The Bass Rifle Volunteers

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Note the inclusion of the Bass Trade Mark in this illustration
Note the inclusion of the Bass Trade Mark in this illustration

THE BASS RIFLE VOLUNTEERS OF THE 19th CENTURY by Philip A Talbot, Staffordshire University, Business School

Introduction

In 1859, the country was convulsed with an invasion panic. It was widely believed that the French Emperor, Napoleon III was about to further French expansionist ambitions by launching a military assault against the mainland of Great Britain. No less a respected personage than the aged Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo in 1815, stated that the national defences were inadequate, and that:- “It was time to make provisions for the defence of the country and to take all precautions against invasion. I hope that the Almighty may protect me from being witness of the tragedy which I cannot persuade my contemporaries to make measures to avert.” 1

The Duke’s pessimism arose out of genuine British military inadequacy. Unlike the other great powers, Britain maintained a small professional volunteer army with few reserves. The poet Tennyson described the army thus, “Her dauntless army scattered, and small, Her island - myriads fed from alien lands, The fleet of England is her all in all.” 2

In comparison, the continental powers had embraced universal male conscription and could field very large armies as “nations in arms” which was an anathema to British traditions. Moreover, the majority of the army was stationed abroad in imperial garrisons with a third of the army defending India. The existing reserves were the Militia which had been disbanded after the Napoleonic Wars and only reformed in 1852. It was of limited effectiveness and was supported by a volunteer cavalry force, the Yeomanry, which was mainly deployed in a para-military role to suppress domestic disturbances such as political and food riots and protecting industrial premises from striking work forces.

The traditional unconscious and complacent reliance on the supremacy of the Royal Navy was being questioned at this time. This was the period where armoured steam warships were first appearing and there was a common expectation that the French navy would launch a quick surprise attack across the Channel and destroy the British fleet whilst it was still anchored in port and land a large French army. Thus, encouraged by an alarmist press which fuelled the wholesale public invasion hysteria the government of the day was forced to improve national defences.

The Rifle Volunteers

The government revived the formation of volunteer infantry forces by the reintroduction of an act of 1804, later to become the ‘Volunteer Act’. These volunteers were the forerunner of the modern Territorial Army and originally were similar to the Home Guard raised during the Second World War. The patriotic response for volunteers was hugely successful. By 1861, there were 161,239 men under arms throughout the country. These forces were intended for local area defence and were organised in companies and then battalions. The regular forces and the government had initially viewed these forces with suspicion since they were composed mainly of the middle classes and artisans that had no traditions of military service. Moreover, the governing classes viewed with reservation the political reliability of such men armed with modern weapons for some time to come.

The Bass Rifle Volunteers

The social composition of the Rifle Volunteers was distinct from both the army and Militia in that:- “Captains of industry became the captains of infantry companies and drilled their employees in the evenings and at weekends.” 3

In Staffordshire the call to arms had produced a positive response with some 3,139 men joining the ranks of the Staffordshire Volunteer Corps which comprised forty one different companies raised throughout the county. In Burton on Trent three separate companies were formed, the 7th and 8th with 80 men each and the 39th with 66 men. A rare muster roll of 1868 has survived which gives the names of ranks.# This is either the 7th or 8th company with 80 men. It is noticeable that the majority of the volunteers are Bass brewery employees and that the officer commanding is M A Bass himself, whilst the other officers and senior NCO’s are Bass managers. A member of the 39th company, sergeant R W Chubb, a well known farmer in the town and later head of Messrs Bass and Co Cooperage who served between 1875-1885, gave his reason for enlisting as “that he thought it the duty of every citizen to do so.” 4

The Bass rifle company was financed by the company, a common practice by those wealthy business men and firms who raised infantry units from amongst their employees. This generosity extended to not only buying the men’s uniforms but the arms and ammunition also. The accompanying illustrations reveals the earliest type of uniform worn by the Corps, (regrettably no photograph of a Bass Rifleman of the period survives.) Uniquely, the Staffordshire Volunteers all wore the same uniform unlike many other corps. The uniform is of Melton cloth of a dark grey colour with a green collar and cuffs with black braid. The Bass rifle company were further distinguished by also incorporating the famous Bass red triangle emblem as a background to the shako badge, which was the Staffordshire Knott. An example of this general uniform survives in the museum of the Staffordshire Regiment at Lichfield. The men were originally armed with an Enfield muzzle loading rifle which could be fitted with a triangular bayonet. This uniform was in issue until 1878/79 before being replaced with the traditional and conventional red army tunic of the regular forces and henceforward no corporate distinctions were permitted. This reflected the trend whereby the volunteer companies were brought under stricter army control and regulation than had been hitherto.

The Burton companies by 1900 eventually became reorganised into the 2nd Battalion of the North Staffordshire Volunteers and still provided three infantry companies, A, B and H companies of over 130 men each. 5 Lord Bass, as he was later to become, was eventually promoted to command of the battalion. The Burton company still survives to this day as C Company, 3rd Staffs Company of the West Midlands Regiment of the Territorial Army.

References

1. R Westlake, The Rifle Volunteers 1859-1908, Picton Publishing, Chippenham (1982), pvii

2. A Briggs, A Social History of England, BCA, (1994), p274

3. H Cunningham, The Volunteer Force, A Social and Political History, 1859-1908, Croom Helm, (1975), pl

4. 6th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment, Vol 1-4, Ref 172/17S, pl7 Staffordshire Regimental Museum, Whittington Barracks, Lichfield, Staffs

5. Anon, The Military Forces of Staffordshire in the Nineteenth Century, The Staffordshire Newsletter 1901, p43, William Salt Library, Stafford

The Author would be interested to hear from any member who might have further information on Rifle Volunteers raised by any other brewery company. Once again please drop the Editor a line in the first instance.