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Devon County

Devonshire Rgt.

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War Memorials


by Arthur Rodway


The Devon Volunteer Rifles (more correctly known as the 1st Exeter & South Devon Volunteers) were, as the name suggests, the first officially formed rifle brigade, set up to combat the threat of possible invasion by Louis Napoleon after his coup of 1851. A further role envisaged for them was to give Militia-type assistance in quelling the civil unrest taking place at this time, fermented by those urging political and social reform. The Chartist Riots of the 1830s 40s, although not as serious as the machine-breaking Luddite disturbances of 1811 - 1817, were the cause of tumultuous demonstrations and meetings. To police such outbreaks, the state had only imperfect resources and was completely dependant on the initiative of those who were actually on the spot. The burden of maintaining public order fell on local magistrates who were expected to act in person by mustering a sufficient force and sending it to the scene of the disorder. The existing civil forces available to the magistrates were a motley combination of local residents, special constabulary and so-called "armed associations" and were completely incapable of dealing with large scale disruptions.


In the 1840s, copying the example of London, a professional police force began to appear, but this was still not enough when confronted with serious problems of public disorder. The magistrates felt that they had only one recourse - that of using military force. There were sources of military assistance available from the regular army and the militia, the regulars bearing the brunt and calling upon the assistance of local militia for support. But this was a period when Victoria's Empire was expanding rapidly and if local trouble arose, the regular army was usually far away on the other side of the world.


The Chartist troubles of 1839 encouraged the government to suggest the formation of local voluntary organisations "for the protection of life and property", but at the time this idea failed to prosper - probably due to confusion and misunderstanding about what was being proposed. After 1848, the year of the last great Chartist meeting, the need for internal military assistance was deemed to have passed and an uneasy peace settled on Victorian Britain.


Never far away, however, was the threat of invasion by foreign enemies and it was this that created a new impetus for the formation of the Volunteers. At the time, Sir H. Hardinge reported that there was not a gun mounted between Portsmouth and Plymouth. Our military stores ( or all that remained after the general sale of stores which took place after the Battle of Waterloo) were in so low a condition that there were only fifty field pieces in the whole of England. The Duke of Wellington was roused to write to Sir John Burgoyne pointing out "the utterly defenceless state of our island". This led, in the early 1850s, to the government becoming more favourable disposed to the formation of volunteer corps. At the same time, there was encouragement for setting up a number of new rifle clubs with paramilitary features.


After Louis Napoleon's coup in 1851, offers of a volunteer nature were accepted by Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, from Cheltenham, Hull and the Sports Club at Peckham. On 17th January 1852, Dr. Charles Bucknill, at that time Superintendent of the Devon County Asylum at Exminster, called a few friends together and spoke to them of the excited state of the country and its scant means of defence, and declared his intention of attempting to raise a corps of Rifle Volunteers in South Devon for the defence of the coast.


On 20th March 1852, at Bridport, Henry Templar, a solicitor, convened a meeting which passed a resolution calling for "A volunteer corps to protect that part of the coast between Portland and the River Exe (presumed to be the area at greatest risk from invasion.)


Exeter Volunteers First Inspection
Exeter and South Devon First Volunteer Corp

The first inspection in the Castle Yard, Exeter - 6 October 1852


The new Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, was less enthusiastic than his predecessor, informing Templar that there was "no immediate necessity" for Volunteer Corps; however, on 26 March, due to outside pressure, Walpole did accept an offer resulting from a meeting, held at the Exeter Atheneum, on the danger to the Devon coast. A corps was formed, and, during the summer of 1852, met for drill in the Castle Yard at Exeter. At first the drills took place in plain clothes but soon a uniform was decided upon, and the first man to try it on was Mr. Henry Shaw of Baring Crescent, afterwards Surgeon to the Battalion. He owed the honour simply to the accident of growth, being a stout, well-built man of medium size. He was picked by Major Percival Brown as the fittest person to show the effect of the proposed dress, and being a good-natured man who could always take a joke, was ever afterwards known as "the pattern man".


The Oath of Allegiance was taken at Exeter on the first general muster in uniform on 6 October 1852 but it was some seven years before the Volunteer Movement would become a national institution. In these later years, Sidney Herbert, Secretary of State, and the Earl Ripon, his Under Secretary of State for War, made a significant contribution to the permanency of the Volunteer Movement. On 1 July 1859, it was announced that the government intended to issue 25 Long Enfield Rifles per 100 volunteers on condition that the corps undertook to provide a safe firing range for practice, secure custody for the arms, agreed to follow a set of approved Government rules and made themselves available for periodic military inspections. In the event of an actual invasion, the Government would be prepared to supply every corps with arms.


Drill Sergeants from the disbanded Militia should be provided for each Corps and these would be paid, not by the Government, but by the Corps itself. It was intended also to allow a limited number of members of the Corps, at their own expense, to attend the School of Musketry at Hythe. The Government likewise contemplated the formation of Artillery companies which would be supplied with instructions, guns and ammunition by the Royal Artillery.


On 13 July 1859, Herbert issued a circular confirming the arrangements and the conditions attached to them and this was sent to the Lieutenants of all the Counties of the United Kingdom. An accompanying memorandum dealt with formation, organisation, establishment and instruction. This outlined once more the provision for use "in all cases of actual invasion or appearance of an enemy on the coast of Great Britain, or a rebellion or insurrection arising or existing within the same, or during any invasion, but not otherwise, the service of the volunteer force will extend to any part of Great Britain".


It is now fashionable to be unduly cynical about motives of patriotism, and although there were, no doubt, other elements involved during this period, it cannot be denied that the predominant force behind the Volunteer Movement was patriotism and a strong sense of duty. The Volunteers became known as "the wonder of the age". A County Magistrate writing to The Times in 1857 testified:


"To the value of our corps in domestic disturbance. Before its formation, during a bread Riot, we had to send to Exeter for Military in aid of the Special Constables. On a similar occasion recently, it was quite sufficient to announce that the Rifles would assemble at the Town hall on the night on which disturbance was threatened, to swear in some members, and all was perfectly tranquil."


The Volunteer Movement eventually became the Territorial Army of today.



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