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.
With a view to making the Sea Fencibles more useful, in August 1801, 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.
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, there was little problem finding volunteers. There was also no shortage of officers as they 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.
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 :
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 :
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Courtesy of P. Benyon.
Image: View of Sanditon by Joan Hassell from The Folio Society’s Edition of Jane Austen’s Works. Hey, it’s a coast, there are ships… They could be Fencibles, you don’t know.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: