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“Of all our national pastimes, this is one which should be pursued for the sake only of the honourable distinction to be obtained, in excelling in an art, where both mental and physical gifts are developed.”

Anonymous author on match rifle shooting (1866)

Research Press

Mention Wimbledon today and tennis will be the sport that springs to mind; in the latter part of the 19th Century however, the foremost sport would have been rifle shooting. From 1860 until 1889 the National Rifle Association (NRA) held their annual rifle meeting on Wimbledon Common, with attendance in the thousands… and that was just the riflemen!

So who were these riflemen and what were they doing at Wimbledon?

Volunteers & The NRA

During the late 1850's there was growing apprehension as to the prospects of French invasion of Great Britain. A massive naval expansion was announced in France in 1855. Following the attempt on Napoleon III's life by Felice Orsini on 14 January 1858, some French officers actually called for an invasion when it was discovered that Orsini manufactured his bomb in England. In 1859 France and Piedmont were at war with Austria over Italian independence. All this was unsettling and newspapers, particularly The Times, continued to fuel the debate as to the formation of a Volunteer Force for home defence.

Finally, on 12 May 1859, the Government issued a circular authorising Lords Lieutenants to raise Volunteer corps. There was an immediate rush of Volunteering, but it was not expected to last. Anticipation was that as the feeling of apprehension as to national security diminished, the vitality of the Volunteer force would lessen, and after a lapse of a few years the whole force would disappear.

Measures to secure the long-term prospects of the Volunteers were, however, put in place late in 1859 when some of the leading spirits of the Volunteer movement were receiving instruction in musketry at Hythe[1]. They formulated the idea of a national association to promote marksmanship within the Volunteers, and a committee under Earl Spencer was formed. At this time, the London Rifle Brigade was also setting about to establish a large scale annual rifle meeting. Happily the Hythe Committee and the London Committee were united at Spencer House, London, on 29 October 1859 to agree a common course of action. Here it was proposed to form a National Association "for the encouragement of Volunteer Rifle Corps and the promotion of rifle shooting throughout Great Britain." A subsequent public meeting was held at the Thatched House Tavern on 16 November 1859 at which a Working Committee was established. The National Rifle Association was born.

The labours of the Working Committee speedily became so heavy as to necessitate the appointment of a paid Secretary and the provision of an office. Rooms were taken at 11 Pall Mall East, and were occupied by the Association for its Secretary's office and for the holding of its meetings of Council.

National Rifle Meeting

The Association was promoted widely with local secretaries in the principal towns, adverts in the press, and circulars sent to all officers commanding Volunteer Rifle Corps. In a letter to The Times in December 1859, Lord Elcho set out the nature and objects of the Association. There was no intent to aid in the formation of Rifle Corps, nor to draw up any rules for their guidance. All such matters were addressed to the War Office. The purpose of the Association was fostering an interest in rifle shooting. Reference was made to Switzerland and their national rifle meeting, the Tir Fédéral, which had resulted in a taste for rifle shooting being thoroughly nationalised and a country garrisoned by a people trained in arms. The NRA planned its own great annual national meeting for rifle shooting. The principal prizes were to be open to Volunteers, thereby encouraging the Movement, and, with a view to the wider promotion of rifle shooting as a national pastime, additional prizes open to all-comers were to be established.

In 1860 practical steps were implemented to establish the National Rifle Meeting for that summer. Finding a suitable site to hold the meeting was naturally a difficult matter to decide, and many places were considered, including Woolwich, Epsom, Aldershot and Chobham.

It was Captain Mildmay, Secretary of the NRA, who suggested Wimbledon Common as a suitable location for the first NRA prize meeting. Lord Spencer, as lord of the manor, placed it at the disposal of the NRA Council. Colonel Clark Kennedy inspected the site and declared it suitable provided "the most stringent regulations should be framed and carried out for the prevention of trespassing across the lines of fire." The original intent had been for the prize meeting to be held at different locations of the country each year. This idea was 'shelved' as impracticable due to the costs and work involved in preparing the range. So, the NRA prize meeting remained on Wimbledon Common until 1890, when it moved to the new ranges at Bisley.

Note
1. Hythe is situated in southern England, on the Kent coast. Existing barracks and miles of shingle beaches for ranges made it a suitable location for the establishment of a school of musketry. The School's first Commandant, Colonel Hay, arrived there in June 1853 and established the "Corps of Instructors in Musketry". The institution opened on 18 April 1854. The object of the establishment was the training of officers and non-commissioned officers so that they might become Instructors. In 1861 its title was changed to the "School of Musketry."