T. But tell me, what did you do when you first came on the ground on the Monday?
J. In truth there was not much to do. The volunteers fell in at one o’clock and were marched to the sides of the approach of the Royal Pavilion, under the command of a good natured gentleman, who screeched “Shoudr-r-r-r-r-a-ar-r-r-r-ms!” at us; which we were in no hurry to do, as shouldering arms, even for a short time – is not the best preparation for accurate shooting. Every tittle of physical power should be carefully husbanded in a match. I had an enthusiastic young Sherwood Forester near me; and I could not help thinking of Robin Hood, and what a contrast the scene before me must have presented to an archery gathering in his day. Twelve score on 240 yards was an outside shot then; with the rifle it could be multiplied by 4.
T. Tell me about the Common itself. Of course every Londoner knows Wimbledon Common; but what was it like on the day of the meeting?
J. Well, England is a glorious country. She has capacities for everything; her Epsom, her Goodwood, her Doncaster and Newmarket, are all race-courses made to our hands by nature, and requiring but little of art to make them as perfect as they are. Look at the broad stretches of the Thames and Isis for an eight-oar match; the sunny spots by thousands that are spread on her green lap for cricket; or the glad waters of the Solent, or the Channel, for a trial of speed in a fore-and-aft rigged yacht. They are each and all excellent in their way; but none surpass in their peculiar features the complete, the perfect, natural rifle-range that Wimbledon Common presents. Stretching across the common from left to right, there was ample room for ten pairs of butts, twelve feet high, and twenty-five feet wide at the base; while between every second pair stood four others of the same size, but farther back, for the longer ranges; so that there was no difficulty in accommodating from three hundred to four hundred riflemen at a time, and, from the level nature of the ground, at any range from 200 yards to 1000. It looks as if it was intended by nature for the national rifle practice-ground; and, thanks to the kindness of Lord Spencer, no pains were spared to make it worthy of the first meeting. Within an easy distance of London, a nearly worthless soil, heather and ling growing on a great bog, – a little drainage, and the consent of the owners and neighbours, is all that is necessary to secure it as a first-rate ground for the country.
T. Yes; but that consent, I hear will be hard to get.
J. So I hear; but, as to the owners and commoners, their rights are purchasable; and, were I interested, I should prefer the money-value to the right to feed geese and donkeys – which is about all that the spot seemed worth. With the neighbours it is, however, different; and I can well understand that the place, under a constant repetition of such an excitement as was witnessed at the meeting, might be frightened out of all its propriety. Servant-girls had lots of volunteer sweethearts – to say nothing of the gipsy hordes of tinkers, hawkers, and vagabonds of all sorts that are attracted to such gatherings, as a matter of course. But much of this was entirely dependent on the novelty of the thing; and, were the common once purchased by the nation, and enclosed, and the different sites let out to the London Rifle Corps, reserving the right of one or more general meeting, the novelty would be over.
T. Still, for the work of the annual meeting, it would be a sort of Epsom jubilee; would it not?
J. I hope not. I do trust the tone of our riflemen will be healthier and more robust than the tone of the turf – from which at the very outset I would draw the broadest line of demarcation. I do not see why the gipsies and vagabonds should be allowed to congregate at all, especially as the ground will be enclosed; and, besides, I should like to cut away from it everything like betting. Why not assimilate it to cricket and boating? We never played or rowed for money. If gambling be once admitted – legitimatized I might say – as it has been on the turf, depend on it, rifle-practice will degenerate. Do let us try and keep the thing pure at first; and, if our children let it down, the fault will rest with them, not with us. It a little goes against the grain with me that there should be a need of prizes. The nobler and manlier the lesson would surely he the generous rivalry of being first.
T. My good fellow, the thing would not work. You won’t get men to come distances simply to get a name: and, besides, they must look to something to pay expenses.
J. Consider how few after all can attain the prizes; and I’m not so sure that the fame of being a crack rifle-shot would not with a large number be enough. Still, if there must be prizes, let the contest be for them and them alone, cups and medals, and such like. Let us forego money prizes, and discountenance all bets and betting, and sweep away all the hideous devilries of ring and turf. The thing has been inaugurated in the right tone. If there was a spice of the devil in it at all, it lurked beneath the smiles of Aunt Sally.
T. Tell me about that lady; was she like what she is at Epsom?
J. Something, but with an improved character; and there was, no doubt, sport in the thing. Any one, whoever he was, by paying a shilling, was entitled to a shot, and, if he got a bull’s-eye, shared in the pool at the close of the day with the others who were equally fortunate. This would be innocent enough, if the betting could be kept out of it; but occasionally you heard the “five to one,” or larger odds against the shot, break out. This, however, might be corrected by a rule to meet it; and, while the management is in the hands of the admirable staff of men, from General Hay downwards, who did duty at Wimbledon, it would be easy both to impose the rule, and to see that it was kept. The officers were educated gentlemen, and held their men in first-rate working order; hence the absence of all accidents, and the avoidance of all unpleasantness in the agreeable week passed there. If the national meeting be made the standard, you would have the true spirit given to all the provincial meetings throughout the country. Depend on it, if once gambling is allowed to take place at rifle-meetings, the thing will become a curse instead of a blessing.
T. Well, I agree with you, and will come some day with the best of mine to shoot with the best of yours, for honour and glory alone.
J. Agreed; and I can show you a splendid range – a thousand yards – as level as a bowling green, and with a fine lay of sheep-walk beyond it. It is beautifully situated in the very heart of England.