Fishponds Local History Society

Publications by FLHS members

A military history of Bristol during the Revolutionary War 1793-1802

John Penny

Fishponds Local History Society

Twice within 200 years Britain has faced a Continental foe in possession of a detailed scheme for an invasion of the country, included in which were plans for the destruction of Bristol. The most recent occasion was in 1940 when the might of the Luftwaffe was unleashed against the City, while the German Army made preparations for Operation Sealion, the invasion of England, in which was it was hoped to seize Bristol with a fast mobile thrust by Panzer Divisions, from the bridgehead in Lyme Bay.

It is, however, not widely known that Britain was in a similarly desperate situation in early 1797, when the French Revolutionary Army actually succeeded in landing in Wales. Although much has been written regarding the later Napoleonic War, the Revolutionary War of 1793 to 1802 is a period about which less is generally known, and to which the events of 1940 have the closest affinity.

At the beginning of 1793 Britain possessed a standing army quartered upon the people which was available to enforce the law and impose order. However, its officers were gentlemen amateurs; its men were for the most part the otherwise unemployable debris from the gutters and prisons; and its reputation was deservedly at its lowest ebb. It was therefore kept contemptuously small, and two thirds of its strength was dispersed in India and the West Indies, leaving less than 14,000 men in the British Isles.

The Milita, organised under the Militia Act of 1757, was available exclusively for home defence, and indeed could not be called upon to serve outside the country, but it was ill trained, and inexpertly officered by country gentlemen under the command of the Lord Lieutenant of the County, which in the case of Gloucestershire and the City and County of Bristol, was the Right Honourable the Earl of Berkeley.

Lists of all men between 18 and 50, except those exempted, were sent to the Lord Lieutenant and Deputy Lieutenants of the Counties, who allocated quotas to be provided by each parish according to its population, the actual men being chosen by lot. Those chosen had to serve three years or provide a substitute. The Act also provided for the annual training of militiamen and for their embodiment in case of actual invasion or threat of it, or in case of rebellion.

Not only was the Army negligable in number, but it was also shockingly administered. There was for the Army no central professional board of control, comparable with the Admiralty, nor was there a reserve of lively highly trained and enthusiastic young officers. The King was by tradition the active head of the Army and the font of all policy, promotions and patronage, while its routine administrative duties were carried out, under his supervision, by the Secretaries of State and the Commander in Chief, who from the end of 1795 was the Duke of York.

The Secretary at War at the War Office was a subordinate minister who acted in the Commons as Government spokesman on Army Administration, and was not until July 1794 a member of the Cabinet. The payment of the forces was the responsibility of the Paymaster; the Militia was in the hands of the Home Office; while the Board of Ordnance, which was in effect a supply ministry, was charged with the provision, inspection, care and maintenance of stores, buildings and lands, together with the responsibility for all ordnance on land and sea, as well as the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and the Corps of Royal Engineers.

The Naval Service by contrast had never been in a better state of preparation for war; nothing indeed was needed but the crews to man the ships.

On February 1st 1793 the French Revolutionary government declared war against Britain, and on February 11th, the South Gloucestershire Militia to which Bristol contributed some 128 men, was embodied at Gloucester, one of the many county battalions charged with Home Defence. The first of these to arrive in Bristol, the Royal Herefordshire Militia under the command of Viscount Bateman, entered the City on February 27th, one of its task being to guard the French naval prisoners soon to be housed at Stapleton Prison.

This Admiralty Prison had originally been built in 1779, during the previous conflict with France, and on June 27th the first batch of 250 French prisoners arrived, having been marched from Forton near Portsmouth. 'Felix Farley's Bristol Journal' reported that "as the French prisoners passed through Bath money was liberally given to them, which exemplified the character of the Britons, for however detested the cause might be in which these men were engaged, their distress was a sufficient recommendation to our benevolence."

During 1793 there took place in Bristol one of the most tragic local events of the century, which involved the garrison troops in putting down civil disorder, and in so doing illustrated most graphically the problems involved in using the military in such a capacity.

Under the provisions of an Act of 1785, the authorities were entitled to collect tolls on vehicles, horses, etc. which passed over Bristol Bridge, until the money borrowed had been paid off and balance of �2000 secured, the interest on which was to be devoted to lighting and maintaining the bridge. Consequently in 1792 the public were duly informed that no tolls would be collected after the 29th September 1793.

The reality, however, was somewhat different, and shortly before that date the trustees decided that the tolls would remain in place for another year, as the required balance of �2000 had not been obtained. This infuriated many Bristolians a respectable body of whom, on behalf of their fellow citizens, purchased the last nine days of the current lease, and at once threw the bridge open. This was done under the impression that if the tolls were uncollected for nine days the bridge would become legally free.

Accrdingly on September 19th the traffic passed toll free amidst the clamorous joy of the assembled populace, which during the evening, made bonfires of the gates and toll-boards. The following day, however, the trustees offered a reward for the discovery of the offenders, and on the 28th set up new gates. That night a large mob assembled and the barriers were again set alight and destroyed, at which point the Magistrates, attended by a party of the Herefordshire Militia arrived on the scene. The soldiers were gathered round the justices to receive their instructions, when they were asailed with a volleys of stones. The Riot Act was read, and at length the Militia received orders to fire over the peoples heads, which put an immediate end to the disorder.

A certain amount of trouble occured the next day, Sunday September 20th, but on Monday the 21st things really came to a head, with the Riot Act being read three times at 11 a.m. During the afternoon the troubles continued, but for three hours the tolls were successfully collected with the help of the military. However, when the magistrates, constables and soldiers retired for the night trouble flared up again, with the mob making a bonfire of the toll house furniture.

An officer with eight men then appeared and put out the blaze, but being assailed with missiles, and having no orders to fire, he and his men were forced to retreat. The drums then beat to arms, and at a quarter past eight, a large body of soldiers accompanied by some Magistrates, marched down High Street and endevoured to clear the bridge.

Oyster shells and other missiles were then thrown from the Welsh Back and Baldwin Street, and some of the military were struck down. The justices, after commanding the populace to disperse, and being answered by more stone throwing, ordered the soldiers to fire, the front rank discharging their muskets at their assailants on the bridge, while the rear, charging front, swept the crowd that was attacking them from High Street. As a result of repeated volleys, followed by a bayonet charge, 11 of the crowd were killed and 45 others injured.

Further trouble was spared by a few leading citizens who purchased the outstanding lease, and after the bloodshed of September 30th no tolls were ever collected on Bristol Bridge. The Herefordshire Militia, however, had enraged a large part of the local populace, and it was thought expedient to remove them as soon as possible. Accordingly on October 15th they made a hurried departure from the City, to be replaced by the Royal Monmouthshire and Brecon Militia. So unpopular did the Herefordshire Militia remain, that when in September 1797 it was found to be the Government's intention of returning them to the City, the Mayor successfully petitioned for an alternative unit to be allocated to Bristol.

In Britain the Impress Service was the established means of procuring men for the navy, and by mid-September 1793 Captain Thomas Hawker had been appaointed Regulating Captain for Bristol, and was residing at College Green. Regulating Captains were in charge of the Impress Service for their District, and 'regulated' the flow of recruits for the Navy. These comprised volunteers, as well as impressed men and desreters who had been apprehended by the Press Gang. Assisted by one or more Lieutenants and a surgeon, they decided whether the men were fit to serve the King, and were adepts in detecting shamming.

Early in 1794 when it was believed that the French intended to invade the country, plans were quickly put into effect to boost the Home Defence Forces, and the British government, led by the Younger Pitt, decided to increase the Militia, and in addition, to encourage volunteer soldiers to serve as enrolled corps. As a result a Bill first read on March 27th 1794 for "encouraging and disciplining such Corps and companies of men, as shall voluntarily enrol themselves for the Defence of their counties, towns or coasts, or for the General defence of the Kingdom, during the present war", was quickly passed. The circumstances that led to embodiment for duty, apart from the threat of invasion, included "the suppression of riots and tumults", when the volunteers would be caled out to assist the civil powers.

Within Bristol there was no immediate rush to form an official volunteer corps, although by July 1794 a small group of local traders, "who, from a desire to obtain the name of soldiers without experiencing the trouble and danger necessary to deserve it, have presumed to form themselves into a kind of military association, without the sanction of Government or of the magistrates". The little group met twice a week, under cover of darkness, at "Captain" Court's flour loft in St.Stephen's Street, and carried out their self appointed tasks dressed in pseudo-military uniforms. Little is known of their activities, but it is recorded that whilst these "volunteers" were exercising one night in Tyndall's Park, a watchman, employed there to guard certain building materials, mistaking them for robbers, fired a blunderbuss and put them instantly to rout.

The patriotic zeal of the citizens had, however, by May 1794, manifested itself in a public subscription which was able to pay out �4419 to recruit and equip The Loyal Bristol Regiment, a regular formation of some 684 men under the command of Lord Charles Somerset. Soon after they were redesignated the 103rd Regiment of Foot, and as such embarked at Pill early in October, en-route for Dublin.

One problem, however, that was to remain throughout the war was the practice of billeting troops, either members of the local garrison, or those en-route for other destinations, at various inn and taverns in Bristol. The matter came to a head several times between 1793 and 1801, a relevant notice being carried by 'Felix Farley's Bristol Journal' on November 15th 1794. "A meeting of the innholders, vinters, etc. is requested on Monday next 17th inst. at 11 o'clock in the forenoon at the White Lion, Broad Street, in order to concert proper measures for an application to Parliament to redress their grievances, in the heavy losses they sustain by having such great numbers of soldiers quartered on them."

Another problem of a different nature also existed, for inspite of the efforts of the Press Gangs there was a serious lack of recruits for the Navy, and this situation led to an unusual stretch of Government power in February 1795. By an Order in Coumcil an embargo was placed on the merchant shipping and trows lying in the ports, and an Act was passed in the following month, ordaining that no British vessel should be permitted to clear outwards until the port at which it lay had furnished the navy with the number of seamen prescribed in the statute.

To quicken recruiting, the Admiralty and the Mayor and Corporation of Bristol offered bounties totaling some 25 guineas a head to able seamen, 20 guineas to ordinary seamen, and 15 guineas to landsmen. These financial inducement proved effective as on Saturday May 23rd 1795 'Felix Farley's Bristol Journal' was able to report that "the number of men requested by the late Act to be furnished for the Navy by the Port of Bristol, was completed on Wednesday, consisting of 100 Able Bodied Seamen (estimated as 200); 136 Ordinary Seamen; and 330 Landmen, making in all 666 men."

In Gloucestershire a Cheltenham Troop of volunteer cavalry was formed in August 1795, to be joined in the following year by additional troops at Minchinhampton and Wotton-under-Edge. These units, formed as a result of the 1794 Volunter Act, were generally known as Gentlemen and Yeomanry Cavalry, members of which were exempted from the Militia ballot as long as they attended a required number of days' training. They were, however, only to be used in their own or adjacent counties.

It was also necessary to maintain the supply of recruits for the Navy, so by January 1796 Captain Hawker had been provided with three tenders to be attached to the Impress Service in Bristol. They were, the "Union" commanded by Lieutenant Worth, the "Britannia" under Lieutenant Walsh, and the "Frederick" under Lieutenant Rees.

With regard to land forces, the Government was still not satisfied that there were sufficient volunteer cavalrymen, and so the Provisional Cavalry Act was introduced in 1796. This required every person who owned ten or more horses to provide one fully equipped horseman for service in the Provisional Cavalry, which like the Militia was liable to serve anywhere in the country. In the same year, however, an amendment was passed which empowered the Deputy-Lieutenant of any county to dispense with the raising of Provisional Cavalry, and to substitute Yeomanry Cavalry, if the number of volunteers coming forward locally under the terms of the 1794 Volunteer Act amounted to, or exceeded three quarters of that required under the Provisional Cavalry Act.

The Provisional Cavalry proved to be highly unpopular in Gloucestershire where it found little favour among the farmers and well-to-do classes, who preferred the alternative of serving in the Yeomanry Cavalry, for which more than sufficient volunteers had come forward. As a consequence the latter force was increased by a further four troops, which were raised in early 1797 at Stow-in-the-Wold, Gloucester, Henbury, and Bristol.

The Bristol Troop commanded by Captain Timothy Powell, together with the Henbury Troop under Captain Charles J.Harford of Stapleton, which was recruited from the Hundreds of Henbury, Barton Regis, Pucklechurch, and Langley & Swineshead, were both formed in February 1797, and as these units were only some 60 or so strong, their ranks were quickly filled.

In February 1797 the fear of invasion was once again real, and in Bristol it was announced that the small numbers required by the Cavalry "not being considerable, and of course affording no opportunity to the generality of the citizens to manifest their zeal, several hundred of the respectable merchants and tradesmen have already entered into a Military Association".

As a result, on February 18th, the Bristol Regiment of Volunteer Infantry came into being, and many joined, either out of patriotism, or to avoid the annual Militia ballot, to which members of this force were exempted under the terms of the 1794 Volunteer Act. The regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Evan Baillie and the old American War veteran

Lieutenant-Colonel William Gore, was intended purely for local defence, or to assist the civil powers, and to emphasise this point it was resolved that "on no occasion, and in no exigency whatever, the whole, or any detachment of the corps, are to be removed above one day's moderate march from Bristol".

Recruitment was so successful that by January 1798 the regiment had all but reached its full compliment of 1000 men, but unlike the Cavalry troops, the Bristol Regiment of Volunteer Infantry had an authorised establishment of an Adjutant, 2 Senior Sergeants, 20 Sergeants and 15 Drummers, all paid by the Government.

The volunteer corps in Bristol were under the control of Lieutenant-General James Rooke, the commander of both the Bristol Garrison and the Severn Military District. In addition to the volunteers, the Bristol Garrison for the next five years normally comprised two or three Militia regiments of foot, as well as a troop of Regular or Provisional Cavalry.

The citizens of Bristol had infact been very wise in organising a volunteer force early in February 1797, for unknown to them the 1050 French soldiers of La Seconde Legion des Francs who landed near Fishguard on the evening of February 22nd, had infact been briefed to destroy Bristol.

The troops had emabrked at Brest, aboard a squadron comprising the frigates "Resistance" and "Vengeance", the corvette "Constance", and the lugger "Vautour", and had set sail on February 16th. They had reached the entrance to the Bristol Channel early on the morning of the 20th, and spent the day in tacking in an attempt to get up to Bristol. In the afternoon they anchored off Lundy Island to await the flood tide and got under way again after dark, but Commodore Jean Joseph Castignier, the squadron commander, despite all his efforts of anchoring on the ebb and making sail only with the flood, was unable to approach the City. Having negotiated the Bristol Channel as far as Porlock, he found that the strength of the flood tide was insufficient to help him against the wind. The weather looked threatening and strong winds were expected from the east. He decided, therefore, to give up the attempt against Bristol, and instead made for St.George's Channel to examine the possibility of a landing at the alternative site in Cardigan Bay.

The orders of the American leader of the French ground forces, Colonel William Tate, stated that "the destruction of Bristol is of the very last importance, and every effort should be made to accomplish it." He was informed that "for this purpose, it will be proper to reconnoitre the Mouth of the Severn in the day-time, and sail up the Avon at night-fall, within five miles of the town, where the landing should be made on the right bank in the greatest silence". His troops were also to be supplied with combustabile material.

Colonel Tate's forces were then to "advance rapidly in the dark, on that side of Bristol which may be to windward, and immediately to set fire to that quarter." His instructions went on to state that "if the enterprise be conducted with dexterity it cannot fail to produce the total ruin of the town, the port, the docks, and the vessels, and to strike terror and amazement into the very heart of the capital of England".

The landing at Fishguard was, however, a total failure with all the French troops being rounded up within a couple of days, while on the return journey the "Constance" and the "Resistance" had the misfortune to run into two 36 gun British frigates, which captured both vessels after a running fight. They were subsequently incorporated into the Royal Navy as "H.M.S. Constance" and H.M.S. Fisguard".

In Bristol, early news was received of the French squadron's activities off Lundy in an affidavit from John Gay, a channel pilot, who sighted the ships early in the morning of February 20th, four miles to the westward of the island. Gay watched their movements that day and the next, before putting into Ilfracombe early on the 22nd to communicate his news to Lieutenant Gayton, local Naval officer at that port, from where expresses were sent off to Barnstaple and Plymouth. A troop of the Suffolk Fencible Cavalry, then stationed at Bristol, set out for Walton in Gordano to oppose a possible landing, but news of Tate's surrender at Fishguard quickly came in, and matters calmed somewhat.

The City, however, was soon thrown into greater constenation by reports of another landing near St.David's contained in an express from General Rooke at nearby Haverfordwest, to Colonel The Marquis of Buckingham, and dated midnight February 28th. It instructed him and his Royal Buckinghamshire Militia, then forming the major part of the Bristol garrison, to proceed at once to Pembrokeshire, together with the remainder of the Suffolk Fencible Cavalry, and the 13th Regiment of Foot, which had temporarily stopped over in Bristol, en-route for Ireland.

This alarm, while it lasted, caused greater excitement in Bristol than the real landing had done. At about 10 o'clock on the morning of March 2nd drums beat to arms, and the troops paraded in College Green. The principle merchants of the city offered waggons and horses to convey the baggage and bread to Pill, where the troops were to embark in skiffs for Tenby, to save the delay which would be occasioned by a tedious march through Wales. Thousands of people congregated in College Green to see the soldiers leave to fight the enemy. A bystander then put half a crown in a hat, and in a few minutes 90 guineas had been collected from the crowd to buy comforts for the fighting men.

The Bristol Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, which had formed less than two weeks before, realised that the number of troops left to watch over the French prisoners at Stapleton would be far from adequate, and accordingly offered 30 men to assist with guard duty that evening. Their offer was accepted by Colonel Buckingham and "they marched, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Baillie, through the City, amidst the acclamations of such multitudes of people as were never before seen collecting in the streets". However, just as the regular troops and Militia were about to embark at Pill, the King's Messenger arrived in Bristol on his return journey from Pembrokshire, with a despatch from Lord Edward Somerset, General Rooke's A.D.C., recalling the troops, as the news of the enemy landing at St.David's turned out to be false.

The Bristol Volunteers had just reached the City confines when they were informed that their services were no longer required, while the troops themselves initially received the news from a passing Mail Coach. The false alarm it seems was originated by a fleet of 18 boats laden with lime-stone coming ashore during the evening of February 28th. The act of throwing the stones overboard having been mistaken for a large body of men jumping ashore.

The need for accurate information is well illustrated by the incident at St.David's, and nowhere was this more vital than in the preparation of maps. The first trigonometrical survey of Britain was undertaken by the Board of Ordnance, and was started in 1784 from a base on Hounslow Heath. Its object was to produce accurate maps of use to the military. The survey team under Lieutenant Colonel William Mudge and Captain Thomas Dolby arrived in the area in the summer of 1797, and at the end of July had pitched their tents on Dundry Hill. Three weeks later the camp was removed to Lansdown, but not before it had caused great disquietude in the agricultural community, to whom the supposed magical powers of the surveying instruments suggested alarming intentions on the part of Government.

Although the triangulation of Somerset was completed in the early 1800's, and that of Gloucestershire and South East Monmouthshire between 1800 and 1809, the subsequent field surveys took a considerable time. It was not, therefore, until 1817 that sheet covering North Somerset, and bearing the title Bath and Wells was published, while it was to be 1830 before the adjoining Bristol sheet appeared.

The information that Bristol was the primary objective for the French troops who had landed at Fishguard in February 1797 came as an unpleasant surprise to the Mayor and Aldermen of the City, who at a special meeting held on October 14th of that year, resolved to apply to the Duke of York for an Engineer to survey the coast of the Bristol Channel and to report "what places ought to be fortified for the better security of the harbour and security of Bristol".

They also petitioned the Admiralty stating that "there is no one point of land or place between Lundy and Kingroad in any way fortified" and recommending that two gunboats be stationed in the Bristol Channel, one near Portishead Point, and the other between Portishead Point and Lundy Island, in order to provide some protection for the Port of Bristol. As a result, on November 10th 1797 Colonel John Eveleigh of the Royal Engineers was ordered from Portsmouth to Bristol, to prepared a proposal for the local defences.

His first recommendation was to establish a chain of four signal stations to be situated on Brean Down, Steep Holm, Flat Holm, and at Lavernock Point, near Penarth, with two gunboats patrolling between them. In this way he considered that timely warning of enemy approach would be given to the military in Bristol to enable them to assemble their forces, augmented within two or three hours by "an able body of 12,000 citizens ready for the pike or any other arm that might be given them".

From such stations, signals incorporating flags, balls, cannon, smoke beacons, or other fires might be employed, and by extending the line, Wales and the western counties of England would be immediately warned of the presence of enemy ships in the Bristol Channel. This would enable the Milford Haven to Waterford packet to convey up to date information to the Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Squadron at Cork, which might then successfully cut off the enemy's retreat.

He further recommended that a battery of three 24 pounders mounted on traversing platforms should be erected on Portishead Point, where any enemy ship heading for the River Avon would have to pass within point blank range. If, however, the enemy were to arrive in force and reach the Avon, he felt that the gunboats would be able to run with the tide, form at the mouth of the river and co-operate with the proposed battery at Portishead, or alternatively act as independent floating batteries.

The report was favourably received by Government and on November 25th "Felix Farley's Bristol Journal" reported that the "Aimwell" and "Conquest", two very powerful gunboats, under orders of the Commander of the Squadron of His Majesty's Ships at Milford, are to be stationed in such parts of our channel as the Mayor may deem proper." These vessels, both of about 150 tons and armed with 12 guns, were of fairly modern design, having been specially constructed in 1794. The first to arrive, on December 27th from Kinsale, was the "Aimwell", commanded by Lieutenant Francis Kinneer, while the "Conquest", under Lieutenant William Green, which had been stationed near the Isle of Wight, finally moored in Kingroad on January 13th 1798.

In April 1798 the Government, once again fearing a French invasion, instructed "that all the launches and long-boats belonging to merchant ships in the different ports, capable of carrying cannon or cannonades, should forthwith be armed for the purpose of being employed as gun boats at the mouth of the rivers, and in creeks, ports, or bays of our coast". James Hillhouse a Bristol shipbulder, subsequently converted two such vessels, a Pill tow-boat and a ship's long-boat, each armed with a single cannonade at a total cost to the Corporation of Bristol of a little over �63.

On April 26th the Mayor of Bristol wrote to Henry Dundas, Secretary of War, stating that " although the battery about to be erected by Government at Portishead Point may be an excellent defence for this port in future, yet it is the opinion of many respectable professional men that during the considerable space of time this battery will be erecting, temporary ones should be immediately formed at this point, and on each side of the Mouth of the Avon." The letter went on to state that "we are severely destitute of artillery in this city and neighbourhood, except only two field pieces attached to the Berkshire Militia." These, infact, were located at the temporary field battery on Brandon Hill erected and manned by the various Militia units which provided the city's garrison.

The Mayor's comments were certainly taken into account, and finally two gun batteries, each armed with four captured French 36 pounders were approved. These were to be located on Portishead Point, on the site of the old Civil War Royalist battery, and at King Road Farm, Avonmouth, and were erected under the direction of Lieutenant William Rudyard of the Royal Engineers during the summer of 1798. They were subsequently, and somewhat inadequately, manned by a detachment of four N.C.O.'s and eight gunners of the Invalid Artilery, under the command of Corporals Ross and Muirhead.

May 1798 saw an offer made through the Mayor of Bristol and Master of the Society of Merchants, by the Pilots and other inhabitants of Pill "to serve as volunteers on boats in the river and within the Port of Bristol, from the Passage eastward, to the Holmes westward: and on shore in the exercise of great guns in the immediate neighbourhood of Bristol, and on the shores of its river and port within the limits above mentioned". The volunteers, however, stipulated that whenever called out they wished to be under the command of the General appointed to command the City of Bristol, and here a difficulty immediately arose as the County of Somerset was not at that time within the jurisdiction of Lieutenant-General Rooke either as commander of the Bristol Garrison or the Severn Military District.

The folowing month the name of Lieutenant John Harford R.N. was put forward as a possible commander for the Loyal Pill and Port of Bristol Volunteer Association, but no satisfactory reply was ever forthcoming from Government, and it is doubtful if the leaderless volunteers ever saw any actual service. The association did, however, provide the genesis of the Pill Sea Fencibles formed in September 1803 under the command of Captain Thomas Sotheby

As late as August 1801 the Mayor of Bristol wrote to Lord Hobart, the Secretary of War, stating that the batteries erected in 1798 were still not manned by the necessary number of men, and that the 30 or so needed by each battery could easily be provided by the Pill Volunteers.

In reply Hobart pointed out that "the services of the Pilots, Watermen etc. may certainly if properly directed, be rendered extremely useful, but there are no regular establishments except the Sea Fencibles, or the Volunteer Corps extending their services throughout the district, in which they could be classed in order to afford them the encouragement which they seem to expect. Their habits of life may render them unwilling to engage for any service in which there is a probability, however remote, of their being called to any distance from the coast".

Meanwhile, the Government had made an attempt to solve the long standing problem of the great inconvenience and financial burden caused to the publicans of Bristol, by the quartering of soldiers at the city's inns. About 1791 a project was started for the erection of an imposing crescent at Cilfton, and several thousand pounds were expended on the undertaking. The outbreak of war with France, however, had ruinous effects on this and many other speculations, and the scheme was abandoned for some years. On May 17th 1800, "the pile of buildings called Royal York Crescent," together with the adjoining land, was offered for sale in 'Felix Farley's Bristol Journal', but without success. July 1801, however, saw the newspapers announce that the Government intended to buy the sites of the unfinished portion of the crescent, and to construct barracks there for the accomodation of a large body of troops.

The ground was actually secured for this purpose, but ernest petitions were forwarded by the local inhabitants, pleading that the intended building would be ruinous to the fame of Clifton as a watering-place, and as a result the Army authorities abandoned the project in July 1803, much to the disappointment of the innkeepers of Bristol. The problem was infact to remain unresolved until the newly constructed Horfield Barracks was handed over to the Board of Ordnance on April 26th 1847.

On October 1st 1801 an armistice with France came into effect, and locally the Naval presence was the first to be withdrawn. During the month the Impress Service throughout the country was disbanded, with Captain Hawker, Bristol's Regulating Captain, being transferred to Portsmouth. This was followed by the departure of the "Aimwell" gunboat, which set sail from Kingroad for the last time on January 2nd 1802, its sister ship the "Conquest", had already been re-deployed for service in Ireland in November 1798.

The Armistice was followed on March 28th 1802 with a definite Treaty of Peace being signed at Amiens. From motives of economy, and as their services seemed to be no longer urgently required, the Militia and many Volunteer Corps were immediately stood down, with the Royal South Gloucestershire Militia being disembodied on the 21st and 22nd of April at Gloucester, while the Bristol Regiment of Volunteer Infantry was disbanded completely, holding its final parade in Queen Square on April 26th.

After the Peace of Amiens, all the naval prisoners at Stapleton had to be returned to France, the last 417 sailing from Pill on May 11th 1802 on board the 'Alfred', a 390 ton ship belonging to the port of Lancaster, en-route for Morlaix in Brittany. The Admiralty, however, grumbled at the delay, saying that this was the last prison in England to be cleared.

The gun batteries at Portishead Point and Avonmouth were the next to be decommissioned, the barracks, magazines, guns and equipment being handed over in trust by the Barracks Department, to the Mayor and Corporation of Bristol, on June 14th 1802.

The Yeomanry Cavalry, however, were given the option to remain embodied as they "are at present in such a state of respectable discipline as may be preserved with little trouble and inconvenience but which it would require much time to re-create". As a result most corps declined to disband, and when the Napoleonic War broke out in May 1803 many cavalry units were quickly able to muster fully equipped.

The City of Bristol showed its gratitude for the good conduct, and assistance rendered to the civic authorities by a number of military units and their commanders during the course of the War, by personal communications to them, and to their respective service. The highest accolade, however, was reserved for Lieutenant General James Rooke, Commander of the Severn District, who in June 1797 was given Freedom of the City, and in July 1802 presented with a gift of plate to the value of nearly �500 for "his unremitted attention to the duties of his station, during this long and critical period of his command."

During the Napoleonic War many of the defensive schemes adopted during the Revolutionary War were re-introduced and expanded, and infact a number continued to be used until the middle of the twentieth century, the battery at Portishead Point being a good example, while the Local Volunteer movement of the late eighteenth century can be seen as the forerunner of the Second World War Home Guard, and can therefore justifiably be termed 'Bristol's First Dad's Army'.

From 1793 to 1802 Britain fought on against a nation with twice her population and animated by a strange revolutionary fanaticism, which gave its devotees the strength of a man in delirium, but she survived and triumphed. In the words of Pitt himself "amid the wreck and misery of nations it is our joint exaltation that we have continued superior to all that ambition and despotism could effect; and our still higher exaltation ought to be that we provide not only for our own safety but hold out a prospect to nations now bending under the iron yoke of tyranny what the exertions of a free people can effect."

Back to Bristol Past

Website produced by Paul Johnson . Last updated 3 March 2014.