Background to the Militia and the Irish Rebellion of 1798

© Compiled by Michael Russell OPC for Dorchester July 2015

For some time there had been a fear of invasion from France and the Militia were mobilized across the country but based along the south coast. Each parish had to supply able bodied men and raise extra rates to support the war effort for as long as there was an emergency. The barracks for the Dorset Militia was based in West Fordington and this led to many marriages of soldiers to locals girls both in Fordington, Dorchester and the surrounding area.
    From Anglo Saxon times there had been an obligation on every grown male to defend his country, or at least his county. From 1558 these men had been divided into ten groups. Those with an income of £5-£10 per year had to have a coat of plated armour, a steel cap, a longbow with arrows, and either a bill or a halberd. Men with an  annual income of £10-£20 per year had to find the same but with a harquebus [type of early gun on tripod] instead of a bill or halberd, and a morion [helmet] instead of a cap. Additional Armour had to be supplied by the gentry, and the scale of requirements went right up to the men worth £1,000 per year or more. They were required to supply 16 horses, 80 suits of light armour, 40 pikes, 30 longbows, 20 bills or halberds, 20 harquebuses and 50 steel caps or helmets.
In 1798 the danger of invasion from France led to an increase in the size and organisation of the Militia. With the advent of firearms it was realised that many of the privately owned weapons required different sizes of ammunition, which made provisioning impossible. It was therefore gradually reorganised and equipment standardised. The cavalry units were then to be known as Yeomanry to distinguish them from the infantry which were still called the Militia. 

I know a little about the local Militia's role in these proceedings at this time as a distant relation of mine, a Thomas CHRISTOPHER (1763-1827) (1) was directly involved. Thomas was born in 1763 of a family born and bred in the parish of Fordington. He married however in Melcombe Regis in 1792 and gained settlement for his family in the Parish of Poole where he was employed as a labourer. The threat of Invasion by 1797 was so acute that a large number of additional men were called up for service and these of course all had to be trained on a regular basis in the use of weapons etc. There was suddenly therefore a lot more individuals, particularly traders, who having been called up were prepared to pay for someone else to take their place. The local Justices of the Peace were happy to allow substitues because a labourer used to heavy work in the fields for example was often worth more in a pitched battle than a shopkeeper, and this also meant that businesses in the town continued to function. For many years the practice of substitution had been in operation and a typical fee paid was around £10, a lot of money to a labourer.(2)

Thomas was not selected for his parish of Poole and this freed him to volumteer as a substitute. He was accepted in place of a man called Robert HOSKINGS [Hoskins] from Portland who had been called (3) and the churchwarden Accounts for Fordington clearly show that Thomas joined the Dorset Militia on 19 Mar 1798, and the parish paid 3 shillings a week to his wife and 2 surviving children whilst Thomas underwent training. Thomas was one of nine men listed as standing in for local residents and the money paid to his wife and children by the parish would therefore have been collected from Robert Hoskins who was then excused service.

Below, in the next section, is the transcription of a document showing that Nathaniel STICKLAND (1770-1829) the son of the wealthy attorney Robert STICKLAND (1744-1804) was made Captain of the Dorset Militia in May 1798.
1,100 French Soldiers Land in Ireland - 22nd August 1798

On 22 August 1798 a force of 1,100 French soldiers landed in County Mayo to support a rebellion in Ireland by the United Irishmen. The Churchwarden accounts for Fordington also record that the Dorset Militia including Thomas were embarked for Ireland on 31 August 1798. There is a report in the Times newspaper for the 1st September 1798:-

  • Times 1st September 1798 - Portsmouth August 30th arrived His Majesties frigate ARETHUSA of 44 guns from the coast of France (4) . Sailed for Southampton river to take on board the Dorset and Devon Militia Regiments in order to transport them to Ireland in consequence of the invasion of the French there.

Luckily for Nathaniel Stickland and Thomas Christopher they were still in transit when a decisive battle took place at Ballinamuck in County Longford and the French surrendered to become prisoners of war. Over 500 Irish were slain but another 1,000 escaped although there were reports of rebels being hanged in towns, which included Carrick on Shannon.

Fortunately the diary of a James Ryan who was a land surveyor and present in Carrick in 1798 has survived and is held in the Waterford County Museum. This records that the Dorset Militia arrived on 12th September 1798 and remained there until Michaelmas day [i.e. September 29th]. One of their tasks appears to have been to search Carrick for arms but they only appear to have located rusty old guns and swords. They were despatched to Fermoy and Kerrick, which are North of Cork, but were back in Carrick on Shannon by 22nd October.

For some time there were local uprisings or disturbances but only one is recorded involving the Dorset Militia and that was at Coolnamuck where a number of prisoners had been taken. Intelligence having been received that there was going to be trouble a Mr Jephson preceded with a force of Yeomen [cavalry] assisted by the Dorset Militia to Coolnamuck and took into custody seven persons on 6th September 1799. That night about 300 people assembled and during the ensuing disturbances another nine were taken into custody.

Return of the Dorset Militia - October 1799

Things generally quietened down however and there was no longer a need for such large numbers [approx 100,000] so a lot of the Militia including the Devon and Dorset contingents returned to England in 1799. The Churchwarden accounts show that Thomas Christopher returned to Fordington and was discharged from the Militia on 1st November 1799.

All this time Thomas's wife Elizabeth had been receiving 3/- a week but with the insurrection under control and the Militia disbanded the obligation on ratepayers to pay ceased. With such large numbers of men returning to England there was insufficient work locally so Thomas and his family sought support from Fordington Overseers. You could only claim poor relief however if your place of settlement was within the parish so the churchwardens formally examined Thomas and the result of their deliberations were recorded. They concluded that Thomas’s last place of settlement was still Poole so a removal order was issued on 20 Dec 1800 returning him and his family to that parish (the removal order specifically mentions Elizabeth his wife and children Ann aged 7 and James aged 5’ there is no mention of their son Thomas so I have to assume he died an infant). There are two final entries in the Fordington Churchwarden accounts. One for relief paid to the family between 5th to 21st December amounting to 14s and 6d and expenses for the churchwarden taking Thomas and his family to Poole, which amounted to £3. 3s. 0d.

I have included this account because what happened to Thomas was fairly typical of the time
Genealogical Notes:-

(1). Thomas CHRISTOPHER (1763-1827) was baptised at St Georges Church in Fordington on 23rd Oct 1763 the son of James CHRISTOPHER (1732-1818) by his wife Olive (Holloway) nee STONE. He married Elizabeth Knight FURBAGE (1764-1850) at Melcombe Regis on 26th Feb 1792 and they had three children Thomas (1793-1797) Ann (1794-1854) and James (1795-1866)

(2). Thomas's uncle John CHRISTOPHER (1734-1804) had volunteered to be a substitute in 1761 and was paid £10 - rates do not appear to have chaged much in the next 37 years

(3). The fact that he was a substitute for Robert HOSKINGS [Hoskins] of Portland is recorded in the Fordington St Georges Church Overseers of the Poor Accounts (on image 538) Robert HOSKINS was buried at Portland 14 Nov 1811.

(4). The Times London 1798 (1) August 10th: Arethusa sailed this evening to blockade the port of Havre: (2) September 1st Portsmouth Aug 30th 'Arrived his majesty's frigate Arethusa of 44 gunes from the coast of France. Sailed from Southampton River to take on board the Dorset and Devon Militia Regiments in order to transport them to Ireland in consequence of the invasion of the French there -- Also for Portsmouth to take on board the troops likewise for Ireland the Haarlem of 64 guns; the Experiment of 44 guns and the Druid of 32 guns. (3) October 4th 'The Dorset Regiment we understand also marched from Carrick yesterdaymorning for the County of Kilkenny --- when they arrived they received orders to march to Thomastown. The most feasible reason seems to us that they are destined to guard the passes from the County Wicklow into the adjoining Counties to prevent any of Holt's rebel gang from escaping the vigilance of the military now scouring the mountains in pursuit of them'

(Images 1328-1331 & 1338 File Dorset England Militia Lists 1757-1860)
Nathaniel STICKLAND Esq Qualification to be a Captain - Signed by William BURNETT Esq Clerk of the Peace Sherborne Dorset

I Nathaniel STICKLAND do hereby declare that I am Heir Apparent of Robert STICKLAND of Dorchester in the County of Dorset Esquire and that I am seized or possessed either in Law or equity to and for my own use and benefit -- consisting of 'Lands Tenements and Hereditaments as doth qualify me to act as Captain in the Militia of the said County of Dorset and town and county of Poole according to the directions of the Act of Parliament made and passed in the twenty sixth year of the Reign of his present Majesty King George the Third entitled "An Act for amending and reducing into an Act of Parliament the Laws relating to the Militia in that part of Great Britain called England.

And that such premises are situate lying and being in the Parishes of All Saints, Saint Peters and the Holy Trinity in the Borough of Dorchester and in Orchard, Farringdon, Buckland, Newton, mayne, Maiden Newton, and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in the said County of Dorset.

Witness may Hand this twenty fourth day of May 1798.

Signed: Nat: STICKLAND

I, the above named Robert STICKLAND, do hereby declare that I am seized and possessed of Lands Tenements and Hereditaments situate in thye above mentioned parishes as doth qualify the said Nathaniel STICKLAND my eldest son and heir Apparent to act as a Captain in the Militia of the said County of Dorset.

Signed: Robert STICKLAND

To the Clerk of the Peace of the said County of Dorset

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