This is a guest blog post written by Assistant Curator of Collections, Simon Batchelor
Within the collections of the National Railway Museum lie several reminders that in pre-war Britain there was a sense of foreboding concerning the preparedness of the country should it become embroiled in another conflict. Perhaps the most emotive of these are the medals and awards given to railwaymen who were members of shooting clubs, both local and national.
The earliest reference we have to railway riflemen is a rulebook issued to members of the Eastern Counties Railway Rifle Volunteers (2005-7537) in 1859. The men of the ECRRV recruited as the 8th Corps of the Essex Rifle Volunteers. The “Volunteers” were an early form of Territorial Army and could be called upon for home defence (this included policing mass demonstrations). The officers of the ECRRV were probably members of the newly formed National Rifle Association an organisation founded “for the promotion of marksmanship in the interests of the Defence of The Realm and a permanence of the Volunteer Forces.”
The Rules of The National Rifle Association limited its effectiveness. Members had to possess their own full bore rifle and pay for their own licence, thus limiting membership to the wealthier members of society.
It wasn’t until after the 2nd Boer War that a new initiative was put forward to recruit more working class men to the sport of rifle shooting. The poor ability of the British Forces in South Africa during the 1st Boer War had frightened the higher military echelons, Major General C. E. Luard had gone so far as to draw up a Bill calling for the formation of small bore (.22) rifle clubs to train men in marksmanship, but circumstances overtook and it failed to reach Parliamentary debate. Not to be deterred Luard set about getting support for his project from such influential men as the Duke of Westminster, the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Dudley and more importantly Field Marshal the Lord Roberts of Khandahar.
Roberts was by far the most important supporter for as well as being Commander-in Chief of The Forces, he was a national hero and his opinion on National Service was well known – anything which prepared men for the military service of their country was a good thing. Another supporter for Luard’s scheme is likely to have been General Kitchener, who had served as Roberts’ unofficial 2nd in command and successor in South Africa.
In 1901 the Society of Working Men’s Rifle Club was formed at a dinner at The Mansion House hosted by Luard and The Lord Mayor of London. The aim of the society was to promote rifle shooting among the working classes, they would use the cheaper small bore (.22) rifle, and members would be allowed to purchase them in instalments through the clubs. Roberts was made President, although he was unable to play an active role until after is retirement in 1904. In 1903 the Society merged with the British Rifle League, another small bore society formed in 1900, to become the Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs. Roberts’, portrait appeared on the medals issued by the Society.
The link between the Army and the Society of Miniature Rifle Clubs was as close as that of the NRA, but unlike the latter organisation, no serving members of the Armed Forces could be a full member of an SMRC affiliated club – this was a hangover from the days of the early rules of the Working Men’s Club but it did not stop them serving as scorers, trainers or administrators. Representatives of local territorial formations were invited to act as prize givers and to make speeches at competitions and annual dinners, members were actively encouraged on these occasions to join their local territorial battalions.
Initially Railway Companies did not encourage their employees to join rifle clubs as there were few facilities available but by 1911 the North Eastern Railway magazine was publishing the results from a flourishing league of 14 clubs. Similarly the London & North Western Railway, The Midland and the Great Eastern were running leagues of their own.
Where facilities were unavailable the men joined clubs local to their homes, in 1909 this led to a rather ridiculous situation for men of the Great Central Railway. The Secretary of the GCR Solicitors Office at Marylebone put together a team of his colleagues who had expressed an interest in forming a club of their own. He duly challenged a local club and all was set, but when the Marylebone men turned up they found that their Captain was shooting not for them but for the opposition, his home team. This did not seem to put the railwaymen off the sport as they petitioned the GCR Athletic Association for shooting to become an approved sport and in 1910 the Marylebone (Great Central Railway) Rifle Club was formed. The members were encouraged to join “G” Company 9th County Of London (Queen Victoria’s Rifles”).
It was not the first Rifle Club formed by men of the GCR; Gorton (GCR) Rifle Club was founded in 1900. At the first Annual Dinner of Leicester (GCR) Rifle Club in 1910, the Deputy Chairman of the Great Central Railway, William Purdon Viccars addressed the members. In his speech he is reported as saying
“…Shooting was not only a pleasant way of spending a portion of their leisure, but it was a means of preparing them, if necessity arose, to defend their native country. Although by no means a lover of the martial spirit he was of the opinion that the best means of securing peace was by being prepared for war.” Great Central Magazine 1910.
Many of the members of both the NRA and the SMRC were to serve actively in World War One, Some like their President, Lord Roberts were to lose their lives on the various fronts (Roberts came out of retirement and whilst on an inspection tour of the Western Front caught pneumonia and died, he became the recruitment campaign poster boy “He did his duty now do yours!” until Kitchener surpassed him). The men who survived the trenches continued to shoot but the popularity of the sport dwindled, clubs disappeared or amalgamated thus providing the DNA of their modern counterparts.