Wimbledon & the Volunteers
David Minshall ©2005
National Rifle Meeting
The Novelty Acts
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. 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.