think it right to inform you that though some of the officers who belonged to the First Battalion have tender'd their Resignations … I hope I shall be able to preserve within the Town of Dover Four Companies of Eighty Men Each which together with the Two Companies at Walmer, and four at Faversham will form a respectable Force. I am in hopes likewise that a greater Proportion of the Second Battalion will be dispos'd to continue their services.” The Third Battalion issued its last pay on 24 June 1806 and disbanded, although an Independent Company continued in Rye till 1809.[14]

Despite Hawkesbury's best efforts, attendance was already lapsing. “It [has] been observed for many Months past that the Attendance of the Corps instead of supporting its acquired Credit has most materially disgraxced it & if persevered in will render it altogether ineffectual,” was entered into the Battalion Order Book in September 1806.[15] Pitt's death and Windham's policies together spelled the end of the Cinque Ports Volunteers.

The regiment limped on a little longer, but by 1808 most of the remaining men enlisted into the Local Militia, a force created by Lord Castlereagh, Windham's successor as Secretary of State for War. It was a sad end for Pitt's own Volunteers, but sadly not untypical. In any case the immediate threat was past, and when a French invasion again became an issue – in the 1850s and 1860s – the Cinque Ports would again rise to the challenge.



[1]  National Archives Home Office Papers HO 50/63

[2] Pitt to Lord Hobart, 8 November 1803, National Archives Home Office Papers HO 50/63

[3] Lt. Col. Metzmen to William Windham, 5 November 1803, British Library Add MSS 37882 ff 4-5

[4] Kentish Chronicle, 28 October 1803; Kentish Gazette 24 January 1804 

[5] Kentish Gazette 10 July 1804

[6] Richard Cannon, Historical record of the Fourth, or King's Own Regiment of Foot (London, 1839), p. 86

[7]  Kentish Gazette, 4 June 1804

[8] Peter Pindar [John Wolcot], “Invitation to Bonaparte”, The works of Peter Pindar (London, 1835), p. 433
[9] Arthur Bryant, The Years of Victory, p. 67

[10] Kentish Chronicle, 2 September 1803

[11] Lord Stanhope, Notes and Extracts of letters referring to Mr Pitt and Walmer Castle (London, 1866), p. 9

[12] Kentish Chronicle, 17 November 1803

[13] National Archives Home Office Papers HO 50/151

[14] Lord Hawkesbury to ?, 9 September 1806, National Archives Home Office Papers HO 50/151

[15] British Library Add MSS 38359 ff 79-80


About the Author
Jacqui Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She believes she is the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and is writing a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at

1 comment:

  1. Many years ago a fateful meeting took place at Colonial Williamsburg,
    Colony of Virginia between the Faulkner family and the 4th Bn Royal
    Regiment of Artillery 1776-1783. Jacqueline asked if she could join
    our reenactment unit and was renamed Jack as no women were allowed to be gunners. Jack served with great distinction for three years until the family was posted back to England.
    YMH & OS,
    Ben Newton Capt Lt Royal Regiment of Artillery 1776-1783


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