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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)

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Volunteer Camp

In 1861 Lord Radstock and a very small detachment of the Victoria Rifles encamped throughout the NRA meeting at Wimbledon. In 1862 there were 674 men in camp, of whom 212 were Volunteers and by 1866 this had increased to 1,292 Volunteers, with a total of 2,151 in camp. As the numbers continued to grow the annual Volunteer camp at Wimbledon became an established spectacle.

In addition to the Volunteers, regular troops also camped at Wimbledon. In 1865 the total number stationed there during the meeting was 539; being chiefly employed as markers at the butts. That year there were also 221 of the metropolitan police force present.

Volunteer Camp

The Volunteer Camp (The Graphic, 21 July 1888)

John Wyatt, Secretary of the NRA, makes some interesting observations on accidents and health at Wimbledon in his report of 23 July 1865:

"The number of casualties admitted into hospital on account of gunshot injuries have been six, of which three occurred at the review on the 22d August.

"The volunteers and regular troops requiring medical treatment during the entire period have been 107, or less than a daily average of 2 per cent.

"The most severe of the 107 medical cases which came under my notice were those of two policemen stationed at the camp; one was affected with a severe form of English cholera, the other had smallpox of a confluent character, and was immediately removed to the Fever Hospital in London.

"Of the very few casualties from gun-shot accidents which occurred, the most severe were the cases of Sergeant Cousins, of the 1st Lincoln Volunteers, who shot himself through the upper part of the great toe, requiring subsequent amputation, and Private Walton, of the 2nd City of London Volunteers, who was shot at the review by the accidental discharge of the rifle of the rear-rank man, carried full cock at the trail. The whole of the blank charge with a porting of the trousers were removed from a deep wound at the back of the thigh, and the man taken home in the evening by the surgeon of the corps"

Sergeant Cousins accident had been brought about by the practice of capping off against the polished toe of his boot. Sadly the rifle had been left loaded!

With the camp increasing in size the necessity for regulations arose, and the NRA Council were obliged to issue certain rules with reference to the conduct of their camp. Life at the camp became an odd mixture of military exactitude and laughing unconventionality. Reveille sounded at half past six and after that hour Volunteers were not permitted slumber; all must attend parade. One Volunteer recalled being awoken by an orderly-sergeant who "wore nothing but his cross-belt, forage cap, and cane, and who swaggered rather more than if he had been in full uniform at a royal inspection." Another Volunteer recalled a somewhat ruder awakening:

"You catch hold of his head and I'll catch hold of his feet."

"Methought in my dreams that I heard a gruff voice utter these words; and then I experienced a sensation of being lifted up and carried through the air. The sensation was brief, its conclusion unpleasant, for I was roughly awakened by being dropped, and starting up, found myself on the ground in front of the tent, and two stalwart Volunteers standing beside me with pails of water in their hands. Before I could utter a word, splash came the contents of one pail over me, quickly followed by those of the other."

The morning parade was somewhat unorthodox if this 1883 description is anything to go by: "I have seen the captain commandant appear on parade in dressing-gown and socks; and I have seen a man present himself in a piece of Turkish carpet, a fez, and a cigarette; and another actually enjoying his morning tub in the ranks."

'Field-Marshal Punch' inspected camp in 1875 and, with a view to insuring uniformity, published in the magazine bearing his name a number of regulations for Wimbledon, some of which are reprinted below:

"DRESS

"Officers ordered to attend Full Dress Parade, will not appear in white neck-ties, lavender kid gloves, and swallow-tailed coats. A projected visit to the Opera (after the Parade has been dismissed) will not in future be accepted as an excuse for disobeyance of this order.

"Non-Commissioned Officers taking part in Battalion Drill should never unfurl their umbrellas without the command of a Brigadier General.

"Fancy grey Overcoats (with black velvet collars and cuffs) should not be worn over tweed shooting-jackets and regulation trousers on parade in fine weather.

"A Major (in the absence of his Commanding Officer) should never hold a Church Parade in a straw-hat, a sword, and a pair of galoshes.

"DRILL

"The Order "March at ease" will not be considered, in future, as tantamount to a permission for a Company to ride home on the outside of an omnibus.

"Guides should not explain the theory of Billiards or the rules of Lawn-tennis to their Markers during the formation of a four-deep square.

"No more than a dozen Privates (to each Company) should speak at once on the call of "Attention!" Constant disregard of this rule will be found to cause some confusion, especially in the performance of brigade movements."

Camp Comforts

Camp life for some was relatively comfy; the NRA Secretary's tent included a curtained bed, boarded floor and thick carpet amongst other comforts from home. For the Volunteers things were somewhat less luxurious and one writing in 1867 described the camp in less than glowing terms:

"Distance lent enchantment to the view in the case of our tent; for although its appearance from afar was singularly neat and inviting, yet upon a nearer approach the neatness vanished, and gloomy thoughts of sleepless nights disquieted the soul enamoured of nocturnal repose. The tent had been pitched with a greater regard to uniformity with the others than for the comfort of its occupants. A colony of misguided ants had originally settled upon the spot now covered by it, and, having devoured every blade of grass around the settlement, had departed again in search of happier regions, abandoning their penetralia to the earwig[3] and the beetle, which delightful animals were careering in playful sportiveness all over the place. The furniture of the tent was not luxurious; it consisted solely of two minute iron bedsteads, suggestive of anything rather than one's ability to lie down on them. One of these proved to be broken… …"

Then, as nowadays at Bisley, there was a break in shooting for dinner. On the firing of the dinner gun shooting ceased and "the soldier in the grey great-coat who has been waving the red flag of danger now stabs the staff in the ground and proclaims a truce. The cautious markers emerge from behind their iron walls and enjoy the short cessation of the week's rainy season of bullets" wrote a reporter in 1862. He continued:

Tea Time!"The ladies rise from their chairs and are gallanted to the dining tents; the orderlies canter their horses to their own quarters; a national peace between all belligerents is proclaimed. The diners divide into many bands. The ladies are drafted off into the private tents, where the effect of a ceaseless duel is kept up by the popping of champagne corks. I and the other vagrant males betake ourselves to an enormous bell tent, supported by a polished mast, and large enough to shelter the whole regiment of the Blues. Round the counters, every possible colour of rifleman is having pork-pies, frothing up stout, or clamouring for sandwiches. Grey coats with red collars, green coats with red collars, grey coats with black and silver lace, green coats with black braiding, are all smitten with the same vast and insatiable hunger. In a moment barrels are emptied, loaves severed, biscuits snapped, and sandwiches devoured. In the large dining tent, the long tables are crowded with volunteer officers and hungry marksmen of all ages, classes, and degrees of title; nor do I see the least difference between the man who has made three bulls'-eyes running and the man who has missed twice in succession. No doubt the loser is suffering slightly from heartburn, and would, if he dared, run his fork into the bull's-eye man; but he eats with very creditable energy, and outwardly seems no whit the worse."

Above: Tea Time! The Camp at Wimbledon
(The Graphic, 16 July 1870)

The commissariat arrangements were necessarily on a large scale. From 1863 Messrs. Jennison, of Manchester, began bringing to Wimbledon from Lancashire their entire staff. "Their wood, their carts, their horses, their men and women (numbering more than a hundred), their beer, meat, milk, and, in short, everything that enters into the construction of their building, or tenants them when constructed, comes from Lancashire."

In 1871 the NRA opened their own catering pavilion at Wimbledon, to be let to the catering contractors. The building was designed to be built in sections so as to be removed at the end of the meeting and stored for re-erection in future years. Its cost was about £4500, including plant. Each year the building was assembled for the Wimbledon fortnight and dismantled at the close. With the move of the NRA rifle meeting to Bisley in 1890 the Pavilion found a permanent home. By 1923 the building had, however, reached the end of its useful life and was demolished to make way for the current NRA Pavilion which opened in 1924.

Entertainment

The Club Tent

The Club Tent (Illustrated London News, 16 July 1864)

The NRA Council fitted up a club-tent. "If you have ever seen a comfortable club-room in town, you need no description of the National Rifle Association Club-tent, the sole difference being that the one is a tent and has a piano in it," wrote one commentator in 1867. Entertainment for the Volunteers in camp was sometimes provided in the club-tent, while the regimental camps vied with each other in friendly rivalry in their almost unbounded hospitality. The bagpipes of the London Scottish were however a cause of terror at first to the weaker-minded. So, at least, reported The Earwig, camp newspaper of the Victoria Rifles:

"Last evening a sudden and violent illness seized the members of the Victoria Camp, and caused great anxiety to their worthy and much respected surgeon. On mature inquiry, it was found to arise from the effect of playing of the bagpipes in the Scottish camp; on the cessation of the noise the symptoms of the illness deceased, and the members gradually recovered."

The mess tent in the evenings was the site of much conviviality. A Volunteer writing in 1867 described the scene when he entered the tent to find "the men assembled and busily engaged in quaffing a fiery compound, which the members of the staff were pouring from a huge tin." The effects were apparently wonderfully potent in the "promotion of jollity," inducing many a chorus, with song succeeding song in rapid succession while the fun-promoting contents of the huge tin fast disappeared. With the bugle sounding the ten minute warning prior to lights out, and after a heartrending verse of "God save the Queen" it was time to retire: this was not necessarily easy to accomplish as our Volunteer recalled.

"Some wonderful natural convulsion appeared to be taking place as we issued forth from the mess-tent, causing the contents to whirl round and round, and then dart from side to side, in the most surprising manner, rendering it a work of no slight difficulty to catch them. Fortunately I was perfectly sober, so bided my time; and when I saw our tent make a slight pause in its wild career past us, with a mighty spring I threw myself upon it, and grasping one of its ropes with both hands, held on firmly in spite of all its attempts to shake me off. The convulsion soon passed over, and Miller, who was very drunk, pulled me into the tent, and implored me to get into bed. Knowing how hopeless it was to reason with one in his unfortunate state, I complied with his request, and tumbled in just as the camp guard was threatening to cut our tent-ropes if the light were not extinguished immediately."

While the mess tents catered for the masses, select tea-parties were to be found amidst the camp tents and on occasions an entertainment of a more refined sort might be found where perhaps a young lady made music with a violin.

Note
3. The prevalence of the earwig was such that the Victoria Rifles named their camp newspaper after it. The Earwig was first published in 1864, as "a paper containing neither Politics, Literature, Science, nor Art." In 1866 "The Earwig Prize", value £20, an inkstand in silver and blue enamel representing an earwig, appeared in the prize list. The prize was open to any purchaser of a copy of the Earwig newspaper, on payment of a shilling for an 'Earwig' ticket. Both the newspaper and prize disappeared in 1872.