The 150th Imperial Meeting of the National Rifle Association

17 Jul 2019

The 150th Imperial Meeting of the National Rifle Association

By Dr. Nicholas Harlow In July 1860, on Wimbledon Common, the inaugural shot of the first Imperial Meeting was fired by Queen Victoria. This summer sees the one hundred and fiftieth Imperial Meeting at Bisley Camp, where the competition moved to in 1890. It holds a particular place in the lives of two of Purdey’s gun team. My colleague, Stephen Murray, spent his childhood in the Windmill on Wimbledon Common, which served as part of the NRA headquarters during the Imperial meetings held there between 1860 and 1889. For myself, this year marks my twentieth at Bisley, albeit now as a school staff member during the Public Schools Meeting. As a company, we have recently used the NRA facilities at Bisley to demonstrate the accuracy of the company’s new bolt-action and Sporter double rifles to the press. This is only the latest chapter in Purdey’s association with the NRA, and the anniversary provides the opportunity to make a brief traverse through the company’s history, to discuss our peculiar relationship with both the Imperial Meeting and some of its key figures. When testing the Sporter double rifle, we did so on the Running Deer range, a design that was first seen at Wimbledon in 1864. In those days a small railway truck was used, carrying a deer-shaped target made from thick iron plate, which could be rotated to face the correct way on each pass. Sir Edwin Landseer sketched the original design, which still hangs in the NRA offices today, and two iron targets are displayed outside. He clearly had experience of shooting at deer on the hill, as Purdey’s ledgers record Landseer’s purchase and servicing of both guns and double rifles during this period. A contemporary even noted that the first James Purdey (‘the Founder’) had a deer target in his garden. However, he may be referring to the second James Purdey (’the Younger’), as the account appears to date to the 1850s and James the Founder died in 1863. Both James and his son had reputations for being fine rifle shots, although they do not appear to have competed themselves. However, that was not true of many of their clients. The famous portrait of James the Younger, which hangs in the Long Room, was painted by Archibald Stuart-Wortley, a cousin of the Earl of Wharncliffe. Besides being a gifted artist and a close friend of the sitter, he also competed at Wimbledon, and a double rifle he won as a prize is displayed in the NRA museum today. Sir E. Landseer drawing Sir E. Landseer's Drawing For the Original Running Deer Target at Wimbledon, 1861 Purdey’s connection to the Imperial Meeting actually goes back to 1861. A Purdey military target rifle, fitted with the company’s two-groove rifling, was used by Captain Horatio Ross to win ‘The Association’ competition. The victory was mentioned in the fiftieth anniversary history of the NRA, which notes that the competition was shot at 200 yards and won with a score of 14 ex 15. Ross was the godson of Lord Nelson, and had already built a reputation as an outstanding marksman with gun, rifle and pistol by the time he competed at Wimbledon. He went on to captain the first Scottish team to compete for the Elcho Shield in 1862, and it was one of his sons, Edward, who won the first Sovereign’s Prize in 1860. In 1867, at the age of sixty-six, Ross won the Cambridge Cup, which was shot at 900, 1,000 and 1,100 yards. Another famed long-range shot and contemporary/opponent of Ross was Sir Henry Halford, who was in the English team that beat Ross’ Scots for the Elcho shield in their first meeting. His fame was not only due to his skill as a marksman, but also his work with William Metford in rifling and ballistic experiments, which defined much of the development in Britain into the 1890s. Halford owned at least two Purdey double rifles, as well as a pair of guns, and was a noted deer-stalker. His home at Wistow held a collection of antlers from deer stalking across Europe, which were most likely taken using his double rifles. Halford remained competitive almost to the end of his life, and donated a prize for one of the match rifle competitions shot during the Imperial Meeting. Fittingly, at least one Purdey owner will be amongst those competing for it this year. Sir Henry Halford 1893 Sir Henry Halford, 1893 One of Purdey’s most famous marksmen clients in the Edwardian period was the American, Walter Winans. He inherited a love of shooting from his father, who leased the shooting rights for 250,000 acres in Scotland, but today is better known for his competitive success. One of Walter’s double rifles was specifically noted as being regulated ‘for running deer at Wimbledon’, and he had recorded a perfect score at Bisley the summer before he died in 1920. His highest accolade was winning the gold medal in that discipline at the 1908 London Olympics. We do not know if Walter’s winning rifle was a Purdey, but his early competitive career certainly relied upon the company’s support and skills. Between 1877 and 1895, a man from Purdey attended every summer throughout the Imperial Meeting, for both repairs and maintenance. The company also supplied Walter with at least ten of the Smith & Wesson revolvers he favoured for competition, and assisted in regulating both mechanisms and sights. His accounts also record large quantities of both rifle and pistol ammunition, specifically loaded for the competition, as well as arranging accommodation and other details with the ‘Windmill people’ – previous occupants of Stephen’s childhood home. Although the author of works on both rifle and pistol shooting, Winan’s only acknowledgement of Purdey was in the caption of a photograph of his final double rifle, and which misspelt the company’s name. Finally, and perhaps the most unusual items yet found in the records, are those purchased by a contemporary of Winans. Thomas Fremantle, later 3rd Baron Cottesloe, was a lifelong rifle shot and close friend of Sir Henry Halford and William Metford, who had also competed in the London Olympics. He served on the NRA committee for many years, as well as being instrumental in the adoption of the Short Lee-Enfield rifle in 1903. One of the trophies competed for during the Public Schools Meeting is the Cottesloe vase, which my former school have won on several occasions in recent years. His only purchase from Purdey came in June 1907, when he ordered two “octagonal mahogany show cases”. Although the account address was his London residence, it seems most likely that these are the two display cases located in the main office of the NRA, which have been passed by countless shooters over the past century or more. Although no longer holding the same display of arms I first saw twenty years ago, as they are no longer suitable under modern regulations, they are the only items supplied by Purdey that remain on display at Bisley Camp today. The Imperial Meeting this year runs from the 11th to the 27th July, with the final of the Queen’s Prize being shot on the 27th. Stephen Murray will be sharing memories of his childhood at Wimbledon at the Wimbledon and Putney Common conservators’ Stables Open Day on Sunday 8th September.