“He who would all England win, should at Weybourne Hope begin.”
Norfolk has always been vulnerable to invasion from the sea, particularly in areas like Weybourne with its steeply shelving beach giving deep-water anchorage close to the shore. A map of 1588, when the Spanish Armada threatened invasion, noted amongst the coastline defences, the ‘Black Joy forte’ at Weybourne. It was also recorded that Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton offered 36 ships for naval service against the Spanish forces, showing the extent of local commitment before the formation of the Royal Navy in 1660. Despite the growing British naval power, coastal communities were still fearful of attack from foreign privateers and possible invasion, given that the French planned, prepared and even attempted several invasions between 1744 and 1805.
During the War of the Austrian Succession, a large invasion force sailed from Dunkirk in February 1744. Fortunately, as with the Spanish Armada, violent storms drove the French ships back to port. Additional defences had been put in place, as Samuel Ballard’s 1747 map of Cromer shows cannons positioned at the end of Jetty Street. Guns were also placed at the top of the Gangway.
The 1744 invasion attempt, together with further conflicts with France over the Jacobite succession and the Seven Years War, forced Britain to consider additional defence measures against invasion. With British forces engaged in colonial fighting, it was estimated that only 10,000 regular troops were available to resist French landings. Consequently, the Militia Act was passed in 1757, which included the formation of the Norfolk Militia. The initial formation of 2 battalions raised a body of 960 men who were then provided with proper uniforms, better weapons and training sessions. Local units were also set up, such as the Cromer Loyal Association. Militia men were severely punished if they didn’t appear for service, being fined £20 and sentenced to 6 months gaol if this wasn’t paid.
Additional trained men were sorely needed as, in 1759, the French again prepared to invade, with a force of 100,000 soldiers. Hundreds of troop carrying barges were built at Le Havre but a surprise British naval attack destroyed many of these. Further French defeats elsewhere resulted in the invasion being shelved. Further French invasions were planned throughout the 1860s but never materialised. Finally, in 1779, a very large combined fleet of French and Spanish ships (utilising American forces) sailed up the channel, causing great alarm when it was sighted off the English coast. Fortunately, adverse winds prevented their landing and then severe sickness amongst the crews of the invasion fleet resulted in them retiring to safe ports.
Back in Norfolk, the immediate fear was of British troops. In 1780, Cromer was searched by 20 Dragoons looking for able-bodied seamen. Three men were press-ganged, the remainder being unfit for purpose. Though Norfolk avoided the major invasion confrontations, there were still a number of local skirmishes. In 1782, a French privateer (L’Escamateur) captured a brig and sloop near Cromer before being captured itself. During the early 1780s, Britain had also been at war with the Dutch and in 1785 a party of Dutch sailors came ashore at Cromer, threatening the lives of locals. Fortunately, a party of light horse were quartered nearby and soon rounded the sailors up.
Additional reserves were deemed required during these troubled times and, at the advent of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793, the Sea Fencibles were formed. These were naval militia, made up mainly from volunteer fishermen. They acted much like the WW2 Home Guard. In the event of an alarm, the men would head to a rendezvous point and then patrol their area of coastline. They would also assist with coastal signal stations, man small boats and act as a lifeboat service.
Britain was on full alert in 1797, after abortive French landings in Wales and Ireland. At this time, Cromer had a battery of four 18 pounders, forming a semi-circle upon the cliffs. If French forces had invaded the area, the volunteer force would probably have been more of a danger to themselves, than the enemy. Whilst training, in June 1799, a Corporal Richard Cook was blown from a cannon mouth as he was withdrawing the rammer. The cannon had been badly sponged and the force carried him to the very edge of the cliff. He had at least 50 wounds from the numerous splinters – but survived.
The fear of invasion heightened further in 1803 when Napoleon turned his full attention to invading England, saying: “All my thoughts are directed towards England.” Invasion plans were on a bigger scale than 1798. Napoleon assembled the Grande Armée of 130,000 men at Boulogne with a flotilla of 2000 transport craft. “Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world… I want only for a favourable wind to plant the Imperial Eagle on the Tower of London.” Thankfully, bad weather intervened once more and the invasion was eventually shelved.
During 1803 and 1804, a French invasion was expected on an almost hourly basis. Letters from Richenda Gurney to Betsy (Fry) tell of happy holiday activities and the grand entertainment at Cromer Hall. However, a prudent John Gurney had 4 carriages constantly waiting to take his family to Ely, which he considered safer, if Napoleon landed (NRO, MC 2784).
The fear of a French invasion was so great, there were orders that, ‘Should any French troops make it to shore, there must be a total destruction of any resources in their path deemed useful to the enemy, whether food, shelter, arms or equipment.’ One ardent Cromer lookout, mistakenly identified a merchant shipping convoy as a French invasion fleet and raised the alarm. Thankfully, his mistake was realised before the region was torched.
Unfounded rumours circulated of a massive flat French invasion raft powered by windmills and paddle-wheels and a secretly-dug channel tunnel. Napoleon seriously considered using a fleet of troop-carrying balloons as part of his proposed invasion force and appointed Marie Blanchard as an air service chief, though she said the proposed aerial invasion would fail because of the winds. However, the Cromer volunteers appeared to be ready for all eventualities. Two armed soldiers were positioned on top of church tower in case any invaders flew over in their balloons!
In Feb. 1804, Sea Fencibles were training by firing the battery guns at a target on the sands. A stray ball struck their captain on the foot and also shattered the leg of John Smith. Immediate amputation was necessary but unfortunately, it wasn’t recorded who carried out the surgery – Mr Smith was the Cromer surgeon.
The Following Years
For the next century, there were no further invasion threats. Instead, ‘sham fights’ were held, for entertainment as much as training.
The dominance of the British after the defeat of Napoleon had removed any threat of invasion and the ‘sham fights’, repelling enemy invaders, had become little more than a spectacle of entertainment. A century would pass before Norfolk would, once again, have a genuine fear of invasion.
Researched and written by Martin Claxton