Napoleonic Wars and Essex

The Napoleonic wars started in 1793 and lasted with a short break until Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo.

The initial action for Essex was to supply men to the Army and Navy. Recruitment was brisk for the Navy thanks to the press gang and to the Army via the famous 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot  who were to have glory at Salamanca and capture a Imperial  Eagle from the French 62nd Infantry.  

The 44th East Essex and the 56th West Essex took part in the wars..

The 2nd/ 44th further distinguished themselves at Waterloo by withstanding a charge from French lancers in line rather than the normal square at Quatre Bras and thus critically delaying Napoleon

The war in East Essex

By 1796 Napoleon was winning battle after battle and there were real fears that an invasion would be mounted.

Potential invasion sited were identified in Kent and Essex and a defence organised.

Sir Henry Bate Dudley was also put in charge of the defence of the central Essex coastline which was a prime site for a landing.

The first move was of benefit to the area in that the main road from Chelmsford into the Dengie Hundred area was improved to ensure that troops could speedily access the Essex Coast should they be needed for defence.

A roll was taken of all who could serve and a Militia raised by ballot . Some reluctant residents selected in the ballot to be members of the Militia chose to pay the wife of another resident to serve in their place.

Initially the force was poorly equipped with the weapons of the majority wildfowling guns, axes, bill hooks or pitchforks.

In November 1796 the defences were tested after false reports that the french had landed on the Dengie marshes. Light Artillery and cavalry units were sent to the area to patrol from Bradwell to Burnham prepared to repulse the invaders. 

In 1797 Each landowner with more than 10 horses was required to provide 1 mounted soldier to form a local cavalry unit which mustered regularly with over 40 riders.

A review of the livestock, horses, carts and weapons including 'swords, pistols, firelocks and pitch forks' was also carried out in 1798 .

The return for Eastern Essex indicated that the area could provide 209 wagons with 4 horses, 37 carts with 3 horses, 63 carts with 2 horses , 7 sacks of flour per day and access to 182 ovens. Interestingly the records shows that there were no mills active in this area in 1798.

To  deprive the French of food a plan was devised to gather up and drive all cattle out of the country should an invasion occur .

Sea Fencibles

Sea Fencibles were based at Bradwell on Sea and Burnham on Crouch plus 15 other bases in Essex. 92 men were stationed at Burnham and 26 were stationed at Bradwell on sea.

The  Gun boat Dixmude was based at Bradwell and the gunboat Ostend was stationed a Burnham.

Two small 24 punder guns were stationed on the Crouch Riverbank opposite the River Roach to allow control of both rivers.


New technology took root in this area with the deployment of  the new semaphore telegraph stations.

Communications were considered vital in the defence of the country to alert commanders and allow infantry, militia of war ships to be deployed quickly to respond to any threat from single vessels or invading armies.

Initially signaling stations were deployed at 12 sites on the Essex coast which included the small tower at St Peter's Chapel, Bradwell on Sea and another at Tillingham Grange.

The signal towers were manned by a Lieutenant, a midshipman and two seamen who lived in accommodation normally built into the signal towers.

By 1800 the signaling station at St Peter's had been replaced by a mechanical semaphore.

Reorganisation of the defence

On 5 August  1798 as part of the defence plan the Gun Boat Wasp commanded by Lt Keppel was stationed in the River Crouch and a new gun brig called Acute commanded by Lt Seaver was stationed in the River Blackwater. The Acute mounted ten 18 pound and two 32 pound caronades.

In June 1801 , General Balfour who was commanding the Eastern District of England conducted a survey of the Blackwater Estuary.  As a result of this survey  guns were sited at various points along the banks with a concentration at St Lawrence Bay. Arrangements were made to establish depots at Chelmsford where provisions of food and munitions could be held for use if an invasion was mounted.

Viscount Keith was appointed Commander in Chief of the North Sea and English Channel engaged  in overlooking the measures taken to meet a threatened invasion.

By 1803 the marine defence had been doubled to two brigs and two gun boats.

Letters between Viscount Keith and the Admiralty in 1803 help us to understand the way that the threat was dealt with.

Viscount Keith

June 16 1803

Sir, Be pleased to acquaint their Lordships that judging it of importance that a quick mode of communication should be established between the troops stationed in the counties of Kent and Essex I yesterday took an opportunity of visiting some parts of the latter county and take the liberty of communicating to their Lordships the results of the observations that I made.

I found that at Prittlewell church either by telegraph or by common signal intelligence may be conveyed across the mouth of the Thames to this place. That the most eligible place to erect the next signal station in the direction to Colchester seems to be a hill about five miles on this side of Maldon called Latchington, which is clear of wood and distinctly seen from Prittlewell churchyard and by much the most elevated land for many miles around. This station is very centrical (sic). Danberry hill, by far the highest of the country, is distinctly seen from it and by that means communication could be had with Chelmsford; and as Maldon is only few miles off and much lower there can be no doubt of the chain being carried on through that place to Colchester, though it is probable that a better situation might be found on some high ground on the way to the latter place without touching the former. This might be done at small expense as most of the signals could be hoisted from the churchyard to poles projecting from the steeples, particularly at Prittlewell.


I am further encouraged to think that from Latchington by Bradwell Landguard, Hoseley, Orfordness etc. the communication might be extended to Yarmouth, but I have not yet examined that line. I have &c.

August 4 1803

Be pleased to acquaint their Lordships that having made an appointment to meet Lt. General Sir James Craig at Colchester on the first inst. I proceeded thither accordingly and took the opportunity of visiting the rivers Crouch and Blackwater and likewise Harwich, Hoseley Bay, Goldersmere's Gatt and the Wallet, and trusting their Lordships will forgive my communication to them some observations that I made upon these places I beg leave to trouble them with the following remarks.

The Crouch is deep, though of such difficult access that it seems needless to place an active ship there; but I am of opinion that a dogger, galliot or other flat vessel fitted to carry two or more long heavy guns, manned with an officer and 12 people might very properly be employed in defending the bar, on board which the Sea Fencibles might rendezvous and where the ammunition of any row boats could be preserved. Such boats should be strongly constructed, something like the dockyard launches, carry a long gun and be manned by the Sea Fencibles or the inhabitants generally, who are mostly fishermen or smugglers and among whom I was glad to hear that the propriety of applying for some such means of defence was in agitation before I arrived there.

At Maldon I met with Captain Beaver, commanding the Sea Fencibles at that place, who coincided with me in opinion that a similar provision for defence would be applicable to the Backwater, the mouth of which is protected by the Wallet. The Colne is exactly under the same circumstances. At Harwich a vessel placed just within the Alde and some stout boats of the description above mentioned could be most advantageously employed, and serve to cover the Naze sand and even the Wallet, a tract of which I am more jealous than any other that I have seen upon the coast. I communicated my ideas to Sir James Craig who did me the honour of coinciding in opinion with me.

October 21 1803

Aware of the extent of the demands that must be daily made upon you for naval defence, I am exceedingly loath that they should be increased from in this quarter, but one consideration presses much upon me that I cannot refrain from entreating your attention to it. We have at present a gunbrig and one gunboat in the mouth of the Blackwater. This is a point that I am exceedingly anxious to have secured, because if the enemy lands at Clacton beach, and while we are opposing him there, if he was to send a force of any magnitude up the river in question, to land upon either of its shores, I will not conceal from you that he would embarrass us considerably. The mouth of the river is near two miles over, in which extent there would be room for operations of such a number of gunboats as I fear would be more than a match for the four now there, while the tide of flood with which they must go up the river would render it impossible for the gunbrig, which is in the Colne, to be of any assistance. Another brig or vessel of that description in the Blackwater would set my mind much more at ease. If you have a leisure moment to let me know what you are doing and what you conceive the enemy is likely to do, you will very much oblige yours &c.

October 21 1803

A letter dealing with the invasion threat at various parts of the country

The Maplin and Buxey Sands secure the Burnham, Maldon and Colne waters against vessels but not against boats, for at times the latter can cross the sands, although it is attended with danger. The entrances of these rivers are intricate and easily defended. There is a vessel of war in each, but I am of opinion that the craft of the country should be armed to a certain extent for their better protection as has been done on the coast of Kent, and that they should be manned from the Sea Fencibles.