The Sea Fencibles (1798-1802 and 1803-1810)

The Sea Fencibles (1798-1802 and 1803-1810), are reputed to be the idea of Admiral Sir Home Popham. They were created by an Order in Council dated 14 May, 1798 - For the protection of the coast, either on shore or afloat ; comprising all fishermen and other persons occupied in the ports, and on the coast, who, from their occupations are to be unpressed.

The coast of England, Scotland and Wales was divided into about 36 sections, each supervised by up to 3 Captains, R.N. A section was sub-divided into areas of the coastline which were the responsibility of a Lieutenant, R.N. The coast of Ireland was similarly divided into about 21 sections.

The Sea Fencibles were formed in 1798, when the threat of invasion from across the Channel was becoming a reality. Mostly made up from fishermen and other water born trades, their initial duties included guarding the Martello towers, and patrolling the beaches adjacent to where it was thought the French might launch their invasion. In addition they were trained regularly in the use of the cannon and pike, and handling armed coastal craft, provided by local owners hiring them out to the Admiralty, see below. The Royal Navy hoped to tackle any invasion as soon as it departed the French coast and the Sea Fencibles were expected to attack the French barges and hoys &c. before they reached the beaches.

In addition to preparing to defend the coastline the Sea Fencibles also appear to have been involved in other activities, e.g. the London Gazette of 12 Jan 1799 reports that on the 9 Jan., the brig Susannah sailed from Dartmouth only to be taken later the same day by the French privateer L’Heureux Speculator. This was observed by the Brixham Sea Fencibles who went off in a boat armed with pikes and muskets and recaptured the Susannah and the French crew who were attempting to make their escape. On their return to port two boats were prepared with a view to capturing the privateer, but this was unsuccessful. Similarly on the 8 Jan a small cutter was observed taking 2 brigs off the North Foreland, whereupon the local Sea Fencibles pushed off in 3 boats and re-captured the 2 brigs.

In addition to the regular training ceremonial duties also took their place on the agenda and the Sea Fencibles were given a relatively high profile in the newspapers of the day e.g. they note that when the Royal Family arrived in Portland Roads, from Weymouth, on board HM ship Cambrian on 12 Aug 1800, Portland Castle and local militias etc. including the Portland Sea Fencibles joined in by firing the appropriate salutes and a further salute to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Wales.

Circa Jun 1801, the Naval Chronicle observed that as a result of the preparations being made along the French coast for the long-talked-of invasion of England, the Government ordered the Sea Fencibles into active service ; and there has not only been a very severe press upon the River, but the Lord Mayor, in consequence of application made to him for that purpose, has granted press-warrants in the City, by which means a number of useful hands have been procured.

In addition, in August 1801, with a view to making the Sea Fencibles more useful, following discussions with Lord Nelson it was agreed with the owners of the fishing smacks in the Harwich area that one member of the crew of each of the smacks was allowed to volunteer to serve on board the ships of war stationed off Harwich for the defence of the Thames.

And I notice in a London newspaper of 30 Aug 1801, that 19 hired gun barges, commanded by Lieutenants and manned by Sea Fencibles, arrived Sheerness, from the River, armed with an 18-pdr long gun in the bows and an 18-pdr carronade amidships and were to be allocated to salient points around the East Coast : ie ideal shallow draught vessels to assist with dealing with the continuing threat of a French invasion using similar vessels. Rif Winfield advises in British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1796-1817, that these barges were hired in Jul 1801, for the period of 3 months.

It was reported in the newspapers of 23 Jan 1802 that letters received from Gibraltar advise that that all the pikes for the use of the Sea Fencibles there, and all the ball cartridges in the different regimental depots were to be returned into store.

With the signing of the Peace of Amiens in March 1802 the Sea Fencibles were disbanded, but the peace didn’t last for much more than a year before the war started again and the Sea Fencibles were re-introduced.

According to an Admiralty circular dated 6 Aug 1803, one of their first tasks the Sea Fencibles were required to undertake after the end of the Peace was to survey the coastline within each district and to inform Their Lordships regarding which situations "may appear to you to be most exposed to the landing of the enemy – the difficulty or easiness of access thereto –" along with remarks about how the winds, surf and tide might affect a landing made by boats, with the tides most suitable for that purpose. In addition parts of the coast which were rendered by nature to make a landing difficult, along with notes regarding creeks and rivers within their districts.

The Sea Fencibles were recruited from volunteers in coastal areas and each man was eligible to receive a 1s. per day when required for service, but the main incentive appears to have been the immunity acquired from service in both the militia and from the press gang, so, unsurprisingly, few problems were experienced recruiting volunteers. Similarly there was no shortage of officers to supervise the Sea Fencibles since RN officers received full pay whilst attached to the Sea Fencibles, rather than the half-pay they would have otherwise received when unemployed.

Opinion was generally split over the usefulness of the Sea Fencibles : some thought them to be little more than smugglers and wreckers, whereas there were those like Lord Nelson, who thought they could play an important role in say an invasion.

The Naval Chronicle, Vol 6 notes that on 31 Jul 1801 the Brixham Sea Fencibles, commanded by Captain Kinneer, have liberally subscribed £59. 11s. to the fund at Lloyd's, for the relief of the widows and orphans of those brave men, who fell in the battle off Copenhagen ; they have volunteered their service to any part of the coast, in case of invasion ; the Brixham trawl boat owners have handsomely offered their boats for the same laudable purpose.

When recruiting for the sea fencibles recommenced circa 18 Jul 1803, adverts were placed in local newspaper asking those willing to serve to attend a meeting to enrol. The following instructions were published with the adverts in some districts :

  1. That all who shall voluntarily enrol themselves as Sea Fencibles, for the defence of the coast, will be exercised one day in every week, and be paid on such days, and at all times, when called out to perform any service, one shilling each man, but none shall be enrolled who are not settled inhabitants of the District e.g. sojourners.
  2. As the situation of the country requires the service of every person on the sea coast, no seafaring man, fisherman, or other person, whose occupation or calling may be, or has been, to work in vessels, or boats, or otherwise, nor any of those who have received regular protections, such as pilots, fishermen, masters of barges, or who are protected, by being in the service of the Excise, Customs, or Post Office, will be exempted from the Impress, unless enrolled to serve in the Sea Fencibles.
  3. And those who shall enrol themselves, and perform properly, the services required, will be protected from being impressed.

By Order &c.

After the above an attempt was made by Lord Hobart to give the sea fencibles a more important role to play and he wrote in August 1803 to the Lord Lieutenants of the maritime counties along the following lines :

  1. That they were requested to co-operate with the Board of Admiralty in obtaining the enrollment of all the seafaring men upon their respective coasts, under the general denomination of Sea Fencibles
  2. It is recommended to the principal sea-port towns to equip, at their own expense, a number of armed vessels and hulks, to be stationed for the better protection and security of such ports, and to be appropriated to, and manned by Sea Fencibles, who are to take charge of them, and to be exercised on board at the guns as often as may be required.
  3. In cases where the proportion of Sea Fencibles which any place can furnish, is greater than such place can find shipping to employ, and likewise where any place is capable of providing men, but unable to procure vessels ; in both cases the vessels shall be furnished by Government.
  4. A place for assembling ships in cases of alarm, to be fixed upon, in the first instance, by the respective commanders of Sea Fencibles, and a general rendez-vous to be appointed by the Admiralty for the whole fleet to repair to when required for action.
  5. That as colliers and coasting vessels about 150 tons, would make the best sort of gun-vessels, the principal merchants and owners in every port of the kingdom, be called upon to fit all their vessels of that description, with slides between decks, and loop holes in the combings of their hatchways, for close quarters, to carry two guns forward, and two aft, to fight on either side, as well as fore and aft.
  6. That when the vessels are reported ready, guns and ammunition shall be put on board by Government, free of expense to the owners, the masters giving a receipt and voucher to return them when demanded, and to keep a regular account of the expenditure and remains.
  7. That all vessels be fitted with ring and eye bolts for guns, and that all small vessels be prepared to receive large oars to act against the enemy in a calm if necessary.
  8. That all the vessels and boats employed in this service shall receive a letter of marque, in order to entitle their crews to benefit of the prizes they may make.
  9. That the said vessels shall be under orders to attend you, and obey the signals and directions that may be made to them, and when ordered to anchor, and detained, that they shall be paid demurrage at the same rate, according to their regular tonnage, as common transports. The time of detention to be certified by the officer who may order it.
  10. That they shall be visited on arriving at, and sailing from port, by the Commanding Officer of the Sea Fencibles of the district.

Following the brief period of the Peace and the re-introduction of the various volunteer organisations, the government called for volunteers eg

  • "24 Jul 1803 at Portsmouth. The Sea Fencibles who have been enrolled here under the command of Capt E. O'Brien, received their pikes on Wednesday, and were mustered in St. George's Square, Portsea. In a short time their number, it is expected, will be increased to between 7 and 800, who, as their brave Commander says "are fine fellows and all willing." Captain R. Barton is appointed to command the Sea Fencibles at Brading, Isle of Wight. Several superannuated gunners have offered their superintendence on any station. Morning Post"
However, the campaign was overly successful, as those attempting to avoid impressment into the Royal Navy or Militias joined these units, including the Sea Fencibles, whose numbers are reputed to have reached 30,000, which although not a great number in the scale of things, did include a great many men who might otherwise have been liable to impressment, thus making it difficult for the Royal Navy to recruit men who they considered to be theirs and perhaps accepting less men who they would not otherwise have recruited. But local politics being what they were the Royal Navy were often unable to have the situation put right, or on the press gang arriving on shore men eligible to be pressed disappeared into the countryside etc. until the press gang had left. In addition some of the commanding officers of the various units appear to have been more than happy to have fit and mature men capable of fulfilling their roles in the Fencibles, as presumably were their wives and defended the rights of these men to be exempt from the ‘press. The Admiralty Board was fully aware of the situation and tried various methods in an attempt to reduce the numbers of Fencibles in order that they might be pressed into the RN, but not, in the main, with a great deal of success, although by about 1809-10 the numbers had fallen to just less 24,000.

But by this time it had also become clear that the original reason for creating the Sea Fencibles no longer existed, and with the cost of maintaining the organisation at about £200,000 a year, which was badly needed elsewhere, they were disbanded prior to the start of the financial year 1810-11.

A few Miscellaneous notes in connection with the above :

Admiralty Office, 12 Jan 1799.
Copy of a Letter from Capt. Edward Buller, commanding the Sea Fencibles along the Coast of Devon. Dartmouth, 10th Jan 1799
I beg leave to acquaint you, for the information of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that the brig Susannah left this port yesterday morning, seven o'clock, for Torbay, and was captured while at anchor off West Down Head, five miles from this place, at half past one P. M. by the French privateer L'Heureux Speculateur, mounting 14 guns. The Brixham Sea Fencibles, perceiving an armed vessel, concluded her to be an enemy ; and, from her boarding the above brig, supposed she had captured her ; in consequence of which went off in a boat, armed with pikes and muskets, succeeded in recapturing the brig, which on their appearance was deserted by the Frenchmen, whom they also pursued and took.
Lieutenant Nicholas, with his usual zeal, with Collector Brooking's assistance of small arms and boat, went also from this port with part of the Sea Fencibles, accompanied by a boat from his Majesty's cutter Nimble, in hopes of capturing the privateer, but was not fortunate enough to succeed in the attempt. The recaptured brig he towed into this harbour. I am, Sir, &c.
Ed. Buller.

Extract of a Letter from Capt. Thomas Hamilton, commanding the Sea Fencibles at Margate, to Evan Nepean, Esq. dated the 9 Mar 1799.
I have the honour to acquaint you, that yesterday morning, about ten o'clock, a small cutter was observed boarding two brigs eight or nine miles from the North Foreland. The wind being to the eastward, with a flood tide, prevented the Camperdown cutter, lying in Westgate Bay, from chasing. I sent an orderly dragoon to the admiral at Deal, not knowing the force of the privateer. The moment the capture was perceived, 40 or 50 of the Sea Fencibles pushed off in three boats, and about three o'clock recaptured the two brigs, the privateer having made off.

24 Aug 1799 Plymouth that veteran Lt. John Newton, regulating officer at this Port, since the commencement of the war, who has raised near 2000 Volunteers for the Navy at this Port, since 1 Feb 1793, at the last muster of the Plymouth Sea Fencibles, in the Citadel, where they were training to the use of great guns, made a very suitable speech to this very valuable body of men on the present situation of affairs, (the combined fleets having escaped through the Straits,) when the whole, 130 in number, gave three cheers, and volunteered in case of emergency to serve on board any of his Majesty's ships at this port. Naval Chronicle.

Following the introduction of the Sea Fencibles in 1798 the Signal Stations came under the jurisdiction of the Captain in charge of the Sea Fencibles in that district, and again in 1803 on the re-activation of the Fencibles, until the demise of the Sea Fencibles in early 1810.

10 Sep 1799 Plymouth Captain E. Butler, Commandant of the South Devon Sea Fencibles, is appointed to the command of the Edgar, 74, in Cawsand Bay. [Included to illustrate that the officers in command of the various Sea Fencibles units were active officers and not a part of Dad's Army.]

28 Nov 1799 Plymouth by letters from Salcombe, it appears that the John and Grace sloop for Plymouth, was taken by a French row-boat privateer, and gallantly retaken by the Sea Fencibles from Salcombe.

Circa Jan 1800 Captain Edward O'Brien, is appointed to command the Sea Fencibles on the Coast of Essex.

15 Sep 1800 Plymouth, Captain Stanhope, commander in chief of all the Sea Fencibles in the district of Devon and Cornwall, reviewed the two companies of Plymouth Sea Fencibles, trained by that veteran Officer Lieut Newton. They exercised the great guns at the Lunette battery of 18-pdrs. in the lower fort of the citadel, with great skill ; the review finished, Captain Stanhope made them a suitable speech from the battery, and thanked them for the great improvement they had made in the exercise of great guns, which was received with three cheers, and the corps was then dismissed.

Circa Jan 1801 Captain O'Brien, who distinguished himself in the action with DC Winter, off Camperdown, by his gallant command of the Monarch, has been appointed to the Sea Fencible protection of the coast of Hants. The naval superintendence of the Essex coast is vacant by this promotion.

Circa Jan 1801 Captain Joseph Hanwell is appointed to the Regulating Service, at Exeter, in the room of Captain Skinner, removed to the command of the Sea Fencibles on the coast of Devon.

31 Jul 1801 Brixham Sea Fencibles commanded by Captain Kinneer, have liberally subscribed £59. 11s. to the fund at Lloyd's, for the relief of the widows and orphans of those brave men, who fell in the battle off Copenhagen ; they have volunteered their service to any part of the coast, in case of invasion ; the Brixham trawl boat owners have handsomely offered their boats for the same laudable purpose.

15 Oct 1801 it was announced at Deal that the Deal Sea Fencibles were mustered this day, in order, it is understood, to be paid off and discharged. [I would guess that this was probably a part of a general order, ie anything to reduce spending on the War.]

Circa 17 Sep 1803 Captain Lavie, to the command of the Sea Fencibles on the River Medway.

Circa 3 Oct 1803 Capt Pierrepoint apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Liverpool.

Circa 10 Oct 1803 the Sea Fencibles at Southampton, under the command of Capt Garrett, have volunteered to service on board the Princess Royal, similarly the Sea Fencibles at Lymington, commanded by Capt Portlock, have volunteered for the Windsor Castle.

Circa 10 Oct 1803 orders have been issued to Governors of Haslar and Plymouth Naval Hospitals to receive all Sea Fencibles who may be wounded in the expected conflict with the French, following Bonaparte's threats to invade England and his setting up the building of many hundreds of gun boats &c. at the many ports along the Coasts of Holland and France opposite to the South East corner of England.

16 Oct 1803 the Sea Fencibles at Plymouth have been carrying out exercises using their pikes and great guns.

Circa 7 Nov 1803 Hon Capt Colvill apptd to the Sea Fencibles on the coast of Cumberland.

17 Nov 1803 Mr Whitby, Master Attendant from Sheerness, has been supervising the fitting out of 105 small vessels, to be manned by the Sea Fencibles, for the defence of the Coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Circa 26 Nov 1803 Capt Wynne apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Plymouth, and not Dartmouth, as previously stated.

Circa 10 Dec 1803 Capt Birchall apptd to command the Sea Fencibles at Chester.

13 Dec 1803 the Down, Verben, master, bound for London with corn taken by a French privateer was retaken by the Sea Fencibles off Cromer, and brought into Yarmouth. In addition, in the same article it is noted that a sloop captured by the well known French privateer Blackmann, had been recaptured by the Winterton Sea Fencibles.

Circa 17 Dec 1803 Capt Burdett apptd to command the Sea Fencibles at Dublin, under Adm Whitshed.

25 Dec 1803 orders were issued at Deal by the Commanding Officer of the Sea Fencibles to have their boats ready at a moment's notice. But the wind blowing SW it is thought impossible for the French the make a passage.

Circa 31 Dec 1803 Capt Roberts apptd to command the Sea Fencibles in Ireland.

Circa 28 Jan 1804 Capt Evans apptd to command the Sea Fencibles at Cork.

Circa 5 Mar 1804 the Warrant Officers belonging to ships in ordinary at Portsmouth have been examined and reported on preparatory to their being assigned to act with the Sea Fencibles under Capt O'Bryen.

Circa 10 Mar 1804 Capt McNamara apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Dublin, under Adm Whitshed.

10 Mar 1804 the Morning Chronicle reports that a French privateer operating off Lands End had taken the Marristown, Harris, who on the appearance of a lugger was robbed of seven pounds and his watch, his vessel being re-captured by the Sea Fencibles from Saint Ives, under the command of Capt Oughton, and carried in there.

Circa 17 Mar 1804 Capt Clay, apptd to the Sea Fencibles in Ireland.

22 Mar 1840 at an early hour this morning a schuyt was seen from off Dover and some of the sea fencibles went off thinking that she might be in need of a pilot, but on arriving on board found her to be an enemy vessel, manned by a seaman and 2 sawyers, which had lost her convoy from Dunkirk to Boulogne in the night and didn't know where she was, and was therefore taken to the pier and proves to be Transport No. 3, called Le Trois Freres, and had come out the night before with 24 others. They states that every craft and person in their country is put into requisition for the expedition against England, and that anyone refusing is put in prison, and will be sent on board when the time comes. This vessel had been requisitioned for 6 months and was laden with babbins &c., for the Army at Boulogne. A printed copy of her signal book was found on board in French and Dutch.

The Kentish Gazette of 6 April 1804 advises that the Sea Fencibles at Folkestone have established a nightly guard and when the wind blows fair for the French to cross the Channel the guard is trebled, the town patrolled all night, and the words "All's Well" passed from one post to another.

Circa 26 Mar 1804 Capt Standfield, apptd to the Sea Fencibles in Ireland.

Circa 16 Apr 1804 Hon Capt Wodehouse, apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Harwich.

Circa 21 Apr 1804 Lieut Connolly, apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Brading, under Capt Barton.

Circa 21 Apr 1804 Lieut Bush, apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Brading, under Capt Barton.

27 Apr 1804 Capt Luke apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Falmouth.

Circa 28 Apr 1804 Capt Western, apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Dover.

Circa 28 Apr 1804 Capt W Luke, apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Falmouth.

Circa 28 Apr 1804 Capt Lock, apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Berwick.

Circa 28 Apr 1804 Capt Searle of the Sea Fencibles at Portsmouth apptd to the Perseus, bomb.

Circa 12 May 1804 Capt J Peyton to the Sea Fencibles at Poole.

Circa 12 May 1804 Capt Hardacre to the Sea Fencibles at Yarmouth.

Circa 12 May 1804 Capt J Russell to the Sea Fencibles at Dundee.

Circa 12 May 1804 Capt Fielding to the Sea Fencibles at Queensborough.

Circa 12 May 1804 Capt Buckle to the Sea Fencibles at Portsmouth, under Capt O'Bryen.

Circa 19 May 1804 Capts Slaney and Snow, in command of the Water and Harbour-Marine Fencibles in London, at the presentation of colours to the 10 Regts of Volunteers.

Circa 19 May 1804 Capt Janverin of the Sea Fencibles at Brading, apptd to the Pluto, vice Capt W H Kittoe.

Circa 19 May 1804 Lieut W Bush apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Brading.

Circa 16 Jun 1804 Capt Fraser to the Sea Fencibles at Liverpool.

2 Jul 1804 the Sea Fencibles from Wembury and Cawsand exercised their great guns in the bay and hit the target, a barrel with a flag, at 2,000 yards several times, and also practiced the use of the pike.

Circa 4 Aug 1804 Adm Phillips is arrived in town having completed an inspection of the Sea Fencibles and craft stationed for the different parts of the Coast ; an account of which he has laid before ministers.

Circa 11 Aug 1804 Capt Milne to the Sea Fencibles at Frith of Forth.

Circa 25 Aug 1804 Capt Grumley apptd to the Sea Fencibles at Winstaple.

Circa 8 Sep 1804 Capt FitzGerald apptd to command the Sea Fencibles at Brading.

Circa 22 Sep 1804 the Sea Fencibles' protections have been investigated and several hands picked out for general service.

Circa 22 Sep 1804 Capt Becher apptd to command the Sea Fencibles at Alnwich.

11 Oct 1804 at Margate, Capt Brisbane posted a notice at the lower end of the pier, for the Sea Fencibles, who are ticket men, to hold themselves in readiness to go on board the West Indiaman which hove in sight yesterday afternoon. In consequence of this mandate those men who were not out on the herring fishery, are now employed on that duty, and their services have not been a little necessary, from the circumstances of one of the homeward-bound fleet having got upon the sands in the offing during the preceding night, owing to the haziness of the weather. Happily she was got off about four o'clock this morning without injury. The Sea Fencibles thus employed are to pilot ships as far as the Nore. Circa 20 Oct 1804 R.-Adm Drury has been apptd to relieve Adm Whitshed in command of the Sea Fencibles of Ireland.

Circa 15 Dec 1804 Hon Adm Berkeley apptd the Chief Command of the Sea Fencibles on the Coast of England.

24 Dec 1804 the Cawsand Sea Fencibles were mustered and inspected by the Inspecting Admiral of Sea Fencibles on the coast of Devon and Cornwall, R.-Adm. Phillips ; they were then ready for the usual great gun and pike exercise, but what with the snow and the wind blowing so strongly, with the men being unable to stand at the guns, they were dismissed and returned to Captain Winne.

Circa 7 Jan 1805 Capt Mends apptd to command the Sea Fencibles in Ireland.

Circa 18 Feb 1805 following the appointment of Adm Berkeley in command of the Sea Fencibles £50,000 per annum has been saved by mustering the men monthly instead of weekly.

Circa 6 Mar 1805 Capt Clement apptd to command the Sea Fencibles at Berwick.

Circa 6 Mar 1805 Capt Lock apptd to command the Sea Fencibles at the Isle of Wight.

13 Jun 1805 Vestal and the Sea Fencibles re-captured the merchant vessel Industry off Hastings. 12 Apr 1806 due to be delivered into the Registry of the High Court of Admiralty agreeable to Act of Parliament, so salvage monies due should be paid shortly.

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