|We may think that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars impinged very little on the lives of Peldon villagers living in such a tiny rural community at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. However, the wars were to impact lives all along the East Coast, most especially with the requirement for men from every village to fight, the rise in food prices, and the very real fear of invasion. One in six British males over fourteen entered the army, navy, militia and other services during the Wars which were to last twenty two years from 1793 until 1815. Apart from a brief and uneasy peace in March 1802, brought about by the Treaty of Amiens, the Wars did not come to an end until the victory by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
1793 - 1802
War was declared against England on 1st February 1793 and at the beginning of March
a Publick Fast and Humiliation was called to be observed on 19th April in a proclamation from King George III,
with special prayers in all Churches, Chapels and Places of Publick Worship (ERO D/P 164/1/4)
Local newspapers did not report on this, which might indicate it was not widely observed, but there are descriptions of meetings of loyal inhabitants pledging support for King and Constitution.
The Government, led by Prime Minister Pitt, presumed the War would be over within a few years and that Britain's involvement would be small but this was not to be the case.
As the War progressed Bonaparte's intentions were clear. In 1797 he wrote to the French Directory Government that France must
... destroy the English monarchy, or expect itself to be destroyed by these intriguing and enterprising islanders ... Let us concentrate all our efforts on the navy and annihilate England. That done, Europe is at our feet
In England, there was mass enlistment into the military and a general preparation in the event of invasion. The regular army grew to six times its normal number to 250,000 men. Overall, the armies gathered during the Napoleonic Wars were the largest ever seen in the West.
Throughout Essex there was a great movement of troops. Tented camps were set up at Warley, Danbury, Weeley and Lexden, more were set up later.
The Regular Army Colchester had been a garrison town since Roman times. With no barracks for accommodation before the French Wars,
troops had been billeted in local inns and houses. The Mutiny Act, which regulated the provisioning of the British
Army, made inns and taverns liable to receive billeted soldiers and this became very unpopular with inn keepers.
With the outbreak of hostilities with France, the prospect of a lengthy war and an expansion of the army, the inn
keepers petitioned Colchester Corporation
to give all possible encouragement to Government building Barracks in the town
Prompt action was taken and new infantry barracks were built in 1794.
An eye-witness account by Ann Taylor, whose family arrived in Colchester in 1795, imparts the sense of Colchester being a great military centre.
Large barracks adjoined the town on its southern side, and an air of business and activity was given to the place as a great military station while the High Street was quite a gay promenade. The music of the evening bugle is still a pleasant note in my ears.
By 1800 additional infantry, artillery, and cavalry barracks had been built in the area bounded by Barrack Street to the north, Wimpole Road to the west, and Port Lane to the east.
By the short-lived Treaty of Amiens in March 1802, wooden hutments for close to 6,000 men had been erected.
The Militia Since Tudor times every parish had to provide men who would serve in the county militia.
This was generally preferable to enlisting in the regular army. If a man joined the peace-time militia he was only ever expected to serve within this country, he was exempted from the obligation of spending several days a year repairing the parish highways. He was not required to serve as a parish constable or other parish office and if called on actual service his wife and children would be cared for financially. Upon his discharge he enjoyed a freedom of movement often not previously experienced and could work anywhere in England or Ireland. If wounded and disabled there was help from the Chelsea Hospital. Additionally, the 'bounty' offered to sign up was far higher than that offered to a regular soldier.
The selection of men to join the militia depended on volunteering or holding a ballot within the parish amongst those who were eligible. A man could be spared if he found someone to serve in his place which was a common occurrence.
In Peldon, the parish accounts list two such substitutions
1803 April 22nd John Thompson for substitute £5
Henry Bun for substitute £5
The Navy Before the French Wars started, the navy had been greatly expanded and each parish was expected to provide men to join, the number depending on the inhabited dwellings in a village. There were fines levied against the Parish Council if men were not provided and a bounty was offered to the recruit, a third paid at the outset and the rest once he was on board ship.
Pressgangs were still rife. In times of war, captains of naval stations throughout the country had the right to seize any man for service in the navy and individual captains could also gain a licence to make up their crew from pressed men. From 1750 Wivenhoe was a centre for the Naval Impressment Service and during the Napoleonic Wars a steady supply of convicted smugglers were impressed to work for the Navy. There was even an annual prize awarded to the Revenue vessel that transferred the greatest number of fit and able smugglers to the Navy.
The 'Loyal Colchester Volunteers'. The Mayor of Colchester, William Mason, created a force which comprised two
companies by May 1798. A local force, its resolution was not to march out of the limits of Colchester, except voluntarily.
Its fortunes waxed and waned and in 1803 it was revived under Lt-Col. J Bawtree numbering 600 men by 1806. They were to disband upon the creation of the Local Militia in 1808.
The Provisional Cavalry In November 1796 Parliament approved a scheme for a local force of cavalry to be raised in each county. All of those who paid horse tax were to contribute one horse and one man for every ten horses they owned. This provisional cavalry was to be called upon in times of emergency and they were responsible for providing and maintaining their uniforms and equipment as specified by the Lieutenant in charge. But there was no provision for training and the military authorities decided they already had enough cavalry so the plan was short-lived and scrapped in 1799.
The Sea Fencibles were a British naval militia, mostly volunteers, formed in 1793 to act as an anti-invasion force in coastal waters. They were usually fishermen or local residents along the coast, under the command of retired or serving naval officers.
In the event of an alarm, the men would head to a meeting point and then go on to patrol a specific length of coast. They would also assist with coastal signal stations, man small boats and act as a lifeboat service.
In a letter dated August 7th 1801 from Admiral Nelson to Admiral the Earl of St Vincent he details his plans for this volunteer force.
I propose placing four [River Barges] on Whitstable flat and the others  on the Essex side, about Mercey Island, these must be considered as belonging to the Sea Fencibles and in a certain degree under the orders of those Captains, and the men exercised on board them. It is my intention to get over if possible tomorrow to Hoseley Bay or Harwich and to have a meeting with Captains Schomberg and Edge. My Flotilla, I hope, will be finished by Wednesday, and I am vain enough to expect a great deal of mischief to the Enemy from it.
On 10th August, 1801, on board his ship, Medusa, at Harwich, Nelson writes to Evan Nepean of the Admiralty
The defence of our numerous landing places is better adapted to our River-Barges, than any other which we could adopt, for they require few men to take care of them and would always be manned in a few minutes from the Fencible Corps.
By August 11th 1801, Nelson writes
Essex and Suffolk volunteer very near 500 who are going on board the Ships stationed on the Coast of Essex and Suffolk. The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson
The Sea Fencibles never engaged in active service although there were reports of them helping to fight off lone French vessels when they ventured near the British coastline and they were disbanded at the end of the Wars in 1815.
Special Constables There had been outbreaks of rioting, generally related to the inflated price of food and troops had been called to quell the riots. In 1804, an appeal for volunteer Special Constables was made to householders not already in a volunteer force, as much to protect property from 'the mob' as from an invasion.
The Home Front
From local documents and diaries it is possible to paint a picture of how the Wars affected Essex Villages along the Essex coast.
Following the defeat in Holland of the Duke of York's troops in 1795, three transport ships landed sick and wounded men at Wivenhoe and sixteen officers arrived at West Mersea, the last to leave Holland.
the French entering one gate as they went out the other
On Mersea island the inhabitants were reported to be alarmed at the large military presence locally.
In 1796 John Hanson 'gentleman' and diarist of Great Bromley Hall relates
Everything around gave note of the preparations of War, the garrison at Colchester completely filled with troops ready for the defence against the expected invasion
In the early days of the Wars, the government intended to adopt a 'scorched earth' policy, removing all food sources, means of transport and anything that might benefit an invading army. Mills and ovens were to be destroyed. Should there be an invasion they would evacuate the population.
Unarmed inhabitants were to be involved in general defence work, constructing earthworks, destroying bridges and roads or acting as guides to the troops. Villagers were asked to collect any weapons (or farm implements that could be used as such). Evacuation routes were planned to be along by-ways so as not to interfere with the movement of troops.
Clergymen and church vestry officers disseminated proclamations from King George, collected government returns and fulfilled the parish's obligations to provide men for the military, offering bounties to men enlisting.
New taxes were levied to raise funds for the war. In January 1798 an act for
granting to his majesty an aid and contribution for the prosecution of the war was passed.
The taxes on luxury items trebled by 1798
... including carriages, race-horses, hairpowder, dogs, clocks and windows above a certain number Wood: Essex and The French Wars
The government, needing a massive injection of funds, brought in new measures to raise taxes. Landowners could, instead of meeting an annual tax bill, pay a lump sum and purchase government bonds which yielded an annuity.
By the middle of 1798, Prime Minister Pitt had devised a graduated income tax paid by everyone earning more than £60 a year. Voluntary contributions were also requested from church congregations by Rectors and Churchwardens.
In 1798 there was a 'Return of Waggons' sent out to every parish to be filled in with the owner's name, how many waggons for four horses or more, three horses, two horses or one, plus the number of drivers and conductors. It was expected these waggons would be made available to transport troops. Livestock and waggons were to be marked with identifying initials.
In 1798 John Hanson writes
our own particular part of the Essex coast was the threatened point, in which the invading army was expected to attempt a landing, but within a few hours a force of 30,000 men from the garrisons of Colchester, Weeley and Ipswich of the neighbouring camps were ready at once to oppose them.
Joseph Page, who farmed at West House Farm in Fingringhoe during the Wars and kept a diary, relates witnessing events attendant upon the 1799 expedition of The Duke of York and Abercromby to Northern Europe.
1799 Sept 16th The first Regt of Dragoons began to pass through Colchester in divisions in their route to be embarked for Holland to join Abercrombie. The 11th Regt. Marched through this place to shoot at targets on Mr Cooper's Marshes [ Mr Cooper of Langenhoe Hall].
The same year another withdrawal from the continent again brought sick and wounded soldiers by sea to Wivenhoe. They were bound for the Colchester barracks, by then empty, ready to receive them.
From 24th - 31st October 1799 Joseph Page writes
The wounded men began to arrive at Colchester Barracks. The first that came landed at Mistley Thorne, some landed at Wivenhoe, and the remainder at the Hythe. They consisted of upwards of 1200, the greatest number of which were wounded in the battle of the 19, the rest were ill of ague.
9th November This day and for several days preceding different regiments came to Colchester on their march to their different winter quarters, which troops had been on the continent with the Duke of York... The remains of the different regiments which arrived at Colchester were in a deplorable state, some without shoes, stockings and almost every necessity that is wanting to equip a soldier.
High prices due to poor harvests and disrupted foreign imports brought great wealth to Essex agriculture while causing great hardship to many of the county's poorer residents.
Joseph, like many farmers, enjoyed the income generated by high prices and was encouraged to expand his farm.
On Dec 13th 1800 he refers to the 'astonishing price' that wheat was fetching. He found a lucrative source of income, selling produce to the quartermasters of troops stationed in N E Essex
Dec 4th 1800 Went .. to Colchester with 21 bushels of potatoes at 2s 6d per bushel and seven quarters of oats to the Marquis of Granby, which I sold to a quartermaster of the name of Woodhouse in the 3rd Regiment of Dragoons at 46s per quarter,
1800 Dec 14th This day in the morning service Mr Gennings, the Curate [at Fingringhoe], read a proclamation from the King recommending in a very forcible manner to the masters of all families to lessen as much as possible the consumption of bread, as the average crop of the last harvest, 1800, falls short of a fair average crop full one fourth and also to restrict as much as possible the consumption of oats by pleasure horses
1801 June 23rd Paid the first instalment of the Income Tax, 3s.
The Treaty of Amiens
1801 Oct 14th This day much rejoicing took place here on account of a peace being made between Great Britain and the French Republic. The morning was ushered in by bells and firing of cannon and the tops of houses and other conspicuous places was decorated with flags of various devices.
His diary relates a bullock was roasted and a great deal of beer and other liquor was given to the local populace; there were puddings, dumplings, carrots and potatoes. It was estimated there were 1500 people at this celebration in Fingringhoe near The Whalebone. There was gunpowder and fireworks. The celebrating continued the next day but there was a lot of drunkenness and Page reports an unruly mob taking food out of the hands of the 'gentlemen'.
The celebration was short-lived. The Treaty of Amiens was signed in March 1802 but by 1803 the peace was over.
1803 - 1815
It was not until the failure of this Treaty in May 1803 that the threat to Essex became more serious.
In 1803, Napoleon mustered an army at Calais so big that it could be seen from English shores. It was 130,000 strong and there was a flotilla of 2,000 boats. Although it was believed the preferred landing places would involve the shortest crossings from France, Dover, Chatham and the Romney Marshes, it was thought Essex would be a prime target with no steep cliffs and London within easy reach.
In 1803 Sir George Henry [footnote] wrote to a friend in London: "We are in great alarm here about the invasion. All the farmer volunteers are ready to march at an hour's notice, and a great many people are going to leave the roundabouts of Colchester to come to London."
The whole countryside was indeed in a state of nervous tension over the threatened French invasion. A beacon was erected at Wigborough, and telegraphs were prepared on church towers for signalling. The Cheshire Militia were camped on Langenhoe Common The Story of Layer-de-La Haye Mary Hopkirk
Footnote: Sir George Henry Smyth was a well-known local Tory politician who become Colchester's MP in 1826. He lived in Berechurch Hall.
Here in Essex, regular troops and volunteer regiments were drilled, exercised and kept in readiness for an east coast invasion. Between 1803 and 1804, invasion of the south and east of England was expected on almost an hourly basis. Locally, Mersea Island and The Strood were considered at risk and a battery was deployed to guard landing places.
The plans for wide scale evacuation and the 'scorched earth' policy were dropped and it was proposed that troops would be moved to defend the coast against invasion. The means of feeding such large numbers were put in place.
There was a renewed effort to enlist soldiers and the population rallied to the national cause. As described in
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen there was a social whirl surrounding the army camps and local diarists mention parties and balls. This glamorisation of soldiers certainly helped recruitment.
In order to ascertain that the troops could be fed, all bakers and millers received forms to fill in. They were to list how many loaves they could make in a day, whether help from additional journeymen was required, what fuel was used to fire the ovens and whether that fuel was abundant. A government leaflet was also included giving advice on baking large quantities.
A letter written by her mother to Ann Gilbert née Taylor in October 1803 tells of the quantities of loaves to be baked by a Colchester baker.
Heath is commanded to bake twenty-five thousand loaves, of six pound each, every fourth day. The Autobiography and other Memorials of Mrs Gilbert edited by Isaac Taylor 1876
Livestock, instead of being moved inland, was to remain for the use of the Forces.
With the exception of Horses and Draft Cattle, the Stock of the Country is to remain on the spot for the use of His Majesty's Forces who would be ordered to advance to that part of the Coast at which the enemy may make good or threaten a landing
In 1803, new 'returns' were sent out to update lists of farm stock, specifying numbers of oxen, cows, calves, colts, sheep, goat and pigs. They required information on whether horses were draft or riding horses and the number of waggons and carts. Oats, barley, beans and pease, loads of hay, straw, sacks of potatoes and malt all had to be accounted for. Blank columns were given to enter local produce not listed. These returns were to be repeated following the next harvest and again in 1805.
A system of beacons was also set up, the nearest being at Great Wigborough.
Historically, beacons were fires lit at well-known locations on hills or high places, used either as lighthouses to assist navigation for those at sea or as a warning to people that enemy troops were approaching. They were a form of communication arranged in chains up and down the country between communities.
Bonfire beacons were a relatively simple signalling medium, relying on the visibility of smoke during daylight and of fire-light during the darkness of night. A call to arms by beacons would travel far faster than a messenger struggling along difficult and dangerous tracks on horseback.
Beacons as a warning were famously employed to signal the approach of the Spanish Armada. It is said that in 1588 it took 12 hours for the news the Spanish Armada had been sighted to travel from the south coast of England all the way to York.
Great Wigborough was part of a chain of beacons including Colchester, Danbury, Langdon Hill, Cowe Green, Ongar Park, Good Easter, Wethersfield and Littlebury Broom, all manned by the military.
Lookouts on church towers completed the chain between beacons and were ordered to hoist red flags when they saw the beacons alight. While invasion was thought to be imminent, to avoid any confusion, farmers were ordered not to burn off weeds or have fires and clergymen not to fly any other kind of flag on their church towers! As the 1803 Guy Fawkes night approached, bonfires were banned.
The test event was on Monday 14th November 1803 and was not a success! As a result, an extra 24 flag stations of much larger dimensions than those in the parishes were planned. However, as the fear of invasion lessened with British naval superiority prevailing, the idea of using beacons was shelved.
In January 1803 John Hanson imparts the increased alarm over the imminence of invasion.
Great alarm of invasion, the threatened landing of the French being daily expected from the forward state of preparation and readiness for embarkation of their immense force. On our part preparations for defence were made with equal activity and measures taken for removing cattle, provisions and property of every kind that might be useful to the enemy; signal staffs were placed on every church tower and fire beacons of lofty piles of wood erected on all the eminences ready to be lighted to give notice on the first alarm. Many females and other inhabitants who could remove, did so for security till the danger passed.
In another account from a farmer in Great Holland
1803 When Buonaparte had his flat-bottomed boats made and threatened to invade England it was thought probable he might attempt a landing on the Essex Coast. It created considerable alarm in this neighbourhood. Orders were received in the parishes along the coast to appoint persons to take charge of the live-stock and have it removed, if necessary, to the upper part of the County on the borders of Cambridgeshire. Annals of the Parish of Great Holland by an old stager - Charles Hicks
In Fingringhoe, Joseph Page continues
Thursday 21st July 1803, at a parish meeting at the Whalebone the principle inhabitants then assembled did appoint the different situations of persons to act as guides, conductors of teams and drivers and every other kinds of cattle from off the sea coast to some more upland place,, and also took the names of all the men to act as occasion may require, some with guns, others with pitchforks, mattocks, spades, shovels, hooks, axes and all kinds of offensive weapons to repel the threatening attack of our enemies, the French.
22nd July 1803. The Cheshire Militia marched from Colchester to Langenhoe Common, commonly called Abberton Green, and there encamped.
Friday October 14th, 1803. Lieutenant Jones of the Royal Engineers, accompanied by 25 men of the East Norfolk Militia, began to erect a battery on Hornet Heath, opposite Wivenhoe, to protect the hardway over Wivenhoe ferry in case of invasion...On Sunday the 23rd was landed on the ferry bridge, Fingringhoe, the stores, consisting of shot round and grape gunpowder and other materials, and on the following day 4 pieces of cannon, two for the battery on Hornet Heath and the other for batteries at the Strood, Mersea Island.
Ann Gilbert née Taylor wrote of the situation in Colchester in the autumn 1803
England was beginning to look thoughtful at the name of Bonaparte. Especially towards the eastern coast, the suspicion of invasion was spreading alarm, and one or twice I believe beacons were actually fired to announce it... A panic, sudden and general, certainly occurred. Those of the inhabitants who could pay for immediate flight made off in every direction.
On October 11th 1803 her mother wrote Ann a letter, as the rest of the family were preparing to leave Colchester and move back to their house in Lavenham
On Friday last the principal inhabitants of Colchester waited on General Craig the Commander here, and received from him the most solemn and decisive warning of our danger, and of the absolute necessity of the female part of the population, with their children, and what effects they could convey, leaving the town with all speed; and poor Mr W. has been over in great alarm, having just opened by mistake a letter intended for a young lady here, from her brother, an officer, entreating her to leave the town instantly, for that the attack might be expected any hour. Heath is commanded to bake twenty-five thousand loaves, of six pound each, every fourth day; soldiery keep pouring in daily ; the cavalry horses have not had their saddles off for several nights; the butter market is being walled round and General Craig is up early and late, indefatigable in his preparations... And now you will not be surprised to hear that we are all in the utmost distress and consternation. Every face gathers blackness, and our knees smite together... The Rounds are all going to Bath... The East Hill people are flying thicker and faster. The Autobiography and other Memorials of Mrs Gilbert edited by Isaac Taylor 1876
Although all the government returns and documents detailing their requirements will have come to every parish along the east coast, the only document for Peldon to survive is a request for Peldon to raise and provide
two men for a Permanent Additional Force, dated September 1804. As with all the documents it was addressed to the churchwardens and overseers of the poor for the parish. It appears in a book of Peldon's churchwardens' accounts held at the Essex Records Office D/P 287/5/3
In pursuance of Act (44th Geo III ch 56) [This was the 44th year of the reign of George III, 1804].
For establishing and maintaining a permanent additional Force for the Defence of the Realm
The document, signed by local men John Round, James Round (Birch) and John Bawtree (Wivenhoe), states that they give
notice, order and require you, forthwith to raise and provide two men to serve in such additional force for your said parish.
The church officers are warned that any offer of bounty to the recruit other than the £12 offered by His Majesty's Regulations would invoke a fine. However, they are allowed to advance to the new recruit subsistence payments during
his March to the Place of Rendezvous, any sum not exceeding 2 shillings per day of so many Days as will enable such Man to march from the Place where he is raised to the Place of Rendezvous, calculating at the Rate of not less than 10 miles per Day with the usual Number of Halting Days and which will be repaid to Overseers by Captain Wright of the 47th Regiment at Chelmsford.
It was Captain Wright that the men were to report to for approving or rejecting in Chelmsford.
The Church officers are also warned that if they fail to provide the two men within one month they will be fined £20 and the fine is not to be taken out of the relief for the Poor.
This was a printed official form and details specific to Peldon are filled in by hand, the number of men to be provided, the bounty offered and the Captain they were to report to as well as being signed by local military leaders.
Only 13 months after this request for additional forces, following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, British naval superiority ended the fear of invasion but the war was to continue for another ten years. Here at home, the population no longer had to hold themselves in readiness for an invading French army.
However, in 1808 the beacons were reinstated, manned this time by civilians not soldiers. Huts were built near the beacons to provide shelter and act as stores for the prodigious amounts of fuel that would be needed. Beacon-minders were to be paid 3 shillings a week and their duties to be fulfilled alongside their usual occupations. By 1811 the beacons were done away with.
Between 1805 and 1812 coastal fortifications in the form of one hundred and three Martello Towers were built from Seaford in the West to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast. In Essex eleven were built between Brightlingsea and Walton-on-The Naze, six of which still stand as does the Napoleonic fort at Harwich, The Redoubt.
Overall, between 1793 and 1815 it is estimated close to 312, 000 British soldiers died either as war casualties or as a result of starvation or illness. More European lives were lost than in any other conflict up to World War 1.
For those who were wounded or families of those killed, help was largely up to private charity and collections within the parish.
Following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, thousands of troops were to return home.
Any soldier who returned from War had to have a certificate to pass through parishes other than his own. He would be given a certain number of days in which to make the journey home and the parishes he passed through were obliged to give him 'relief' money.
In Peldon, the money given to returning soldiers and their families passing through the village was listed in the parish accounts, some described as being in distress,
1812 June 12 Relieved soldiers wives and children by Pass 5/6
June 30 3 soldiers wives and children on Pass from Harwich to Sussex 3/-
Oct 21 Relieved 2 soldiers wives and children 1/-
1813 April 3 Relieved 2 soldiers wifes 1/-
April 15 Relieved soldiers wifes and children 1/-
Far from it being a triumphant home-coming, the influx of men led to a flooding of the labour market. Farmers had already started to use machinery, such as threshing machines, thus reducing the number of agricultural labourers needed. Farmers had also overstretched themselves in times of high prices and were in debt, their taxes remained at high levels and now the wages they offered were low, too low for workers to maintain a family. Many tenant farmers were bankrupted. Southern and eastern England were to enter a period of unrest, incendiarism, machine-wrecking, wage 'riots' and threatening letters from the workers' mythical leader, 'Captain Swing'.
Peldon History Project.
Arthur Brown Essex People
Jenny Uglow In These Times:Living in Britain Through the Napoleonic Wars 1793 - 1815
R Wood Essex and The French Wars
The Inns Taverns and Pubs of Colchester Jess Jephcott
Essex Records Office D/P 287/5/3
Essex Records Office D/P 164/1/4
The Story of Layer-de-La Haye Mary Hopkirk (
The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson
The Autobiography and other Memorials of Mrs Gilbert edited by Isaac Taylor 1876
Fire Beacons, Volunteers and Local Militia in Napoleonic Essex 1803 - 1811 PB Boyden Essex Archaeology and History Volume 15 1983
Updated version 31 July 2022