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.

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 enrolment 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. 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.

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.

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.

^ back to top ^