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The Napoleonic Navy and East Lothian

A page to mark the Bi-centenary of The Battle of Waterloo and to record the service of East Lothian men in the wars against Napoleonic France. This page focuses on the Napoleonic Navy – ‘England’s’ ‘Wooden Walls’.

It has been argued that Britain’s domination of the sea made possible many of the military successes of the British Army in Europe and in other theatres of war. But the Navy, as much as the Army, was a ravenous devourer of manpower. Volunteers for the harsh, unforgiving conditions experienced by Nelson’s Navy were never sufficient. East Lothian’s strong maritime tradition meant that there was available a pool of manpower trained to the sea. And so, as the Navy expanded, East Lothian men served everywhere. They served in positions from high to low and although many were there through choice, many others were Pressed. The naval authorities in Leith were active throughout the war in securing hands from merchant vessels off East Lothian’s coast and from coastal communities. This was such a matter-of-fact feature of day to day life it passed almost unnoticed in contemporary accounts.

‘It was curious,’ says a spectator, ‘to behold the fishermen from all quarters, ready to assist the crew, while at the same time they were in a tremor regarding the press-gang, who lay like tigers in ambuscade to snatch their prey.’ Such was the state of free-brn Britons at this time. (James Miller, History of Dunbar)

One such mention (above) was recorded at the first service of Dunbar Lifeboat. In October 1808 she went to the rescue of an embayed, dismasted Royal Navy sloop, the Cygnet. The Dunbar men seem to have had no hesitation about turning out – but it was noted at the time that the crew Leith boat could not be found ‘for fear of the Press’ (and it in fact started out to Dunbar, manned instead by the Press themselves).

En passant, another service of the same lifeboat was in December 1810: two Navy frigates came ashore to the east of Dunbar. Both had been patrolling off the coasts of Norway and Denmark and mistook  their seamarks during a stormy night. Again, the Dunbar lifeboat turned out and this time saved around 50 men from the wreck of the Pallas. The loss of two frigates on one night was a commonplace for the Navy during the period, even without taking the great fleet actions into account.

As Waterloo was the culmination of a campaign that secured a final land victory for Britain and its allies against Napoleonic France, so too was Trafalgar the most significant fleet action of the period. From this victory, 10 years before Waterloo, Britain and her allies achieved such mastery of the seas that land forces could be delivered and supplied anywhere. We’ll never know just how many men from East Lothian served in the navy during the Napoleonic Period: when it comes to detail it’s hard to even name the names of those that served. But the Battle of Trafalgar was commemorated by the National Archives at the time of its 200th anniversary (and before the John Gray Centre opened). This page records some of the East Lothian men present then.

A signal station for an officer and 3 men was built atop North Berwick Law.

A signal station for an officer and 3 men was built atop North Berwick Law.

Needless to say, the Napoleonic Wars disrupted much of East Lothian’s maritime trade. Convoys were instituted, slowing commerce, but preventing even greater losses to Continental privateers that roamed the coast. As a counterbalance, the signal stations that were instituted to relay messages between naval bases and watch the coast were almost by-the-by responsible for saving many lives as they spotted many ships in danger.  Miller notes stations at Dunbar Battery, ‘Garleton-hill’ (sic) and North-Berwick Law. There are some remains from the period at the latter.

The collapse of France after Waterloo caused significant stress in coastal communities as the Navy downsized. The manpower that had sustained the world’s largest fleet was thrown ashore. Some, those that had sailed with successful captains, were able to open inns or return to their trade. Some others could find berths on merchant ships or returned to fishing. But many were never able to take up their previous employment and as depression succeeded the boom of the war years, great hardship was experienced by many maritime communities. Little is known of what the East Lothian coastal communities went through* – the details have yet to be unearthed: perhaps you could help?

* For example, Miller notes (that in 1820, during the Bonnymuir Rising):

‘During these commotions, the East Lothian Yeomanry, under Sir James Gardiner Baird, having been ordered to Edinburgh, while the Berwickshire came to Haddington, the thanks of the city were conveyed to the former by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh (John Manderston) to the Earl of Haddington’

But there is no explanation as to local sentiment, or the necessity for deploying troops in East Lothian.

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