1796 Returns showed 2 Troops of Cavalry, 22 Companies of Infantry, 1,651 men. In this year an attempt was made by the French to land in Bantry Bay, which, however, failed, and the expedition was glad to get back to Brest with the loss of four ships of the line, and 8 frigates. Early in 1797 another expedition, under Tate, appeared in the Bristol Channel, off llfracombe, with the intention of burning Bristol. The North Devon Volunteers turned out with great zeal, and were prepared to dispute the landing on their coast. The French, however, turned northward and landed in Wales, where they soon surrendered to a far inferior force of Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteers, commanded by Lord Cawdor, and supported by a reserve of Welsh women in red cloaks. Thus Lord Cawdor and his Volunteers, both men and women, rendered their country the greatest service that has been performed by any Volunteers in modern times. The Pembrokeshire Yeomanry Cavalry wore the word " Fishguard " on their colours and appointments in memory of the event.
The muskets taken from the French troops are preserved at Stackpole Court, the seat of Earl Cawdor, near Pembroke. Mr James Mortimer, Head Master, of the Ashburton Grammar School, and a Haytor Volunteer, remarks that the landing referred to above, took place on his grandfather's farm in Pembrokeshire, who was about to be married and had furnished his house; the French took possession and made havoc of everything The vessels that conveyed the expedition fell into the hands of Admiral Lord Bridport.
25th ApriJ. At a meeting of the Defence Committee, the thanks of the County were given to the North Devon Volunteers for their zeal in assembling with so much alacrity on the appearance of the enemy oil' llfracombe. It appears that the Plymouth Volunteers had acted as a body independent of the County Committee, in conjunction with the garrison there. In 1794 two companies had been raised and were commanded by Captains John Hawker and Edmund Lockyer, and early in 1797 they were increased to six companies, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hawker. The tradesmen and most respectable townspeople, however, had left the early companies, and formed a body of their own, called the Plymouth Foot Association, under Major Culme, known as the Plymouth Blues ; each company appears to have been made up of persons of the same social status.
I am indebted to Lieuteuant-Col. Lord Clifford for perusal of papers in his possession relating to the above arming and transactions of the Defence Committee.
1798 saw the nation in the most serious crisis of its history. The French Directory having made terms with the European powers were able to turn all their attention to the invasion and conquest of the British Isles. Former expeditions were designed to stir up the disloyal and assist them to overthrow the Government, but now a French army was to laud on our shores. The Spanish and Dutch fleets had been pressed into the French service, but British courage and seamanship had effectually disposed of them in the great naval battles of St. Vincent and Camperdown. Nevertheless an army was organized, named The Army of England, and distributed along the French coast in readiness for embarkation. Flat bottomed boats were prepared for lauding troops and for service on our rivers. The bankers of Paris were called upon to advance a loan on the security of English property. The greatest calamity, however, was a general mutiny in the channel fleets at the Nore, which expelled their officers, elected their own Admiral and Captains, hoisted the red flag, and blockaded the mouth of the Thames.
If England could not depend on her fleet she must fall. Had not prompt measures been taken, and the mutiny quelled, invasion on a large scale would certainly have taken place. To add to these troubles a formidable rebellion broke out in Ireland, and its leaders arranged for the support of the French army, under Hocke, a General of great experience. A brigade of 1.000 men actually landed in Ireland, under General Humbert, beat the local troops and advanced into the country, but were compelled to surrender to Lord Cornwallis ; and Admiral Warren caught a French fleet with 3,000 troops on their way to support them, and only one of the nine ships returned to France. Such being the state of public affairs it cannot be denied that our great-grand-parents had good grounds for alarm.
There is hardly a district or family in Devon but has some tradition of that period. Nervous people were afraid to take off their clothes at night. Old gentlemen provided themselves with hollow walking sticks filled with guineas to carry with them in their flight. At Totnes my great-grandfather's family permanently engaged a post chaise in which the women and children might escape to Bristol, the family plate was packed ready to be taken off, and a belt of guineas provided. The school boys enjoyed it most, for there was no school, as the seniors were too much engaged in obtaining and discussing news to attend to them. The saying still exists at Totnes of "Going to Paignton to meet the French," for "meeting trouble half-way." Beacon fires were prepared to spread the news of any landing; a story is told of a tramp at Dawlish, who. in lighting his pipe, set a hay rick on fire ; the watchers at the nearest beacon took it for a signal of an invasion and lighted their fires, which were answered in every direction, and the people sprang to arms until *That time of slumber was as bright and busy as the day." One old sailor, however, had his wits about him, when his daughter shook him out of a deep sleep with the news that the French had landed. Rubbing his eyes he told her to go and look at the weathercock. She came back saying the wind was from the north. "I thought so," said he, " and so it was yesterday. The French can't land with this wind." And so the ancient mariner turned over and went to sleep again. It is also related that in Cornwall some ignorant people caught a monkey that had escaped, and hung the animal thinking it a Frenchman.