Jane Austen lived through a time of almost continuous foreign wars and more than one threat of foreign invasion. In 1776, the year after her birth, the American colonials declared their independence from the British empire and finally won it only by 1783. During those seven years Britain was also at war periodically with France, Spain and the Dutch Netherlands, which had all aided the American rebellion.
After almost a decade of uneasy peace, the French revolutionary government declared war on Britain in 1793 when Jane was not yet 18. France’s defeat of Holland and Spain, which then became its allies, left Britain again alone against all three. Though the Royal Navy defeated both the Dutch and Spanish at sea, between 1797 and 1799 there was serious fear of a French landing in the British Isles.
Britain concluded a peace with France in 1801, but within less than two years the war, now with Napoleon in command, was resumed. Particularly during the years 1804 and 1805, until Nelson destroyed the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, there was another period of national emergency and danger of French invasion across the Channel. When Jane died in July 1817, her country was suffering severely from the social and economic aftermath of prolonged war.
How were Scarborough and Scarborians affected by these wars? Firstly, as a North Sea port, fishing harbour, ship-building and ship-hiring market, Scarborough was profoundly altered by the wars fought at sea all over the world. Thomas Hinderwell estimated that in 1811 there were at least 500 “sailors” missing from the town’s census returns of that year, about 15% of the male population. Most of these “sailors” would have been serving in the Royal Navy or in carriers employed by the government and therefore absent from home for years at a time and many of them would have been teenagers. Nelson joined the service as a captain’s servant at the age of 12, and both “Frank” and Charles, Jane Austen’s brothers, were only 12 when they entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth and within two or three years were at sea.
On what evidence we have of occupations at this time, seafaring was the one that employed most of Scarborough’s males. During the years 1773 to 1787, of the 366 males whose occupations can be identified, 115 or more than 30%, were mariners of one kind or another. Between 1813 and 1820, the percentage was still as high as 26, and not until 1823 were their numbers exceeded by innkeepers and lodging landlords. Yet Scarborough’s seamen were outnumbered by all those engaged in ship-building and ancillary industries such as sail- and rope-making; and, as Hinderwell noted, ship-building could be very profitable, but was subject, especially during wartime, to “sudden fluctuations”. For instance, after the first American war, during the years 1784-6, nearly 40 ships were built and launched at Scarborough, whereas that number was greater than the launchings during the seven years of war, 1804-10. In 1801, the year of the peace of Amiens with France, 15 ships were finished at Scarborough, but in 1805, the year of Trafalgar, only three.
As well as the radical fluctuations in demand for ships from the British government, Napoleon’s blockade, effectively closing all European ports to British traders and denying them entrance to the Baltic, had a disastrous affect on seaborne commerce. Between 1804 and 1812 there was a long, deep depression in shipping and foreign trade. At Scarborough only the Tindall ship-builders survived the slump.
However, Scarborough was more than a town of absent mariners and unemployed ship-builders: it still had a fortified, manned castle and a permanent military garrison. In 1794 an artillery battery was set up in Castle Holms overlooking North Bay and two years later another gun battery was position on the headland in the south-east corner of the castle-yard. Since the false alarm of a Jacobite attack in 1745-6, Mosdale Hall in the curtain wall had been re-built in brick to house 120 soldiers billeted in 12 barrack rooms. Finally, to give close protection to the harbour below, a battery of ten, 18-pounder cannon were sited on a platform of South Steel and provided with a guardroom and a magazine for their ammunition.
In addition to the regular red-coats at the castle, Scarborians would have seen two kinds of local home guards, formed in the area to protect them and their shores against a French landing.
Since 1757 a Militia Act of Parliament had made every parish in the land responsible for its own defence. Each county was allocated a quota of numbers depending on its population and its lord-lieutenant and his deputies were given authority to appoint their militia officers. All able-bodied men between the ages of 15 and 50 were liable to serve for three or four years and every year take part in training and manoeuvres. The only exceptions were peers, clergymen, articled clerks, apprentices, constables and poor fathers of three or more children “born in wedlock”. Officers had to be substantial property owners and richer men could escape service by buying substitutes. Scarborough’s local militia were the 5th North Yorkshires under the command of Colonel Fothergill. Press reports of the time show that their annual training in July 1812 and June 1813 took place at Scarborough where they were inspected favourably by Lt-Gen. Cheney. Needless to say, whatever their efficiency and morale, none of the Fifth was ever required to fire his “Brown Bess” at a Frenchman.
Scarborough’s corporation records also tell us, in some detail, of the borough’s own Volunteers, first raised in 1799. They consisted of five companies, reduced to four by 1803, each consisting of between 87 and 114 privates. Their commander was Lt-Col. James Tindall and the other four company commanders were Capts Dale, Travis, Woodall and Coulson, all of the local elite.
Tindall was paid 15s 11d a day and in 1799 served more than a hundred days. In addition to the 114 privates in his company, he had a captain, a second lieutenant, four sergeants, four corporals, two drummers and a fifer. Non-commissioned officers received a shilling per day. Altogether, the cost of all five companies in 1799 was £2,264!
After 1803, the Scarborough Volunteers were “downsized” to only four companies each of about 50 men and they spent no more than two or three weeks in training at Malton. It was there that Scarborough’s vicar, the Rev John Kirk, gave a sermon to them for ten shillings.