National Rifle Contest 1860

In April 1860, an announcement appeared in the Times that 'The Council of the National Rifle Association having resolved that the gold medal and chief prize of the Association shall be shot for by the Volunteers at the National Rifle Association meeting in July next, with a small bore-rifle, at ranges of 800, 900, and 1,000 yards, are anxious that the competitors should contend, as far as possible, on equal terms.” So began the National Rifle Contest, later the Imperial Meeting of the National Rifle Association, and one of the great traditions of national and international sport in Great Britain.

Wimbledon Common, the site of that first meeting and for the next 28 such meetings was, as now, a large open expanse on the southwestern edge of Victorian London. Well served by railways at both the Wimbledon and Putney ends of the Common which could convey both competitors and spectators relatively easily and cheaply from all over London and the country to the competition - it was a perfect site. The Common was already used by the London Scottish Volunteers and the Civil Service Volunteers for rifle practice. Rifle ranges had sprung up all over the Home Counties in that flurry of enthusiasm that characterised the first years of the Volunteer Movement which was formed for Home Defence in the face of an invasion scare and at a time when the Regular Army was hard pressed overseas in various Imperial conflicts. And there is, indeed, some argument that the National Rifle Contest and Earl Spencer’s enthusiasm for the Volunteer Movement saved Wimbledon Common from the predations of the Earl’s gravel extraction and building plans just at the critical moment.

However that first meeting was not without its challenges. The spring of 1860 was wet and the work of making the butts and placing the hoardings around the Common as well as building the pavilions for an expected royal visit, placing the stores and the offices for the NRA Council took both time and money which the infant NRA didn’t have. Fortunately local landscapers, fatigue parties from the Guards and sailors from the Navy Department at Woolwich were deployed to the swampy heathland of Wimbledon to build the ground and have everything ready for the first competitions in early July.

On the afternoon of 2th July, 1860 – described in an enthusiastic press as the first day of summer that year - hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators met at Wimbledon Common where Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales and other children of the Royal Family were greeted by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, the Minister of War, Sidney Herbert, Lord Elcho, the first chairman of the NRA Council as well as the serried ranks of the officers and men of the newly formed Volunteer Corps. The Volunteers were well known for their elaborate uniforms – described by some as more picturesque than military – and the colour of the scene must have been fantastic.

From the octagonal Royal Pavilion at the centre of the ground, Queen Victoria received the addresses of the dignitaries acknowledging both her Majesty’s and the Prince Consort’s support for the Volunteer Movement including both her Majesty and Prince Albert giving prizes to be competed for by the Volunteers. Her Majesty fired the inaugural shot from a Whitworth muzzle-loading rifle placed in a mechanical rest which had been carefully aimed by “some experienced rifle shot” at a target 400 yards away. Mr. Whitworth handed the silken cord attached to the trigger to Her Majesty and “a dead silence was preserved” as Her Majesty gave a slight pull on the cord and sent the bullet toward its mark. A great cheer was raised and the first signal showed the score as a “centre” - and the shot had stuck within an inch or so of the centre of the target. Someone there on the day recorded that “That one rifle shot awakened a thousand echoes, for the cheers which greeted her Majesty’s shot had scarcely died away when the pings of bullets from other rifles followed on the crack given from a hundred weapons.”

Her Majesty and her family visited the firing points and Lord Elcho explained to her Majesty and Prince Albert the arrangements for the competitions. Towards evening her Majesty and the family entered their carriages by the Windmill - still a landmark on Wimbledon Common today - and the crowds who had attended that first rifle meeting wended their way back to London.

Of course that first Queen’s Prize was won by young Edward Ross, Cambridge undergraduate, son of the famous sportsman and deerstalker Horatio Ross and his wife, Henrietta Ross (reputedly an excellent shot in her own right) w ith a score of 24 out of a possible 30. How many know, however, that the wooden spoon in that first Rifle Contest was won by Murray of Cringletie with a score of 0 (Perhaps he was the very first competitor who said “There’s always next year….”).

That first meeting, then just a week of competitions, was not overly “military” in its nature. Some 200 Volunteers were in the camp in that first year, but by the mid-1870s some 2200 men were living in the tent city which was erected each year on the Common. Even in that first year a number of the London Corps decorated their tents and made their “batchelor homes” look “smart” as their friends and family came to the Common to see the shooting and ,at night, home-made entertainment prevailed in the Camp.

The National Rifle Contest of 1860 was decidedly a great success and as John Scoffern described the very Victorian feelings at the end of that first meeting:

“It is all over. The shots are fired and the prizes won. Victors are being patted on the cheek by fair ladies; not to count those sweet osculatory rewards, of which, time out of mind, it had been ungentlemanly to tell. It is all over. The joyous wine cup may now go round. No matter a little unsteadiness of hand tomorrow or tomorrow: let the hand tremble in response to the emotions of the heart. No more bull’s eyes at short range and centres at a thousand. From your iron perch come down, Aunt Sally – in the name of peace, come down. No more shall that red apron of yours lure erring bullets to perdition; or swell the treasury of the banker’s pool with the tribute of a crown. Butts and mantlets and tents away! Let bleating sheep and lowing kine symbolise the blessings of gentle peace on the lead-besprinkled sod. Let daisies raise their drooping heads; kissing the zephyrs that waft away the wreaths of sulphurous smoke.”

The language of 2010 may be different but let us not forget that so began the National Rifle Contest. Many of its traditions survive, and others have changed, but we can celebrate the 150 years of competition, camaraderie and love of a unique sporting event.