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The Severn District Sea Fencibles 1803 to 1810

John Penny

Fishponds Local History Society, Bristol



The Sea Fencible organisation was developed for the naval defence of the country during the Revolutionary War of 1793 to 1802, and was made up of seafaring men residing along the East Coast of England who voluntarily enrolled themselves to serve in time of invasion. They were to be trained to use pikes and to man the batteries along the coast, as well as in the operation of any gun-boats that might be available. The units were commanded by Captains, with from three to six Lieutenants under them, according to the number of Fencibles enrolled in the District.

Locally the first mention of Sea Fencibles was on February 17th 1798 when "Felix Farley's Bristol Journal" stated that "the Admiralty has come to the resolution of employing 15 Post Captains and 75 Masters and Commanders, who are to be stationed along the coast for the purpose of commanding the men enrolled as Sea Fencibles." By January 1801 Sea Fencibles were operating from Whitby, south to the coasts of Cornwall and Devon, but as a result of the armistice signed between Britain and France on October 1st 1801 the organisation was disbanded before the end of the year.

Following the outbreak of the Napoleonic War on May 18th 1803, many of the defensive schemes adopted during the Revolutionary War were re-introduced and expanded. The Sea Fencibles were no exception and by August 1803 the organisation was established along the coast between Emsworth, near Portsmouth, north to St.Abbs Head in Scotland.

On August 15th 1803 Lord Hobart, the Secretary of War, sent a dispatch to the Earl of Berkeley, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire and the City and County of Bristol, stating that the Sea Fencible organisation already established upon the coast more immediately opposed to the enemy was to be extended. Already, he wrote, "the East India Company, the Corporation of Trinity House, the Cinque Ports, the Proprietors of Lighters employed in Foreign and Domestic Commerce of the Thames, and several of the Owners of Ships employed in the Coasting Trade, have already come to Resolutions for carrying the proposed plan into execution."

He continued, "the importance of the commerce of the sea-port towns within the County of Gloucester, and the loyal and liberal spirit of their inhabitants, animated and encouraged by your active and well directed zeal, afford the strongest ground of expectation that this measure may derive essential assistance from the resources in men and shipping which those towns possess." A "Plan of a Voluntary Naval Armament, for the Protection of the Coast" was also included within Hobart's correspondence. It contained eight proposals.

1) That it be recommended to the Lord Lieutenants of the Maritime Counties to co-operate with the Board of Admiralty in obtaining the enrolment of all Seafaring men, not applicable to the Service of the Navy, upon their respective coasts, under the general denomination of Sea Fencibles.

2) That it be recommended to the principle Sea Port Towns to equip, at their own expence, a certain number of armed vessels and hulks, to be stationed for the better security and protection of such ports, and to be appropriated to, and manned by, Sea Fencibles, who shall take charge of them, and be exercised on board at the guns as often as may be required.

3) That where the proportion of Sea Fencibles, which any place can furnish, is greater than such a place can find shipping to employ; and likewise where any place is capable of providing Men, but unable to procure Vessels; in both these cases vessels shall be furnished by Government.

4) That as Colliers and Coasting Vessels are well adapted to be armed as Gun-Boats, it be recommended to the principle Merchants and Owners in every port in this Kingdom to fit (the expence of such fitting has been calculated under �54) their vessels of that description with slides between decks, and loop-holes in the combings of their hatchways, for close quarters; these vessels to carry two guns forward and two aft, to fight on either side, as well as fore and aft.

5) That when the vessels are reported ready, guns and ammunition shall be put on board by Government free of expence to the owners; the masters giving a receipt and voucher to return them when demanded, and to keep a regular account of the expenditure of the stores.

6) That these vessels be fitted with ring and eye bolts for guns, and that small vessels be prepared to receive large oares, that they may be able to act in a calm, if necessary.

7) That the said vessels be under orders to attend to, and obey, the signals and directions that may be made to them by Commanders of His Majesty's Ships, or from the signal stations on the shore, and when detained, that they be entitled to demurage according to their regular tonnage, at the same rate as common transports; the time of detention to be certified by the officer who may order it.

8) That the said vessels, on arriving at and sailing from port, be subject to be visited by the commanding officer of the Sea Fencibles of the district.

The Propositions from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty issued at this time made it clear that "all those who shall voluntarily enrol themselves as Sea Fencibles, for the defence of the coast, will not be required to leave their own coast; unless the enemy shall have made, or be expected to make, a landing on any other part, in which case they will be required to go to that part. They are to be mustered and exercised with the Pike or Great Gun one day in a week, whichever day will least interfere with their different occupations, when they will be allowed one shilling per man each day. Or, in places where their vessels or boats are lying idle during the neap tides, they will be attended to at such times. While they shall remain on the roll, and shall perform properly the services and exercise required of them they shall be PROTECTED FROM THE IMPRESS."

"They will be allowed to leave the District for which they are enrolled, when employed in Fishing, or carrying their different commodities to market, and will have a certificate from their Captain at the time of enrollment, which will protect them at all times while following their usual occupation. And, if they should be called out on actual service, they will be allowed one shilling per day, and provisions: or another shilling in lieu of provision. A man chosen from among themselves, and recommend to their Captain as a proper person to command them as a Petty Officer, will be attended to, as one for every 25 men will be appointed. And as the situation of the country requires the services 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 upon rivers, or otherwise, WILL BE EXEMPTED FROM THE IMPRESS, unless enrolled to serve as a Sea Fencible."

It did not take long for a local organisation to become established, as on September 13th 1803, the Severn District Sea Fencibles with its H.Q. at Bristol, was formed under the command of Captain Thomas Sotheby, a man with local connections. Its area covered the coast between Bristol and Gloucester, and from Gloucester to Beachley. The Senior Post Captain of every District of Sea Fencibles also had command of all the armed boats comprising the armed flotilla for the Fencibles of the District, as well as regulating all the Signal Posts within his District, at each of which was to be stationed a Lieutenant.

The Severn District initially contained eleven units of Sea Fencibles, divided into three groups. The first covered the Port of Bristol; the second the eastern side of the River Severn up to Gloucester and down the western bank to Westbury on Severn; and the third down from Westbury to Beachley, and up the Gloucestershire side of the River Wye. Those located at Bristol and Pill, were under the personal command of Captain Sotheby; those at Oldbury, Berkeley, Frampton, Minsterworth, and Gloucester under Captain George Blake; while the Newnham, Lydney, Tidenham, and Brockweir units were commanded by Captain George Christopher Pulling.

Recruiting started almost immediately with advertisments appearing in "Felix Farley's Bristol Journal" and the "Gloucester Journal". They requested all seafaing persons such as pilots, fishermen, trowmen, and masters and owners of barges, as well as those in protected occupations in the Customs, Excise, or Post Office to assemble at the Guildhall in Bristol on September 19th, or at the Tolsey in Gloucester on the 26th to be enrolled. In addition, Captains Blake and Pulling announced their intentions of visiting various parishes within their areas to enroll further volunteers. By the end of October this had been completed, with over 700 men having come forward, no doubt spurred on by the promise of exemption from the unwelcome attentions of the press gang. In addition many offers had been made of vessels and boats to be put at the disposal of the Government.

Captain Sotheby, the Senior Post Captain of the District, was to receive �1.15 per day, paid on a on a monthly basis, Captains Blake and Pulling, the Junior Post Captains, �1.10s, and the Lieutenants, which numbered six by January 1805, 8s.6d each, there was, however, no allowance for lodging, coal or candle. The Petty Officers were paid 2s.6d for each day upon which they assembled, and the Ordinary Seamen 1s. It was in order to assist these Ordinary Seamen that a subscription was opened in Bristol on September 28th, to "defray the expences of clothing etc. of the Sea Fencibles, enrolled in this City and its neighbourhood". This ran until the end of October by which time only �234.3s. had been donated.

October also saw the units assemble for the first time, Berkeley with 32 men, Tidenham with 38, and Gloucester with 72 on the 2nd; Frampton 47, Lydney 32, and Newnham 36 on the 9th; Pill, the largest unit with 234 men, and Brockweir with 72 on the 10th; follwed by Bristol 137 on the 16th; and finally Minsterworth 26 and Oldbury 54, on the 31st.

A meeting of those who had subscribed towards the clothing of the Bristol and Pill Sea Fencibles was held at The Council House, Bristol, on November 10th at which it was resolved that a committee be appointed to solicit further subscriptions from their fellow citizens. This committee subsequently felt "it a duty incumbent upon them to state, that the number of seafaring men who have enrolled themselves in this most valuable corps, in Bristol and Pill exceeds 500. That they are making rapid progress in the exercise of the Pike and Great Guns, and from their habit of life are fully qualified in every exertion on the water, to which the perilous circumstances of the times may call them. That the N.C.O.'s appointed from among the pilots and others have already equipped themselves with side arms and handsome naval uniforms; and that nothing is wanting to the perfect ordering and discipline of these divisions of the corps, but uniforms for the privates, by much the greater part of whom are, from their situation in life, totally unable to provide such clothing for themselves."

On December 10th 1803 "Felix Farley's Bristol Journal", reported that "the colours of this truly valuable corps (which we are informed, were the liberal gift of Richard Bryant Esq.) were presented to them last week, on which occasion, a very animated address was delivered to them by Sir Abraham Elton. They afterwards, with their gallant commander at their head, went through their evolutions with great dexterity, and very much to the satisfaction of General Tarlton, and a number of distinguished officers who were present." The 'General Tarlton' referred to was infact Lieutenant General Tarlton, Army Commander of the Severn District, who was then in Bristol.

The public subscription for clothing, however, was not going too well and by the end of the month only �646.19s. had been collected. Despite subsequent donations of 100 guineas from the Corporation of Bristol, and 50 guineas from the Society of Merchant Venturers, by January 18th 1804, the total stood at only �809.14s., far short of the sum required.

The fixed defences in the Bristol area for which the Sea Fencibles were capable of taking responsibility comprised the two batteries situated near the mouth of the River Avon, originally constructed in 1798. The battery on Portishead Point contained four French 36 pounder guns mounted on traversing platforms, together with an arched magazine, and a barrack block capable of accomodating an officer and 45 men. At Avonmouth, the King Road battery contained four more French 36 pounder guns on traversing platforms, as well as two moveable wooden magazines, and a barrack block to house an N.C.O. and 12 men. In addition, in 1804, a line of signal posts was constructed, each equipped with a flagstaff, and situated on Dundry Tower, Hobbs Hill above Portishead Battery, Kingsweston Down, and at the Snuff Mill on Clifton Rocks above the Avon Gorge.

Elsewhere in the District, on July 3rd 1804, Berkeley and Oldbury combined to form a single unit based at Berkeley, with Tewkwsbury taking Oldbury's place within Captain Blake's area on January 6th 1805. Only one other change took place within the District, and that involved the Lydney unit which disbanded in 1806, its final assembly of 8 men taking place on December 14th of that year.

Captain Thomas Sotheby remained as commander of the Severn District Sea Fencibles, (as well as officer commanding the Bristol and Pill units), only until December 8th 1805 when, following his promotion to Rear Admiral, he was replaced temporarily by Captain William Albany Otway. On February 25th 1806 Captain Otway handed over to Captain George Barker who had been in command of the Impress Service in Bristol since the summer of 1803. He was to remain at the head of both services until the Sea Fencibles, which numbered some 20,000 throughout Britain, were disbanded on February 20th 1810.

Principle Sources

Felix Farley's Bristol Journal 17/2/1798 to 21/1/1802 Bristol Central Library

The Gloucester Journal 22/8/1803 to 19/9/1803 Gloucester Library

Severn Area Sea Fencible Paylists 13/9/1803 to 20/2/1810 Public Record Office, Kew, (ADM 28/94 to 96)

Steele's Navy Lists December 1798 to March 1810 Public Record Office, Kew, (Open Shelves)

Severn District Statement of Ordnance Barracks 1806 Public Record Office, Kew, (WO 55/2338)

Bristol Common Council Proceedings 1802-1808 Bristol Record Office (04264[19])

Bristol General Committee Book 1799-1819 Bristol Record Office (04282[2])

� John Penny

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