George Baxter’s Military Service

An image of digital record held at East Sussex Record office - image courtesy of www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/GB179_L_2_3_7_843

You might be surprised by the title or perhaps even thinking that it can’t be right but Baxter did have ‘service record’.

Firstly, if I may, let me set the scene. Local Militia or reserve forces were common in the 19th century, for most dates it was voluntary but during the Napoleonic Wars 1803 – 1815 it was compulsory. During those wars there was a real threat of invasion from Napoleon I and his French troops, so much so that 103 Martello Towers, large fortified structures of which a number still exist, were built along the south and east coast of England between Sussex and Suffolk, the areas closest to France and the whole area was on constant alert.

Lewes, Baxter’s home town, was in the front line of any perceived invasion. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 the threat presumably dramatically reduced but some local militia continued well into the 1820’s.

Enrolment into the militia would have been by ballot, a requisite number of names would be drawn from each parish who each held their own list. Every male between the ages of 17-55 were eligible to be called up. There were four categories and men between the ages of 17-30 were in category one. You could ‘avoid’ actual service by paying someone else to act as your substitute. Sometimes the parish would even pay this ‘bribe’ as, if they would have to support your family while you served, ‘bribing’ an unmarried substitute seemed a prudent option.

Once drawn you, or your substitute, served for a set number of years after which your liability expired. As far as I can ascertain, in the 1820's, if your name was drawn you had to attend an initial training camp before reverting to your civilian job and then you would have to attend annual training. The Militia Act of 1852 meant 56 days of initial training and then 21 – 28 training days every year. In the event of war you called be called upon to serve fulltime.

So to the facts, the Rape of Lewes established militia enrolment dated 30th March 1826 held at the East Sussex Records office shows an entry:

“Robert Coombe of Brighton aged 29, bookbinder served in place of George Baxter of All Saints Lewes, time expired”

So how do we know this relates to our George Baxter? GB was christened at All Saints Church and his family lived in that parish. There is only one other GB recorded in Lewes in 1826 but they were in the Cliffe and South Malling Parish which was across the river, the more industrial side of the town, where the likes of tanning was done, confirming, as much as we can, that this entry does relate to our George Baxter.

We do not know how long anyone had to serve but the record shows that he was ‘time served’ in 1826. So who was Robert Coombe? I don’t think we will ever know exactly but as he was a bookbinder from Brighton there is a good likely hood he was known to Baxter when he was running his father’s bookshop in that town, perhaps even an employee, and Baxter would have paid him to serve in his place.

‘Great Britain – Abstract of the Population’ for 1821 quotes the number of men of all ages in the parish of All Saints was 747. Taking into account that George Baxter would have been in the highest category since he turned 17 in 1821 he must have known he was quite likely to be called, of course what we don’t know is how long they served hence when he was called.

I would like to thank John Kay of the Lewes History Group for his assistance without which I couldn’t have written this article

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