Relics of the Norfolk Light Horse

“The mounted Volunteers, who mustered very strongly on this occasion were conspicuous in their scarlet coats and showy helmets…” The Norfolk Chronicle, 14th March, 1863.
Caption reads: “Review of the Norfolk Volunteers on Mousehold Heath…”. The Norfolk Light Horse are mounted wearing white plumes left and right of the engraving.

During my visit to the Suffolk and Norfolk Yeomanry Collection at Muckleburgh in 2017, I discovered something that would have been very easy to overlook. In a case very high up on a wall, almost touching the ceiling was this:

The nearby ceiling light reflects off the glass case and from the floor the sign inside was barely visible to the (shorter than average height) visitor, but thanks to holding my camera high up to take the photo, I could confirm that it reads “Norfolk Light Horse Volunteers“. It contains a Full Dress sabretache and a pouch.

Nothing particularly remarkable here, perhaps. The reason I’m posting about this obscure object is because I’ve been lately furthering my knowledge of Victorian military volunteers by reading W.Y. Carman’s Light Horse and Mounted Rifle Volunteers 1860-1901“. This is an interesting guide to the short-lived phenomenon of Victorian mounted volunteers; not part of the yeomanry as such, but an adjunct to the wider Rifle Volunteer Movement which began in 1859. In 1862, it is thought that approximately 1218 mounted volunteers comprised up to 28 troops of both Light Horse and Mounted Rifles. By 1881, the demands, costs and complexities of maintaining these forces had seen them dwindle away, leaving only 5 units remaining totalling 530 men.

The Norfolk Light Horse, whose sabretache was up on the wall in the Muckleburgh Collection, lasted only 5 years, forming in September 1862 but disappearing well before the end of the decade (August 1867). They had their genesis in the newly formed Norfolk Mounted Rifles and, after evolving into a Light Horse formation, went on to number up to 60 men in total.


”The uniform consists of a scarlet tunic with blue facings, white cross belt, white breeches, and Napoleon boots, the head dress is a busby with blue bag ; the forage cap is blue trimmed with white. A number of the troop have daily appeared in the city during the week, on their way to drill ; they are exceedingly well mounted and certainly present a very imposing appearance… The Norfolk Chronicle, 6th April, 1861.


Initially wearing the busby described above, this troop soon adopted a dark blue / black dragoon helmet with a white plume and an unusual triangular leopardskin patch on the front. By 1863, although still wearing the red tunic, the white breeches had gone and the men are depicted wearing blue overalls with side stripes.

Contemporary prints of the Norfolk Light Horse from W.Y. Carman’s “Light Horse and Mounted Rifle Volunteers”.

The painting below dates from 1862 and depicts the local 1st City of Norwich Rifle Volunteers in their grey uniforms but also shows some men of the “Norwich Light Horse Volunteers” (as they were known locally for a while), easily noticeable in their scarlet-coloured undress uniforms. Officers Captain Gurney and Cornet Grimmer are said to be amongst them. It’s a nice scene and great impression of volunteer soldiering in the Victorian era.

Particularly interesting to me is the view in the background of a rifle range, a topic I posted on back in 2017. The backstop, the targets and the flag can all be made out and also a very high second embankment on the hillside above, no doubt to stop badly aimed rounds from ricocheting up high off the rising ground. I think it’s also just possible to see the rest of the red-coated Light Horse troop mounted on the hill in the far distant skyline.

The rifle range on Mousehold Health, Norwich. © Norfolk Museums Service.

Mousehold Heath seemed to be a popular location for activities relating to Norfolk volunteer activity, so it’s perhaps no surprise to discover pictorial evidence of a rifle range. Part of this heath still exists today, albeit surrounded by new development on the outskirts of Norwich. The area is the opposite side of the city centre to where I used to live, so I am not particularly familiar with it. I wonder if there’s evidence of the range still to be found there?

© Norfolk Museums Service.

In it’s brief existence, the Norfolk Light Horse played a colourful part in a number of local events and occasions. The Records of the Norfolk Yeomanry Cavalry describes something of the unit’s brief existence, including the review on Mousehold Heath seen in the newspaper illustration at the top of this post and reported enthusiastically by the local paper. Examples of their appearances at local events include;

  • 1861 – (As the ‘Norwich Mounted Rifle Volunteers’), a volunteer review at Holkham Park.
  • 1862 – A volunteer fete at Crown Point.
  • 1863 – A ‘grand military parade’ in Norwich in celebration of the marriage of the Prince of Wales.
  • 1863 – Annual volunteer review at Mousehold Heath.
  • 1864 – A volunteer review at Gunton Park, notably with the “band of the 1st Norwich Light Horse” in attendance.
  • 1866 – Escort duty for the Prince of Princess of Wales visiting Norwich – particularly prestigious for the NLHV as the King’s Dragoon Guards were reduced to merely lining the streets!

The Chronicle’s reports on such occasions could be warmly evocative:


‘The 1st Norwich Light Horse, commanded by Capt Hay Gurney, marched with the Lancers from the Cavalry Barracks… As soon as the cavalry had reached Tombland, the other troops fell in and the entire body moved off amid the cheers of the spectators, who by this time were numerous… Every window was filled with lookers on, for the most part ladies, whose bright smiles and cheerful faces, betokened the delight they took in the spectacle.” The Norfolk Chronicle, 14th March, 1863.


Returning to the sabretache and pouch I’d seen in the Muckleburgh collection, I wonder whether W.Y. Carman had access to these original objects when he published the book in 1991. In the passage on the Norfolk Light Horse, he writes;

“A Full Dress sabretache is known. It measured 10 and a half inches high and 9 and a quarter inches at the base. The ground was bright blue or ultramarine with silver lace around the sides and base showing a red outer edge. The regulation crown was set over a ‘VR’ cypher and a three-part scroll. The latter was of red cloth and had silver letters and edging, reading ‘Norfolk / Light / Horse’. W.Y. Carman

A drawing of the sabretache reproduced in W.Y. Carman’s book, presumably the author’s own work. There are notable differences (the shape, the dimensions reported, the crown appears larger and filled with a cream colour in reality, etc.) but is otherwise broadly similar. From W.Y. Carman,”Light Horse and Mounted Rifle Volunteers”.

Smith and Harris’ “The Yeomanry Cavalry of Norfolk”, gives the dimensions as below, distinctly different to Carman’s measurements, and are surprised by the sabretache being the “smallest on record” with a pouch for holding papers, maps, etc as broad as the sabretache. This is perhaps explained by the sabretache being of such small dimensions whilst the need for a pouch large enough to provide utility still remained.

“The sabretache is of particular interest as it is the smallest specimen on record, the width of no more than 7 inches at the top and 8 inches at the bottom, overall depth 9 inches…strangely the pouch is almost as broad as the sabretache.” Smith and Harris.

The clear differences in dimensions, not to say other minor differences in the size and shape of the crown, cypher and other details, make me wonder if they really aren’t two completely different sabretaches. I feel the shape of Carman’s ‘tache further confirms this suspicion.

Carman also describes the pouch:

At the same time a Full Dress pouch was seen, the flap being black velvet edged with silver lace and the embroidered crown with a crimson lining was over N L H V in silver letters. The precise date of these items is not known. Another pouch had an ultramarine flap.” W.Y. Carman

“NLHV”; another drawing, this time of the Full Dress pouch and clearly the same as that held in the Muckleburgh case. The crown is noticeably larger on the Muckleburgh example than in the watercolour. From W.Y. Carman,”Light Horse and Mounted Rifle Volunteers”.

Military artist Bob Marrion probably got a first-hand look at the Muckleburgh sabretache (even though his illustration was published around the same time as Carman’s work) as his sabretache on the cover of Vol.12 of the Uniforms of the British Yeomanry Force book seems to match the one in the collection very closely.

Detail of the cover of Vol.12: The Yeomanry Cavalry of Norfolk. Illustration by R.J. Marrion.

So, the items I saw in the Muckleburgh Collection in 2017 are either;

  • different to the ones written about by W.Y. Carman
  • or the pouch and sabretache which he reports as ‘last seen in 1958’ are one and the same with the Muckleburgh Collection’s and must have somehow resurfaced to find their way there.

Either way, it’s a shame that these relics, some of the few remaining items relating to the existence of this short-lived local mounted force, should be positioned so discreetly in the collection. Over 150 years ago, that humble sabretache would have once been a small part of the grand reviews and colourful parades which brought pleasure to many across the county.


The Royal carriages, escorted by a detachment of the Norwich Light Horse, appeared in sight. The autumnal tints of the trees, the bright uniforms of the Volunteers, the genial sunshine, and the hill and dale of the road, these with the long train of carriages contributed to form a delightful picture…” The Norfolk Chronicle, 3rd November, 1866.


Postscript! – Also high up on the same wall as the Norfolk Light Horse sabretache was another but from a different yeomanry regiment which has also thrown up something of interest. More on that in another post…

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The Robin Hood Rifles

By second group of rifle volunteers, the Robin Hood Rifles, have now been given the plinth and plaque treatment. The final result is pleasing enough, but I’ve struggled a little to get the rifleman’s green uniform to my satisfaction. My first attempt looked fine enough but the highlights were too bold and made the uniform look far lighter in shade than it would have been. The next attempt is the one you see now. The highlights are more subtle but the shade of green isn’t quite to my satisfaction, although I maintain it looks closer to the original versions seen in the museum than appears in these photos.

Robin Hood Rifles Finished (8)

After some deliberation, I’ve reproduced another rifle range scene, given that this is the only location where these volunteer riflemen might be conceivably discharging their Martini-Henrys!

Robin Hood Rifles Finished (12)

I chose some different figures from the Perry Miniatures sprue and /or  glued them in different poses to further differentiate them from the Cheshire Greys. This has allowed me to depict a sergeant making a suggestion to his officer, gesturing to men in the firing line.

Robin Hood Rifles Finished (1)

The officer, meanwhile, is using his field glasses to observe the hits (or misses) on the targets some 300 yards away.

Robin Hood Rifles Finished (7)

Robin Hood Rifles Finished (4)

There are two other Rifle Volunteer Corps that it’s my intention to represent. However, they will require slightly different figures to the ones I’ve been using hitherto from the Zulu War British Infantry box (although the figures are indeed still from Perry Miniatures). I’m not certain whether I shall launch into one of these straight away or take a breather from rifle volunteers and tackle some other figures. I shall reveal my intentions in the next post! Till next time,

Marvin

Robin Hood Rifles Finished (14)

 

Home on the Range

Presenting the finished group of Cheshire Rifle Volunteers! My little cohort consists of men of the 1st Cheshire Rifle Volunteer Corps under instruction from an officer. Out on the rifle range, they are firing their Martini-Henry rifles at targets some 300 yards away. The year is 1884 and a county-wide shooting competition is but a week away. Some further rifle practice is needed if the Cheshire Grey’s best shots are to be in with a chance of winning that silver cup…

A little research revealed to me that the remains of long-forgotten Victorian volunteer rifle ranges do still exist around the UK, some being more readily visible than others. It seems that many of these rifle ranges fell out of use sometime before the Rifle Volunteers final absorption into the new Territorial Force in 1908. Perhaps a dwindling interest in the movement was to blame, but after 1908 I suspect that the Territorial Force’s closer ties to the county regiments of the regular army meant the volunteer battalions might have made use of the regular’s facilities instead.

Cheshire RVC Finished (5)
“No hits, boys? You men can actually see the target, I presume?!”

Finding appropriate drill space and rifle ranges in the early years of the movement occasionally proved problematic and caused friction with the local population. However, during the heydey of the Rifle Volunteers, the activities of the local corps could become important social events. In 1861, for example, a county-wide rifle competition was watched by a crowd estimated to be up to 30,000!

Cheshire RVC Finished (11)
“300 yards!? Wish I’d brought my spectacles…”

The Rifle Volunteer movement always emphasised high standards of marksmanship. So, target practice at the rifle range – described at the time as ‘that interesting, healthful and manly exercise which the Rifle movement is supposed to supply’ – was seen as the main way of maintaining the enthusiasm and skill of the volunteers. An 1864 account of a Buckinghamshire Volunteers rifle competition suggests that the chief source of motivation wasn’t always the silverware however:

“The Volunteers were cheered in no small way by the presence of a good sprinkling of the Ladies, who with a bravery not common to the sex, boldly faced the wind and appeared to take great interest in the proceedings…”

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Men of the 1st Cheshire RVC (Cheshire Greys) around the time of their formation in 1860. Most are wearing shakos of a type similar (though seemingly not the same) as the museum example below.

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Shako of the 1st Cheshire RVC, c.1860.

A 2015 story in a provincial newspaper reported on the discovery of an old rifle range which had been apparently completely forgotten by the local community. Using a metal detector, a former soldier turned amateur archaeologist was first alerted to its existence when he discovered many Victorian-era bullets in the area, saying “...the oldest is the .577/450 Martini-Henry, which came into service in 1871 and is famous for being used during the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.”

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Bullets recovered from a Victorian Rifle Volunteer’s range in Dudley. Martini-Henry bullets centre and post-1889 Lee-Enfield’s either side.

He located an 1880 edition of a map of the area and discovered the rifle range was clearly marked upon it. The locator of the range, Mr Beddard, goes on to describe how the range is depicted on this old map:

It was marked ‘volunteers’, with the firing positions running from the Dudley direction for 850 yards, spaced out every 50 yards up to the target area. Some have marked firing trenches, some have raised firing positions.”

For my own models, I’ve simply included a distance marking post with my group, demonstrating that they are firing at a range of 300 yards from the targets. Not sure what form these posts would have taken, so I’ve simply used my imagination here!

A 2012 archaeological survey report by Herefordshire Council of a Rifle Volunteers’ firing range on Bromyard Downs provides a further insight into the nature of a Victorian Rifle Volunteer’s rifle range:

“The Bromyard range was, like most Volunteer ranges, extremely simple, though some were even more basic in the facilities they offered. Simplest of all was the range on Coppet Hill, Goodrich, with a single lane ending at a target in a small excavation marked as an old quarry, with no intermediate firing points indicated and no flagstaffs. At Aston Ingham near Newent, too, a single target was accommodated in a small delve cut into the rising ground”

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View up a disused Victorian rifle range near Etchinghill, Staffordshire

Others, it seems, could be more elaborate. Some would feature shelters for the riflemen acting as markers and observers. These took the form of emplacements behind the butts or as brick huts placed to the side of the range. Shooting platforms or trenches were sometimes provided, although I imagine that for many ranges firing positions would consist simply of open grassland with distance marker posts – as in my little diorama. In the Bromyard Downs report, it goes on to describe the target end of the range:

At the butts end, the map shows the targets (plural) as a solid square structure projecting forward from a short straight line. Immediately behind the targets was a backstop shown as an earthwork mound 11 yards long with its west end curving forwards. As well as a backstop, this may have acted as a mantlet, protecting the Volunteers on marking duty. Behind that… was a second embankment on the hillside above, no doubt to stop high rounds from ricocheting off the rising ground; the map bears the legend ‘Butts’ between the two embankments. There was also a flagstaff a few yards to the east, which would have given formal warning that firing was taking place and would have aided the shooters by indicating wind strength and direction at the target.

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A view of the Etchinghill backstop embankment.

Stop giggling at the back! There is nothing amusing about being ‘at the butt’s end’. In the example of the Bromyard range, it seems possible that the targets consisted of a marked iron plate, a notion supported by a number of severely flattened spent bullets.

Next, I might put a label on the wooden plinth indicating what the figures represent…

Well, as the painting of these Perry Miniatures figures have been far from anything like a pain in the ‘butt’, be warned that I’ll be continuing this little Volunteer Rifle Corps project with my next small batch of riflemen representing another corps, some of which have already been glued together. More details to follow!