Vol. 99: Facing Invasion: Proceedings Under the Defence Acts 1801-1805

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Author: Roger Pearce
Volume: Volume 99
ISBN: 978 0 85445 081 7

FACING INVASION: PROCEEDINGS UNDER THE DEFENCE ACTS 1801-1805

Volume description

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Britain was at war with France—with only a brief truce—for over 20 years. A whole generation grew to maturity having known no other existence than the threat or reality of military combat. During much of this period, especially until Nelson’s success at Trafalgar in 1805, there was a real fear that Napoleon’s armies would invade. Owing to its geographical position, Sussex was in the front line of the nation’s defence.

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars saw a dramatic increase in the extent of the nation under arms. The civil defence challenge was complicated by the interaction of the traditional militia with the massive wave of volunteering which followed the peaks of the invasion threat; the government’s attempts to coordinate the various military strands of national defence were confused and inconsistent. The ministries of Pitt and Addington periodically contemplated a policy of ‘driving the country’ in the event of invasion: of evacuating coastal counties such as Sussex, destroying all livestock and produce and denying matériel to the enemy.

In 1798, the first Defence Act sought to establish how many active adult men were capable of service in the nation’s defence; who could serve as wagon drivers, boatmen and the like in the event of evacuation; how many individuals might have to be evacuated; and details of vehicles, livestock and stockpiles of provisions. The resultant returns were updated in 1802; the 1803 Defence Act renewed the search for reliable information to underpin the country’s defence.

It has been claimed that the information collected ‘supplied the British state with the most ambitious and precise taxonomy of its people compiled since the Domesday Book. These same documents, singularly neglected by historians and demographers, allow us to get behind the administrative details of civil defence, to reach the men themselves, the ‘living beings in action’’. How many of these records survive is unknown, since there appears never to have been a systematic survey of them. This volume is a unique edition of these vital historical records.

The deliberations of the County Lieutenancy meetings which commissioned and oversaw these returns are particularly enlightening. Responsibility for managing civil defence had historically fallen to the Lords Lieutenant of the counties. Although the 3rd Duke of Richmond, Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, was diligent in discharging his responsibilities, he was no friend of Pitt or Addington, and vehemently opposed the policy of ‘driving the country’ whenever it raised its head.

These records illuminate the life of the rural Sussex community during a brief period of heightened national danger. They provide greater depth and range of information than the 1801 census; their coverage of livestock and agricultural capacity is unmatched; they offer an unparalleled account of the nation’s preparedness (or otherwise) for foreign invasion, complementing the official, national narrative.

About the editor

Roger Pearce spent his career in business strategy, and in communications and editorial services. A Kentish man himself, he comes from a long line of West Sussex yeoman farmers. Dr Pearce is currently the Society’s digital editor and a member of its editorial board. He lives in France.