Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Volunteers of the past




At a time when “Volunteering” has become a national characteristic, and grand rifle tournaments at Aldershot, and prize-giving at the Crystal Palace, are affording matter for every newspaper, and interest for every household, it may not be uninteresting to look back upon the Volunteers of former days, and see what they were like.

It is a singular fact that the nation, designated by the first Napoleon as a “nation of shopkeepers,” should have been, less than three centuries before, renowned as a military people. Froude tells us in the preface to his edition of the “Pilgrim,” that, in Henry the Eighth’s reign, the English “were a nation of soldiers—fierce, intractable, and turbulent to a proverb;” an armed people also; twenty thousand well-drilled men being at the disposal of the corporation of London! Henry could call every one of his male subjects into the field, if he would, and find them efficient men-at-arms.

In his reign one of those panics (if they are rightly thus designated) about invasion took place. The notes at the end of the “Pilgrim” contain an interesting and curious account of it given by the French envoy Marillac himself. He says in a letter to the Constable, “the king, my lord, is in marvellous distrust as well of the king our master” (Francis I.) “as of the Emperor. He is confident that they intend to declare war against him; and he is therefore taking measures with the utmost haste for the defence of the realm . . . . . . In Canterbury and other towns upon the road, I found every English subject in arms who was capable of serving. Boys of seventeen and eighteen have been called out without exemption of place or person . . . . . In short, my lord, they have made such progress that an invading force will not find them unprovided.”

There is much significance in the whole letter from which these passages are taken; not once in it does M. Marillac hint that the king’s apprehensions were groundless!

A review of this armed people took place in the following month. The Ambassador informs the Constable in a following letter: “Fifteen thousand men, all clad in white from head to foot—ten thousand fully accoutred—showed that the English lion was awake and prepared for defence.”

The demonstration defeated all adverse plans (if such had been formed) of the “Foreigner,” and the armed multitude subsided again.

A similar force has always been ready for defence whenever the “cloud, as big as a man’s hand,” has loomed across the sea.

A recollection of the last misgiving and dread which called forth England’s Volunteers has been forcibly recalled to the minds of the aged by the Volunteer movement of the present; and we were amused to hear, from the lips of an old lady of very warlike ancestry, an account of what Volunteers were in her youth.


We were almost hourly (she said) expecting a French invasion. The flotilla, which threatened to land our enemies on the coast, lay at Boulogne, and though “Nelson kept the sea,” as people used consolingly to say, our danger was real and imminent.

We lived near a seaport—Portsmouth—which, from its harbour and dockyard, especially invited a hostile and destructive demonstration from the foe.

The poorer class, I really believe, revelled in the excitement of the expectation, and of such fear as is compatible with British nature—which I should say, from my own judgment, is nothing more than the love of “sensation” which now leads them to delight in Blondin and “sensation” dramas.

Napoleon was the Blondin of Portsmouth at that time.

The nightly raising of the drawbridge, and flooding and filling the moats, drew together hundreds of eager gazers. They ascribed the simplest actions to expectation of the French. Thus the sound of our cook’s chopping, when preparing suet for the orthodox Christmas pudding led to some of the crowd outside the area knocking to ask “if the Admiral expected the French directly, as the family were packing up!”

Only once this “sensation” took the form of panic, and that was absurd enough.

The famous Rowland Hill came to preach at Portsmouth. He selected for his out door “Tabernacle” the “lines” or ramparts of the town, and, standing on the green slope of the earthwork, addressed a large crowd gathered on the glacis below. Thus the listeners (chiefly of course women) had their backs to the sea, while the preacher faced the channel. He was preaching on the second Advent; and, warming with his subject, suddenly extended his arm in the direction of Spithead, and cried:

“I see Him! I see His mighty Host advancing—He comes! He comes!”

The crowd, believing from his look and gesture, that he pointed seawards, responded with a shrill feminine yell, and a volley of unpleasant words from the tars present, and rushed off in frantic haste in all directions—some to their homes, some to the defence.

The astonished preacher stood alone in a second.

Greatly amazed at the effect of his words, he turned to a grinning sentry standing near, and exclaimed:

“What does this mean?”

(We did not hear that shrewd Rowland took the panic for a Revival!)

“Well,” replied the soldier, “they thinks you sees Bony coming—that’s all!”

Such was the truth. That evil name—a spell of dread and hatred—hung over the people like a nightmare, and haunted all their thoughts. Viewing the great conqueror now from a better point of observation, it is extraordinary to remember what a popular “bogey” he was.

Of course the volunteers were ready everywhere. At first they appeared in London and in the seaports. In our little village they caused a wonderful sensation. It was a very small place, and each volunteer was well-known to us personally. A quaint, simple set they were, but brave and active fellows, a worthy portion of the home and hearth defence, which doubtless did its part in keeping the “bogey” on the other side of the Channel. We were not a little proud of them, though we laughed at their innocent conceit and assumption of military airs.

Our nearest neighbour—a blacksmith—was lieutenant of the corps, and his son sergeant. They had no fixed uniform, every man doing in that respect as was good in his own eyes.

Our blacksmith—generally a meek, respectful fellow—was so inflated with his new rank and heroic position that he came to church the first Sunday after the rising in general’s uniform (second-hand probably), waving in his hand a cocked hat from which floated an aid-de-camp’s plume of cock’s feathers.

The pew-opener, not recognising her neighbour in his blaze of scarlet and gold, ushered him into the vicar’s pew, where he gravely took his seat, to the amazement of Mrs. Bustle, the clergyman’s wife and her children, the poor fellow quite unconscious all the time that he was intruding, and believing that he had been duly marshalled according to his rank and distinction. You must remember that the peasantry, and the people generally, at the beginning of the century were untaught and simple, though shrewd; and they went mad in their enthusiasm about soldiering.

(It was the escape of the long pent-up hereditary taste, we think.)

The son, Boghurst, had a perfect furore for his new profession, and would do no work, his mother lamented to us, “employing all his time in polishing his all-beard,” as she called his halberd.

The village seller of ale—he could scarcely be called a brewer—was the captain of our corps. He was, if possible, finer as to scarlet and feathers than the lieutenant; and, strangely enough, his wife, possessed by the notion of her new dignity, declared she could no longer wear cotton stockings—and must have silk!—unhappily thus beginning a course of extravagance and folly which ended in the poor husband’s ruin.

This was, however, the only evil which arose from the village movement; for there was no harm, assuredly (if a little folly), in both the officers retaining jealously the title of “captain” and “lieutenant” till their deaths, having, as they asserted, fully earned them by keeping off the French “Demicraws,” as they would call the Democrats.

The crowning glory of our Volunteers was the being reviewed by the Prince Regent himself (with those of Portsmouth) in their own village, and receiving well-merited praise and thanks from “the first gentleman in Europe.” With that scene their martial course terminated.

Flotilla—army—emperor, vanished like the pageant of a dream; the long peace set in—and martial ardour became as dormant as music amongst us, till they suddenly woke up together the other day, and Robin Hood’s descendants, seizing the rifle, found it come as handy to them as the long bow, and beat the whole military world at hitting the mark they aimed at.

And altogether a very different race are these Volunteers from those we remember. They have the culture of half a century on them, united to the old “pluck.”

But our poor villagers were every bit as brave and self-devoting, and when hearing of the brighter present we ought not to forget the kindly and gallant past.

E. V.