The American Invasion of Britain (and Dad’s Army!)

Invasion (or the threat of it) is no laughing matter at the time, but when the threat is long passed, it can have its humorous side.

Generations of people in Britain have laughed out loud at the antics of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, in the BBC TV sitcom and spin-off films, Dad’s Army. Set in the Second World War, it features a bunch of enthusiastic but hapless men who by day work in the bank, the butcher’s, the undertaker’s. Work done, they parade in the church hall, then patrol the seafront, ready (?) to arrest Nazi paratroopers, and repel invasion.

BBC sitcom Dad’s Army ran from 1968 to 1977, but is still hugely popular today

Captain Mainwaring and co probably had their equivalents in 1778.

On April 7, 1778, announcements appeared in the Cumberland Pacquet, issuing a summons by James Lowther. As in the first 1st Earl of Lonsdale, known after his death as Wicked Jimmy. And known in his lifetime as someone best not argued with.

“HAVING received his Majefty’s Royal Sign Manual ordering me to draw out and embody the MILITIA of the County CUMBERLAND with all convenient Speed: I do hereby give notice to the feveral Officers and Private Men belonging the Militia, that they do Assemble at Penrith on Friday the tenth day of this instant April.”

Beneath it was a notice for the militia of Westmorland, who were required to muster in Kendal on the 14th.

Neither advert specified at what time, or where exactly in Penrith or Kendal they were to meet. But both made it clear non-attendance would be punished.

Anyone who was sick could be excused, IF they notified the commanding officer. 

Anyone else failing to attend at the (unspecified) time and place “will be severely prosecuted for such Neglect.”

An army picked by ballot

The Royal Sign Manual simply meant King George III signed the order. The Militia were a local defence force – a system that has existed in various guises down the centuries. The difference with Dad’s Army was that the 1940s Home Guard were all eager volunteers.

In 1757, a rule was brought in that all men aged 18 to 50 (with some exemptions) were liable to serve, or find substitutes to serve.

Each county had a quota of men to fulfil, with a ballot deciding who would serve (for a term of three years).

There was no pay during training and exercises, but if ‘embodied,’ the men would receive a regular Army private’s pay.

They could also be required to serve in any party of the country.

The only way to get out of it, if you were chosen in the ballot, was to provide a substitute, or pay £10 towards the provision of one.

The American invasion of Whitehaven

It was warlike preparations by France that caused the Militia to be called out in 1778 – but it wasn’t just the French. In fact, Whitehaven carries the distinction of having been the last place in Britain to be attacked by American naval forces. 

In practice, the attempted invasion was a bungling effort well ‘worthy’ of Dad’s Army.

This plaque tells the story of the invasion

On April 23, 1778, during the American War of Independence, Commander John Paul Jones arrived off Whitehaven with the intention of setting the whole merchant fleet on fire. 

One version has it that the ships were too wet to burn,  and all, invaders and locals, retired to the pubs and the Americans sailed away the next morning.

A longer version   details how it fell apart – and how one of Jones’ men, David Freeman, warned residents of the danger.

However, naturally it still caused great alarm

Invasion was no joke then

In May, there were several companies of militia in Whitehaven, ‘for the defence of this place,’ with others at St Bees, Ravenglass, and elsewhere on the coast.

“A party of the militia, under the command of a commissioned Officer, patrol the streets in the night time, and every person they meet with, at unseasonable hours, is carefully examined.”

Which for sure conjures up images of a Dad’s Army scenario: 

“Halt, who goes there?”


“Identify yourself, ‘friend’.”

“Here are my identity papers.”

“That seems to be in order… all right, Tom, how’s the missus?”

For sure, there probably weren’t too many invading Frenchmen to trouble the Private Pikes of Whitehaven in 1778. But that didn’t mean things were taken lightly. 

When Private William Harbett, aged 27 from Drigg, went absent without leave in May 1778 (‘last seen in Egremont’), a reward of 20 shillings (£1) was offered to anyone who secured him.

And while it’s tempting to regard the thing as a joke, the risk seemed as real then as the risk of invasion would again in 1940.

‘Don’t panic’

Indeed, the Militia did see something resembling action in Whitehaven, on May 15, 1778, when around 5am, ‘a vessel, seemingly of considerable force, appeared off this harbour, and fired several guns’.

The Watch sounded the alarm, the Militia drums beat the call to arms, and three companies of the Cumberland battalion marched to the New Quay. The Westmorland battalion marched out of town to Thwaite Field, followed by a party of artillery volunteers. And the seamen readied the batteries for firing.

In true Dad’s Army fashion, the ‘enemy ship’ turned out to be a friendly one that had sailed from Rhode Island, and the ‘attack’ was actually a gun salute to Whitehaven!

The townsfolk appreciated the Militia’s efforts, as did the people of Workington and Maryport, where militiamen kept watch for enemy invaders.

There were other reports of ‘suspicious’ vessels – feared to be American privateers. But by June, it was decided the French were more likely to sail up the east coast of England than the west – three companies of the Cumberland Militia, quartered in Whitehaven, marched under orders to Sunderland.

They were replaced in Whitehaven by the 280-strong Denbighshire Militia, who (jointly with the Westmorland Militia and ‘gentlemen of the town’) gave a ball ‘for the ladies’ at the Assembly Rooms in July 1778. 

The logic of moving a force from Whitehaven to Sunderland then replacing it – rather than, I don’t know, sending the Denbighshire men to Sunderland – also seems a bit like Dad’s Army. But there may have been method in it. 

Meanwhile, as a sign of appreciation for reservists, when one John Merryman, a fifer of the Westmorland battalion of militia, died, he was buried with military honours.

And what of Wicked Jimmy? As the commander in chief of the Cumberland and Westmorland Militias, he was leading bravely from behind! He was safe in Lowther Castle – about 50 miles inland of Whitehaven, and 85 miles inland of Sunderland. 

He did show up in Whitehaven one Sunday in July 1778, to review the Westmorland Militia on exercise the following day, but he went back to Lowther at 5pm on the Monday. You can read more about him and the Militia here.

Rumours, a riot, and logistics

In August 1778, there was another alarm worthy of Dad’s Army, when a Militia sergeant apprehended a man in Whitehaven he suspected of being a spy. The man, whose ‘crime’ was to have been showing interest in the town’s fort, turned out to be ‘a Gentleman of great fortune and family’.

Fears of invasion continued, fuelled by rumours, but the only action the militiamen saw was either exercises, or celebrations of royal birthdays (and the like).

In May 1779, the combined militias did see real action – sadly, purely domestic. There was a riot in Whitehaven over a licensing matter, the rioters bringing two cartloads of stones as ammunition. The militia were called in, and also came under attack, few escaping injury from the stones. They initially fired over the heads of the rioters, but it was only after finally firing a few shots AT them that the mob dispersed. Six people were injured, but none killed. A reward of 20 guineas was offered for the capture of one of the leaders of the riot, Joseph Trueman.

That month also saw another panic: reports of a French fleet leaving Brest. The Whitehaven magistrates requested back-up, and duly got two companies from Cockermouth and two from Carlisle sent to them. 

It dawned on the magistrates, too late, there would be problems finding quarters for this influx of men – and so they promptly sent the Cockermouth men back again.

They marched them up to the top of the hill…

In June 1779, Whitehaven said goodbye to the men from Wales – and hello to a battalion of 420 ‘healthy, active young men’ from Durham. They were headed by the hon Henry, Earl of Darlington, who attended to their placing at the forts, batteries and elsewhere in the town.

While the brigadier-general and his men from Durham were trekking 106 miles west, there were men from Westmorland being sent to Sunderland. 

Which is about 13 miles from Durham.

As for the Cumberland Militia in June 1779, they were marching from Sunderland… to Scarborough. And by October 1781, they were being reviewed – in Whitby.

As for Whitehaven, it was still being guarded – by four companies of militia from Glamorganshire, South Wales – more than 300 miles south.

Either it was felt the French were more likely to sail all the way to Whitehaven than they were to attack the South Welsh ports. Or, maybe militia from Sunderland were protecting Swansea and Cardiff!

In February 1883, it was announced that they’d all be going home. A month later, he Cumberland Militia marched to Penrith, then Keswick, where they were disembodied (stood down). The Westmorland Militia were disembodied in Keswick.

There were soon to be accusations in Parliament involving Wicked Jimmy’s time in charge. But, that’s a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, if anyone does have an explanation for these poor reservists being marched hundreds of miles from home and replaced by others who’d had to march hundreds of miles from THEIR homes… 

Whitehaven watchtower also references the invasion


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