Ealing and the Napoleonic Wars
By Dr Jonathan Oates, Ealing Local History Centre
Ealing at War 200 years ago
The savage fighting at Waterloo on the 18th June 1815 probably feels very remote from Ealing in terms of both time and space. It marked the culmination of 22 years of struggle for supremacy in Europe, which had begun with the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793. For Britain, this was a conflict which involved much of the nation, both villages, as Ealing and its neighbours were then, as well as towns and cities.
As with most wars, national defence is seen as a priority. The threat of invasion was as apparent in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as it was in the first half of the twentieth. France possessed a large and efficient army, led by one of history’s military geniuses in the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Other than the army and navy were the civilian defenders, the forerunners of the Home Guard of World War Two. First of all there was the Militia. Men from each county were chosen by ballot for militia service, which meant they received military equipment and training as well as pay but only served in Britain. Their families received payments from the parish as their chief wage earner was elsewhere. It seems there were about 20 Ealing men who served in the militia. Most served in local units or in those in the south of England, though two were sent to Staffordshire.
Those men who were chosen could pay another man to serve in their stead. About thirteen Ealing residents decided to do so. A Norwood man paid £17 for a substitute (about a year’s wages for some men). Some men in the parish agreed to be substitutes for others and so received their pay and allowances. Two became sergeants in the Westminster Militia. It is not known what these men did, because their main role was to repel an invasion, but that never came.
Another form of national defence was the Volunteer Associations, which came about locally in 1796 and 1803. This was when men voluntarily came together to form units for national defence. In 1796 there was the Brentford and Ealing Armed Association, which also included men from Hanwell. These men did not leave their locality and tended to be more affluent than the militia men, though they were armed, uniformed and trained. John Zoffany, an artist and William Trimmer were members. It was supported by the wealthy parishioners such as Dr Nicholas, headmaster of the Great Ealing School, the Rev. Colston Carr, Vicar of St. Mary’s and Thomas Wood, a major landowner in Ealing.
It was disbanded with the coming of peace in 1802, but was reformed in the following year as war broke out again. This time it seems to have been a larger force, of six companies of men, including one from Acton, as well as men from Hanwell, Ealing and Brentford. In charge was John Drinkwater, who was a former soldier and their drill master was Stephen Attlee, who had also previous experience. It was envisaged that they could be moved along the Thames in boats should they be needed elsewhere. They were seen as being fairly efficient in drill and musketry, but as with their predecessors and the militia, were never put to the test and disbanded in 1806, giving their flags to St. Mary’s church. What became of the flags is unknown.
Food supply is of crucial concern during a major war because some of Britain’s food was imported and with hostile navies prowling the seas, food supply can be endangered when every merchant ship is a legitimate target of war. Food prices soar especially as buying panics occur among those able to buy in large quantities. In the 1790s the parish of Greenford decided to supply bread, the main foodstuff in diet then, to the poor at either reduced prices or for free in the case of families with more than two children and where the family income was low. In 1800 a royal proclamation decreed that the wealthy should reduce their food consumption by a third so as not to push up food prices for the less well off. This was read aloud at St. Mary’s church, Hanwell in December. As with Greenford, the parish vestry had already been subsidising food prices.
Bell ringing on important occasions was commonplace in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The days which marked the King’s birthday, the anniversary of his coronation and accession were all marked by ringing. The bell ringers would be paid in cash or in beer (these days bell ringers ring out of the love of ringing, usually on Sundays, and when instructed by their tower captain). In war time, bells also rang out to mark military victories. The interesting point to observe when looking at the parish accounts for Ealing, Acton and Norwood, is that none rang for Waterloo or any other of the battles won by the British army and their allies. Yet they did ring for the naval victories at the Nile in 1798, Trafalgar in 1805 and at the onset of peace in 1802 and 1814.
War memorials of the type that we are familiar with from the two World Wars did not exist at this time. Instead, families might commemorate their deceased by having memorial inscriptions erected in the parish church. These were inevitably to officers who had either died on active service or had returned from war and later died, but had their war service recorded. One example is the memorial to Captain Edward Wetherall who died at the storming of Bergen op Zoom in early 1815. His father was General Frederick Wetherall, who lived in Castlebar and had been ADC to the Duke of Kent, another former Ealing resident. Monumental tablets can also be found in the parish churches of Hanwell and Acton to individuals who served in the war as well.
The end of the war, which was a great victory for the allies, brought about much grumbling; certainly from Acton Vestry. They petitioned the government to complain about the heavy burden of taxation needed to pay for the war and in particular wanted to see an end to the ‘partial, oppressive and inquisitorial’ Income Tax (introduced in 1799 to help pay for the war).
During the wars, two figures of national importance lived in Ealing. One was General Charles Dumouriez, resident at Rochester House in Little Ealing. He helped design plans for the defence of England which won Nelson’s approval, but a local man refused to give up his pew for him in church because he was French.
Of greater importance was Spencer Perceval who lived at Elm Grove, near Ealing Common (now demolished), from 1808-1812. From 1809 he was Prime Minister and his main achievement was to raise money through loans and taxes to pay for the war effort, and in particular to keep Wellington’s army paid whilst it defeated the French in Portugal and Spain.