Sea Fencibles

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The original Sea Fencibles (Fencible being a noun formed from the adjective fencible, a shortened form of defencible), were a naval militia established to provide a close-in line of defence to protect the United Kingdom from invasion by France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Britain's defence rested on two lines: a blockade of French ports provided the first, forward line of defence, and the Sea Fencibles and Martello towers provided the second, coastal, line of defence. The Sea Fencibles lasted from 1798 to its disbandment in 1810, with a break of a few years after the Treaty of Amiens. Later, other countries, including the United States, copied the idea.

United Kingdom[edit]

Sea Fencibles
Active 1798–1810
Country United Kingdom
Branch Royal Navy
Role Coastal defence
Size 20,000 men

The Sea Fencibles were formed in early 1798 by order of the Admiralty to act as an anti-invasion force in coastal waters. The Sea Fencibles consisted of volunteers, usually fishermen and local residents along the coast, under the command of serving or retired naval officers. The Sea Fencibles served as a coast guard, performing coastal patrol and manning coastal signal stations and small boats. During the Peace of Amiens in 1802–1803 the organization was disbanded, but on the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars it was quickly reformed and expanded. By the end of 1803 Sea Fencible units were re-established from Portsmouth all the way to St Abb's Head in Scotland. The Sea Fencibles were finally disbanded in 1810 after the threat of French invasion had passed.

Origin and organization[edit]

Admiral Sir Home Popham, while in Flanders, in November 1793 formed a marine militia using local fishermen. He initially recruited them to man gunboats, but they also distinguished them selves in the defence of Nieuport during the second siege.[1][2] In 1798, when a French invasion of Britain appeared imminent, Popham recommended that the Admiralty create a similar body.[2][3]

An Order in Council dated 14 May 1798 established the Sea Fencibles "For the protection of the coast, either on shore or afloat; comprising all fishermen and other persons occupied in the ports, and on the coast, who, from their occupations are to be unpressed." An admiral was appointed Director of Sea Fencibles England, Scotland and Wales. The Sea Fencibles organisation was divided into some 36 districts for England, Scotland, and Wales. Each district covered a stretch of coast and was under the command of a Post-Captain, assisted by three to six Lieutenants, depending on the size of his command. A senior Post-Captain of a district received £1 15s a day (equivalent to £126 today), junior Post-Captains received £1 10s (equivalent to £108 today), and Lieutenants 8s 6d (equivalent to £31 today). Petty Officers received 2s 6d (equivalent to £9 today) for each day they assembled, while Ordinary Seamen received 1 shilling and provisions (food and drink), or 2 shillings if no provisions were available (equivalent to £4 and £7 today).[4] Sea Fencibles were also eligible to receive prize and salvage money. For example, on 13 June 1805 the sixth-rate frigate Vestal and the Sea Fencibles recaptured the Industry, off Hastings, and shared the subsequent salvage money.[5]

The volunteers were trained in the use of arms and manned watch and signal towers, and fixed and floating batteries along the coasts and ports. They also operated a fleet of gunboats. A member of the Sea Fencibles would spend one day a week training. They were also allowed to choose their own Petty Officers at the rate of one per 25 men. Most importantly, all Sea Fencibles received a certificate that exempted them from impressment into the Navy. The Treasury argued that the exemption from impressment was the principal reason smugglers joined as impressment was a common punishment for smuggling.[6]

The Sea Fencibles' fleet consisted of small vessels such as colliers and coasting vessels such as hoys adapted to serve as gunboats. The owners were expected to pay for the fitting of slides, ring and eye bolts for the installation of guns, usually two forward and two aft, and in smaller craft to fit sweeps for use in calms. The Admiralty provided guns, ammunition and powder, and it required the ship owners to keep close and regular accounts of their use. The owners were under orders to co-operate with the Royal Navy, and they were entitled to payment of compensation, according to the size of their ships and the amount of time they were required.

For instance, on 28 September 1804 the Navy held a meeting with the owners of 16 hoys at Margate. The Navy then hired the vessels for the defence of the coast. The Navy manned each vessel with a regular Navy man as master and nine men from the Sea Fencibles.[7]

When the Sea Fencibles were re-established in 1803 after the resumption of war with France, the Admiralty set them the task of surveying the coastline within their districts to determine where the enemy might be able to land, together with remarks about the condition of the winds, surf and tide there. Equally, they were to determine which stretches of coast were less vulnerable to landings. Lastly, they were to survey the creeks and rivers within their districts.

In February 1810, when it became clear that the threat of invasion by Bonaparte had passed, the Sea Fencibles, which by then had hit a peak strength of 23,455 men, were disbanded.

Active duty[edit]

There are a few accounts of Sea Fencibles actually being called out to engage with the enemy. However, the vessels and boats employed the Sea Fencibles used received letters of marque, which entitled their crews to take prizes and share in the proceeds.

On 13 November 1798 a French privateer appeared off Hastings. Captain E.H. Columbine of the Sea Fencibles put a number of his men on the cutter Lion, offered by a Mr. Wexham, and set out after the French vessel. They caught up with their quarry after a chase and captured her after "a little firing" that resulted in the death of one Frenchman. The privateer was the Success, of Cherbourg, Nicholas Dubois, master, with four guns and 24 men. She had been out four days without making any captures. Captain Columbine remarked on the "zeal and readiness" of the Hastings men.[8]

A second case occurred on 9 January 1799. The next day Captain Edward Buller, commander of the Sea Fencibles along the coast of Devon, reported that on the previous day, the brig Susannah had left Dartmouth only to fall prey to the French 14-gun privateer Heureux Speculateur. The Brixham Sea Fencibles. seeing this take place, took a boat, and armed only with muskets and pikes, succeeded in recapturing the Susannah and her prize crew. Lieutenant Nicholas, with the assistance of Revenue Collector Brooking, who provided small arms and a boat, took another detachment of Sea Fencibles and, accompanied by a boat from the cutter HMS Nimble, set off, unsuccessfully, to capture the privateer.[9]

On 11 March of the same year the Margate Sea Fencibles were somewhat more successful. When a small cutter was observed boarding two brigs eight or nine miles from the North Foreland, 40 or 50 Sea Fencibles pushed off in three boats and recaptured the two brigs, the privateer having made off.[10]

Another case occurred on 13 June 1804. HM hired armed cutter Princess Augusta, under the command of Lieutenant John Tracey, encountered a 14-gun French privateer off Huntcliff.[11] During the engagement, which lasted nearly four hours, the Princess Augusta took several shot near the water line and sustained extensive damage to her rigging. Still, she suffered only three men wounded, though one desperately. The French vessel sheered off on the approach of two schooners manned with Sea Fencibles from Redcar.[11] The French privateer reportedly was under the command of a notorious pirate with the name "Blackman".[12]

Lastly, as mentioned earlier, Vestal and the Hastings Sea Fencibles recaptured the ship Industry.

The Sea Fencibles also acted as a coastguard or lifeboat service. When HMS Brazen wrecked in 1800, the Sea Fencibles attempted a rescue. Similarly, in January 1809, when HMS Pigeon was wrecked at Kingsgate, near Margate, the Sea Fencibles helped rescue the survivors.

Notable Sea Fencibles[edit]

Several naval officers spent some time as a Sea Fencible. Service with the Sea Fencibles was preferable to being unemployed and on half-pay.

After the formation of the Sea Fencibles, Home Popham himself was appointed to head up the district from Beachy Head to Deal.[1]

One notable Sea Fencible was Francis Austen, the brother of the novelist Jane Austen. On the renewal of war with France after the brief peace of the Treaty of Amiens, he was appointed to raise and organise a corps of Sea Fencibles to defend a strip of the Kentish coast. He subsequently married a local Ramsgate girl, Mary Gibson. The assignment was a temporary one and he went on to serve at sea again, eventually rising to the rank of admiral.

River Fencibles[edit]

In 1798 watermen and other groups of river tradesmen on the River Thames voluntarily formed associations of River Fencibles. Officially established in 1803 as "Corps of River Fencibles of the City of London", by 1804 they had uniformed commissioned officers in command.

Members of the Corps escorted the barge carrying the body of Lord Nelson along the Thames in small boats during his state funeral in 1806.

In 1807 River Fencibles sailed to Copenhagen to help bring back some of the Danish vessels captured there after the second Battle of Copenhagen. The Greenwich River Fencibles consisted of a commandant, three captains, six lieutenants, 24 masters, 24 mates, and 157 gunners and privates. The Government provide pikes, but nothing else, so the men defrayed their own expenses. The Greenwich River Fencibles sent two officers and 126 men to Copenhagen.

The City of London, Loyal Greenwich, and Royal Harbour River Fencibles also contributed men to the Walcheren expedition in 1809.[13] The Greenwich River Fencibles alone sent two officers and 130 men on the Walcheren expedition, two of whom were killed.[14] In all, about 300 Fencibles volunteered to serve at Copenhagen and about the same number served on the Walcheren Expedition.[15]

The Corps was disbanded in 1813.[16]

Irish Sea Fencibles[edit]

At the same time as they were building Martello towers and establishing Sea Fencibles on the British coasts, the British were doing the same on the Irish coasts.[17] There were some 20 Sea Fencible districts, though the number of men and boats per district varied widely. The British also were concerned about the reliability of the Irish Sea Fencibles, especially given Robert Emmet's insurrection in Dublin in 1803.

In 1804, the Sea Fencibles had some 28 gun vessels of various sorts - a brig, three galliots, and the rest sloops. Generally these carried two 18-pounder guns and two 18-pounder carronades. The owners usually provided a crew consisting of four men and a boy, with the plan that Sea Fencibles would augment this cadre when the vessels had to put out to sea.[17]

United States Sea Fencibles[edit]

Certificate of membership of Boston Sea Fencibles dated 1819. Preserved in the United States Marine Corps Archive.


United States Sea Fencibles
Active 1813–1815
Country United States
Branch United States Navy
Role Coastal defence
Size c. 1,000 men
"... within the five cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Norfolk, there are a large number of seafaring men, who from their hardihood and habits of life, might be very useful in the defense of the seaboard, particularly in the management of the great guns...."
(Report, U.S. Senate Naval Affairs Committee, June 1813)

On July 26, 1813, during the War of 1812 with the United Kingdom, the United States Congress passed "An act to authorize the raising [of] a Corps of Sea Fencibles ... not to exceed one year [service], and not to exceed ten companies who may employed for the defense of the ports and harbors of the United States..."

At Baltimore, two companies were raised under the command of Captains Matthew S. Bunbury and William H. Addison. Though generally mariners by trade, the Sea Fencibles were equipped and organized under the authority of the War Department. Officers received the uniform, pay, and rations of the Army, while the balance of each company (boatswains, gunners, and privates) received the uniform, pay, and rations of the Navy.

A company consisted of 107 officers and enlisted men.

No. Rank Pay
1 Captain $40
1 First Lieutenant $30
1 Second Lieutenant $25
1 Third Lieutenant $23
1 Boatswain $20
6 Gunners $20
6 Quarter-gunners $18
90 Privates $12

Both companies at Fort McHenry were considered part of the regular garrison. Records indicate that Captain Bunbury's company was quartered at Fort McHenry, while Addison's men were quartered at Fort Covington. Their duties consisted of manning the barges, maintaining the chain-mast boom, providing guard duty, and manning the great guns of Fort McHenry's water batteries. On March 3, 1815, Congress repealed the act establishing the Corps of Sea Fencibles.

Civil War[edit]

There were sea fencibles in the Confederate Army in Charleston. John Symon started a unit known as 'Symon's Sea Fencibles,' which was a land based unit used for coastal surveillance. There is no record of this unit ever fighting, but it is assumed they later joined other Confederate units after dissolving. They would most likely have worn civilian clothing. Surprisingly, the group had a Hispanic officer, which was not characteristic of most Confederate units. Many of the Fencibles were disgruntled because they wanted the $15 pay offered by the Union Navy, but only received the $11 pay of the Confederates. Thus, by the end of 1861, the unit was disbanded. These fencibles later joined other local units.


There were Sea Fencible units attached to the battalions of St. John, Charlotte and Northumberland counties in New Brunswick during the War of 1812 to protect port facilities in the colony. They were raised among seafaring men in coastal communities and seem to have all disbanded after the war.

From 1833 to 1867, there was a unit of Saint John Sea Fencibles that functioned primarily as an artillery unit. Its officers and men wore naval uniforms.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Popham (1991), pp.55-6.
  2. ^ a b Naval Chronicle, Vol. 1, p.380.
  3. ^ National Maritime Museum - "Who were the Sea Fencibles?"
  4. ^ "Sea Fencibles Pay Lists ADM28". National Archives. 
  5. ^ The London Gazette: no. 15908. pp. 453–454. 8 April 1806.
  6. ^ Daly (2007), p.44.
  7. ^ The Naval Chronicle, Volume 12, p.329.
  8. ^ The London Gazette: no. 15080. p. 1085. 13 November 1798.
  9. ^ The London Gazette: no. 15114. p. 229. 9 March 1799.
  10. ^ The London Gazette: no. 15097. p. 37. 29 December 1807.
  11. ^ a b Naval Chronicle, (Jul-Dec 1805) Vol. 12, p.51.
  12. ^ Suffolk notes from the year 1729. Compiled from the files of the "Ipswich Journal" (1883), p.155.
  13. ^ The London Gazette: no. 16650. pp. 1971–1792. 26 September 1812.
  14. ^ Richardson (1834), p. 23.
  15. ^ Great Britain, House of Commons Papers, Vol. 23, p.79.
  16. ^ Records of the Corps of River Fencibles of the City of London : City of London Library
  17. ^ a b Kerrigan (1980), pp.188-191.


  • Daly, Gavin (2007). "English Smugglers, the Channel, and the Napoleonic Wars, 1800-1814". Journal of British Studies 46 (1): 30–46. doi:10.1086/508397. 
  • Kerrigan, P. M. (1980). "Gunboats and sea fencibles in Ireland, 1804". The Irish Sword 14 (2): 188–191. 
  • Popham, Hugh (1991) A Damned Cunning Fellow: The Eventful Life of Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham, KCB, KCH, KM, FRS, 1762-1820. (Old Ferry Press).ISBN 978-0951675809
  • Richardson, Henry S. (1834). Greenwich: its history, antiquities, improvements, and public buildings. Simpkin & Marshall. 

External links[edit]