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The British Army and Internal Security 1815-1850
Micheal Miller, MPhil - RJ Militaria


The six decades between the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the mid-nineteenth century saw the continent of Europe convulsed intermittently by violent, and sometimes successful, popular rebellion. France experienced revolution once more in 1830, and yet again in 1848, a year known as "the year of revolutions." Belgium and Russian Poland broke out in revolt in 1830, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered widespread armed uprisings in 1848. These events caused significant destabilisation and disruption to established authority, and required considerable expense and bloodshed to suppress even if they failed. They were not replicated on the same scale in mainland Britain. One reason (admittedly among many) for this was that the rank and file of the British army, along with the officer corps, remained loyal to the State. This acted as a strong deterrent to popular revolt, and as a force to contain it effectively when it did occur. The fidelity of the troops to the establishment cannot be taken for granted, and this article attempts to explain why it was given so widely.

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During this Regency and early Victorian periods the unsettling consequences of the industrial revolution, combined with the continued disenfranchisement of most working people, led to the growth of widespread disaffection towards the British State. Popular political movements, such as the Chartists, agitated for universal adult male suffrage as both a fundamental right, and as a prerequisite for social and economic reform. The ruling class generally opposed this as subversive and dangerous to the established order. The 1832 Reform Act extended the vote to elements of the middle classes, but it was not until further legislation in 1867 and 1884 that ordinary working men were admitted to the franchise; the 1884-1885 relief expedition to succour Gordon in the Sudan was the first campaign waged by Britain as a reasonably recognisable modern democracy.

Although most popular protest was peaceful and constitutional in nature, the spectre of violent insurrection frequently recurred to haunt successive governments in the first half of the 19th century. And in the absence of an effective police force the military was seen as the ultimate guarantor of State hegemony. The army had been reduced in size after Waterloo, but between 1838 and 1846 its strength rose from 87,992 to 116,434 men. This growth can be understood partly as a response to the demands of imperial expansion abroad; about two-thirds of the army was indeed posted overseas. It is, however, no coincidence that this increase in military strength took place against a background of Chartist inspired disturbance on mainland Britain. Imperial and domestic security were considered inseparable, a point made by Lord John Russell in Parliament on 22 July 1839.

The constant call for military aid from various parts of the country, especially from the north of England, and the impossibility, at all events the extreme danger, of diminishing our military force in the colonies, especially in Canada, made it in the opinion of the Government, a duty incumbent upon them to ask for this additional force before Parliament separated.

The suppression of boisterous public disorder was not necessarily a bloody process, and often the mere possibility of military intervention was sufficient to quell or avert violence. There were, however, moments when the authority of the State was subjected to a more determined and ferocious challenge by the politically disaffected and economically disadvantaged. On these occasions the army did resort to lethal force. A simple chronology of such climactic moments will illustrate the ongoing role of the military in enforcing State control between 1815 and 1850.

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  • In May 1816 agrarian disturbances broke out in Cambridgeshire; 2 men were shot dead by the 1st Royal Dragoons.
  • In August 1819 the 15th Hussars were involved, along with local yeomanry, in the so-called Peterloo massacre at Manchester. Eleven people died and several hundred were believed injured.
  • In July 1820 men of the 13th Foot fired into a rioting crowd at Greenock, causing several fatalities.
  • In August 1821, during the funeral of Queen Caroline, violence erupted in Hyde Park, London with 35 soldiers hospitalised by the crowd. In response the Life Guards shot 2 men dead and wounded many others.
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  • In 1825 4 seamen who were on strike were shot dead during a confrontation in Sunderland.
  • In June 1831 the 93rd Highlanders  killed at least 16 people, and wounded 70 more, during riots at Merthyr in South Wales.
  • In October 1831 the 14th Light Dragoons and the 3rd Hussars killed 4 Reform Bill rioters in Bristol and wounded 58 others. A further 2 were slain in similar circumstances at Derby.
  • In May 1838 the 45th Foot dispersed a band of rustic rebels near Canterbury; 1 soldier, 1 special constable and 9 civilians died.

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  • In November 1839  the 45th Foot repulsed a Chartist inspired attack on their post at the Westgate Hotel in Newport, South Wales.  At least 22 Chartists were killed and 50 wounded.
  • In August 1842 industrial disturbances in Preston, Blackburn, Halifax and Burslem left 9 disaffected strikers, 2 policemen and 1 soldier dead. The 72nd Highlanders played a prominent role at Preston.
  • Finally, in 1848 clashes between regular troops and Scottish Chartists claimed 8 more fatalities.

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These incidents do not comprise all of the confrontations between the economically, socially and politically discontented poor and the regular army, although they were the most sanguinary. Possibly 100 civilian deaths occurred in clashes with the army on mainland Britain between 1816 and 1848; many hundreds more were wounded or injured. These are modest losses militarily speaking, but the deterrent effect they conveyed helped to maintain State control during this period. The army lost only 3 dead, although the number of injured was much higher. control between 1815 and 1850.


The Ties that Bound

The rank and file of the regular army were recruited primarily from amongst the same disenfranchised labouring classes they were often expected to confront; common soldiers did not possess the vote. Agitators made frequent attempts to subvert the loyalty of the troops, and there is limited evidence of radical sympathies within the ranks. But the soldiers as a whole remained loyal to their officers, and therefore to the State, throughout the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s. Why was this so?

The radical movement explained this phenomena by alternately abusing the rank and file as mindless butchers or pitying them as cowed slaves kept supine by fear of the lash.  Military discipline could be harsh, but flogging became progressively less severe during the late Georgian and early Victorian periods. An initial maximum of 1,500 lashes was reduced to 300 in 1812, 200 in 1836 and 50 in 1847. Flogging was finally abolished in 1881. Not only the severity but also the frequency of the punishment declined over this period, and it does not seem to have been a cause of great grievance among the rank and file; less than 1% of men were flogged in 1833, and it was generally perceived by their comrades that they had deserved it.  Between 1815 and 1850 there was only one regimental mutiny in the British army, compared to 16 which took place in Highland regiments alone between 1743 and 1804; the reliability of the soldier had been increased not eroded by less brutal coercion.

There were in reality a number of reasons for the continued fidelity of the rank and file to their officers and to the State. Vertical divisions between soldiers and disaffected citizenry included the increasing segregation of the troops into barracks, and the manipulation of ethnic differences between certain regiments and the communities they were sent to police. But neither of these were decisive. Although the use of barrack accommodation grew throughout the early 19th century, soldiers still socialised with civilians when off- and even when on-duty.  And while the army as a whole was ethnically diverse (in 1830 it was 43.7% English, 42.2% Irish and 13.6% Scottish) most individual regiments were ethnically mixed. There were cases, such as at Preston in 1842 when the predominantly Scottish 72nd Highlanders suppressed Lancashire strikers, in which ethnic hostility or indifference might have been a factor. But the 15th Hussars were involved in  6 major confrontations with English crowds between 1816 and 1837. Its reliability was never in doubt, and yet in 1830 291 of the troopers were English, compared to only 31 Irish, 4 Scots and 1 foreigner.

More important than any physical or ethnic segregation of the soldiery was their experience of popular anti-militarism. Put simply soldiers and civilians had always got into arguments and fights, often in taverns. Radical commentators frequently tried to politicise these incidents to the detriment of the troops; radical language about the army was often hostile and harsh, although rarely entirely consistent. There is evidence that this generated, or reinforced, a corresponding vein of anti-radicalism in the army. But this still does not explain the ongoing loyalty of the rank and file.

One of the most important reasons why the common soldiers stood largely by their officers and the State was their self-perceived subordination to the common law, combined with a professed allegiance to the overarching symbols of Crown and Constitution. The other most significant reason can be found in a developing ethos of moral, or paternal command within the Regency and early to mid- Victorian army.

Most radicals such as the Chartists were not outright republicans, and held a somewhat idealised view of the Crown and the unmodified, amorphous English Constitution; they felt that if only it could be purged of the corrupt self-serving of the privileged elite then the Constitution could work to the benefit of all. A key component of  this Constitution was that the army was subordinate to the common law, and a civil magistrate had to be present to authorise soldiers to fire upon a riotous or insurrectionary crowd. The rank and file of the British army were thus enabled to believe that they were part of an a-political military, serving Crown and Country impartially. This notion that they were above politics played an important role in maintaining their loyalty; provided they were used in a constitutionally correct manner the soldiers were unlikely to defy orders. And the (undemocratic) authorities ensured that at least a veneer of constitutional correctness was present when using the army for internal security operations.

The mutiny of the Scots Guards based in London in June 1820 was a relatively un-dramatic, but ultimately influential, incident. Short-lived, bloodless and largely a-political it coincided with an atmosphere of popular unrest  to alarm the state. From this point on, if not even earlier, it became clear that the reliability of the rank and file could not be taken absolutely for granted. The Naval and Military Gazette, 13th April 1839, for example called for the conciliation of the army by the government adding that “above all, let the strongest attachment be promoted between the soldier and his officers; for without the moral force of the later there is no connecting bond between the government and the army.” This was not an isolated opinion, but rather representative of an increased movement towards a style of moral or paternal command. In essence this meant that officers did more than simply display courage and leadership in battle, they also proactively addressed the welfare of their men as far as was practicable. In return the rank and file offered obedience; this might be considered a paternalism-deference equilibrium. And the evidence of contemporary military memoirs and reports suggest that it worked.

Case Study: the 45th Foot

m1 firing range Two of the more deadly confrontations between the army and the insurgent disaffected involved the 45th Foot Regiment; the Battle of Bossenden Wood on May 1st 1838, and the Newport Rising of November 4th 1839. The tale of these events has been told before, but social historians have not been concerned to place matters within the context of military and regimental history. They have focused on the experiences and attitudes of the rebellious poor and ignored those of the soldiers who fought them. They have, therefore, missed half the story. The case of the 45th Foot does reveal much about how the popular anti-militarism, the paternalism-deference equilibrium, ethnic origin and the timely segregation of potentially disaffected troops all played a role in maintaining the effective reliability of the rank and file.

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The 45th Foot, in common with most other line infantry regiments, spent much of the early 19th century on duty abroad. From 1819 to 1836 the 45th was stationed in Ceylon, Burma and India. During this period it suffered heavy losses among all ranks, due primarily to sickness, with  22 officers, 114 non-commissioned officers, 17 drummers, 995 private soldiers, and 163 regimental wives dying.  Out of the original 800 men who had sailed to Ceylon in 1819, only 22 returned to Gravesend 17 years later. Nevertheless, regardless of these losses the regiment was considered to be a well regulated one with flogging virtually unknown. The regimental officers aspired to lead by example, rather than to command unwilling deference through fear of corporal punishment. In April 1832, for example, Lord Hill inspected the regiment in India and noted with approval that,

Courts Martial in the regiment…were very limited in number; and moreover that no case of corporal punishment had occurred…

The 1841 Standing Orders demonstrate clearly the extent to which an ethos of moral command had permeated the regiment by the Chartist era. Officers were admonished to lead by example and to act as “patron and protector” to their men, in addition to enforcing standards. They were also instructed to display a benevolent paternalism towards their men,

Officers can not too often inspect the situation of men under their command; they should study their wants and, so far as circumstances will permit, promote their comfort.

Colonel Boys, the Commanding Officer in 1841, understood that only by exhibiting a degree of conciliation towards the rank and file could the hegemony of the officer corps be preserved. The events at Bosenden Wood three years earlier provide further evidence that officer-men relations in the 45th Foot were far from the simplistic physical oppression-deference equilibrium the Chartists and others asserted them to be.

Upon its arrival at Gravesend in March 1837 the 45th embarked upon a recruiting march to Canterbury where it remained for a year in order to be rehabilitated as a regiment. This was a time of rural poverty and desperation in Kent, and a number of discontented labourers began to gather around the strange, messianic figure of a certain John Thom who claimed to be Sir William Courtenay, Knight of Malta. Rational despair combined with millennial angst to produce a volatile mixture of fear and rage amongst the perambulating malcontents.

On May 31st a company of the 45th, commanded by Major Armstrong, was called out of barracks and ordered to apprehend John Thom who had, earlier that day, murdered a special constable sent to arrest him. After marching several miles the troops entered Bosenden Wood, near Blean, and divided into two wings, each about 50 strong, in in order to trap Thom’s band of followers in a pincher movement. One wing, under the direct command of Armstrong and accompanied by a magistrate, approached the rebels from the west whilst another, under the command of Captain Reid advanced from the east. The troops moved through the wood or, as the Times, 4th June 1838 described it “perhaps copse would be a more suitable expression, as it consists of low hornbeams, which are not sufficiently high to screen a man unless he stoops down among them.”

With Reid rode a 29 year old Irishman, Lieutenant Bennett, who broke away from Reid’s main party taking 10 men with him in order to advance on Thom from the north and thus envelop him on three sides. Bennett was not intent on a massacre of the labourers since he did not apparently order his men to load their firearms. It is quite possible that Bennett had only a vague idea as to where Thom’s men were , and was also unsure of their strength. Most accounts agree that the rebels, who in fact numbered only 30-35 men at this stage, and who were armed largely with cudgels, were hiding low among the hornbeams waiting in ambush. This was a sensible tactic since only 2 of them, including Thom, appear to have carried guns. This in turn ensured that only a literally hand to hand clash with the soldiers provided them with any chance of success. 

When Bennett finally found Thom the officer demanded his surrender. Thom stood up , advanced towards Bennett, produced his pistol, and shot Bennett at point blank range. Bennett himself had been equipped only with a sword. Reports suggest that Bennett’s 10 men  let out a groan of horror when he fell dead and some of them may have loaded and fired without orders, although this is uncertain. They were then rushed and driven back by Thom’s party. At this point Armstrong ordered his men to fire a volley at the insurgents who responded by charging the 45th with a fury that Armstrong claimed never to have witnessed before. The 45th suffered  further injuries, including a lieutenant who was clubbed to the ground, before they succeeded in dispersing the labourers with a bayonet charge. In the clash 9 of Thom’s band, including Thom himself, were killed or mortally wounded, along with Bennett and a special constable shot by the troops in error. Each of the dead rebels incurred gunshot wounds while 4 had additional bayonet or club injuries, testifying to the ferocity of the fight. According to the subsequent inquest all were shot in the front or side.

The radical press professed not to believe that so much military force was necessary to overcome a relatively small number of poorly armed men. But there was little doubt that Thom had fired first, and the 45th were accompanied by a magistrate and therefore acting within the jurisdiction of the civil power. From a purely tactical viewpoint a fast and determined attack from close range, even by men armed largely with cudgels, could have represented a genuine threat given contemporary limitations in accuracy and rate of fire; a latter-day mini Highland charge in effect.

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During the 16 months between Bosenden Wood and the Newport Rising the 45th were quartered a Windsor. The regiment possessed a temperance society with 280 members, and was provided with a library and a coffee room by the officers. The only notable event during this period was a fracas which occurred in August 1839 between men of the 45th and members of the public at Epsom races. According the United Service Gazette, 31st August 1839 abut 200 off-duty soldiers were attending the races when they became involved with some thimble-riggers who tricked them out of their money.  Once the troops realised this they smashed the hucksters table to pieces and chased them from the field using the detached legs as make-shift clubs. When things quietened down about 150 thimble-riggers and their friends returned and, finding 12 men of the 45th drinking in a beer tent, assaulted them. Although these men had not been involved in the earlier fight several of them were hospitalised. Thus, when the 45th Foot were dispatched to South Wales in early October 1839 they had not only benefited from a dose of moral or paternal command, but had also experienced popular anti-militarism at first hand. They were not likely to exhibit much fellow-feeling or falter in their duty when required to confront the Newport Chartists.

The Chartist inspired Newport Rising of 4th November 1839 was the single greatest armed insurrection to challenge the State in mainland Britain during this era. Following the rejection by the government of a mass petition to extend the franchise, many Chartists turned in desperation to thoughts of violence, vowing to accomplish their aims “peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.“ Probably intended to trigger a nationwide response, the Newport Rising is estimated to have involved at least 4,000 disaffected rebels who carried about 600 assorted firearms along with more archaic weaponry. The outbreak was precisely planned and was preceded by covert attempts by local Chartists to encourage soldiers of the 29th Foot, whom the 45th were brought in to replace, to desert. These attempts continued after the 45th arrived, but paid no dividends to the rebel cause. The State had succeeded in supplanting the 29th Foot with the more dependable 45th, a sensible option as events proved.

The focal point of the Chartist attack were 30 men of Captain Stack’s company billeted at the Westgate Hotel. Only 3 of the garrison were over 23 years of age and at least 21 out of 28 private soldiers were Irish. Their officer Lieutenant Gray was Irish, as was their sergeant Daly. It is uncertain who fired the initial rounds although, given the greater indiscipline of the attackers, it is quite probable that someone in the Chartist ranks shot first. In the following engagement the  troops filed past an open window, each man discharging only one round at a time, but the unit as a whole keeping up a well-paced rate of fire as a consequence. Some rebels broke into the building only to be shot down in the narrow corridors. Return fire from the Chartists severely wounded sergeant Daly.  The assault, however, began to falter and the attackers withdrew leaving up to 24 dead and suffering perhaps 60 more wounded; a professionally impressive tally for a small beleaguered force of 30 men.

The repulse of the attack on the Westgate Hotel marked the defeat of the rising and subsequent military operations amounted to little more than policing work. The 45th Foot remained in South Wales for several months after the Newport rising and, although there were a number of desertions and both Captain Stack and Major Armstrong died of illness, there were no more bloody clashes with the cowed Chartists; the 45th had performed its task efficiently at the Westgate Hotel.

The Newport Rising represented the high-water mark of popular armed resistance to the undemocratic State on mainland Britain during the Victorian era. The Irish politician Daniel O’Connell argued in Parliament that 30 Irish soldiers had saved the British Empire from revolution and potential implosion. The Chartist Western Vindicator, 23rd November 1839 meanwhile lamented that,

Moral force has failed. And alas! Physical force has failed like wise. We cannot fight against armed bodies of well organised butchers of mankind.

The significance of actions such as Bosenden Wood and, in particular the Newport Rising should not be underestimated because they were relatively small scale military encounters, or because they appear unglamorous or even dismal and distasteful in retrospect. Without a loyal army underwriting domestic order - for better or for worse - imperial and foreign policy could not have developed the way in which they ultimately did. Without a reliable soldiery at home it is quite possible that there would have been no Waterloo, no Balaklava, and no Lucknow. Internal security counts.

In conclusion the 45th Foot shared certain characteristics which could be found in most other regiments and corps of the early Victorian army. Its men remained loyal and efficient in maintaining order for an essentially undemocratic State which kept them disenfranchised. This was regardless of the radical and Chartist agitation infusing the world around them. They had experienced popular anti-militarism and may have exhibited a corresponding anti-radicalism. In the 45th Foot an ethos of moral or paternal command guaranteed the cultural hegemony of the officer class; the paternalism-deference equilibrium. At both Bosenden Wood and Newport the troops were able to claim that they were acting within the confines of the law and constitution; a magistrate was present, and the authorities were fired upon first. And at Newport it is at least possible that ethnic difference played a role in maintaining loyalty. In these ways the 45th Foot represents a microcosm of the army, carrying out its duties largely reliably and effectively against a domestic background of challenging social, moral and political ferment.

. Hansards Parl. Deb. 3rd Series, July-August 1839 (London 1839), 621.

. EM Spiers; Army and Society 1815-1914 (Manchester 1980), 50-51.

. HG Wylley; History of the 15th Hussars 1759-1913 (London 1914), 271.

. See in particular B Reay, “The Last Rising of the Agricultural Labourer,” History Workshop, 26, (Autumn 1988) for Bosenden Wood and D Jones, The Last Rising (Oxford 1985) for Newport.

. PH Dalbiac; History of the 1st Nottingham and Sherwood Foresters (London 1902, 138.

. Ibid, 138.

. Ibid, 143.

. United Service Gazette, 20th April 1839.

. I Wilks; South Wales and the Rising of 1839 (London 1984), 150-151.

. Jones, op. cit., 200.


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