The Lancashire Rifle Volunteers
The Volunteer movement had its origins in the eighteenth century. Service in the Militia was compulsory at that time for those selected by ballot and who were not wealthy enough to hire a substitute. But specific threats, such as Jacobite risings or the threat of French invasion, induced men to volunteer for home defence. A series of Militia Acts, notably in 1761, 1768 and 1802, had the effect of transforming the Militia from a home defence force into a reserve for the Regular Army, and its former function was increasingly filled by the Volunteers.
Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815 In 1794, the risk of invasion by Revolutionary France persuaded the government to authorise the formation of volunteer units that would be subject to military discipline and eligible for pay when called out. Numerous Volunteer units were formed in Lancashire including the Warrington Bluebacks, regarded (in sentiment if not in direct lineage) as forebears of 4th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment, and the Royal Preston Volunteers. Such units and their successors from 1808 onwards, the Local Militia, usually trained on a Sunday and from time to time did duty in various towns of Lancashire and Cheshire. British Volunteer strength peaked in 1803 at a remarkable total of some 440,000, but with the defeat of Napoleon they were all disbanded.
Riflemen Form! In 1859 a scare a war with France swept the country, exposing the inability of the small peacetime Regular Army to defend Great Britain as well as the vast colonial Empire. The widespread popular demand for additional volunteer forces did not at first find favour with the Government of the day, but the Ministry finally gave way and on 25 May 1859 sanctioned the formation of corps of Rifle Volunteers. Lancashire responded with particular enthusiasm to the call for volunteers and by the end of 1860 over seventy local Infantry units had been raised. Uniforms, equipment, drill halls, rifle ranges, instructors and most weapons were initially provided at private expense or by public subscription, and the Volunteers were unpaid. Within twelve months some 130,000 men were under arms in Rifle Volunteer units. From 1861 the smaller corps were absorbed by their larger neighbours to form Administrative Battalions.
Blackburn Among the earliest units to be raised were the 2nd and 3rd Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps (LRVC) in Blackburn, both officially formed on 4 October 1859. These two corps merged in February 1860, and the 62nd LRVC (Clitheroe) and 81st LRVC (Withnell) were later absorbed. In 1880 the 2nd Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps had six companies in Blackburn and two each in Clitheroe and Darwen.
Burnley On 1 October 1860 Burnley became headquarters of 3rd Lancashire Rifle Volunteers which eventually comprised no fewer than eleven former corps:
4th – raised at Rossendale 4 July 1859
7th – raised at Accrington 20 September 1859
17th – raised at Burnley 16 January 1860
26th – raised at Haigh 1860 (disbanded 1864)
29th – raised at Lytham 28 January 1860
36th – raised at Accrington 7 January 1860
57th – raised at Ramsbottom 26 March 1860
84th – raised at Padiham 18 February 1861
87th – raised at Nelson 7 February 1862 (disbanded 1865)
88th – raised at Haslingden 27 February 1863
90th – raised at Fleetwood 3 June 1868 (disbanded 1870)
Headquarters 3rd Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps moved to Rossendale in 1862 and to Accrington in 1865 before returning to Burnley in 1874, and in 1880 there were four companies at Burnley, three at Accrington and one each at Padiham, Haslingden, Ramsbottom, Stackshead and Lytham.
Warrington The formation of a Rifle Corps in Warrington was proposed at a public meeting by John Clare, the sole survivor of the ‘Bluebacks’ of 1798. The 9th Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps was effectively formed that night, 20 June 1859. It was very much a Warrington unit, but from 1865 it included the 49th Corps which had formed at Newton-le-Willows in 1860. In 1880 the 9th LRVC had six companies in Warrington and one in Newton. Its first Commanding Officer was Colonel J F Greenall VD, who had been the first to volunteer in 1859 and remained in command for over 35 years!
St Helens The 47th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers were raised at St Helens on 29 February 1860 and in 1880 amalgamated with the 48th Corps, formed at Prescot in 1860, to become the 21st Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps with headquarters and nine companies at St Helens and one company at Prescot.
Preston On 30 May 1859, at the behest of Colonel Wilson Patten, the Mayor of Preston called a meeting at the Town Hall where it was resolved to raise a Rifle Volunteer Corps which became the 11th LRVC. A second corps, 12th LRVC, was soon added. The first recruits were enrolled on 29 October at the Militia Depot, now the Lancashire County Museum, and by mid-December both Preston corps were fully manned. Over the next few years 11th LRVC absorbed 12th LRVC and a number of smaller corps: 30th LRVC, raised at Fishwick 7 October 1859; 44th LRVC, raised at Longton 2 March 1860; 59th LRVC, raised at Leyland 29 February 1860; and 61st LRVC, raised at Chorley 6 March 1860. In 1880, headquarters and five companies were at Preston with one company at Leyland and three at Chorley.
Bolton In Bolton the initiative to form a Volunteer Corps again came from a meeting at the Town Hall, on 13 July 1859, and the 27th Lancashire Rifle Volunteer Corps was formed on 15 November. In 1863 the Corps purchased the Fletcher Street site which would remain the home of Bolton’s Volunteers until the 1999 TA reductions. In 1876 it absorbed the 82nd LRVC, formed at Hindley in 1863, and in 1880 it was redesignated as 14th LRVC.
Uniform Volunteer units had initially to provide their own uniforms, and many selected dashing outfits of green or grey decorated with plenty of frogging, Austrian knots and feathers, but once it was pointed out that this would enable an enemy to easily distinguish Volunteers from Regular troops most adopted the more usual scarlet jacket of the British Infantry. For instance, 9th LRVC wore dark green uniforms with red facings when first formed and 27th LRVC wore light grey uniforms with green facings, but by 1861 and 1863 respectively both had changed to a scarlet jacket with green facings. The 47th Corps at St Helens, however, continued to wear a rifle green uniform and accoutrements with red facings well into the twentieth century.
Volunteers usually trained three times a week including Sundays, at the local Militia barracks or Drill Hall and on their own local rifle ranges. Their training largely consisted of drill, the foundation of nineteenth century tactics, and musketry.
Drills and Reviews The drills culminated in reviews, or field days, when thousands of Volunteers would come together to parade their tactical prowess in front of enthusiastic crowds. The earliest such ‘Grand Review’ in the North of England was on the Roodee at Chester in June 1860, while elements of no fewer than nine corps assembled at Warrington that August. Only 5 days later, some 8,000 Volunteers went through their evolutions on Haydock Racecourse, where the grandstand was crowded with spectators. On 1 September an even bigger ‘Grand Review’ involving 10,000 men from all but one of the Lancashire corps was held at Knowsley.
Shooting was fundamental to the Rifle Volunteers and Lancashire was to the fore in acquiring ranges and promoting skill at arms. The County of Lancashire Rifle Association was formed in 1860 at a public meeting in Preston chaired by the Lord Lieutenant; Altcar Rifle Range was opened in October that year, and interest was further stimulated by handsome prizes. Rifle Meetings were popular social occasions.
Annual Training was at first completed in the vicinity of the corps’ home town, but in 1867 the Bolton Volunteers went under canvas at Lytham, one of the first corps to institute the annual camp which became so characteristic a feature of the Volunteer movement. In later years, Regimental Camps would alternate with ‘Brigade’ Camps organised by District HQ. For many working men from industrial Lancashire these camps were welcome holidays from the drudgery of everyday toil.
The Cardwell Reforms On 1 July 1881 the numbered regiments of Regular Infantry were paired and renamed as battalions of County Regiments, with Depots in their recruiting areas. The Rifle Volunteer corps were, like the Militia Regiments, incorporated in the scheme and became Volunteer Battalions of the new regiments:
Corps & Headquarters Volunteer Battalion Formation Date
2nd LRVC (Blackburn) – 1st VB The East Lancashire Regiment 1890
3rd LRVC (Burnley) – 2nd VB The East Lancashire Regiment 1890
9th LRVC (Warrington) – 1st VB The South Lancashire Regiment (PWV) 1887
11th LRVC (Preston) – 1st VB The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment 1882
14th LRVC (Bolton) – 2nd VB The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment 1882
21st LRVC (St Helens) – 2nd VB The South Lancashire Regiment (PWV) 1887
The South African War 1899-1902
The links between Volunteer and Regular battalions of the County Regiments were greatly strengthened by their shared experience in the Boer War, when the Volunteers sent out a succession of Active Service Companies to serve alongside the Regulars, very much as they do today. The Volunteers were fortunate in having no battle casualties, though they suffered 14 deaths from accident or disease.
The Volunteers returned to a tremendous welcome in their home towns. Indeed, all contemporary records speak of the intense local patriotism and sympathy with which the people of Lancashire followed the fortunes of their local Regiments at this time and there can be no doubt that the South African War did much to confirm the strong ‘County’ identities and ties of the new Regiments.