The Bisley Boys – The Victorian Rifle Team at Bisley 1897

Part 1: The Quest for the Kolopore Cup, team selection and to England.

When the Victorian Mounted Rifles Contingent for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations left for England on the RMS Oratava in late April 1897, another Victorian colonial detachment had already departed – the Victorian rifle team. [1] Its quest was to win the Kolapore Cup. Victoria had a robust rifle club network, aligned with the Victorian defence establishment, which provided the rifles and ammunition for practice as well as free rail passes to get to matches.  Permanent soldiers, militiamen, some mounted rifle and ranger volunteers as well as civilian riflemen were active in these clubs. Some of the clubs had been in existence since the 1860s in one form or another and they came to be regarded as an essential line of defence for the colony against enemies real and imagined. The Australian colonies experienced a number of war scares in the period after the departure of the last Imperial troops in 1870. However, with the recession which began around 1890 the Victorian Rifle Association (VRA) was in somewhat dire straits financially.[2] A dedicated cadre of riflemen and their supporters including among them leading militia officers such as the Officer Commanding Rifle Clubs, Colonel Tom Price of the Victorian Mounted Rifles, kept the rifle clubs alive through those difficult years. Success at Bisley in 1897 was critical to give the rifle clubs and the VRA itself new momentum.

Bisley 1897
Templeton’s Selection. The Kolapore Cup did not, in fact, exist – at least as a cup. The Kolapore Cup was actually two silver vases, created in the typically ornate style of the day. Since 1870, when £100 presented as a prize by the young Rajah of Kolapore during a visit to England was transformed by the NRA  (National Rifle Association) into the Kolapore (or Imperial Challenge) Cup, the Cup became the ‘Holy Grail’ among colonial riflemen. A Victorian team had competed at the NRA’s then main base at Wimbledon in 1876, but not for the Cup. It was a team event and there were not enough of them to register for the match. In 1886, however, an all-Australian team had competed for the Kolapore Cup for the first time and came in a credible fourth. Since then, no rifle team from Australia (then consisting of individual Colonies) had returned to England to try again for the prize.[3]
The main reason for the allure of the Kolapore Cup was that it was the only one of the NRA’s annual matches in England which allowed teams of eight colonial riflemen from across the Empire to compete both against each other and against the best team of the British Army. The pinnacle of NRA individual rifle competition was the Queen’s Prize – and nearly 2,000 men competed for it. However, to win the Kolapore Cup was the ultimate team competition for colonials. And it was in the form of an all-comers match, so that the colonial team could include civilian rifle club members, militia and permanent soldiers in its ranks.
The NRA in England, formed in 1860 and ensconced in its Surrey headquarters at Bisley since 1890, was determined to hold a bumper competition in 1897. It was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year and the entire Empire was girding up for ‘pomp and circumstance’. The NRA had powerful military and Royal patronage. It could not let the opportunity pass to demonstrate its loyalty to the Crown as well as increase its influence among the military establishment, both at ‘Home’ and throughout the Empire. It therefore invited the rifle teams of the colonies to participate in its annual competition, to be held in the last two weeks of July 1897.
A leading influence in the development of the rifle clubs in Victoria was John Montgomery Templeton.[4] He was a senior militia infantry officer and an actuary in his civilian life, who by 1897 was a Colonel, Commander of the Victorian militia Infantry Brigade. He was also President of the VRA and was a representative for Victoria in the Federal Council of the Australian Rifle Associations. His authority was backed by his record as an excellent rifle shot in his own right.  Templeton was: ‘a very efficient and difficult man’[5] but the perfect advocate for the rifle club movement. He was also a promoter of talented marksmen, a distinguished public figure and highly regarded within the rifle club movement. Other prominent military supporters (and ex-officio members of the VRA) like Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholas Kelly of the Field Artillery Brigade, Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Price, commander of the VMR (Victorian Mounted Rifles) and Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Otter, commander of the Victorian Rangers, stood behind Templeton.
Sending an Australian or Victorian rifle team to Bisley rapidly quickly became the topic for discussion among various experts and newspaper columnists in Victoria. Not only did Victoria have the vast majority of rifle clubs in the country overall, but as a result it also had the best rifle shots. It only stood to reason that Victorian riflemen would compose the majority of any Australian team – if an Australian team was to be sent. By 16 February 1897, the Victorian Government and in particular its Defence Department was still dithering about what to do in response to the Imperial invitation to send a military contingent to represent the colony in England, let alone a rifle team to go to Bisley. The invitation, from the Imperial Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, had noted that the NRA would offer ‘special prizes for colonial rifle shots’ at the Bisley matches starting from 13 July.[6]
Templeton needed £1,500-2,000 to take the team to England. The Victorian Government did not want to give it and the Premier, Sir George Turner, as Treasurer, informed the VRA that for reasons of economy the Victorian Government would not meet the costs of sending a Victorian team to Bisley. Two days later the riflemen’s despair was replaced with cheering as all was resolved thanks to David Syme, the owner of The Age newspaper. Syme was ‘…a combative, ruthless, emotionally violent man…[but who] ‘was capable of many private acts of generosity’.[7]  Apparently this was one of those acts of generosity – and it did help to sell papers. The Government, with remarkable alacrity and incredible grace, accepted the offer and agreed to: ‘arrange that the riflemen shall be put on exactly the same terms while in England as the Mounted Rifles’ (passages to England and accommodation, uniforms, a basic per diem and not much else).
A series of six test matches, to be fired under the same conditions and three stages as the Queen’s Prize in England, was agreed to be held at the Williamstown range of the VRA. More than one hundred riflemen attempted selection, but in the last stage, only the top 30 marksmen were involved and by then the aggregate scores gave some good indications as to who would form the final team.[8]  A committee of VRA officials in Colonel Templeton, Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly and Captain T.S. Marshall (VRA Hon. Secretary) agreed that the top eleven marksmen by aggregate would be chosen.[9]
The team was declared, in descending order of scoring aggregate, as:
Lance-Corporal William TODD                       3rd Infantry Battalion, Ballarat Rifles
Thomas KIRK                                                 Melbourne Rifle Club
Corporal Hugh Louis Zephyr DOWNEY         Victorian Permanent Artillery
Gunner Daniel REILLY                                                           Victorian Permanent Artillery
Philip FARGHER                                             Melbourne Rifle Club
William SLOANE                                            Yarrawonga Rifle Club
Gunner McNEICE                                           Victorian Permanent Artillery
Bombardier Ambrose Thomas CARTER                     Geelong Battery, Garrison Artillery
Sergeant George HAWKER                             ‘C’ Battery, Field Artillery Brigade
Edward WALKER                                           Melbourne Rifle Club
Joseph GRUMMETT                                       Melbourne Rifle Club
Appointed as Team Captain was Colonel Templeton and appointed as Team Adjutant was Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly. Gunner McNeice was later to drop out at the last moment, actually on the day before departure, for unknown reasons.  He was replaced by Sergeant John Alexander Ross of ‘C’ Battery, Field Artillery. Templeton gave some words of advice to the newly selected team, urging them ‘to do their level best to keep themselves in their best form, by taking appropriate exercise on board ship.’[10]  Templeton was going ahead of the team, departing on the SS Thermopylae, via Cape Colony, on 1 April, to make preparations for their arrival.
The team was made up from a diverse group of men. Most were immigrants from the British Isles. Only Hawker[11], Sloane, Kirk and Ross (who replaced McNeice) were Victorian born.  Downey was a first generation Tasmanian, but had lived much of his life in New Zealand. Todd, Carter, Walker and Grummett were English born, Templeton was from Scotland and Reilly and Kelly from Ireland. Fargher was a Manxman (from the Isle of Man). However they all saw themselves as Victorians first and foremost and increasingly, as Australians. Like many colonials, most kept ties with their origins – Templeton was an ardent imperialist; others, like Fargher, an ex-seaman, thought little of Royalty but maintained extensive family ties back ‘Home’.
Some were of an engineering bent. Hawker was a blacksmith who later built a steam powered car while Grummett held a successful patent for doors to the popular horse-drawn Hansom cabs. Others like Kirk and Carter were railways men of trades – coach builder and carpenter respectively. The team included practical men like Todd, a miner, and Sloane, a young stockman and grazier (albeit with some education at Scotch College in Melbourne). Kelly was a railway man and auctioneer. Templeton was an accountant and actuary. Only Templeton and later team member Ross had an office job. However, even Ross, a clerk in the Crown Solicitor’s Office, was expert in the physics of trajectory and elevation and was a keen field artilleryman. In fact almost all of the team were either serving in the militia or had served in volunteers or militia.
Walker had started service in the Victorian Naval Brigade back in 1867, then in the Sandridge Volunteer Artillery, then the Field Engineers – and was a recipient of the colony’s Victorian Volunteer Long and Efficient Service Medal (awarded in 1887), as was Kirk. Grummett, Kirk and Fargher had all served in infantry or artillery volunteers or militia. Some dropped out of service when the volunteer force in Victoria was replaced by the paid militia in 1884, but joined rifle clubs where they still served as de facto reservists. Downey and Reilly were ‘permanent’ professional soldiers and Templeton and Kelly, although militiamen, were virtually full-time soldiers because of the demands placed upon them by their professional militia and VRA duties.[12]
It was probably a feature of this group that despite the economic depression which began in 1890 and which ended Australia’s (at least eastern Australia’s) prosperity after the gold rush era, without exception they all had steady jobs and income. Nonetheless, the prize money they won at rifle matches would still have been welcome. Some of the men were not well off and the cost to them of being away for up to six months from their jobs, with families to support, meant a real financial burden quickly recognized by their friends and comrades who took up collections on their behalf. Despite the challenges this group of men kept their focus and enthusiasm.
They had, with few exceptions, long-standing ties as riflemen. Templeton and Kelly (both excellent shots in their own right) had watched, nurtured and even recruited some of the team into the ‘cult of the rifle’ when individuals with out-of-the-ordinary rifle skills became known to them. For example, Templeton had been Chairman of the first Public Service Board in Victoria between 1883 and 1888 – it is speculative, but not too much so, to suggest that he might have supported the appointment of young rifleman Ross to the Public Service in 1886 and in turn pointed out his rifle skills to the then Major Kelly, commanding ‘C’ Battery of the Field Artillery, who was always on the lookout for good shots.
Ross joined ‘C’ Battery in 1889, following Grummett who had joined ‘C’ Battery from the Infantry in 1887. Hawker also came to a new appointment in ‘C’ Battery as a Farrier Sergeant from the Victorian Rangers (infantry) in 1895 – perhaps a role just made for Hawker, for the appointment did not exist before he joined and disappeared when his time-expired service ended in 1908. And Walker would not likely have been allowed such long absences from his employ at the Swallow & Ariell Ltd. biscuit company to shoot at interstate and overseas matches if his employer had not been a well known officer of the volunteer artillery and a keen rifleman himself.
The team knew each other very well. They had shot against each other and with each other in a wide variety of circumstances in matches both in Victoria, interstate and in New Zealand. Like all good teams they forgave each other their foibles – with the occasional exception- knowing that their strengths would help them pull together to win the big matches.  As well, there were Irish Catholics in the team at a time when the Victorian militia establishment was overwhelmingly Protestant. This perhaps indicates that this was an unusually representative team for its time; it was the rifle that they cared about. A man’s social standing, background or religion mattered for nothing as long as they could shoot at the highest standards. They were on the whole, mature, steady family men – and they were very serious about their rifleman craft.
By 10 April, assembled in Melbourne, the team was ready at last to depart for England on their quest for the Kolapore Cup, aboard the Orient Steamship Company’s 6,814 ton SS Ophir. Before going on board, the team agreed to separate the smokers from the non-smokers for ‘their mutual comfort while at sea’.[13] Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly: ‘expressed himself as particularly pleased with the steady habits of every member of the team, “there not being …a weak man among them.” ’ Talking to the press at dockside, Kelly made a passing remark:
If opportunities offer they may also fire off matches against the English teams, but are determined not to enter any contests of this character which may involve their attendance at social dinners.  Banqueting is to be rigorously eschewed until the Bisley meeting is concluded.[14]
It is unlikely that the team heard this remark or even knew of it, but they certainly did by the time they set foot in England. By the time the Ophir arrived in England – via Adelaide, Colombo and Port Said – on 20 May 1897, Kelley’s remarks had preceded them by telegram, much to the amusement of cartoonists in Australia and less-earnest competitors in England. However, they had arrived and the real work would begin.
Bisley Camp – The Diamond Jubilee. The Victorians were billeted at Bullhousen Farm, about 2½ miles from Brookwood Station and its spur connection to the Waterloo-Southampton line run by the London & South Western Railway Company. A light tram line moved men and supplies between Brookwood Station and Bisley Camp. By 1897 Bisley was a large and well-ordered camp devoted to rifle shooting.[15] There the Victorian colonials found themselves in an endlessly fascinating cross-section of all levels of British and Imperial society, in which the ultimate leveler among the shooters at least was success on the ranges. The team quickly settled into two months of the familiar rituals and routine of regular practice on the short and long ranges at Bisley.  When they wanted a break from the constant range practice, they kept their eye in with practice at the Morris Patent Aiming Tube minature ranges in the Camp. Weekends were mostly spent in London, sightseeing, breaking the monotony of farm food and generally soaking up the atmosphere of London as the Diamond Jubilee celebrations approached:
They men knew that they needed to quickly gain intimate familiarity with their new Lee-Metford rifles (it was also the first meeting at Bisley to use the new .303 calibre service rifles). They also needed to understand the conditions of the Bisley ranges – the light at different times of the day, the winds and the unpredictable daily weather, from hot, clear days to thunderstorms, rain and hail. The NRA used a procedure called ‘squadding’ to manage riflemen throughout the practice shooting prior to the main competitions starting on 12 July and for many of the competitions themselves. This meant that riflemen were allocated different ranges at different parts of the day (other than the team matches), usually alongside complete strangers. There was no guarantee that the most favourable time of the day for shooting, whenever that was, would match up with the allocated time and place. As riflemen knew then, and know now, the conditions in the morning could be vastly different to those in the afternoon or in the evening. Added to that, their neighbours on the firing mounds did not offer advice on wind and so on and even when they did, not knowing them personally meant that the advice had to be taken carefully.
Colonel Templeton came and brought visitors, but mostly, like an anxious father looking out for his boys, looked over their shooting practice, pleased with the consistently high results.  Some of the team went to get match practice at the Scottish Rifle Association competition matches at Darnley near Glasgow ahead of the Kolapore Cup.[16] On their return, the Bisley routine went on – practice, practice and more practice – at different times of the day and in all weathers.  Throughout Lieutenant-Colonel Kelly stayed with the team, watching and mentoring them as they continued to compete with one another to be chosen as one of the final eight. Kelly took careful note of each team member’s scores and made careful notes about how each performed under different conditions, no doubt reporting to Templeton when the opportunity arose. Country walks and forays into London broke the routine along with dances at the Farm in the evening, entertaining visitors and writing letters home….
Click Here for Part 2
[1] This article has been adapted from Kilsby, A.J., The Bisley Boys: The Colonial Contingents to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee 1897 – the Victorian Rifle Team, A.J. Kilsby, Melbourne, 2009.
[2] The Age, 27 February 1897.
[3] Corcoran, J.E., The Target Rifle in Australia 1860-1900, Dolphin Press, Sydney, 1975, pp.97-108 and pp.151-154.
[4] See Templeton’s biography in Jordens, A., ‘John Montgomery Templeton’ , Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.6., Melbourne University Press, pp.252-253.
[5] Serle, Geoffrey, The Rush to be Rich, Melbourne University Press 1970, p.34.
[6] The Age 17 February 1897.
[7] The Rush to be Rich, pp.26-27.
[8] The Age 22 March 1897.
[9] The Age 29 March 1897.
[10] The Age 29 March 1897.
[11] Father of World War I flying ace and test pilot Harry Hawker.
[12] Biographies of each of the team members can be found in The Bisley Boys, pp.61-112.
[13] The Age, 12 April 1897
[14] ‘Banqueting is to be rigorously eschewed’: The Age 12 April 1897 and The Australasian 29 May 1897, p.1088.
[16] Fargher, P., Diary, June 1897, MS9086, National Archives of Australia, Canberra; and Sloane, W., Letters 1897, Sloane Collection.

Contact Andrew Kilsby about this article.

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