Mac said how much he had enjoyed the recent post by the Ramsgate Historical Society about ‘The Ramsgate Volunteer’, edited by J P Kelleher. This was a wonderful mine of information about the local militia, which were first organised to defend the coastline against the threat of Napoleon and the French. Many of the names of the volunteers seemed familiar – Bing, Sackett, Mockett, for example. At least two of those were strong sporting families in the area when Mac grew up (Editor’s note – the term ‘grew up’ is subjective and might be challenged), so maybe have been there for generations. If you scrolled down the information, you found that by 1887 the militia had become the 1st Volunteer Battalion The Buffs (East Kent Regiment) and seven years later a Cadet Corps was even attached from Chatham House College. By then the last two Colonels had been from the Knocker family, so you can only imagine that the schoolboys were motivated to join by the reputation of the Knockers. Would have been the same in Mac’s day. Mac’s friend, Andrew, who actually taught at Chatham House as well as being a student, always used to fall about when acting in the school play, at the thought that a titter could run round the audience. Mac says he never quite understood the joke.
Most of the contemporary reports talked about the quality of the volunteers and their commanders and how ready the local men were to leap to the defence of their country. Initially all the companies were issued with pikes, so it was only a sad leap of imagination before Mac moved on to the subject of pikes and Dad’s Army. Of course, Captain Mainwaring’s, “Don’t tell him, Pike” was once said to be the funniest line in television comedy, but probably a little bland for today’s audiences. Do you remember the fuss at the end of last year, when it was announced that they were planning a remake of Dad’s Army? A woman was going to be in charge of the platoon and that Miranda was in the frame for the role of the Captain. That must be why the Intelligence Services detained her. Can you imagine a woman in charge of a seaside mission? The likes of Private Joe Walker and his developer friends would run rings round her. All those underhand deals. Could never happen, could it? By the way, if that Tom Ellis did hold Miranda for ten hours, he must be the most perfectly ruptured man in the country. Not sure he’ll be able to get up the stairs in the new series of ‘Downton Abbey’ now.
The Ramsgate piece was terrific, but Mac was a little cynical about the descriptions of the morale of the local volunteers, as described by their commanders. Leaders recruited naturally from the local aristocracy and the public schools. What was it Corporal Private Jones used to say? “They don’t like it up ’em”. Not sure you got that right, Jonesy. The joke, as you will well know, was that Captain Mainwaring was the grammar school boy, whilst Sergeant Wilson (the wonderful John Le Mesurier, who himself lived in Ramsgate) was the public schoolboy. However you get a much more accurate picture of the calibre of the local volunteers when you move on to the Sea Fencibles, also covered in the piece. They were founded in early 1798 as an anti-flotilla force from local watermen, fishermen and oystermen. Probably some deck-chair sellers and pedalo attendants amongst them. You learn more when Nelson himself was asked to command the south coast defences in 1801. He had up to eighty small craft at his disposal and was stationed for a while in the ‘Medusa’, directly off Margate. However Nelson steadfastly remained on board, except for one excursion to Deal, much to the disappointment of the local bigwigs.
The reports of the Sea Fencibles show that they were tardy at turning out for training and reluctant to serve, despite all of Nelson’s encouragement and his reputation. They didn’t seem to realise that “they were all doomed”, if Boney ever crossed the Channel. These really were some sort of Dad’s Army. In one small ship, ‘L’Unite’, it was said that twelve had wooden legs; eight had ruptures and could not pull on ropes; and most were old and infirm. Indeed Nelson told St Vincent that only 385 of a possible 2,600 volunteers would serve offshore. Of those that agreed to serve, nearly all refused to serve for more than two days at a time. So much for the British Bulldog and Mac thought that was much more realistic than the glowing reports about the Army volunteers submitted by their commanders. You can only be grateful that Napoleon and his ruddy hooligans eventually decided to turn their attention to the Russians.
Mac wondered if his hero, Thomas Paine, would have enjoyed “Dad’s Army”. Having spent an unhappy time in Margate after his wife died in 1760, he might not have laughed at a comedy based on a Kent seaside resort. Or he might have concluded that nothing ever really changes and that we have always been governed by comedians. Much of Dad’s Army was also filmed in Thetford where Paine was born, so perhaps that would have been an attraction. By the way, in 1801 he was still in France, at least released from the Bastille death cell, but thoroughly disillusioned with Napoleon. Always a patriot, but a fierce critic of the Establishment, he was horrified at the thought of a French invasion of England and would have supported Nelson’s efforts. Nelson’s femme fatale, Emma Hamilton, was interestingly a regular visitor to Margate with her young daughter Horatia and in fact took her last holiday with Sir William Hamilton there just before he died. She bathed in the sea, took the ‘health-giving’ seawater and probably swallowed a great deal, so rumour has it. Amusingly Sir William was said to be missing his fishing back home and complained bitterly all the time they were there. Mind you, in 1801 Nelson had put in a strongly worded report from the ‘Medusa’ about the condition of the sick quarters at Margate, the quality of the local beer and the lack of bunting. Not sure what the local council was up to in those days. Perhaps there has always been some sort of dreamland they inhabit. Emma must have just come for the beaches – the nine miles of golden sands – and not for the quality of the local conveniences. Incidentally we do not know whether Nelson’s real wife ever visited Margate. There are no reports of Fanny being sighted in Thanet at all. Very different from the halcyon days of the 1960’s, so “don’t panic”.