Can you help but laugh? The Motley Drummers of the Liverpool Independent Volunteers

Faced with the prolonged threat of cross-Channel invasion during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Britons bore arms on an unprecedented scale. The army and militia were drastically expanded, while part-time volunteer corps were organized nationwide, with gentlemen, shopkeepers, tradesmen and labourers raising money for uniforms and equipment and sacrificing their spare time to practise military drill. At the height of the invasion crisis in 1804, almost 400,000 Britons were enrolled as volunteers, participating in what John Cookson has termed “the greatest popular movement of the Hanoverian age.”[1]

The significance of volunteering has been the subject of spirited debate among contemporaries and modern-day historians alike. Some have characterized this mass movement as an expression of grassroots support for the war effort and indicative of a burgeoning sense of British national identity. But sceptics have argued many volunteers were merely ‘play-safe patriots’ who enrolled in part-time auxiliary corps for pay or to avoid being balloted for the full-time militia. Contemporaries also expressed divergent opinions about the merits of the volunteers as a fighting force. Critics ridiculed their perceived amateurism and indiscipline, questioning whether such ‘weekend warriors’ would be much use against Napoleon’s Grand Armée in the event of invasion. Others were more optimistic: Lord Cornwallis pronounced in December 1803 that “no man, whether civil or military, will persuade me that 300,000 men, trained as the volunteers at present are, do not add very materially to the confidence and to the actual security of the country.”[2] That same month, Lt.-Col. Isaac Brock, commanding the 49th Foot at Fort George in Upper Canada, recorded his satisfaction on learning of the Duke of Northumberland’s efforts to arm and train his tenants: “It is pleasing to hear of the exertions of men of such amazing influence as their energy must diffuse itself to all around. I now look upon England as placed beyond a possibility of danger.”[3]

But a series of pamphlets authored by Bryan Blundell in 1799 provides a more pessimistic portrayal of the volunteer movement. A former private in the 1st Battalion of Liverpool Independent Volunteers (LIV), Blundell had been drummed out for denigrating the corps in an anonymous letter to the Sun newspaper in September 1798. He had characterized the LIV as poorly equipped and badly led, calling for the dismissal of its incompetent and “republican” officers.[4] The latter epithet referred to the Whig politics of Captains Thomas Earle and Joseph Birch, for Blundell considered their conspicuous opposition to Pitt’s ministry and openness to peace with France as evidence of “avowedly republican” principles.[5] After being expelled from the corps as punishment for aspersing the patriotism of his commanders, Blundell published several pamphlets decrying his summary dismissal and chronicling the faults of his former unit, which had been rendered “completely ridiculous” (in his telling) by the squabbling, ineptitude and questionable loyalty of its officers. In Blundell’s second polemic, The Rise, Progress, and Proceedings, of a Corps of Volunteers, shewing how Thirty Republicans have endeavoured to make Five Hundred Loyal Gentlemen Truly Laughable… (1799), he ridiculed the mismatched equipment and inconsistent drill of the LIV’s seven companies, singling out the drummers for particular contempt. “There were about eight drummers and eight fifers belonging to the battalion, and, strange to tell, they were habited in seven different uniforms — “Risum teneatis, Amici!”” The italicized Latin phrase translates as: “Friends, can you help but laugh?”

Symptoms of Uniformity in the Drummers of an Independent Corps from B. Blundell, The Rise, Progress, and Proceedings, of a Corps of Volunteers (London, 1799), British Library 2.jpg
Image courtesy of Google Books and the British Library

Blundell’s Rise, Progress, and Proceedings was complemented by a striking caricature, “Symptoms of Uniformity in the Drummers of an Independent Corps!!” The clothing and equipment of the LIV’s motley crew of ‘sheepskin fiddlers’ vary markedly in both design and hue, as do the facial expressions, ages and even ethnicities of the drummers themselves. The print depicts an assortment of headgear, ranging from cocked hats to bearskin caps, while the shoes and legwear of several drummers are shown to be in tatters. Indeed, if the colouring can be trusted, two drummer are not wearing any trousers at all. Of course, the veracity of this humorous and grotesque depiction is unclear: as a disgruntled ex-volunteer, Blundell had every reason to exaggerate the discordancy of the drummers’ appearances for comic effect. Yet whatever the accuracy, the artist clearly paid some attention to detail: several of the drums appear to be emblazoned with the Royal Arms, but two sport a design incorporating sun rays, fasces crossed with a liberty cap, and a liver bird, a symbol of the city of Liverpool.

Blundell went to great lengths to publicize the perceived injustice of his dismissal from the LIV, complaining he had been “drummed out of a Corps of Volunteers for [his] Loyalty”. The tenacious pamphleteer raised his case at the Court of King’s Bench, corresponded with William Windham, the Secretary at War, and sent two copies of his tract to the Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Blundell even managed to hand his pamphlet, with the “caricature annexed”, to George III while the King was “getting on horseback” at the gate of one of the central London parks in April 1799.[6]

For all his efforts, however, Blundell’s campaign for redress evidently came to nothing, and it has so far proved impossible to corroborate or debunk his criticisms of the LIV, which were unquestionably coloured by personal and political animus. Yet whatever the reliability of his invective, Blundell’s vendetta against the Liverpool Independent Volunteers has bequeathed posterity not only a further example of tension between domestic party-politics and ‘national defence patriotism’ during the French Wars, but also an arresting image, surely deserving of recognition as a superlative visual critique of the volunteer movement.

[1] A. Gee, The British Volunteer Movement, 1794-1814 (Oxford, 2003), p.2; J.E. Cookson, British Armed Nation, 1793-1815 (Oxford, 1997), p.66.
[2] R. Knight, Britain against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815 (London, 2014), p.270.
[3] Library and Archives Canada, RG 8 ‘C’ Series, vol. 513, p.115, Lt. Colonel Isaac Brock to Major James Green, Military Secretary, 22 December 1803. The Duke of Northumberland organized his tenantry into the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, commanded by his son, Lord Percy.
[4] “Volunteering–New and Old”, Dublin University Magazine (July 1859), vol. 54, pp. 68-70.
[5] [B. Blundell], The Rise, Progress, and Proceedings, of a Corps of Volunteers, shewing how Thirty Republicans have endeavoured to make Five Hundred Loyal Gentlemen Truly Laughable… (London, 1799), p.5; B. Blundell, Four letters for the consideration of all loyal Britons; and particularly for the attention of all loyal volunteers, shewing how republicans act when in power, and what underhanded meanness they are guilty of (1799), p.4.
[6] [B. Blundell], Dancing Masteriana, or Biographic Sketches for an inquisitive public; being the true style of a dancing master…to which are added five letters…, (London, 1799), pp.19, 23, 25, 30.

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