Militia, Volunteers and Sea Fencibles


By Diana Trenchard

16 January 2017

There is quite a bit of confusion re the Militia, Volunteers and others during the Napoleonic Wars, quite frequently in published books and articles. It took me a long time to sort it out but I'll try and explain in as few words as possible.  The civilian military (as opposed to the Regular Army) consisted of both compulsory service and voluntary men who carried on with their normal occupations unless required for service.  The compulsory ones were the Militia and the voluntary ones were the Volunteer Cavalry, the Volunteer Infantry and the Sea Fencibles.  The Volunteer Cavalry were confusingly alternatively known as the Yeomanry or Yeomanry Cavalry. 

MILITIA.  All men aged 28-45 were eligible for the Militia to serve for five years.  The government decided how many me were needed at any time and how many should come from each county.  The Lord Lieutenant of a county decided how many should come from each parish - a rough figure of about two men per parish on average - with the men to be chosen by a ballot.  The officials in each parish drew up lists of all eligible men which were posted up in e.g. the church porch, to give people a chance to be excused the ballot for reasons such as disability, occupation, or any other reason they could think of.  Finally the ballot was held.  Those chosen could still get out of serving by employing a 'Substitute' and many men made this substitution a profession, offering to serve in various counties every five years.  As men from a parish came to the end of their five years of service, a new ballot would be held for his replacement.  The men of the Militia might not see any active service in times of peace, but they would be trained, provided with uniform etc and must be ready to be embodied at any time, i.e. to go on active service.  They were also used as the policemen of the day, and as aids to the Revenue men.  During times of war their main job was to replace the Regular army where possible, to allow the latter to go overseas.  The Militia did not themselves go overseas, apart from Ireland and the Channel Isles.  Many men enjoyed their time in the Militia so much that at the end of their five years they joined the Regular Army.  The individual parishes were responsible for paying the families of men of the Militia while they were on active service, and also paid the families of any Substitutes even though they were in different counties.  

VOLUNTEERS.  As their name implies, it was completely up to the individual whether or not he joined.  Both Volunteer Cavalry and Infantry had to provide their own uniforms, the Cavalry in addition had to provide a horse.  This latter fact meant that practically all of the Cavalry came from the upper and upper middle classes - the Yeomanry of the time.  The Infantry were raised by towns and larger villages and mainly consisted of labourers and other workers. Since these usually couldn't afford their uniforms, their town/village had collections to pay for them.  The government supplied all arms and ammunition.  All had at least 20 days training a year, plus several weeks at summer camps.  The role of the Volunteers was not so much to fight against any invading army as to harass their advancing.  For example, since an invading army couldn't bring more than two or three days food with them, it was their small foraging parties that the Volunteers were supposed to attack. The Volunteers, both Cavalry and Infantry, were only to serve within their own county, whereas the Militia could serve anywhere in the UK.  While the Militia could become active at any time, including in peacetime, the Volunteers were only to go on active service AFTER an invasion had occurred.   

SEA FENCIBLES.  Think 'Dad's Army' and you have these.  Their main job was to watch the coast for signs of an invasion fleet and to try and prevent them landing.   Since there was little fear of an invasion after Trafalgar, these were disbanded in 1811.  

The above are pretty straightforward.  Where the confusion arises is usually with all the extra Militia etc raised in 1803 at the height of the fears of invasion. All Militia and Volunteers had been disbanded in 1802-3 during the Peace of Amiens, but with the great fear of invasion in 1803 various Acts were rapidly passed through Parliament.  June 1802 was a call for a new ballot for the Militia (men aged 28-45), and although this went through, the men were not embodied until the following year.  June 1803 saw a new Defence of the Realm Act for men aged 15-60.  In the following month, July 1803 was passed the Act which causes most confusion.  This was the Additional Forces Act, also known as the Army of Reserve Act, for men aged 18-40.  It was planned to raise 50,000 men and train them to Militia standards, when they would be transferred to the Regular Army as a second battalion but with the difference that they would not be sent overseas.  Many men didn't fancy the transfer to the Regulars and instead the ranks of the Volunteers were rapidly increased at this time.  After six months fewer than 30,000 men had been trained and although the plan was quietly dropped, many of these men were transferred to the Regulars.  This Army of Reserve is frequently mistaken for the Militia.  

Sorry this has been so long, but for most family history researchers they will have men in one of the above groups.  Following up on this time and the various groups helps to add flesh to the bones of ancestors.  In the case of the Militia it can help to explain subsequent migration and marriage to a girl far from home.