Eighteenth-Century Military Life in Olney

Volume:

Excerpt

Many of you will know of the references in Cowper’s letters to military exercises taking place in the vicinity of Olney. In a letter to Rev. John Newton dated Sunday 18 March 1781, Cowper gives the following description of military manoeuvres in what is now Emberton Country Park, about a mile from Olney. There are soldiers quarter’d at Newport and at Olney – these met by order of their respective officers, in Emberton Marsh, perform’d all the Manoeuvres of a deadly Battle, and the result was, that this Town was taken. Since I wrote they have again Encounter’d with the same Intention, and Mr. Raban* kept a room for me & Mrs. Unwin, that we may sit and view them at our Ease. We did so, but it did not answer our expectation; for before the Contest could be decided, the powder on both sides being expended, the Combatants were obliged to leave it an undecided Contest. – If it were possible that when two great Armies spend the Night in expectation of a Battle, a third could silently steal away their ammunition and Arms of every kind, what a Comedy would it make of that which always has such a tragical Conclusion! [*Tom Raban’s house was the last on the left as you came from the bridge: its windows overlooked the meadows.] He does not mention which regiment was involved but in a letter dated two weeks earlier to William Unwin, he writes, A part of the Middlesex Militia are quarter’d at this place and at Newport Pagnell. Yesterday being Sunday was distinguish’d by a Riot raised at the Bull Inn by some of the Officers, whose avowed purpose in doing it was to mortify a Town which they understood was inhabited by Methodists. They roar’d and sung and

Many of you will know of the references in Cowper’s letters to military

exercises taking place in the vicinity of Olney. In a letter to Rev. John

Newton dated Sunday 18 March 1781, Cowper gives the following

description of military manoeuvres in what is now Emberton Country

Park, about a mile from Olney.

There are soldiers quarter’d at Newport and at Olney – these met by order of

their respective officers, in Emberton Marsh, perform’d all the Manoeuvres

of a deadly Battle, and the result was, that this Town was taken. Since I wrote

they have again Encounter’d with the same Intention, and Mr. Raban* kept

a room for me & Mrs. Unwin, that we may sit and view them at our Ease.

We did so, but it did not answer our expectation; for before the Contest could

be decided, the powder on both sides being expended, the Combatants were

obliged to leave it an undecided Contest. – If it were possible that when two

great Armies spend the Night in expectation of a Battle, a third could silently

steal away their ammunition and Arms of every kind, what a Comedy would

it make of that which always has such a tragical Conclusion!

[*Tom Raban’s house was the last on the left as you came from the bridge: its

windows overlooked the meadows.]

He does not mention which regiment was involved but in a letter dated

two weeks earlier to William Unwin, he writes,

A part of the Middlesex Militia are quarter’d at this place and at Newport

Pagnell. Yesterday being Sunday was distinguish’d by a Riot raised at the

Bull Inn by some of the Officers, whose avowed purpose in doing it was

to mortify a Town which they understood was inhabited by Methodists.

They roar’d and sung and danced, sometimes in the house, sometimes in the

street.

Cowper goes on to recount that one of the officers lost his sword while

waving it drunkenly at a poor shoemaker and that the Bell man or town

crier had to make it known the following day. He didn’t know at this

point if the sword was returned to the soldier. He ends this part of the

letter thus, ‘Oh Shame to the Name of Soldier!’ On the 5 March 1781

Cowper writes to Newton,

Olney has seen this day what it never saw before, and what will serve it to

talk of I suppose for years to come. At eleven o’clock this Morning a party

of Soldiers enter’d the town, driving before them another party, who after

obstinately defending the Bridge for some time were obliged to quit it and

run. They ran in very good order, frequently faced about and fired, but were

at last obliged to surrender prisoners of war. There has been much drumming

and shouting, much scampering in the dirt, but not an Inch of Lace made in

the town, at least at the Silver End of it.

I daresay not much lace was made at all while the gallant Middlesex

lads were quartered in the area. No more is heard of the military until

Saturday, 27 April 1782 when Cowper writes to William Unwin,

My dear William,

A part of Lord Harrington’s new raised Corps have taken up their quarters

in Olney since you left us. They have regimental music with them. The men

have been drawn up this morning upon the market hill, and a concert such

as we have not heard these many years, has been performed at no great

distance from our window. Your mother and I both thrust out our heads into

the coldest East wind that ever blew in April, that we might hear them to

greater advantage. The band acquitted themselves with taste and propriety…

producing gentle and elegant symphony…

Cowper’s amusing, slightly ironic style hides the harsh reality of

military life in the eighteenth century. The 85th Regiment of Foot was

raised, at his own expense, by Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington

(1753-1829), who was a veteran of the Quebec campaign in 1780. The

regiment embarked for Jamaica.

The great mortality which prevails more or less in the West Indies, particularly

in time of war, soon reduced the gallant corps sent out from England to a

small number. The 85th, one of the finest ever landed on any of our tropical

islands, suffered severely; and his Lordship’s health, from his great military

exertions, being injured, he returned to England.

Gentleman’s Magazine, xcix, Oct.1829, 366

Presumably he returned in a separate ship from the troopship carrying

the remainder of the regiment, since according to the National Army

Museum most of the 85th was lost at sea returning from service in

Jamaica. In April of that year, Harrington was probably training recruits

to replace those who had died. In November 1782 Harrington was

gazetted colonel and aide-de-camp to George III. By 1783 the 85th was

disbanded.

However, that is not quite the end of the 85th, which in Harrington’s

time was also known as The Westminster Voluntary Regiment of

Foot. Between 1794 and 1808 the 85th became The Buckinghamshire

Voluntary Regiment of Foot, which after 1821 was called The

Buckinghamshire Volunteers King’s Light Infantry Regiment. After

1827 ‘Buckinghamshire Volunteers’ was dropped from the title. Much

later the 85th became associated with other regiments and areas of the

country, especially the Shropshire Regiment. It is easy to forget while

reading Cowper’s elegant prose that Britain was at the time involved

in a series of colonial expeditions and the beginnings of what were

later to be called the Napoleonic Wars, and that many of the recruits to

the army came from the rural poor in areas such as Buckinghamshire,

Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire, as well as from the socially

disadvantaged in the towns and cities. The population of Britain grew

considerably in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but the Industrial

Revolution was still in its early stages, and the need for labour in the

factories had not yet made a significant impact. The military, however,

was constantly recruiting new men to replace those killed in action,

incapacitated by wounds, wiped out by tropical diseases or drowned

at sea – all types of casualty experienced by the 85th Regiment of Foot

between 1781 and 1783.

Copyright

All articles are subject to copyright

Footnotes

The Cowper and Newton Journal includes scholarly articles, notes and reviews on Cowper, Newton and their contemporaries, as well as more general articles from the 18th century.

Joint Editors

Professor Vincent NeweyTony SewardDr William Hutchings

Editorial Board:

Dr Ashley Chantler (University of Chester), Dr Michael Davies (University of Liverpool), Kate Bostock (Museum Trustee), Professor Martha J. Koehler (University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PA), Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire).

Reviews Editor: Tony Seward

The predecessor to The Cowper and Newton Journal was The Cowper and Newton Bulletin.  Published in 8 volumes from 2002-2009, it contained museum news in each issue as well as one or more full-length scholarly articles and shorter notes.

References

No references

Book Museum Tickets

Our Museum building remains CLOSED.  We are opening our gardens on limited entry.  The Cowper & Newton Museum gardens will be open to welcome you on Wednesday 5th August 10.30 – 12.15 and Saturday 8th August 10.30 – 12.15

(Follow our social media accounts or check back here for further opening days & times as they become available)