uring the French Revolutionary Wars, fears of foreign invasion spread across the British Isles. However, rather than relying solely upon the government to ward off unwanted visitors, some wealthy individuals took it upon themselves to raise their own militia, leaving behind some meticulous records to explore.
One example survives on the Isle of Man, as Wendy Thirkettle from the Manx National Heritage Library and Archives explains.
Which document have you chosen?
My choice is a list from August 1799 that details, by rank, the men amassed in the Castletown division of a volunteer troop of cavalry. It was written by Captain George Quayle (1757-1835), a wealthy Manxman who lived at Bridge House, Castletown, Isle of Man.
George was a banker, politician, innovator, flax mill owner and the man responsible for raising this volunteer troop.
As well as personal details about the men, including physical descriptions, Quayle’s list records the colour and size (in hands) of each man’s horse or pony. One of Quayle’s younger brothers Basil is included with his chestnut pony.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
Quayle’s list provides details for more than 40 Castletown men. Taken with other contemporary resources, it helps to flesh out who served in this cavalry troop at all ranks and how they prepared, as well as revealing the ‘zeitgeist’ and fear of invasion from France during the Napoleonic Wars.
Across the British Isles at this time, wealthy patriotic gentlemen were raising military formations like this, for the defence of the realm. Many were short-lived and information about them tends to be sparse. In this instance not only do we have surviving elements of the uniform Quayle wore as the commanding officer of this yeomanry unit but also records that he kept about the men who served under him. Quayle equipped them almost entirely out of his own pocket – the men provided the horses, the government supplied firearms and swords but Quayle paid for uniforms and accoutrements.
The effectiveness of the men as soldiers was somewhat compromised. During the herring season of 1801 it was suggested the men exercise before or after divine service to avoid a day away from the fishing. They simply could not afford to be away from their work in order to drill and train. Perhaps Quayle found this frustrating as, with the Peace of Amiens (March 1802), unlike other Manx officers, he declined a request to continue to serve with the dragoons and hung up his spurs.
George’s wider interest in military affairs is well documented. During the American Revolutionary War, he held a commission as a company commander in a local Manx fencible infantry regiment, raised for the defence of the island. We know he bought military treatises, shopped for uniforms, guns and ammunition when in London and received and exchanged plentiful news with a younger brother John (an officer in the Royal Artillery and gifted letter writer who was posted to Jamaica, Gibraltar, Ceylon and India).
However, it is noteworthy that George’s experiences were not all second-hand. In 1778, during a spell working in Smyrna (Izmir in present-day Turkey), George witnessed the aftermath of an earthquake.
He saw the resulting widespread fires – assisted by arson – looting and breakdown of law and order. His brother John wrote with news to their mother that George was safe, although very frightened.
Why did you choose the document?
The list is fascinating in its own right, provides a pointer to the assorted other military records we hold (including Royal Manx Fencibles) and helps illustrate George Quayle’s military preoccupations.
I also wished to draw attention to the archival resource to which it belongs, the Quayle Bridge House Papers.
As well as official records, these contain several generations