An Officer and a Gentleman pt. 2

The Militia-A Different Breed of Officer

In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice we encounter a military regiment temporarily stationed in Meryton. These men are members of the militia, not the regular army (discussed in the last post.) While at first blush, there may seem little difference between the regular army (the Regulars) and the militia, the differences are striking and significant.  

What was the Militia?

The militia served as a peace keeping force on home soil. History had taught that a regular army could be a great threat to civil liberties, so the virtues of the militia were sometimes overstated. In theory, they suppressed riots,  broke up seditious gatherings and if needed, repelled invading enemy forces. Unfortunately, the militia was a dubious peacekeeper. It was not uncommon for its members to sympathize with their rioting neighbors they were sent to subdue. Moreover, their lack of training made them amateurish compared to the regulars.

Joining the militia 

Parliament controlled the size of the militia. Though considered a volunteer force, all Protestant males were required to make themselves available for militia service. The King required the Lord-Lieutenant

Flag with union jack, crown and sword.

Flag of the Lord Lieutenant

usually a local nobleman, each county to gather a force of able-bodied men between 18 and 45 years of age to fill the quota for his area. Militia service required a five to seven year commitment to service on home soil with no chance of being sent overseas. Only clergymen were exempt from service. If a man did not wish to serve he could pay a substitute to serve in his stead. The going rate started at £25. (Keep in mind our comparison of a minimum wage job bringing in £50 a year.) Most militia officers were drawn from the local gentry and were led by a colonel who was a county landowner. Officer’s commissions were not purchased as they were in the regular army. Officer ranks was directly related to the amount and value of property they or their family held. For example, to qualify for the rank of captain a man needed to either own land worth £200 per year, be heir to land worth £400 per year, or the son of a father with land worth £600 per year. A lieutenant needed land worth £50 a year. In practice it was difficult to find officers, particularly lower grade officers, for militia service. So the property qualifications for lieutenants were often ignored.  It was in this way that George Wickham could become an officer despite not having a property owner in his family. While this leniency allowed many to join the ranks of officer who would not otherwise have such an opportunity, it did bring down the perceived status of the militia officer.

Life in the militia

Service in the militia carried little threat of front line duty. Officers had a great deal of leave and often enjoyed a busy social schedule provided by the local gentry. Since all officers were supposed to be property holders of some measure, they were all considered gentlemen and afforded the according status.

Brighton beach sketch

Brighton beach sketch from early 1800’s

 In summer the militia’s regiments went into tented camps in the open countryside to engage in training exercises. Camps were located throughout the southern and eastern coasts, the largest at Brighton. Military reviews, held on open hillside or common land,  made thrilling entertainment for the local residents. They included displays of marching, drilling, firing at targets and even mock skirmishes often for the benefit of a visiting general. In the winter, the militia quartered wherever accommodation could be found for them in the nearby towns and villages. Accommodations were paid for by the soldiers themselves.  

Public attitude toward the militia

All in all the militia was not popular. Inhabitants resented assessments of equipment and money to cover the needs of the militia. Men resented being drafted to serve and were apt to do everything they could to avoid their military training. As a peacekeeping force, they militia had little to do but drill. With so much free time on their hands, they developed a reputation for a wild lifestyle of parties and frivolity. Since the militia moved often, officers had a great temptation to run up bills and leave without paying them. As a result innkeepers and tradesmen disliked them and often protested the militia quartering in or even passing through their town. Not surprisingly, parents often saw militia officers as a threat to their marriageable daughters since their families were unknown and might disappear from the neighborhood very quickly.  

For more information see:

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press. Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles . Downing, Sarah Jane.  (2010). Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen.  Shire Publications Holmes, Richard.  (2001).   Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket W. W. Norton & Company Le Faye, Deirdre.  (2002).   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams Militia.  Regency Collection :<http://crash.ihug.co.nz/~awoodley/regency/army.html> Southam, Brian  (2005). Jane Austen in Context.  Janet M. Todd ed Cambridge University Press Tomalin, Claire.  (1999).  Jane Austen, a Life.  Random House Watkins, Susan . (1990).  Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style. Rizzoli by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved      

12 comments

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  1. Grace:

    I appreciate your academic self and the work that you do in researching various topics. Enjoyed this.

    Barbara

    1. Thanks Barbara! I appreciate it! It’s fun to let my inner geek out to play for a while.

  2. Great information, Maria. Thanks so much for this. I was curious, and I confess I really didn’t want to ask military nutcases about the militia because they tend to go on and on… but your answer was concise, interesting and very illuminating.

    1. I am so glad you found it so. I have to admit I do get to feeling like I’m swimming in a sea of information as I research these, but I really want to make these articles readable and even interesting.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. Now I understand why they ‘trusted’ Wickham – he was supposed to be a gentleman! Thanks, again, Grace for telling me stuff I didn’t know – and I didn’t have to go out and hunt for it (like you did!)

    1. It is funny sometimes to realize how much we miss because we don’t know all the details that were obvious to someone who lived in that era.

      Thanks, Jan!

    • Jadie on March 10, 2012 at 1:55 pm
    • Reply

    I too, appreciate this information as it does explain a great deal. It will be a great in my story writing.

    1. Thanks, Jadie. I’m constantly amazing to discover how much I really don’t know about the times and how much of a different spin learning more give on Jane Austen’s original writings.

    • margaretfransen on March 17, 2012 at 11:24 pm
    • Reply

    Just a few details. Each parish compiled its own Militia Ballot List of the pool of possibly eligible adult males noting their age, marital status, occupation and health status. There was a preference for choosing unmarried males or at least men without children, so that the families would not be left without support. (The parishes had to take on the support of the poor, so would want to avoid extra costs.) Each militia regiment served in a different county from their origin to avoid the problems of divided loyalties between authority and populace. It can be certain that Wickham was not a member of the Hertfordshire Militia when he appeared in Meryton.
    [Just found this site. I will enjoy exploring it!]

    1. Thanks for the additional info Margaret!

  4. I was at Piccadilly, London the other day and I saw a set of militia uniform hanging in a antique shop on the opposite side of the road and thought immediately of this post.

    1. Thanks! I’m thrilled that it came to mind!

      g

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