The Bisley Boys - The Victorian Rifle Team at Bisley 1897 - Part 2

About Andrew Kilsby

Dr Andrew Kilsby is an independent historian who has published several military history books, produced exhibitions and convened military history conferences. A graduate of RMC Duntroon he holds degrees in history from UNSW and UNE. His doctorate from [email protected] examined the relationship between the Rifle Club Movement and Australian Defence 1860-1941.

The Diamond Jubilee and the Kolopore Cup.

 Click Here for Part 1

Meanwhile, the auspicious day of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was fast approaching.  Its centrepiece, indeed of the entire Empire, was the Grand Procession through London on Tuesday 22nd June 1897. The Victorian rifle team, being out of sight at Bisley miles from their fellow Victorians in the VMR (who had been quartered at Chelsea Barracks along with the SA, WA and other Contingents from around the Empire) were almost forgotten. Colonel Templeton, who had brought his family with him to England and was also the senior Australian colonial officer at the celebrations was kept busy with constant social and formal engagements; on the eve of the Jubilee procession, Templeton was invested with the Order of St. Michael St. George (CMG), a singular honour for him personally and for the Victorians that he represented.[1] The team meanwhile, only managed to attend one formal garden party, missed the Military Review at Aldershot, the Naval Review at Spithead (due to ‘grudging and ungraciously granted’ invitations)[2] and missed the Maxim-Nordenfeldt Company’s demonstration of quick-firing light guns when the invitation came the day after the event, which must have rankled.

On the firing point at Bisley 1897

For 22nd June, Templeton did send a telegram inviting the team to march on foot at the rear of the procession, but it should have come as no surprise to Templeton that the idea of having to travel to London the night before with no accommodation provided and then march on foot among the other ‘lesser’ colonials, did not appeal. The Team agreed to forgo the ‘pleasure’ of marching and decided to watch from the sidelines. As Fargher later related:

 

‘The Queensland Rifle Team were the last of all – immediately in rear of the Chinese – trudging along with their rifles held at different angles, looking forlorn and neglected, and entirely out of place in a Show of that kind.  When we saw them, and the position they were placed in, we heartily congratulated ourselves on having escaped such humiliation.’[3]

 

Colonel Templeton rode at the right of the front rank of the colonial officers in the parade.  Naturally his view of the experience was very different from that of others in the team. William Sloane described what happened in letters home and the irrepressible Philip Fargher saw through the pomp and circumstance with his usual amusing and iconoclastic commentary. For Templeton, riding behind that hero of the Empire, Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Khandahar and being right in the middle of the event, it was ‘…one thrilling, bewildering acclamation…’[4] For Sloane, ‘…when I saw our Mounted Rifles come along I found myself yelling out “Advance Australia”. I believe some other members of our team tried cooees with great effect.’[5] Fargher, the tramway engineer saw it both eyes open:

 

Great military swells…were cavorting on horseback…Princes and Nabobs of every nationality and every shade of colour were there…Hundreds of these Great People were simply covered in gold lace and medals of all kinds…To give an idea of the magnificence of some of the dresses, they were to the ordinary Australian staff officer in full fig, what a thousand candle power electric light is to a farthing dip….In fact, one could only catch glimpses of some of the living things in the show through chinks and crevices in the gold lace…I have often wondered where all the gold in Australia and California had gone. I know now. It was being prepared for the Diamond Jubilee procession, and it all appeared in that magnificent Show.[6]

 

The Bisley Matches Begin. The formal program of the Bisley matches – the annual event of the NRA – began on Monday, 12 July 1897. Several thousand riflemen, their support teams and the Camp and Ranges staff were on hand. They represented the British Army regulars, Territorials and some Volunteers and a wide range of colonials from throughout the Empire. The Bisley Camp was abuzz with activity – from the scheduled hospitality of the NRA to the comings and goings of individuals and VIPs from London who both participated in and observed the match firings. The Camp also had a number of special marquees, pavilions and tents set up to display the prizes, allow approved commercial firms to sell camp supplies to the competitors (everything from whiskey to soap and camp chairs to reading books) and run ‘side-shows’ for all and sundry to ‘blow off steam’ and enjoy themselves after the intense match firing during the day.

 

All of the Victorian team, even Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly, entered the wide variety of matches available to individuals during the Bisley meeting. All of the matches entered had prize-money available, always an attraction, but also gave the men further valuable match practice for the Kolapore Cup (to be shot on Friday 16th July). The matches varied from the prestigious pinnacle of individual marksmanship, the Queen’s Prize, for which the best 1,960 riflemen from the British forces and Empire competed, to the “Aggregates”, which combined scores over several matches to determine winners. Many matches offered additional prizes to cash. These were offered by commercial companies, newspapers and individuals and were often supplemented by the NRA with cash from takings from entry fees. Prizes included silver cups, guns, cases of whiskey and framed sketches.

 

Despite the challenges of weather, the ‘Bisley tremor’ (which described the psychological and physical pressure on the individual as they shot)[7] and the high standard of competition Carter, Walker and Todd all managed to reach the top 300 and the 2nd Stage of the Queen’s Prize, out of the 1,960 who began the competition. Carter then went on to reach the 3rd Stage where he came in 17th out of the last 100 left standing – it was a superb outcome and he was the first Australian to ever win an NRA Queen’s Badge. Similarly both Walker and Carter made the final 100 ‘Volunteers or Retired Volunteers’ to enter the 2nd Stage of the ‘St. George’s Challenge Vase’ match. Despite these impressive performances against the best of the British Empire, the real test was scheduled for 16 July 1897 – the competition for the Kolapore Cup.

 

The Kolapore Cup team match was a very different competition than the individual matches they shot in before and after the 16th. It was the sole purpose of two months at Bisley, another two months at sea to get to and from England and six months of separation altogether from family and loved ones. Fargher wrote: ‘For days before the Bisley matches we thought and spoke of little else and some of our fellows got quite excited – one of our oldest shots going to the range one day and leaving the bolt of his rifle at home.’[8] One can only imagine how intense the feelings were on the eve of the Kolapore Cup itself.

 

The Kolapore Cup Match.  The pocket-sized Bisley Program for 1897 issued to each rifleman described the Kolapore Cup match as follows:

 

The “ RAJAH OF KOLAPORE’S ” Imperial

Challenge Cup (S.R.). [Service Rifles]

 

(Single Entries.)

 

To be shot for on Friday, 16th.

 

Open to Teams of EIGHT as follows :-

 

  1. One Team of Volunteers from the Mother Country.
  2. One Team from the Militia or Volunteers of each British Colony or Dependency.
  3. One Team from Members home on leave of the Indian Staff Corps, or of the Covenanted or Uncovenanted Indian Service or Indian Volunteers, or of all four.

Given in 1871 by H.H., the late Rajah of Kolapore.

 

Distances               ..          ..          200, 500, and 600 yards (aggregate).

  1. OF SHOTS .. ..          SEVEN } At each distance

Time Limit  ..          ..          One hour } At each distance

Entrance Fee       ..          ..            £1.10s. from each Team, to be paid before 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 13th July.  Post Entries, £2.2s., till 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday , 14th July.

 

The Captain of the Mother Country team shall send in to the Secretary, on or before Tuesday, 13th July, the names of the twenty Volunteers from whom he will select his “eight”. [9]

 

According to NRA history, the first match for the Cup was held in 1872 between teams of 20 from Canada and the Mother Country. Canada won. Teams were then reduced to eight men. In 1886 a scratch Australian team from various Colonies competed and came in a credible fourth. In 1897 teams entered from the Mother Country, New Zealand, Canada, Cape of Good Hope, Guernsey, Natal, India, Queensland and Victoria. The Times wrote:

 

‘Of all of [the competitions] the Kolapore was from every point of view the most interesting.  In the first place, it showed a record entry.  Among the men of many uniforms and many tongues who thronged the firing points were New Zealanders, Victorians, Scots and English and Welsh…Canadians, Cape Colonists, Guernsey men, men from Natal, Jersey men, Queenslanders, Indian soldiers; some of them talked English in various forms, and some French and some Dutch.’[10] 

 

In addition to the Kolapore Cup, there was a special prize on offer – the ‘Colonial Prize’. This was: ‘A Silver Bugle, given by John Dewar & Son, Ltd., Distillers, Perth and London; and £80 added by the N.R.A. To be awarded to the team, exclusive of the Mother Country team which makes the Highest Aggregate Score in the competition.’[11]

 

The various rifle teams had been sizing each other up for weeks, but now the actual team of eight men to compete for Victoria had to be chosen from the eleven riflemen who had come to England. An inner circle of Ross, Sloane, Walker, Todd, Grummett and Fargher were consulted by Templeton and Kelly the night before. Opinions on who should be left out and who should be included were requested and discussed. After two months of practice, it must have been clear to Kelly in particular as to which of them would make the best team. However, it was left to Templeton to make the final decision before the match got underway the next morning. After much deliberation, it was decided to leave out Downey, Kirk and Reilly. Later Templeton described what happened:

 

The night before the match was a night of great anxiety to him. It was his profession to calculate probabilities …and he thought that among those 11 men of the team there were eight who would win the cup or go very near it if he could only discover who the eight were. He had averaged their shooting in many different ways, so that he could tell their averages in bad weather, in good weather and in medium weather. As the selection was left to him alone he did not decide until five minutes before the men began to fire who were to be the eight. But the team trusted him, and the three who were left out did as much to win the match as the eight that did the shooting.[12]

 

The 16th July began as ‘… an anxious time to all of us. The day was all we could desire, hot & bright – in fact almost like an Australian day. We ate breakfast in a mood of silence and then walked slowly down to the targets. Colonel Templeton told us afterwards that when he saw the grim look on our faces – he expected good scores.’[13] The Victorians opened their account at the 200 yards range. There were two targets. Hawker and Ross, Todd and Fargher, Sloane and Grummett and Carter and Walker shot as pairs, each firing alternately in their pair at one target, so there were four men resting at any one time. The one not firing in the pair helped with observations, especially on wind, while Kirk acted as coach behind one pair and Reilly as coach behind the other.

 

After the 200 yards shoot, the Victorians led by 6 points from New Zealand. At 500 yards New Zealand drew level. At 600 yards ‘the excitement was enormous’ but the Victorians triumphed over New Zealand, ‘other teams nowhere’, winning by three points and setting a new record score of 751, with Todd and Sloane each scoring 97 in the process. It was a sensational win:

 

I fired the second last shot, & I was placed in a very trying position, as the wind suddenly changed. I sent for Colonel Kelly to consult with him as to what I should do & his advice was – “wait” after about a minute the wind came almost back to the full quarter – I allowed a foot less windage & got the bulls-eye – this was the only time I was really in doubt & luckily for the team, asked advice. Carter made the same allowance that I had, and got an inner – these two shots won us the match. I got up from the mound to find we had actually won the Kolapore Cup & at the same time broken the record for a teams match of eight men. You may imagine I could scarcely believe it.[14] 

 

A large crowd had gathered to watch the shoot which grew even larger as the word spread across Bisley that an exciting competition was underway. Press, riflemen, ladies and gentlemen, range staff – all crowded in around the firing mound. With the final shot, bedlam ensued. ‘There was great cheering, and much enthusiasm, and everyone wanted to shake hands with us – and did’ wrote Fargher.[15] After the excitement had died down the team returned to Bullhousen Farm for lunch.  Fargher wrote:

 

…there was much suppressed excitement amongst the team. Reilly was using sugar with his mutton, instead of salt, and did not know it until someone called his attention to what he was doing. He said that he thought the meat had a queer taste.[16]

 

THE BISLEY MATCHES went on despite the great excitement of the 16th. With the completion of the Queen’s (England won) and therefore of the NRA competition for 1897, the Duchess of York then presented the prizes won during the two weeks of matches, including the Kolapore Cup, in the large pavilion tent:

 

When we went on to the platform the clamours of enthusiasm from the spectators was simply immense. Some of the Australians cooee’d to us. We also won a lovely bugle given by the Dewars Whisky people to the champion colonial team. [17]

 

That night the Victorians celebrated at Bullhousen Farm in a night of ‘jollification and fun’ with a case of champagne courtesy of Colonel Templeton, who was ‘in great form’, filling the Cup (vases) with champagne to accompany the dancing with the ‘people of the farm and a few of their friends. Some of the ladies sang songs & everything went off well – we broke up early & retired (at 1:30 am) thoroughly knocked up – having borne the brunt of a long day.’[18]

 

Returning Home – Postscript. The team returned at different times to Australia over the next few months. Templeton, who kept a residence in Kensington while in England, spent more time there in the social circles on official leave before returning later in the year with his family. Kelly stayed on for a month long attachment with the British Army’s Brigade of Field Artillery at camp at Overhampton.[19] He returned to Victoria with the Kolapore Cup in hand (it was to return to Bisley in time for the competition in 1898). The Permanent Artillery-man Downey attended a flag signalling course at the School of Artillery at Shoeburyness, along with Reilly.[20] Others like Ross and Fargher visited their places of origin – to Edinburgh and the Isle of Man respectively – catching up with relatives and basking in the glory of their return ‘home’ as part of the Victorian team which had won the Kolapore Cup.

 

Finally, on 17 December 1897, a public banquet was held at the Melbourne Town Hall to welcome home and congratulate the Victorian Rifle Team which had triumphed at Bisley.  The team were presented with Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Medals.[21] The riflemen dispersed to their home towns and districts, and were feted on all sides. The Kolapore Cup adventure was over, at least for 1897. The team members returned to the rhythm of their individual daily life and family duties, while continuing to shoot with their clubs or units in the VRA. Most tried out again for the Kolapore Cup team in 1898 and seven of them – Sloane, Grummett, Todd, Ross, Fargher, Carter and Hawker – were selected. However, the team was beaten by Guernsey by three points and the Kolapore Cup lost. They were to wait four long years before they had a chance to re-contest it.

 

THE 1897 KOLAPORE CUP Team members were certainly outstanding in their field. They were Victorians first and foremost, but straddled that great time of change in Australian society as it transitioned from the Colonial to Federation periods. The members of the team were, by all accounts, a remarkable set of men. In the end, they won the Kolapore Cup in 1897 not because of their individual shooting talents, although these were formidable enough, but because collectively they harnessed those individual talents to win as a team. Given the highly variable weather in Bisley that year, unfamiliar rifles, the largest number of teams ever assembled to compete against, the very high quality of their competitors and the incredible pressure they fired under on the day, this team was perhaps one of the finest ever to leave Australia for Bisley. Their record score in 1897 was later surpassed by the victorious Australian win in 1902 (a team which included five of the 1897 team), but they had set a standard of behaviour and discipline ever to be looked up to. As Sloane remarked: ‘We…all know each others methods & have been amicable all through. I believe this is the sole reason why Victoria won the Kolapore Cup’.[22]

[1] The Times, 22 July 1897, p.10.

[2] Fargher, Diary.

[3] Fargher, P, To Bisley and back with the Kolapore Cup (‘BKC’), Advance Australia, Melbourne, 1898.

[4] ‘one thrilling, bewildering acclamation’: Templeton, J.M., The Consolidation of the British Empire: The Growth of Citizen Soldiership and the Establishment of the Australian Commonwealth, Sands & McDougall, Melbourne, 1901.

[5] ‘tried coo-ees with great effect’: Sloane 23 June 1897.  The coo-ee – ‘One of the first of the consciously nationalist calls, it was perhaps the first national anthem…’: Blainey, G., Black Kettle and Full Moon, Penguin Australia, Sydney, 2003, pp.127-128.

[6] ‘It was a great Show in every respect’: Fargher, BKC, 1898.

[7] The ‘Bisley Tremor’: Sloane, Letters, 22 July 1897.

 

[8] ‘leaving the bolt of his rifle at home’: Fargher, BKC.

[9] An original 1897 Bisley program Book is held in the Sloane Collection.

[10] ‘a record entry’: The Times 15 July 1897.

[11] The ‘Colonial Prize’: NRA Bisley Program 1897, p.141.

[12] ‘but the team trusted him’: The Age 18 December 1897.

[13] ‘he saw the grim look on our faces’: Sloane, 22 July 1897.

[14] ‘You may imagine I could scarcely believe it’: Sloane, 22 July 1897.

[15] ‘everyone wanted to shake hands with us – and did’: Fargher, BKC.

[16] ‘Reilly was using sugar with his mutton’: Fargher, BKC.

[17] ‘Last Saturday was the great day at Bisley’: Sloane, 31 July 1897.

[18] Celebration at Bullhousen Farm:. Fargher Diary 24 July 1897 and Sloane, 30 July 1897.

[19] Kelly attached to Brigade of Field Artillery: Ballarat Courier 19 August 1897.

[20] Downey’s course certificate courtesy of Maurice Downey.

[21] Public banquet in Melbourne: The Age 18 December 1897.

[22] ‘We…all know each others methods’ : Sloane 22 July 1897.

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