The Sea Fencibles were a British naval militia, mostly volunteers, that was formed in 1793 to act as an anti-invasion force in coastal waters.
The Sea Fencibles were active during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). They were usually fishermen or local residents along the coast, under the command of retired or serving naval officers.
Who Created Sea Fencibles?
They were the brainchild of Admiral Sir Home Popham (1762-1820), who, while in Flanders in 1793, organised a group of local fishermen into a martime militia to defend their coast. Proving successful, he suggested that Britain form its own similar militia, to defend the English and Welsh coastline from French invasion.
What did Sea Fencibles do?
Most Sea Fencibles were volunteers - much like the British Home Guard during the Second World War (1939-1945). In the event of an alarm, the men would head to a rendezvous point and then go on to patrol a specific length of coast. They would also assist with coastal signal stations, man small boats and act as a lifeboat service. They were trained in the use of the canon and pike, and it was hoped they would provide some of the men needed for the line of Martello towers being built along the south coast.
The Sea Fencibles never engaged in active duty, although there are a few accounts of them helping to fight off lone French vessels near the English coastline. They were disbanded at the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815.
How were Sea Fencibles recruited?
The Sea Fencibles were recruited from volunteers in coastal areas. It paid 1shilling per day, but the main incentive was immunity from service in both the militia and from the press gang. Unsurprisingly, there was no problem getting volunteers. There was also no shortage of potential officers. The Royal Navy produced more officers than it could easily use, especially with no concept of retirement. This meant that there was a ready supply of lieutenants, used to command the Fencibles in individual towns, and captains, who commanded entire districts.
How were the Sea Fencibles viewed?
Naval Opinion was split over the usefulness of the fencibles. Captain Schomberg, commanding the Dungeness Fencibles, considered his men to be smugglers and wreckers. In fact, many were fishermen or bargemen, including some who normally worked on the rivers. In contrast, Lord Nelson, who had command of a force of sea fencibles when he had command of the coastal defences, thought that they could play an important role if the invasion came.
Welsh Sea Fencibles
A battery was in place on Mumbles Hill by 1803, but now, with escalating threats of invasion from the French under Napoleon, The Cambrian of 28 January 1804 reported that at a meeting of Swansea Merchants and Ship-owners, it had been decided to 'at their own expense, purchase four brass six-pounders with their carriages and proper appendages, to be placed upon the hill commanding the harbour o Swansea....to be under the care of the Commander of the Sea Fencibles and exercised by a sufficient number of his gunners.'
The guns which were cast in Woolwich at a cost of £296..13s were used when a Royal gun salute resounded from the hill in June 1804 on the occasion of the birthday of King George III and the following January for that of Queen Charlotte. However shortly afterwards, the Board of Ordances invited tenders for the removal of its stores that same summer and in the autumn of 1805, for the removal of the guns.
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