Serious Aims, For Some …
For many the Wimbledon Meeting was regarded as a fourteen days' picnic with no particular aim other than pleasant enjoyment, but for many others it was a fortnight of work with serious aims. Following is an affectionate portrait of the 'shooting man' written in 1883:
"At roll-call he is the only individual properly dressed; at breakfast he is not visible - nor at lunch, nor at dinner, nor at tea; the mess tent knows him not, and if he eats at all, he must do so invisibly in holes and corners. By nine o'clock he is at the firing point, and there or thereabout, he remains all day. At gun-fire (seven p.m.) he returns to his tent, after perhaps a single sententious pipe in his doorway. His speech is composed of scornful monosyllables; his manner seems based on a careful study of the snub direct. These peculiarities are due, I suppose, to deep thought on such matters as wind-pressure, fore-sights and back-sights, inners and outers, and bulls - which, if you once yield to them, bind you with an insatiable fascination. But, eccentricities apart, the shooting man commands respect. He works hard, he maintains the credit of his corps, and he makes not a little money. In short, he sets a good example; for unless they were decent marksmen, Volunteers would not be of very immediate service in an emergency."
Where the serious work took place (Illustrated London News, 25 July 1863)
Shooting began each day at nine, by which time the bulk of the camp population was to be found at the various firing points or loitering in the 'high street' of trade tents or the refreshment rooms. Others remained amongst the tents devoting their mornings to rehearsals of amateur theatricals, to the tuning of pianos, to the pretence of reading the daily papers, or to the serious business of the morning pipe.
After the lunch time break opportunity might be taken to stroll around and see what there was to be seen. With the stream of visitors increasing throughout the afternoon there was the added distraction of ladies to the scene. Chairs were provided inside the ropes at the firing points for the ladies, and this an area "which no male dared enter but the shooting man, the scorer and the officer in charge." The officer was regarded with not a little envy, managing to combine his duties with flirtation!
If the weather changed for the worse, then the scenes of gaiety melted away as the officer in charge developed a view of life which was little less than blasphemous. The shooting men were the same though and "that strange product of Wimbledon existence, the offensively robust person who parades a pair of knickerbockers of a remarkable check pattern and a head-covering of no known shape or designation" was to the fore as usual, "with his field-glasses and comforting flask of sherry."
The Sunday in camp was one of noise and bustle. Throughout the preceding week the papers had long accounts of the events, and those that could not get away from business on the weekdays availed themselves of the Sunday to visit Wimbledon and see what had excited so much attention. These large crowds were not without their problems.
The use of the common was not unopposed in 1860 and Lord Spencer received a deputation from local residents. In 1865 a complaint was received by the NRA council about bullets passing over the Coombe Estate, belonging to the Duke of Cambridge, a member of the council. Further complaints were received from the Duke of Cambridge's solicitor in 1869, and compensation of £100 was paid to the Duke's tenant Col. Clifton.
Over the years objections continued from other householders in the growing neighbourhood. The large crowds of visitors troubled them and their free use of the common was restricted. The Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871 introduced some regulation to the use of the common, a rent of £100 per annum payable by the NRA and free passes to local householders.
In 1879 a charge of sixpence was introduced for admission after gunfire. This was an attempt to keep out the increasing crowds, and partially to recoup some of the receipts that had been lost by the issue of the free passes. This was not a popular move! Paraffin was used to set fire to the Common and hoardings and there were conflicts with the police which developed into riots. The fee was dropped in 1880, and the fence made of corrugated iron; not readily combustible…
By 1887 Wimbledon was a rapidly growing suburban neighbourhood. The residents were disturbed by the crowds from London, and were upset at having their rights of access to the Common curtailed. With the NRA about to embark on some costly repairs and enlargements, the Duke of Cambridge, who had long suffered the danger of bullets going over the butts into his grounds, this year gave the NRA notice to quit the common prior to any commitment to large expenses.
Due to difficulties associated with finding and preparing a suitable location for a rifle range, the prize meeting remained at Wimbledon until 1889. In 1890 it moved to Bisley, where it remains.
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