Countering a French Invasion of Norfolk

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Beacon Hill, West Runton, Norfolk
With remains of Napoleonic-era signal station

Photo: CC Bill Griffiths


There had been at least three credible invasion threats between 1744, 1783 and 1793, but few serious steps taken against them. Even when the new French republican government, in early 1798, gave their troublesome military hero Napoleon Bonaparte command of yet another projected invasion of England, the ruling British elite seemed more worried that dangerous republican and revolutionary ideas might cross the channel than French soldiers.

Invasion via Norfolk is not such a strange idea as it sounds. The north coast of Norfolk, especially around Weybourne, is both suitable for a landing and very hard to defend adequately. In fact, Norfolk was never a likely target for invasion in the years between 1793 and 1802, simply because of the difficulty of organising a sea crossing from France for a large enough force. Nevertheless, the sea crossing from the French-dominated Netherlands (barely 100 nautical miles) was short enough for a serious French raid. Norfolk’s largest port, Great Yarmouth, had shore batteries with 24- and 36-pounder guns, but it was a naval base and the navy were expected to look after their own. Elsewhere, apathy towards coastal defence in Norfolk was widespread. Had the French made it past the Royal Navy, they would probably have met little effective resistance.

Fortunately, Napoleon saw little opportunity for glory or gain in the projected invasion and too many chances for failure. Instead, he sailed off to Egypt to try to carve out a personal empire in the east and seize India. Norfolk’s hero Nelson quickly put a stop to that, leaving Napoleon to hurry back to France to protect himself from the plotting going on in his absence. Once he had taken absolute power, dealing with England by invasion was not on his immediate list of priorities. He wanted peace to consolidate his position and the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 put a stop to invasion fears for a while.

A New Invasion Panic

The Treaty proved short-lived. 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 known to be a general of genius. In Norwich, a meeting of magistrates and deputy-lieutenants of the county, held on July 9, 1803, finally took action. The plan they approved and adopted:

… would establish a system of communication throughout the county and render the body of the people instrumental in the general defence and preservation of property in case of invasion.

Militia units were brought up to strength and drilled and, in the general enthusiasm for volunteering, we learn that even “… 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 in case of invasion to put at the service of the government 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. A note in December 1803 records the forming of 22 troops of Yeoman Cavalry, grouped into three regiments.

Guard Duties

Various militia regiments took turns at guarding major shore installations, like those at Great Yarmouth, generally serving for 14 days before being relieved by another unit. Many of these units were not local. The government was still uneasy about the idea of having armed and trained bodies of local men close to their own homes, where they might be influenced by friends with revolutionary ideas. The Shropshire militia were present at Great Yarmouth and elsewhere for long periods. Militia from Pembrokeshire served in the Holt area to defend the coast around Cley and Blakeney.

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. According to its commander, Major-General Money, himself a Norfolk man, all were “fully equipped and efficient.”

Invasion fears peaked 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 than in modern times. The tension slackened and, on November 7, 1805, news of the Battle of Trafalgar reached Norwich, ending invasion fears.

Shore Batteries

Besides the gun batteries located at the naval base at Great Yarmouth it’s less clear where other shore-based batteries were located. Small gun emplacements all along the coast of East Anglia were projected in 1794, but few, if any, were established.

In 1803, the then commander of the Eastern Military District, Sir James Craig, commissioned a Major Bryce to report on the defences needed at possible coastal invasion sites. Bryce clearly didn’t believe in fixed batteries, especially in areas as unlikely for 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 of 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 …

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.

Cannons and Local Volunteers Didn’t Mix!

Putting canon into the hands of local volunteers was clearly a hazardous business. A cannon of about this date, now set on end in the green at Wiveton, shows the ball wedged in the end of the muzzle and a large piece of the metal missing where the charge caused the barrel to explode. It looks as if the iron ball used was fractionally too large. When it was fired, the ball must have expanded in the heat.

On February 4, 1804, other 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.

Raising the Alarm

Communications were not forgotten. Flag staffs were set up at Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall, where a red flag could 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. That name was added in the nineteenth century to attract tourists. It was, the 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 was returned to use as a signal station. 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. After the Battle of Trafalgar, or even a little before, official interest in anti-invasion efforts declined. Payments for clothing for the Norwich Volunteer Infantry 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. Finally, 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 Great Yarmouth. It was all over. The news of the Battle of Waterloo was received in Norwich on June 23, 1815 and 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 been greatly involved, Norfolk was at least on the winning side.

(All quotes are from The Annals of Norfolk by Charles Mackie, 1901, unless otherwise noted.)

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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4 Responses to Countering a French Invasion of Norfolk

  1. jsmjf2 says:

    I’m always fond of a good post on the Napoleonic invasion scares. 🙂 (although I tend to disagree with dismissing the volunteers as an 18th century version of Dad’s Army – the volunteer movement was pretty incredible really: 500,000 men served at its height: not bas for a country with a total population of 12 million, particularly as this doesn’t count the men also serving in the regulars, militia and various auxiliary forces such as the Army of Reserve, Additional Force etc etc).

    You have your local boy William Windham to blame for the decline in interest in volunteering. Windham (secretary of state for war from 1806) had a real thing about the volunteers, whom he thought interfered with recruiting for the army. He had a point, to be fair. He stopped all government support to them, which effectively put an end to that experiment. (It was this rather than the lapse in the invasion scare that really killed the volunteers – as late as 1811 it was thought the French might come at any minute.)

    Out of interest, what made you think the elite weren’t worried about a French invasion?

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    • Much of the enthusiasm for volunteering seems to have been due to the exemption it gave you from serving in the militia. They were sent away from home; volunteers gained a commitment to remain in the local area. William Windham had dedicated a good deal of his time in office to trying to improve conditions in the regular army and probably resented expenditure on purely local forces of dubious efficiency. It’s also worth recalling that many volunteers were raised in part to counter supposed radical and republican elements.

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  2. Really fascinating account of a Dad’s Army-like defence of the realm (or at least Norfolk). Off to Wiveton to see the cannon.

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