During the Napoleonic Wars (1790s to 1815), there was a real fear of a French invasion. The Admiralty adopted an idea put forward by one of their captains, Sir Home Popham, that a defence force be formed by recruiting local seamen and fishermen. These people would be familiar with the coastline of their locality and would have access to small vessels which could be used to stand firm against a naval attack, patrol the beaches and protect any Martello Towers that had been built. This force was to be called ‘The Corps of Sea Fencibles’. Some areas established Sea Fencible companies in 1798 but the Holyhead company wasn’t set up until 1804 (although the company Lieutenant was in post from October 1803 onwards).
There was a District Captain who had overall responsibility for a stretch of coast and, for north-west Wales, this was Captain R. Byron. Each sub-district was under the control of a Lieutenant and for Anglesey this was Lt. Owen Williams. He was responsible for recruiting and for establishing new Fencibles groups. There was a group in Beaumaris (made up of 17 men), a group in Rhoscolyn (made up of 11 men) and a group in Holyhead (which had 15 members in 1804 but this rose to 35 members by the end of 1805). Records of efforts to establish similar groups in Amlwch and Cemais have, unfortunately, not survived to the present day although a note from January 1806 does state that “Amlwch men’ had been employed to search for the anchor and chain of HMS Brisk.
The Holyhead contingent chose William Williams as their Petty Officer and he was paid two shillings and sixpence for every day when on parade or on exercise. Each of the ratings was paid one shilling for being present plus a guarantee that they could not be taken by the press gangs. The Sea Fencibles met once a week and the shilling was useful additional income. Interestingly, Lt. Owen Williams was paid £12.5.0d per month whilst Captain Byron was on a salary of £49 per month.
The original Holyhead crew were: William Williams (Petty Officer); Hugh Davies; Owen Williams; William Michael; John Rowland; George Martin; William Owens; John Ellis; Owen Hughes; William Rowland; John Watkins; Richard Hughes; Morris Jones; James Redfearn; Robert Lewis. Other names which appeared in later years were Robert Lloyd; Robert Jones; William Thompson and Francis Simpson. Except for William Williams, none could write their own names. Both John Macgregor Skinner and Sir John Thomas Stanley were involved in establishing the Holyhead unit and it is possible that the boathouse on the Penrhos estate was used as a base for storing equipment when the group were training.
It is also possible that the Holyhead Sea Fencibles played their part in the rescue efforts made when the ship ‘Andromeda’ went into difficulties off Holyhead in 1810. If so, this would be the first example of a lifeboat being used to try to save lives from vessels in distress. Except for this incident, there’s no record of the gallant Holyhead Sea Fencibles being involved in any action but it’s pleasant to imagine them sitting in one of the many taverns in Waterside with their clay pipes, their pewter tankards of Holyhead ale and their serge jackets, putting the world to rights and planning how brave they would be if a fleet of 50 French ‘men-of-war’ were to come around ‘the Head’ with all guns blazing.
By 1810, the threat of invasion had receded and so the Sea Fencibles were stood down and 35 Holyhead mariners were one shilling a week worse off. The story demonstrates, yet again, how the lives of the people of Holyhead have always been affected by the sea and how they’ve used their traditional nautical skills. And who can blame them for ‘taking the king’s shilling’ if it made life a little bit easier?
Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts and Dr Gareth Huws
Nicholas Rogers, ‘The Sea Fencibles, Loyalism and the Reach of the State’, in Mark Philip (ed.), Resisting Napoleon: The British Response to the threat of invasion, 1797-1815 (Ashgate, 2006).
National Archives Records of the Admiralty, Naval Forces, Royal Marines, Coastguards and related bodies, ‘Sea Fencibles Pay List, Holyhead and Anglesey, 1804-1810. ADM 28/100
Peter Scott Roberts, The Ancestry, Life and Times of Commander John Macregor Skinner R.N.” (Holyhead, 2006).
© Holyhead Maritime Museum
Another interesting historical and good research work
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An interesting glimpse of the past and a subject I was unaware of.
How involved was Holyhead in the war against France in this period?
You report that “Each of the ratings was paid one shilling for being present plus a guarantee that they could not be taken by the press gangs.” How active were the press gangs in Holyhead at this time?
Thank you for your very welcome response. Good to see that people are reading our entries on the blog. The real reason for establishing the Sea Fencibles was the fear of a French invasion. Three squadrons of French naval vessels had made their way for such an attack in 1797 – one was to attack the Tyneside area in England, one was to land at Bantry Bay in Ireland and the third was make landfall on the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales. A storm all but destroyed the first two squadrons and they returned to France. The landing was made in Wales but it was weak and ill-planned – many of the French sailors and soldiers got drunk and were seen off by the local militia. No further attempts at invasion were made.
There is no real evidence of Press Gang activity in Holyhead at this time. The ‘Impress’ was always strongest in Naval ports such as Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham where an appreciable number of sea-farers and ex-sea-farers tended to live. It is possible, however, that the occasional Man-of-War called in at Holyhead if their crew numbers were low because of illness or desertion. William Roberts of Bronddel, Rhoscolyn served on HMS Augusta and was described on his ‘signing-up’ papers as a ‘landsman’ which could suggest that he may have been ‘taken from the land’ to work aboard ship.
We hope this has been useful.