Coxheath Camp

We are continuing to work on our new book about the Great Siege of Gibraltar. Generally, publishers specify a word length based on what is felt to be commercially viable and what the authors feel is appropriate. When doing research, we tend to find enough material to fill many volumes, but the trick is to cut it all down to produce something readable. For our Gibraltar siege book, we could easily wander off into countless digressions, leaving no space for the main story, but our newsletters do allow us to indulge in digressions galore – such as Coxheath Camp here.

Gibraltar’s Great Siege was rooted in the American War of Independence. In early 1778 France sided with the rebel colonies and then in July declared war on Britain. The French tried to persuade Spain to unite with them against Britain and even offered to help capture Gibraltar. Eventually, in June 1779, Spain also declared war on Britain, and the Great Siege of Gibraltar began. While all this was going on, Coxheath was turning into an enormous military camp.

Coxheath (marked ‘Cocksheath’) in the centre of this 1783 map of Kent

Early days

Coxheath – sometimes spelled ‘Cocksheath’ – was located just south of the town of Maidstone in Kent, some 30 miles south-east of the City of London. It comprised a stretch of wild heath land about 3 miles long and a mile wide that was used for a military camp at the start of the Seven Years’ War in 1756. From 1778, with the threat posed by France, Coxheath became well known as a massive military camp, established primarily to train raw militia conscripts in the use of weapons, so as to repulse enemy invaders who were so greatly feared. The camp was also intended to protect London, and a similar camp was located north-east of the city, at Warley Common near Brentwood in Essex.

Accommodation was in canvas tents, laid out in streets, with tents for women at the rear – who were allowed the old straw for their bedding. In June 1778 the Kentish Gazette newspaper published an ‘extract of a letter from a Field Officer dated Coxheath Camp, June 10’:

‘Our camp is nearly formed, and will be the compleatest that ever was seen in Britain. The line from right to left will extend full three miles, and be composed of fifteen thousand men, and 50 pieces of artillery. We shall be immediately joined, I find, by the flower of our nobility.’

A famous or infamous camp

Being so close to London, Coxheath Camp attracted a substantial crowd of traders and prostitutes from the city, as well as from nearby towns such as Maidstone. The camp was also a magnet for tourists from the aristocracy and gentry. The Duke of Devonshire (the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire) was involved in organising militia forces, and he was accompanied by his famous wife, the 21-year-old Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Not long passed before she and her aristocratic friends were bored with watching the military manoeuvres and antics of the soldiers. Instead, the Duchess occupied her time by designing a female version of the military uniform, as was reported in the newspapers in mid-July 1778:

‘From the camp at Cox-heath we are told, that the Duchess of D––––––– hath made herself a pattern of imitation to the oldest veteran in the camp. She sleeps in the Duke’s tent every night on a truss of straw and a mattress, and has been, on several occasions, drenched to the skin with rain.’

The newspapers were always on the lookout for other stories besides the constant reports of the war in America, and so two weeks later another story about the Duchess was published:

‘The Duchess of Devonshire appears every day at the head of the beauteous Amazons on Coxheath, who are all dressed en militaire, in the regimentals that distinguish the several corps in which their Lords, &c. serve, and charm every beholder with their beauty and affability.’

Having set the fashion for all the aristocratic women at the camp, who quickly had garments made that echoed army uniforms, the Duchess also organised them into a female militia. Apart from its propaganda value, the exercise did at least raise morale and amused the men in the camp.

Throughout the summer of 1778, the newspapers regarded any occurrence at the camp as a potential news item. Several reviews of the troops were held, culminating in one in November that took place in pouring rain before King George III and Queen Charlotte. The soldiers were then gradually dispersed to winter quarters until the camp was re-established the following summer, a pattern that continued for many years.

A grand review of the army at Coxheath Camp
(a print published in the ‘Westminster Magazine’, September 1778)

The fictional camp

The camp acquired a reputation for bad conduct, indiscipline and scandal, all of which was avidly reported in the newspapers. Life in and around these camps was satirised in a play called ‘The Camp: A Musical Entertainment’, based on the Coxheath Camp and written by Richard Brinley Sheridan and Richard Tickell. It was first performed at Drury Lane in London in 1778 and proved so successful that it was staged in theatres across the country.

The actress Charlotte Walpole dressed as
‘Nancy’ from the play ‘The Camp’

The characters included Nancy Granger who dresses as a soldier to be with her lover William, and a painter called O’Daub who is mistaken for a spy. The plot, which is essentially a farce involving disguises and mistaken identities, was probably a rather mild version of life at Coxheath Camp, as was a novel published in 1779, by an anonymous author, called Coxheath Camp: A Novel. In a series of Letters. By a Lady. It was sold in two volumes, price two shillings and sixpence. A brief review of the novel appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, including the comment that ‘Letters to and from Miss Ella Rivers, Miss Caroline Fletcher, &c. abound with the pretty light skirmishing of amours and distresses, fit for the masters and mistresses who frequent such watering-places as Margate, or such dusting-places as Coxheath.’

A camp of some kind continued at Coxheath until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, after which the heath was enclosed by local landowners for agriculture. Nowadays the reputation of Coxheath is less scandalous, being the home of the World Custard Pie Championships.