Issue 27: Mr Wickham’s Militia Memories

AND NOW A CHRISTMAS TREAT FOR OUR READERS - A WORD FROM MR WICKHAM.

Christmas, I have found, is frequently a time for reflection. Perhaps it is the promise of new beginnings, the company of one’s family and, of course, a generous tot of grog.

It is hardly for this old soldier to become philosophical - let’s leave that to the chaps in their gowns and think about matters military, eh?

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am not the sort of fellow who likes to look back. Indeed, it is rare indeed that I can be found harping on past ill fortune and you will rarely find a gent with less grudges than I, but reflection? That is something I am more than familiar with.

In the heady, memorable, blessed moments when one first encountered the fragrant Mrs Wickham, one was serving in the militia, as has been well-chronicled by other, impartial authors. Off to the shires we brave boys trooped, coats bright, buttons blinding, ready to defend our land with blood, bayonet and dancing shoes.

If a man did not wish to serve he could pay a substitute to serve in his stead. The going rate started at £25 and could go as high as £60. (For comparison, £50 a year would be a very rough equivalent of a today’s minimum wage.)

In those heady days of youth I was a lieutenant, and lucky to be such. A fellow’s rank was decided on the basis of his lands and I, as you may well recall, was not overly burdened with land. We cannot all be Fitzwilliam Darcy, no matter how true our hearts. Eventually all of those landed fellows were officers and still Parliament needed more, so it looked to those who might not have territory, but had all the other qualifications of a gentleman. I might not have had any fine houses and farmland to call my own but I had been well educated even though, alas, circumstances beyond my control prevailed to keep me from making the best of that education. An easygoing, caring gent such as I is never master of his own will, you know!

 Watercolour by an unknown artist, depicting a militia private from the Derbyshire Volunteers, around 1780.  Credit: Wikipedia

Watercolour by an unknown artist, depicting a militia private from the Derbyshire Volunteers, around 1780. Credit: Wikipedia

So a lieutenant is what I became. Our brothers in the regular army would pay for their advancement, so to decide ours on territory first, gentlemanly qualifications second, was the most effective method. Sadly, there was no scandalous Mrs Clarke willing to add our names to the Duke of Cumberland’s promotions list! When the monied and the landed and the educated were all signed up, the militia looked for any man it could get its hands on. By then, of course, I was safely clad in my regimentals and standing proud for my country.

For those of you who enjoy talk of money, here is a little interesting something. The cost of a commission, no less! Of course, money has always been of little import to me, but I know that some people hold store by such things. For those, let The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, for Lancashire, Westmorland, &c. of 1809 be your guide to the prices for advancement in the regular army:                         

A Majority - £2000

A Company - £1500

A Lieutenant - £550

An Ensigncy - £400

Of course, a strapping young fellow like me was charged by King and Country to serve and all men between 18 and 45 were to make themselves available to serve when our fine land was threatened. The clergy were exempt - aren’t they always - and a man with money - a man like my good friend, Mr Darcy, in fact - could make a payment to a friend - a friend like me, let’s say - to serve in his place. Please, dear reader, make no conclusion from my merely theoretical use of names, I would hate to throw doubt on my fine pal’s reputation. Worth reflecting on though, eh?

We didn’t stay in our home counties when our services were needed, of course, but were sent away from local temptations to distant shires. Here we were supposedly safe from domestic distractions but, as my own story attests, far more pleasing distractions might find us no matter where we were encamped. Our purpose was to defend King and Country, and it mattered not in which county we did that - each was as important as the other.

Meryton, being a rather thrilling centre of operations, was more alive than most with militia. Each regiment consisted of eight companies made of sixty men, and no less than two dozen officers, though the majority of those lucky fellows were granted winter leave. Not so the rest of us - we were left to weather the cold for the good of the nation. Of course, a billet in Meryton proved rather a blessing, for that there was nowhere that could hope to host all of us brave gentleman all at once. Rather than end up in some dreary old camp we were quartered wherever a bed could be found, and some of my fellows made great capital of that! I, of course, behaved in a way that would make my esteemed mother proud, as you would expect.

 A Meryton scene.  Credit: C E Brock, 1895

A Meryton scene. Credit: C E Brock, 1895

We militiamen were unlikely to see a foreign battlefield and that suited a lot of the local lads very well indeed, but that wasn’t always so. When Napoleon made good his escape from exile our happy British days were done, and some of us were shipped off to Belgium to face a real drama.

That, of course, is a tale for another Christmas. From Mrs Wickham and I, may your festivities be happy and your days peaceful, wherever you may.

© George Wickham - gentleman, husband and occasional selfless defender of his nation (with some assistance from Catherine Curzon, royal historian and the author of Life in the Georgian CourtKings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain)

References:

Byrne Paula. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Harper Press: 2014.

Chandler, David G and Beckett, Ian (eds.). The Oxford History of the British Army. Oxford University Press: 1994.

Collins, Irene. Jane Austen The Parson's Daughter. Hambledon Press: 1998.

Downing, Sarah Jane. Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen. Shire Publications: 2010.

Glover, Richard. Peninsular Preparation: The Reform of the British Army 1795–1809. Cambridge University Press: 1963.

Holmes, Richard. Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket. Harper Collins: 2001.

Spiers, Edward M. The Army and Society, 1815–1914. Longman: 1980,

Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen, A Life. Random House: 1999.

 
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Image credit : BBC TV