I’ve very recently become the proud owner of some large antique prints purchased at what was an absurdly low budget price (aka ‘my price range’). On coming through the post, they emitted that strong musty smell suggestive of great age and antiques.
The four prints depict the following yeomanry cavalry regiments from the 1840s:
The Yorkshire Hussars
The Buckinghamshire Hussars
The Suffolk Yeomanry, Long Melford Troop
The 2nd West York Yeomanry
They are in excellent condition considering their great age. Coming with their own generously sized mounts, they are 45cm x 55cm in dimensions, so they are really quite large for a suburban domestic property. My wife has generously agreed to their being displayed in the spare upstairs room as soon as I source some appropriate frames.
So what’s the story behind these prints?
They are from a series of prints titled “Fores’s Yeomanry Costumes“. Each print is dated to a specific day of issue, between 1844 and 1846, and state that they are published in London by “…Messrs Fores, at their sporting and fine print repository & frame manufactory, 41 Piccadilly, corner of Sackville Street.”
‘Messrs Fores’ were the sons of Samuel William Fores. He was an illustrator and publisher based in London. Fores Senior was the son of a cloth merchant and established his business as a print seller in 1783, specialising in popular satirical caricatures. Yeomanry had featured in Fores publications prior to the 1840s. the most infamous of which was by George Cruickshank who created a biting satire on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. The sarcastically titled “Manchester Heroes” are the men of the ‘Manchester and Salford Yeomanry’ who are sabreing defenceless men, women and children, to the anguished cries of “Shame!”
After S.W. Fores’s death in 1838, his sons took over the business and moved their output from satire to sporting scenes and fine art. This series of yeomanry costumes, begun a few years after their father’s death, was probably a part of that intentional move away from the satirical publications that had made his fortune.
The prints are plates numbered 1, 3, 4 and 6 from a series of eight, so far as I can tell, in total. The drawings are by Henry Martens, a military artist whom I’ve mentioned before on Suburban Militarism after seeing copies of some of his paintings displayed at the Royal Norfolk Regiment Collection, The 2017 Anglo-Sikh Wars exhibition and also at the Staffordshire Yeomanry Museum last year. I also saw a print from this very series when I visited the Shropshire Yeomanry Museum earlier this year. The print (plate 5 in the series) featured the South Salopian Yeomanry and was reproduced on my report on the Shropshire Yeomanry earlier this year.
Martens painted a great deal of military scenes in the early 19th century, notably on the Sikh and Xhosa wars. He was, however, apparently also well known for his depiction of British army uniforms released between 1839 and 1843 under a different publisher (Ackermann). The Yeomanry Costumes drawings appears to have been a natural continuation of his successful uniforms series with Ackermann.
Martens’ works were often engraved and hand-coloured by a lithographer called John Harris, and this is indeed the case with my own prints. The ridges of carefully applied paint on the prints can still be felt on the fingertips!
I’m well used to seeing the beautiful and prodigious work by Richard Simkin in his depictions of the yeomanry during the 1880s and 1890s. Henry Martens, it seems, can be placed in a tradition of faithfully recording the exotic dress of Britain’s yeomanry regiments, a tradition which was carried on by Simkin.
As I’ve indicated, I believe, at least four more paintings were produced in this series. These depicted the West Essex Yeomanry, the Buckinghamshire Artillery Corps, another scene of the Long Melford Troop from Suffolk and, as previously mentioned, the South Salopian Yeomanry. It’s interesting that two were produced for the Long Melford Troop and two for troops from Buckinghamshire and Yorkshire. Some of the prints (notably not the Long Melford Troop) includes a dedication to a local dignitary and the ‘Gentlemen of the Corps’. It’s possible that sponsorship was received by the publisher for this series from those willing and able to pay for the privilege.
There may be more than 8 prints in the series. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any other bargains, though wall space for any more will be limited! I doubt another in a similar and affordable price range will turn up any time soon, however!
Folly – noun; plural noun: Follies. A costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.
Having been a member of the Victorian Military Society for more years than I’d like to admit, I’m always keen to explore any museum or collection which furthers my interest in the topic. Last year, during my summer holiday to Dorset, I visited Nothe Fort; a Victorian coastal fortification just down the coast from where I was staying.
Weymouth, being a seaside resort, might not be an obvious place to find a fort. This coastal fortification, built to protect Portland Harbour, was one of the so-called Palmerston’s Follies. Suburban Militarism visited and reported another of these ‘follies’ a couple of years ago at Hurst Castle, opposite the Isle of Wight.
In 1869, Napoleon III’s France began work on the construction of “La Gloire”, an Ironclad battleship. This was in part a deliberate challenge to Britain’s naval dominance, but it was also a response to the experiences of the Crimean War amongst other conflicts. The industrial revolution had changed and improved coastal artillery design improving range, accuracy and damage. As France signalled an ironclad challenge to the ‘wooden walls’ of Britain’s peerless navy, British coastal fortifications suddenly took on an importance they hadn’t had since Napoleonic times.
In 1860, a Royal Commission set up by Prime Minister Lord Palmerston sparked a multi-million pound coastal defence development programme. Nothe Fort was part of this response, being completed in 1872. Unusually for the time, it was built by the Royal Engineers and not by private contractors, which had gone bankrupt shortly before commencement. The fort’s walls were 13ft thick at casemate level (the level of the guns) and 50ft thick at the lower magazine level! The twelve casemates originally housed:
x2 64 pounder rifled muzzle loaders (RMLs).
x4 9 inch RMLs – firing 256 pound shells up to 3 miles.
x6 10 inch RMLs – firing 400 pound shells up to 3 miles.
Built by Victorian armament giant Armstrong, these were large and powerful cannon for their time, requiring a team of 18 men to service each gun. In 1892, all the 9 inch RMLs and three of the 10 inch RMLs were replaced by an even mightier gun;
x7 12.5 inch RMLs – firing 818 pound shells up to 3.5 miles.
Below is a summary of some of these mighty Victorian Armstrong guns, some of which were installed at Nothe Fort or displayed in model form:
Armstrong 64 Pounder Cannon:
x2 emplaced 1873 and 1904
Fired 64 pound shell a distance of 3 miles
On entering Nothe Fort, I was immediately confronted by one of these 64 pounder guns. Armstrong’s 64 Pounder Cannon was the first Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) gun to enter British service.
It is mounted on a wooden carriage with thick rope stays. Aiming was facilitated by iron wheels which ran along an iron track in the floor. The shells can be seen bottom left in my photo above.
Two of them were installed in the fort specifically to protect the harbour entrance, hurling their 64 pound shells across the harbour and Weymouth Bay. They were in service from 1872 before being finally declared obsolete by 1908.
Armstrong 9in Rifled Muzzle Loader:
x4 emplaced 1873 and 1892
Fired 256 pound shell a distance of 3 miles
Four of the casemates originally housed these 9 inch guns. One can see how much larger it was when comparing this model with the above model of the 64 pounder and crew. Unlike the 64 pounder, it is housed on an iron carriage to better cope with the increased weight and power. No replica or original of the 9 inch gun exists in the fort today, aside from this model.
Armstrong 10in Rifled Muzzle Loader:
x6 emplaced 1873 and 1912
Fired 400 pound shell a distance of 3 miles
The 10 inch RMLs took up six of the casemates and were initially the largest guns in Nothe Fort until replaced by even larger calibre guns in the 1890s. The above model of the nine men of the Royal Artillery servicing the gun show them in shirt sleeves with pillbox hats. More men would be down in the tunnels of the magazine level supplying the crew with shells and cartridges. No replica or original existed in the museum.
Armstrong 12.5in 38 ton Rifled Muzzle Loader:
x7 emplaced 1892
Fired 848 pound shell a distance of 3.5 miles
The massive 12.5 inch RML gun is a reproduction but is brilliantly impressive nonetheless, giving a real impression of the weight, size and sheer power of these monsters. The casemate which houses it had manikins dressed in period uniforms to provide a good impression of how the men of the Victorian Royal Artillery would have looked at this time.
During this period, the Royal Artillery was divided into three arms, named respectively the Royal Field Artillery (RFA); the Royal Artillery (RA); and the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA). It would have been the RGA (as specialists in siege and coastal artillery) which would have manned Nothe Fort, perhaps with some assistance from the local Artillery Volunteer Corps.
In 1892, all the 9 inch RMLs and three of the 10 inch RMLs were considered obsolete and replaced by these more powerful 12.5 inch guns;
The manikins also helped to demonstrate something of the processes involved in serving such a large cannon. One of the manikins is pictured below wheeling the canvas-wrapped charge, packed with explosive, up to the muzzle and the massive ramrod can be just seen lying on the floor. Another man wheels over the heavy 818 pound shell. The embrasure is covered by a mantelet, a thick rope curtain, which would have been fully closed when loading the cannon and intended to protect the men from counter-battery fire, shrapnel and snipers.
Men of the Royal Garrison Artillery were required to sleep and live on the gun decks. Nothe fort gave a nice impression of life in the barracks. The thin walls on the side facing the inner courtyard were quickly removed during gunnery practice and could remain so for days at a time. Consequently, their living quarters were liable to be somewhat open to the elements on one side – most unpleasant in winter time!
The Magazine Level: down in the tunnels…
The fort was particularly informative when it came to explaining how the guns were served with the constant flow of ammunition required to keep the enemy at bay. It all happened below the gun deck deep, down the magazine level’s tunnels which circumnavigated the whole fort.
The magazine level had the potential to be a source of total disaster for the fort. The very slightest of sparks could ignite the black powder stored there and destroy the fort from the inside. The risk was very real and the Royal Artillery took great precautions to prevent it from happening.
Lamps were kept in special sealed cabinets embedded in the walls to prevent the naked flames becoming ignition sources and reaching the powder. Furthermore, the small room where black powder was stored and cartridges prepared were kept strictly separate from the rest of the fort. It was accessible only via a “shifting lobby”, a changing room where men would have to divest themselves of all their usual clothing and change into white clothing containing no potential sources of sparks instead (no metal buttons, badges, etc.). Heads were covered with cloth caps and even the shoes were canvas as hobnails in the soles could create tiny sparks on the floor.
Men were not allowed to pass from one side of the lobby whilst wearing their usual uniform. Above we can see RGA uniforms in one lobby already hung up on the wall, their owners already changed and at work in the shifting lobby accessible through a side door.
Once the cartridges were prepared, they were cased for safety and passed to the corridor through a small hatch low in the wall.
Thereafter the charges were transferred carefully to a winch and hauled up to the gun deck. The shells were also separately winched to the gun deck from the nearby shell store.
Shells did not need anything like the same level of precaution as the charges as they contained no explosive material.
The heavy 12.5 inch shells, due to their great weight, had to be lifted up to the gun deck via special mechanical winches.
Once the shells and cartridges were up on the gun deck, the gun crew would load them and continue to pour fire upon those enemy ships!
Nothe fort was built with what was the deadliest industrial armaments then available. It was industrial armament developments which soon brought about its demise, however. Naval technology put the balance of power once more back into the hands of the ships. Whilst even the most powerful Armstrong coastal gun could lob a shell 3.5 miles, a dreadnought battleship could hurl far more destructive shells at a much greater distance, meaning the fort could be destroyed by distant battleships with impunity.
Palmerston’s follies showcased the immense fire power of a leading industrialised nation. They projected a Great Britain both brimming with confidence and yet at the same time fearful that its international pre-eminence would be challenged. These fortifications may have proved to have been follies, but their 21st century role as museums of coastal defence makes this military history nerd very content indeed.
Now back to those French WWI 1914 infantry which are coming on apace but are likely to be delayed this week due to domestic circumstances. Updates will follow when ready…
The fourth and final group of Victorian Rifle Volunteers is now completed. The group are depicted in the hot sands of Kassassin, Egypt in 1882. It was here that the Post Office Rifles (known officially as the Army Post Office Corps or APOC) came under fire from Colonel Urabi’s Egyptian army (see my previous post on this). I know that they took no casualties and am assuming for the purposes of this project that they actually returned fire.
In my little diorama, the men of the Post Office Rifles have formed a firing line, variously loading, firing or assessing their shots under the instruction of an officer.
I’ve added a few arid looking plants to the sand and rocks. Given the hot and dusty conditions, I’ve dry-brushed some of the desert onto their puttees and trousers to make them look suitably campaign-weary.
Ah, those puttees… As mentioned in a previous post, I rashly began painting them with Indian army style puttees rather than selecting figures with leather gaiters, which is what they would have worn. Never mind, putting puttees aside, I still think it gives a nice impression of these men taking part in the 1882 Egyptian campaign.
I took some time playing around with the white foreign service pattern helmets. Too much shading and the white helmet looks unnatural; too little shading and it looks too bright. After some last-minute tinkering, I think they look satisfactory.
That’s all from my Victorian Rifle Volunteers project; for the foreseeable future at least. Next up on the Suburban Militarism “To Do” list are a number of possible figures. The ongoing Napoleonic Cavalry Project has been in hiatus since July and I’m about ready to tackle another regiment.
But creeping quickly up on us all, of course, is Christmas and with that in mind I’ve some more figures under way for what has been something of a seasonal tradition at Suburban Militarism – Christmas Soldiers! More about this soon.
My fourth, and for now last, group in my series of Victorian Rifle Volunteers I can now reveal will be the 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers, more famously known as “The Post Office Rifles“.
In 1860, the Civil Service Rifles (aka 21st Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps) contained a number of companies consisting exclusively of General Post Office workers. Seven years later, over 1000 of these GPO men volunteered for service as Special Constables in response to terrorist acts by the so-called Fenians (Irish Nationalists). Once the threat had subsided, these men went on to form a new separate corps, the 49th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers (Post Office Rifles), later being renumbered as the 24th. They wore dark grey uniforms with scarlet facings.
In 1882, a group of over 100 men of the GPO serving with the 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers volunteered for active service in Egypt with General Wolseley’s army. The intention was that the army could make use of their postal and telegraph expertise in the course of communication duties. They were duly formed as the Army Post Office Corps (APOC) by Queen Victoria’s Royal Warrant on the 22nd July 1882.
During their service in Egypt, they became notable for being the first men of the rifle volunteer movement to see action and win a battle honour (Egypt 1882). They came under fire during the action at Kassassin, taking no casualties. This battle was a skirmish prior to the main action at Tel-el-Kebir where the Egyptian army under Col. Urabi was defeated by Wolseley. I found a contemporary poem on the skirmish at Kassassin, from which this extract below gives a sense of the hardships experienced by these volunteers.
RAINED on all day by the sun,
Beating through helmet and head,
Through to the brain.
Inactive, no water, no bread,
We had stood on the desolate plain
Till evening shades drew on amain;
And we thought that our day’s work was done,
When, lo! it had only begun.
Extract from the poem “At Kassassin” by Arthur Clark Kennedy, 1891.
After the war, their service was considered a great success, General Wolseley stating that
“The formation of a purely military postal department has been a tried for the first time in this war. It has been very successful… I have much pleasure in bringing to the notice of the Secretary of State the admirable manner in which the Post Office Corps discharged its duties in Egypt …Their services have been so valuable that I hope a similar corps may be employed on any future occasion…”
The Gordon Relief Expedition in 1885 saw the next active service of the corps and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 being the subsequent venture. But it is the Kassassin incident during the Egyptian campaign which I intend my figures to depict.
Now I come to admit to what can only be described as something of a figure modelling gaffe! Let me explain…
So far as I can tell, the PO Rifles should be depicting wearing leather gaiters on their lower legs. I have figures a plenty I could have used for these but, inexplicably, the Perry Miniatures figures that (for some reason) I chose to begin painting wear puttees instead. Below left shows the figures with gaiters and right with puttees.
Puttees were in use at this time by some British forces but almost certainly not by the PO Rifles. After some consideration however, I’m ploughing on with them regardless rather than abandoning them for figures with gaiters. Ultimately, I just really like these figures and poses, so Post Office Rifles with puttees it is. Who knows, maybe they did actually wear them?
And anyway; as I always say, ‘my figures – my rules‘!!!
The figures are already approaching completion so expect an update on progress soon.
The third vignette of groups of Victorian Rifle Volunteers is now completed. It took a little longer than planned thanks in no small part to the unwelcome appearance of a gastric virus which has laid me low for a few days. Feeling a little better today, I charged for the finishing line by finishing the basing and popping on the plaque. I feel pretty satisfied with these figures, although the blue shading on their puttees hasn’t really come out on the photographs as I’d hope.
At the last moment, I decided to dispose of the usual distance marker and so just have them all blazing away on a local range.
One of the things that I do like about these Perry Miniatures figures is the ability to create one’s own poses by twisting a limb or positioning some figures to suggest a narrative.
I particularly like these two figures below, depicting a sergeant and a private deep in conversation while their officer issues some instructions behind them to the group.
Likewise,although I was initially unsure whether a figure (2nd from right below) would work, but now appreciate how he appears to be gazing off down the rifle range after the target, assessing his shot.
These figures came with backpacks which I chose to retain, seeing as the group on the cover of the book “Riflemen, Form!” which inspired my choice of corps could also be seen wearing their full kit. Also, their facings are described as being buff coloured, not yellow, and so I repainted the collars. Their cuffs are shown on the colourised photograph as being black or navy blue, not buff, and I’ve retained this simply to match the photo as much as possible. Oh – and, ah, …I’ve just realised that I need to finish the shoulder straps!
So far in my Victorian Rifle Volunteers project I’ve depicted three corps:
My Victorian Rifle Volunteers Project has at least one more group to come before the end of this year. And this next group I intend to depict as being in action against a real enemy rather than shooting defenceless targets out on the rifle range! Students of Victorian military history may therefore be able to guess the rifle volunteer corps I have in mind – others will have to wait to a forthcoming post!
We are not armed to carry war To near or distant land To steep the smiling globe with gore Or prowl with hostile band. But we are trained with trust above To guard our native coast, Our Queen, our fame – our home we love, And those we love the most.
Alfred Richards, “Our Volunteers”, 1860.
As I indicated in recent post, my third subject for my Victorian Rifle Volunteer project is the 3rd City of London RVC, a small group of whom featured on the cover of a book on the topic of the Rifle Volunteers that I’d been reading; Ian Beckett’s “Riflemen, Form!” My figures are nearing completion, yet there’s still plenty to do including much of their equipment, and of course their base (being another rifle range on a wooden plinth).
One of the key instigators of the early Victorian rifle volunteer movement was a journalist, playwright and poet called Alfred Bate Richards who personally enlisted 1000 men to form the ‘Workmen’s Volunteer Brigade’.
This brigade later became formally known as the 3rd City of London Rifle Volunteer Corps, the same depicted by my figures. Its uniform was scarlet with buff yellow facings and brass buttons. In January 1862, Richards came in for some ridicule when he proposed changing his men’s original kepis and shakos headdress to a bearskin and a red plume, despite the financial difficulties experienced by his corps. Eventually, they adopted the Home Service pattern spiked helmet seen worn by these figures.
Richards was also active in raising money to send a force of volunteers, the ‘British Legion’, to assist the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi in his campaign of liberation. Many of the ‘Garibaldi Excursionists’, as the Legion was known, were members of the new Rifle Volunteer Corps, perhaps some even from his own 3rd London RVC. This attracted controversy, particularly when the politically neutral government sought to discourage moves for the 3rd London RVC to personally entertain Garibaldi on a visit.
The men were generally less well-off than some other London RVCs recruited from the professions and middle classes, although some financial support was received from the City of London and the Livery Companies.
Without its own drill hall, its parades were held variously at central London locations such as Regent’s Park, the Ditch of the Tower of London and at Gray’s Inn Square. Formal inspections and award ceremonies were held in London’s Guildhall, whilst their annual inspection was carried out at Horse Guards Parade (very prestigious!). Church parades were held at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street and the corps headquarters were at various locations within the square mile of the City of London.
Alfred Richards recruited his friend, Major General Beatson of the Bengal Army, to be the 3rd London RVC’s honorary colonel for a period. Being a corps made up of generally less wealthy men than many other London corps, it was in need of a patron with money and Richards eventually persuaded a baronet to become its corps commandant and replacement Honorary Colonel, with Richards acting in the capacity as major and second in command.
Having a poet as their founder it was appropriate that their motto was a quote from the Roman poet Virgil; “Labor Omnia Vincit” (Work conquers everything). Another poet who was a vocal supporter of the Rifle Volunteer movement was the poet laureate, Lord Tennyson. He wrote to Richards congratulating him on having been a key instigator of the movement and added, “I hope you will not rest from your labours until it is the law of the land that every man-child born in it shall be trained to the use of arms.’ Quite a surprising aim, perhaps, for men of the ‘pen’ to be striving for widespread use of the ‘sword’!
Next update will hopefully include the based figures themselves, though with a couple of other projects on the go it may take a couple of weeks to finally get there. Oh well, “Labor Omnia Vincit”, to quote Virgil!
Just a quick update on my painting exploits here at Suburban Militarism. The past couple of months has seen my latest project (Victorian rifle volunteers) take shape with mini dioramas of the Cheshire Greys and the Robin Hood Rifles. I can announce that the third instalment has finally begun.
These figures arms and heads have been glued and the whole thing primed. Indeed, the first lick of paint has been applied and, after the grey Cheshires and green Notts rifle volunteers, you will notice they are being painted scarlet – a more familiar colour for a British soldier at this time. The majority of Rifle Volunteer Corps initially had red tunics and later the government stipulated that any change of colour to existing RVC uniforms had to be red.
Another thing that is slightly different about these figures are the puttees around the calves rather than the leather leggings worn by my previous two corps. Essentially, my idea is to recreate the men depicted in a colourised photograph on the front of “Riflemen, Form!”, a book studying the Victorian rifle volunteer movement which I read recently.
The group in the 1896 photograph of the 3rd London Rifle Volunteer Corps (11th Volunteer Battalion, Kings Royal Rifle Corps), posing nonchalantly with a Gatling Gun. They are wearing red tunics with yellow facings, white leather equipment, spiked Home Service helmets, and white trousers with dark blue puttees.
To enable me to replicate this dress, I’ve purchased some loose sprues of Perry Miniatures Afghanistan War British Infantry figures which feature the puttees seen in the photograph. This set, however, doesn’t come with the home service helmets so I’ve used those which came with Perry’s Zulu War kit.
I’ll be back with more pics once I’ve progressed this group a little further!
With the final touches having been applied to my Cheshire Rifle Volunteers, I’ve pressed on with another batch of Victorian volunteer riflemen. There’s certainly plenty to choose from, there being a large number raised after 1859. A number of Rifle Volunteer Corps were known by names which evoked their origins in some way, such as the Post Office Rifles or the Artist’s Rifles.
The volunteers that I’m painting however were known by their county’s association with a local outlaw; Robin Hood. Like their namesake, the Robin Hood Rifles were dressed in green, and not just any green; Lincoln Green, of course!
The figures are already all but finished and here they are so far. From the photos below, it appears that my shade of green scarcely matches the real thing (seen in my photo above). In my defence, I can only state that they do look far closer in shade with the naked eye! Having already ordered an engraved label for them (see last post), I’ll next start work on the plinth that they will stand on.
A little history: The Robin Hood Rifles during the Victorian era
The Robin Hood Rifles began life when a few friends decided to form a rifle club in the Spring of 1859. Captain J G Simpkins of the RHR recalled:
“When in the spring of 1859, the spirit of alarm or resentment, caused by the addresses of the Colonels of the French Army to the late Napoleon, spreading rapidly through the country, resulted in the formation of a volunteer corps throughout England and Scotland. I, seeing nothing officially was being done in Nottingham and having some knowledge of drill and military organisation, suggested to a few friends that we should unite and form a rifle club, so that in the event of a corps being formed we might be in a sufficient state of efficiency to form a nucleus. At a meeting of Magistrates and Deputy Lieutenants, His Grace The Duke of Newcastle, the then Lord Lieutenant with whom I had communicated, said, if such were formed the name it should bear, whether that of “Robin Hood Rifles” or “Rangers”, he thought should be one of local or county association. This was the first public meeting or suggestion of the name.
Just six men were on the roll when the 1st Nottinghamshire Volunteer Rifle Corps first paraded on the green of Nottingham Castle. That figure rose to more than 400 within a few months at which point they became formally known as the “Robin Hood Rifles”.
The Robin Hood Rifles later had the honour of representing their country abroad in a shooting competition in 1863. They also enjoyed being inspected by Queen Victoria on multiple occasions where they received high praise from the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge, amongst others.
Meanwhile, it’s time for me to get these riflemen where they belong; on the rifle 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.
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!
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…”
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.”
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”
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.
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!