April 2017 Print E-mail
The Hambledon Volunteers

Fearful of a French invasion and unrest at home, the government of William Pitt decided in 1794 to raise a force of armed volunteers for the defence of the realm. A small French force did invade in 1797. Aiming for the south-west of England, it was diverted by adverse Winds to Pembrokeshire where it was quickly rounded up, according to legend, by a group of women wearing  traditional welsh costume.
The Volunteers Were distinct from the militia, which was a force raised on a county basis, and
from the mounted fencibles and yeomanry. They could be called out for home service only, thus
being the forerunners of the Home Guard of 1939-45. By 1804, 380,000 men had joined the
Volunteers in what one historian has described as the greatest popular movement of the Hanoverian age. The regular army Was small and was shunned by respectable citizens, but by 1805, when the threat of invasion Was largely over, about 800,000 men, 20 per cent of the active male population, was doing some form of active service; in Hampshire and other coastal counties under threat it was nearer 50 per cent.
The Hambledon Volunteers were first raised in 1798. The National Archives at Kew have the
Muster Books for the unit, which were submitted to the War Office every month from 1799 to 1812, containing the names and pay of every member. The London Gazette of 24th]uly 1798 announced the appointment of Captain Thomas Martin Palmer to be Major Commandant and Thomas Sueter, Gent, to be adjutant. In September 1798 the unit was presented With colours, and they hang in the church today They were consecrated by the Rev T Mangles who preached a sermon on the text from the Book of Joshua ‘Be strong and of good courage'. Further officers were gazetted on 20* October 1798, Nicholas Isdell Gent to be Ensign and Surgeon and Reverend T Mangles to be Chaplain. On 11th December of the same year First Lieutenant William Horn was gazetted Captain, replacing Forster Who had resigned. Isdell was promoted First Lieutenant and Richard Kennett Gent appointed Ensign. The London Gazette of 6th November 1798 reported that the Volunteer Corps including Hambledon had assembled on Portsdown on 7th October to celebrate Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile.
Who were the volunteers and what did they do? They were armed with muskets and pistols,
despite fears in some quarters about the risks of providing arms to the Working class Who could not be disciplined under the Army Acts. The Hambledon unit had three companies, commanded
by Palmer, Captain or Major Edward Hale and Captain William Horn. Other officers over theperiod from 1799 to 1803 were lsdell, Lieutenants Henry Mullens, Thomas Sueter, Richard Kennett, C Hamilton Hamilton, CJ Palmer and George Butler and Ensigns Richard Pink, Alex Webb, John Palmer and Henry Stewart. In October 1799 the unit became the Hambledon and Wickham Volunteers and a fourth company was raised, commanded by Mullens; Palmer was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and Mullens to Captain. 
Each company had a permanent sergeant on full time pay; all the others were paid for the days they were mustered, normally Sundays but occasionally for seven or nine days in the month. Rates of pay were the same as in the regular army, one shilling a day for privates (it stayed the same throughout the nineteenth century) and the same for sergeants, corporals and drummers. Palmer was paid £3 3s 8d for four days, Isdell 17s 4d and Sueter 15s.
The permanent sergeant John Williams received £2 85 5 1/4d a month. The total cost to the War
Office in 1800 per month was £68 9s 7d and other expenses £12 3s, altogether a useful income
for the village. Given the high numbers of Volunteers nationally, the cost to the taxpayer was
substantial, partly accounting for the increased level of taxation in this period, which mainly
affected the better-off. In January 1802, when the unit was mustered for nine days, Palmer was
paid £7 3s 3d and the total of pay for the unit was £157 3s 3d. Each company had between 60 and 70 men, including two to four sergeants, two corporals and two drummers.
The social composition of the volunteers is not always easy to discover. The officers were mostly substantial tenant farmers, like Palmer of Rookwood Farm. Edward Hale was from a well-known family of apothecaries. George Butler may have been from the newly arrived Butlers of Bury Lodge. Kennett is a familiar Hambledon name associated with Glidden Farm. A Goldsmith is recorded, a private in Palmer's company. The rank and file would have been agricultural labourers and craftsmen. Officers are described as ‘Esq' or ‘Gent'. This distinction seems to be that Captains and above were ‘Esq' and Lieutenants and ensigns ‘Gent'. Volunteer officers had no rank outside their own unit. An 1804 list of the Volunteer and Yeomanry Corps of the United Kingdom records Edward Hale as Commandant of the Hambledon Volunteers and their total number as 150 rank and file. Thomas Hardy satirises the Volunteers in his novel The Trumpet Major set in the Napoleonic Wars: drilling the parade, the sergeant says ‘Now, I hope you'll have a little patience and pay strict attention to the Word of command, just exactly as I give it out to ye; and if I should go wrong, I shall be much obliged to any friend who'll put me right again, for I have only been in the army three weeks myself, and we are all liable to mistakes'. How long they Would have stood against Napoleon's seasoned troops is to be wondered; perhaps as long as the Home Guard would have lasted against the German army in 1940.
The Volunteers of course never saw action against the French. Nor in Hambledon were they
used to deal with civil unrest. On 18th October 1800 some of the leading inhabitants of the
village, including several Volunteer officers, met in the George Inn to consider seditious notices
posted in the village threatening farmers, millers and bakers with ‘burning and death'. A reward of £50 was offered for information and Palmer sent a copy of one of the notices to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland. He wrote again on 26th October to report an intended riot caused by the high price of grain. A number of bills had been posted in the village signed by 21 people, including some from the Volunteers, threatening to shoot ‘millers, bakers and farmers'; most of the privates ‘are of the lower order and experiencing difficulties from the present high price of Provisions'. He assured Portland that he is keeping his corps on high alert and stressed their zeal and loyalty. He asked for directions as the nearest magistrate was five miles away, but did not receive any. The Lord Lieutenant, Lord Bolton, thought Palmer unnecessarily alarmist.
The Volunteers were disbanded in ]une 1813.
They were not revived on subsequent scares about a French invasion, such as that which resulted in the construction of the Palmerstonian forts around Portsmouth, nor on the occasion of the major ‘Swing' disturbances in rural southern England in 1830. But they had been an example of the patriotic spirit of the British against Napoleon, which was to be repeated against Germany in 1914 and 1940. 
I am indebted to Ann and Alec Tilley and Ruth Pacer for help with the research for this article.
Roger Pacer

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 08 May 2019 )