James Pipon of Noirmont in the Commissariat
In December 1826 there arrived at Noirmont Manor, home of James Pipon, Seigneur, a large consignment of official documents from the Treasury in London. According to his own account there were 500 books and 800 packages,which occupied rooms to the extent of 40 by 17 feet. The reason for their dispatch to Jersey was so that he could reply in detail to the queries by the auditors, who were still at work on them, about his accounts from the days a decade or more past, when he had been Commissary-General in Lisbon, handling millions of pounds of Government money.
It is fortunate that a fair proportion of these papers has survived and found its way into the library of La Société, for they present a lively account of the day-to-day routine of the Commissaries at a stirring period in British History, when the threats of Napoleon were taken as seriously by the people of Britain as in this century were those of Hitler and Nazi Germany.
This article will deal only with the early part of James Pipon's service, on which plenty of material is to be found; nor is it lacking in interest, for it includes service both at home and overseas, which formed a firm foundation for his later career.
The Commissariat existed to provide food for the men of the Army and forage for their horses, but they were controlled not by the War Office, but by the Treasury, a fact which complicated affairs on campaign and led to its members being held for the most part in a lower esteem than they deserved by both regimental officers and generals commanding.
The supplies required were held in stores or magazines, in this case nothing to do with ammunition, which was supplied by the Board of Ordnance. The main commodities were flour, biscuit, meal or pease, and rye, barley, oats, hay and straw. Bread and meat were usually provided by contract. Field bakeries existed for overseas campaigns and would then come under the control of the Commissaries.
As can be imagined, there was an immense amount of paperwork. Regular returns of stores had to be rendered and proformas were used for the state of the magazine and pay of any labourers employed weekly, while an Abstract of Entries and Issues and an Abstract of cash Disbursements were both submitted monthly.
Within the service there was a system of promotion, and a uniform was worn, as we know from a letter of February 1805, announcing changes to be made in it. Commissaries were under military discipline, as the printed instructions, issued from time to time, show. They were bound to obey orders from higher authority, whether their own or military; and they were to be conscious of the trust imposed on them in handling public money and "not to derive the smallest advantage whatever beyond their stipulated pay, under pain of immediate dismissal or possibly punishment by Court Martial".
Guildford and Tenderden
James Pipon's first post, as far as we know, was as Resident Commissary at Guildford. It is of interest that the letter signifying this appointment is signed by one Havilland Le Mesurier, a member of the well-known Alderney family, who was at that time, namely April 1797, a senior Commissary in charge of the South-Eastern Area. It is probable that he took an interest in James, as a fellow Channel Islander, and aided him in his early progress in the service. There is an excellent contemporary account of Havilland acting as master of ceremonies at his brother's wedding in Alderney in 1779, in the Bulletin of La Societe Guernesiaise. This indicates superbly how well fitted he was to be a commissary.
The supplies came down the river Wey from London, and James soon found that he had to be very careful in weighing the sacks and checking the vouchers produced by the various bargemen. He was fortunate in the chief contractor, a man called Nathaniel Brickwood. He wrote firmly but kindly, for example:- "I beg a receipt for all you receive by each barge separate, and I have not your receipts yet. If any abuse of the bags, pray write to me, and in your receipts the number, quantity and weight by each bargeman."
Smaller points could not be ignored. Later in May that year, Brickwood wrote: "I beg, Sir, you will caution these people against ever using those abominable hooks they are in the habit of taking flour sacks on their backs with." Another time he sent Pipon £10 for certain charges, and told him to give the difference to his clerk "for his accuracy and trouble" - adding "This remittance to you had really slipped my memory, of which I am ashamed and beg your forgiveness."
Rats and mice were a nuisance and men were employed to catch them. There is a rather nice touch in an account rendered by a Mr Grafton, who was moving oats into the store. One line reads - "to thread, broom and milk for ye catte ... 2s ld.
James stayed over a year and a half at Guildford, by which time the store was totally cleared. So he was ordered to proceed to take over the magazine at Tenterden, near the Kent and Sussex border. The store here was much smaller, and his stay here did not last long. In August 1799 he was instructed to transfer everything to Rye for embarkation on board ship to accompany a projected expedition overseas under Lieut-General Sir Ralph Abercromby. The bill of lading lists 264 bags of biscuit, 100 of oats, as well as 60 spare sacks, wagon covers and even six needles, three hand hooks and two brushes. James hired a horse and spent four days on the job, for which he was able to draw the recognized allowance of five shillings a day. There is also an intriguing addition to this account: "To expenses incurred by a confidential person who assisted me and came to Rye with the last division, which I defrayed, no salary included." Who could this person have been? A security man, detailed by the Army perhaps.
Another task which commissaries had to undertake comes to light among the papers from the Tenterden period, namely that of writing a report on the resources of the local area. These reports were intended for use in the event of invasion, which was in the minds of the authorities even in 1799, and became even more so in 1803-4. James stated:
- "The roads of communication are bad during the winter months. The direct road, 14 miles from Reding Street barracks to Ashford, impassible for wagons or carts of any description. The only practicable way is by Romney, which makes the distance 30 miles ... the water communication (from Rye to Smallhithe, 2 miles from Tenterden) is too precarious to be depended upon, adding to this the difficulty of procuring barges in an emergency."
Among much else we note:
- "By the month of May the quantities of forage and straw will be considerably diminished. The country in this neighbourhood scarcely furnishes more grain than is wanted for the consumption of it's inhabitants." He added that the farmers were generally in the grazing line and the country pretty much enclosed. Five to six miles away there were hop plantations and woods, and clayey soil prevailed.
The Egyptian Campaign
A more exciting time was soon to commence for James, for in June the next year, 1800, he was ordered to proceed to Deptford for embarkation as an assistant commissary on that very expedition of which he had already heard, under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby. This meant promotion and increased pay, 5s a day from the Treasury, and 15s from the War Office.
It took the British Government some time to make up their minds what to do with the large force they were assembling under General Abercromby, but their destination was the Mediterranean, and James must have been at sea or in Gibraltar or Malta for the next four or five months. In October Abercromby received his final instructions, which were to capture Alexandria from the French and drive them out of Egypt. Napoleon had landed a force of 16,000 men there in 1798 and defeated the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids. But the brilliant action of Nelson and the British fleet on 1 August that year had isolated the French, although Napoleon himself had managed to return to France.
Abercromby did not sail directly to Egypt, but took the troops to Marmorice Bay on the South-west coast of Asia Minor. They arrived at the end of December 1800, and disembarked for training. The Commissariat carried on in its usual fashion, and a number of letters and instructions remain to give a good idea of the problems which arose. Typical is this one from Henry Motz, who was chief commissary, dated 8 January 8 1801.
"A magazine of barley and straw must be established here on shore for the supply of horses and mules, which are expected to arrive daily. I wish you to take direction of it ... There should be a vessel in the bay loaded with straw, which came in with Mr Schmidchen the other day. Find her out and place her near the spot where the magazine is to be. I shall apply to the Admiral to order empty biscuit bags to be delivered to you. Put up a couple of tents and pairs of scales without loss of time."
As in England, cash accounts had to be made up to the 24th of each month and rendered in triplicate without loss of time. The power of bureaucracy is also indicated in the following incident. A Lt-Col Turner on board HMS Trusty wrote to Motz on 16 February 16 to say that a bag of barley had burst while being hoisted on board; and as it was for a favourite horse, he asked that Mr Pipon be allowed to supply him with another.
- "Mr Motz presents his compliments to Lt-Col Turner. By the General Orders of this day the ration of barley is reduced to one third. Lt-Col Turner will judge whether that may not make good his loss. If not, Mr Pipon will on producing this with a fresh receipt issue the quantity required; but it will stand as an extra charge against Lt Col Turner."
Just before the sailing date, 22 February, Motz wrote to James:
- " Address yourself to the officer commanding on shore and act accordingly to his order, but take care you are not left behind."
Voyage to Egypt
During the voyage to Egypt, Instructions for the conduct of the Officers of the Commissariat on the landing of the Army were issued, covering five pages of foolscap. James was placed in charge of the magazine formed at the place of landing and of all stores and implements to be sent on shore from the fleet. For these he had to give receipts to the pursers or masters and keep a regular account as well of what he forwarded to the troops. One can imagine the piles of paper forming in his sand-swept tentage.
Disembarkation at Aboukir Bay, which was opposed by the French, took place from the 9 to 11 March, but the troops fought their way westward towards Alexandria and gained an important victory on 21 March, not without heavy losses on both sides, including General Abercromby himself, who died of wounds received in the very hour when success seemed assured. As all the papers we have refer only to commissariat matters, it is not possible to know how James and his fellows reacted to the fighting, whether they had friends among the commissioned officers, for instance, or how many of them they never saw again. Nor, which would be still more interesting, do any of James' private letters survive.
Meanwhile, as may be imagined, the supply system did not always work smoothly, nor were regulations being properly observed, as the following instruction in a general order of 17 March shows:
- 'The orders respecting the return of barricoes, kegs, bread bags and forage bags to the Commissary General's stores not having been complied with, it is positively directed that the regulations on that head may be punctually attended to, particularly those concerning the forage bags, otherwise it will be impossible to continue the supply. Such corps as have not before 12 o'clock tomorrow complied with this order are to be reported to the Adjutant General for the Commander in Chief's information.'
After the Battle of Alexandria the British force was divided. The new commander, General Hely-Hutchinson, after capturing Rosetta, which enabled the Nile to be used for supply purposes, advanced slowly southwards and by 27 June secured the surrender of the French forces in the Cairo area. Not until early September was the other part of his army, which had been blockading Alexandria, able to capture the city. The French were dispatched back to their homeland and Egypt was once more free.
This meant two supply lines at least for the Commissariat, and they were faced with many difficulties in addition to the tedious routine tasks. Health was a major problem, and James had continuous correspondence with the hospital. During the advance on Cairo nearly a thousand invalids were sent back down the Nile. James himself asked for three days leave in May for health reasons, but the letter granting him this came too late to make it worthwhile. Lt Browne RN, who was responsible for finding shipping in which to land food and forage, wrote, also in May, that he was very unwell, and 'took two pills last night and two this morning. I flatter myself they will have the desired effect,' he added dolefully. Worse still, Commissary General Motz became so ill that his disease 'baffled medical assistance.' He died on 22 July. It is of interest to note that this sad event meant promotion for his assistant, R H Kennedy, who later became senior commissary under the Duke of Wellington in the latter part of the Peninsula campaign and received a knighthood. Not surprisingly Sir John Fortescue records: "Opthalmia and dysentery ravaged the troops".
As a result there was a shortage of labour, especially among the bakers, which caused anxiety to James and his fellows. One baker was reported as being in hospital in a strait jacket. Also there were never enough boats, especially such as were of shallow enough draft for the waters of the inshore lakes.
The best meat that could be obtained seems to have been buffalo meat, and these wretched animals frequently created problems, either by breaking away from their tethering ropes, or escaping from their Arab drivers and taking to the sea. The mule drivers were often feckless and dishonest. One of these animals sent to James by Motz had to be ridden by a washerwoman.
In August James was sent with an escort of dragoons inland to raise buffaloes and cattle if possible from local sheiks. The full cash account for this enterprise, which resulted in the purchase of 47 bullocks, 104 buffaloes and 30 sheep, has survived among the Pipon papers. James does not seem to have enjoyed this period of his service much. He complained that the country around was inundated, that the inhabitants had no means of conveyance but asses, and worse still that the supply of brandy was running out. He begged for more to be sent down the river.
So he must have been overjoyed when shortly after his return to the coast he was ordered to leave at once (10 September 1801) for Malta to join another projected expedition.
This expedition, which was to land a force under Major General Craddock in Brazil, was cancelled, but hardly had James had time to complete his Aboukir accounts to the date of Motz's death, and then to wind up his books for Kennedy till the day of his departure, 9 September, than he was told to take over the commissariat in Minorca - quite a welcome posting, one would imagine. Here he served for some 10 months, presiding over the evacuation of the island, which resulted from the terms of the treaty of Amiens in March 1802.
At first there were some 6,000 troops to be supplied, which involved big contracts, and much of the early correspondence of this period concerns provision of money, as can be seen from the bills of lading of various vessels which carried boxes of coin to Mahon, the chief town and anchorage, on the south-eastern side of the island. In one letter, for instance, we read of the problem of exchange rates for 13,300 Spanish hard dollars, 6,300 Venice sequins, 48,000 Turkish piastres and £244 5s in Dutch dollars. The financial centres were Gibraltar and Lisbon, the firms concerned being Turnbull and Co in the former port and Mayne and Brown in Portugal.
This must have provided James with useful experience for his later appointment in Lisbon, when he was mainly concerned with finance and accounting. Many of the stores in Minorca were in bad condition and this gave rise to another aspect of the commissary's duties, namely to act upon the reports of Boards of Survey appointed before they could be condemned. Thus at Fort George on 26 November 1801 a board consisting of Lt-Col Tinling of the 2/17th regt, with a captain and a quarter-master, declared two barrels of flour to be much wasted by rats, 32 bags of biscuit found to be weevily and unfit for use and 13 casks of wine undrinkable. Rejected stores were sold at auction and the money credited to the Government account.
Havilland Le Mesurier
It is at this stage in the story that Havilland Le Mesurier reappears on the scene. He had come to take charge in Egypt, but wrote several letters of instruction to his fellow Channel Islander while still at La Valetta. One of these supports the impression so far gained that James Pipon was a conscientious and industrious member of the service, concluding:
- "I wish to add that I am extremely happy to find the departments at Minorca under the management of an officer so well known to me, and in the arrangements of this army I shall take care to continue you in your present situation, being well persuaded of its being properly filled."
Although James seems to have left Minorca in July 1802, he had to wait in the Mediterranean many months until a suitable ship could be found on which he could sail with the Army accounts which he had to lodge with the auditors in London. Eventually he reached Plymouth in the last week of March 1803 on HMS Rosario. Apart from his own large black trunk and one small case, he brought various other packages, with which he had been entrusted, namely two barrels of Sicilian wine, several boxes of oranges for various senior officers and a cask of sherry for Lieut-General Sir Harry Burrard.
It was not to be long before further work was found for him. Early in June he was posted to the South-east Area and told to report as soon as possible to Deputy Commissary-General Brown at Chatham. This again sounds like a reflection on his good repute in the service, for this area was the centre of the preparations which were being urgently made against the threatened invasion of England by Napoleon. It was known that orders were going out in France for the construction and assembly in harbours south of Cap Gris Nez of suitable troop-carrying craft and a force of some 100,000 men was envisaged.
While the Board of Ordnance was improving the permanent fortifications at Dover and Chatham and the Commander-in-Chief's department were busy preparing field fortifications and beacons, the commissaries were arranging to establish new magazines for storage of the increased supplies needed for fresh troops expected to arrive in the area during the year. James' first task was to set up stores at Wrotham, Sevenoaks, Southborough and East Grinstead. Apart from the sense of urgency, he must surely have found riding about in this beautiful part of the English countryside, quite unspoiled as it was in those days, a pleasant change from the torrid climate of Egypt and the heat of Minorca.
Another main activity was obtaining from various storemen in Kent accurate reports on their local resources, now likely to be of considerable significance. Routine work continued and James was seldom in one place for long, though later in the year he settled in Canterbury. To show the spirit of the times an apt quotation may be given in conclusion. It is from a letter from a Lt-Col Downman, in charge of the depot at Maidstone, referring to James' request for a report on resources.
- "As there is no expense allowed for the attainment of the knowledge you wish to have, I cannot have a person to assist me, of course, and as I am an old man, and without a horse, and cannot walk as well as I did some years back, I must get my information principally from a few friends that I know in the neighbourhood. Notwithstanding I shall at all times pay every attention to your orders for the good of the service, as far as is in my power."
Later he wrote that although unwell for several weeks he had procured an exact sketch of all the villages and roads six miles round Maidstone and would complete it by showing on the same paper the number of mills, the quantity of corn that could be ground, bread baked etc at the different villages, also the number of wagons, carts etc available.
On 29 March 1804 James was ordered to proceed to London, as his services were pressingly required elsewhere. This turned out to be the charge of the Severn District, with an office first in Bristol and then in Bath. But that is another story.