Norfolk Fends off Napoleon


Fears of a French invasion were not new to late-eighteenth century Englishmen. There had been at least three credible invasion threats between 1744 and 1783, and various steps to counter invasion had been taken. How likely Norfolk was as a main target for invasion is debatable. However, the sea crossing from northern France and the French-dominated Netherlands was certainly short enough for a serious French raid (barely 100 nautical miles).

Britain’s own army was unlikely to be any match for the French on land, either in numbers, training or experience. A visceral dislike of the whole notion of a substantial standing army had long prevented parliament from either authorising or paying for such a force. It smacked too much of dictatorship and the hated major-generals of Cromwell’s days. Any defence must therefore call upon a citizen militia—untrained amateurs neither willing to serve and led by equally amateur officers from amongst the local gentry.

Norfolk’s largest port, Yarmouth, had shore batteries – serious ones using 24- and 36-pounder guns – but it was a naval base and the navy were expected to look after their own. Elsewhere, apathy towards defence was widespread at the start, even amongst some of the landed gentry[1] who might be expected to lead the way. Had the French actually made it past the Royal Navy before 1801, they would probably have met little effective resistance.

Britain is Let Off the Hook

Fortunately for Britain, the French gave the overall command to a troublesome young general, Napoleon. He saw little opportunity for glory or gain in the projected invasion and too many chances for a failure that would ruin him. He quickly lost such interest as he had, preferring to sail off to Egypt and attempt to carve out a personal empire in the east. Norfolk’s own hero, Nelson, quickly put a stop to that, leaving Napoleon to hurry back to France to protect himself from all the plotting going on in his absence.

After seizing absolute power, dealing with England by invasion was nowhere on Napoleon’s list of priorities. Rather, he wanted peace to consolidate his position and for France to absorb its conquests in Europe. The British government also wanted to escape from an expensive and unpopular war. The Treaty of Amiens in 1801 was the result. It appeared to put a stop to invasion fears altogether.

A New Invasion Panic

The Treaty proved short-lived and by 1803 invasion was back on the agenda. This time, the British government took more serious notice, perhaps because the population at large caught invasion fever; perhaps because Napoleon was now known to be a general of genius. For Britain to rely almost totally on the Royal Navy for defence didn’t look such a good option. It was stretched very thinly, defending the Empire and the global trade routes on which Britain and its ruling elite depended.

In Norwich, a meeting of magistrates and deputy-lieutenants of the county, held on July 9, 1803, took action. They approved and adopted the plan recommended by the Government for establishing a system of communication throughout the county and for rendering the body of the people instrumental in the general defence and preservation of property in case of invasion.[2] You can see the minds of the local magnates working here!

Militia units were brought up to strength and drilled and, in the general enthusiasm for volunteering, we learn that “… The male part of the Norwich Company (theatrical) have agreed to enrol themselves to learn the use of arms.” How far a bunch of provincial actors might have furthered the defence of the realm was, fortunately, never put to the test.

More substantially, a certain Messers Marsh and Sons, Norwich and Cambridge carriers, agreed to put at the service of the government in case of invasion no less than 100 horses, 24 boats, and 12 wagons, together with the people needed to use them: 24 drivers, six watermen and nine boys, plus an unspecified number of blacksmiths (with equipment), two wheel wrights and two harness-makers. Plenty of local people must have come forward too, because a note for December 1803 records the forming of 22 troops of Yeoman Cavalry, grouped into three regiments.

Guard Duties

Various militia regiments now took turns at guarding major shore installations, like those at Yarmouth, generally serving for 14 days before being relieved by another unit. Nor were all the units local. The Shropshire militia were present at Yarmouth and elsewhere for long periods. As an inland county, Shropshire presumably had few local areas that needed to be secured against invasion threats.

In Holt, some three miles from the coast, local records show that His Majesty’s Regiment of Pembroke Militia was stationed there in 1796. The soldiers did what soldiers everywhere have done, before and since, and two young Welshmen, both from Haverfordwest, were married to local girls in Holt parish church in the same week. Both at once applied to establish settlement in Holt, presumably so they, their wives and children would be entitled to parish relief, if the need arose.

Wherever they came from, the Eastern Military District, covering East Anglia and coastal counties northwards, had no less than 32,000 men under arms by June 1804, all, according to its new commander Major-General Money, “fully equipped and efficient.”

Invasion fears peaked again in August 1805, when Major-General Money put his forces on full alert, following “… official intelligence of preparations along the enemy’s coast.” Nothing happened, which may indicate official intelligence reports were no more reliable then than in recent years. The tension slackened and, on November 7, 1805, news of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death reached Norwich, ending invasion fears for a while, but causing deep sadness too.

Coastal Defences

I have already noted that gun batteries were located at Yarmouth. Where else guns were located is less clear. Small gun emplacements all along the coast of East Anglia were projected in 1794, but it is not clear how many, if any, were established. In 1803, the commander of the Eastern Military District, Sir James Craig, commissioned a Major Bryce to report on the defences needed at possible invasion sites. Bryce clearly didn’t believe in fixed batteries, especially in areas as unlikely as the site of an invasion as the North Norfolk Coast. His main recommendation was for a troop of mobile artillery to be stationed at Holt. If this did not find favour, small batteries could be placed at Cromer, mainly to train local volunteers, as well as at Holkham Bay, Blakeney, Wells and Burnham.

Holt never received its artillery troop, but it seems some guns were provided at the coastal sites. The volunteers at Cromer had access to canon as The Times of October 31, 1803, records:

… on Tuesday, the town of Cromer was up in arms on the circumstance off two strange sail appearing off the battery [probably located at the end of Jetty Street]. The guns were immediately armed by Volunteers … before the ship sent a boat on shore. They proved to be an English privateer and a Russian galliot …

If you visit Burnham Overy Staithe you can still see a granary of this period overlooking the simple quay that apparently has two small gun embrasures built into it. It is now holiday accommodation.

Canon and Local Volunteers Don’t Mix!

Given the following report, any guns there were could not have been in very good condition. In August 1803:

The brass ordnance belonging to the city [Norwich] were tested by some of the regular artillery … Four of the guns burst.


18th-century cannon outside Wiveton church.

A similar occurrence may be indicated by a canon of about this date, now set on end in the green outside the church at Wiveton, which shows the ball wedged in the end of the muzzle and a large piece of the metal missing where the charge must have caused the barrel to explode. Putting canon into the hands of local volunteers was clearly a hazardous business.

On February 4, 1804, local volunteers were practising when disaster struck:

The Cromer Sea Fencibles were practicing with canister and grape shot upon the beach, when a ball struck Capt. Tremlett, R. N., on the foot, and shattered the leg of Mr. John Smith, so as to render immediate amputation necessary. A public subscription, amounting to £500, was made for Mr. Smith.

This was a substantial amount of money, so it is to be hoped it helped him cope with the loss of his leg.

Raising the Alarm

Communications were not forgotten. Flagstaffs were set up, for example at Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall, where a red flag would be flown on the appearance of enemy vessels along the coast. On August 24, 1803, Charles Mackie reports:

Telegraphs, signal flags or tar barrels are being stationed on all the churches and lofty edifices on the coast, in order to give, in a chain of communication, the earliest intelligence, either by night or day, of the event of the enemy’s landing.

Near Felbrigg Hall, on the summit of Beacon Hill, the highest point in North Norfolk, is an area known as the Roman Camp. It isn’t Roman, and never was; that name was, it seems, added in the nineteenth century to attract more tourists. It was, however, a site for a beacon in mediaeval times and again at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. In Faden’s map of Norfolk in 1797 it was described as “Old Beacon or Watch Tower,” which implies it was no longer used. In the invasion scare of 1803–5, it seems to have been returned to use as a signal station and the banks seen there today probably date from this time.

Standing Down

We shall never know how effective these preparations to resist Napoleon’s invasion would have been. From the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, or even a little before, official interest in anti- invasion efforts was already in decline. Payments for clothing for the Norwich Volunteer Infantry volunteers was stopped in July 1805. Some attempt was made to interest the volunteers to enlist in the regular militia, but it is not clear how effective they were. The reply of their colonel was distinctly lukewarm.

Then, on May 1, 1813, an order was given that their equipment was to be taken away for use elsewhere by regular army units:

The commanding officers of the Norfolk Regiments of Local Militia and the Norfolk and Norwich Volunteers have received orders to send the accoutrements of their respective regiments to the nearest ports for the use of the German levies against the common enemy.

The arms were duly sent to Yarmouth and it was all over. The news of the Battle of Waterloo was received in Norwich on June 23, 1815, being greeted with the firing of canons (seemingly without mishap this time), the ringing of the church bells, a bonfire and the singing of “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia.”

Napoleon was beaten and, even if it hadn’t directly beaten him, Norfolk was at least on the winning side.

  1. Norfolk was a stronghold of the Whigs. At the start of the period, many were well-disposed towards revolution in France, though actual events caused some to support Pitt’s government as time went on.  ↩
  2. All quotes are from The Annals of Norfolk by Charles Mackie, 1901, unless otherwise noted. ↩  ↩

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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