In Oxford the earliest surviving photograph albums to feature portraits in any number date from the late 1850s and usually belonged to undergraduates. Alongside clerics, students in caps and gowns, and the boater-clad crews of college “eight-oars”, these albums frequently contain more unusual subjects: men in military uniform, complete with rifles and swords.
By 1857 photography had already proved itself in the theatre of war, if not in the heat of battle itself (the long exposures required making it difficult to capture actual combat). From September 1855 to 1856 three hundred photographs of the Crimean War by Roger Fenton (1819-1869) toured England (reaching James Ryman’s picture gallery in Oxford in November 1855), many of which were portraits of officers, taken in makeshift studios in the camps (albeit usually without their weapons to hand). To find photographs of uniformed men and their weaponry in the domestic setting of students’ albums is more unexpected and at first sight somewhat incongruous, dispersed as they are among portraits of their owners’ classmates and canine companions, and views of Oxford’s picturesque buildings.
These military portraits owe their existence to a country-wide social phenomenon that coincided with the rise of photographic prints as a consumer product: the Volunteer Rifle Corps Movement. The Volunteer Movement spread rapidly through England in May 1859 following the passing of War Office authorization for the creation of Rifle Corps with civilian members. Prompted in part by troop shortages during the Crimean War, the purpose of the corps was to assist the regular army in defending the country against invasion by the “despotic powers of the continent” – by which was usually meant the French and the Russians. Belief in the “miserable lust for war” in Europe was also heightened by the conflict in Lombardy and Piedmont in April 1859, in which France and the Kingdom of Sardinia fought against the Austrian Empire. England was especially at risk from invasion, it was felt, being an “object of jealousy with foreign countries” due to her valuable possessions across the world, the protection of which further stretched the forces at home.
Oxford University was one of the first bodies to found a Volunteer Rifle Corps, although it had to suffer the indignity of being preempted by Cambridge. The creation of a University Corps required the sanction of the Vice Chancellor and University Council, as well as the Lord Lieutenant of the County (the Duke of Marlborough). An amendment to the University Statutes was also necessary to remove the veto over junior members holding firearms. Not everyone approved of the change. The Provost of Oriel, for example, argued that the formation of the force was incompatible with the main educational purpose of a university.
The University Corps held its first parade on 25 October 1859. By January 1860 some 400 men had joined, out of approximately 1500 resident students. Drills were held in the colleges and at the militia armoury on New Road (on what is now the site of the new Oxford Science Centre). Target practice took place on a 600-yard range at Cowley Marsh.
The portraits of the University Volunteers that survive can be identified as the work of Edmund Bracher (1823-1887) and of the partnership of Robert Hills (1821-1882) and John Henry Saunders (1836-1890). Bracher had taken over Oxford’s first portrait studio, the “Photographic & Daguerreotype Portrait Institution”, in 1846. Before 1854 he mostly sold “cased” portraits: collodion positives, “enameled portraits”, and Daguerreotypes. However, from 1855 albumen prints would increasingly become his main trade (he also offered “calotype portraits”). His early examples were relatively large – approximately 5 x 7 inches – and as such more impressive as artistic works than their diminutive successors, cartes de visite, the craze for which reached Oxford in 1861. Hills & Saunders were Bracher’s main rival from 1860. They later established studios throughout England and became one of the most well-known names in 19th-century portrait photography.
According to an article in the Illustrated News of the World on 19 November 1859, the uniform of the University Corps was “at once picturesque and useful.” The colour was “light brownish grey” (to be as difficult as possible for enemy marksmen to see), the tunic “plain” (with the exception of an “Austrian knot” in dark blue braid on the arm), and the trousers loose to the knees, with “stout leathern gaiters” below (The Times reported that the men also wore “knickerbocker leggings”). The cap resembled a French kepi and was first dark blue, before a light shade was substituted. For weapons the volunteers originally obtained short Enfield rifles with sword bayonets, before being allocated longer Enfield 1853 pattern examples by the War Office. Accoutrements available included a belt with sword frog and ball bag, and a shoulder belt with cap pocket and twenty-round pouch. All (bar the rifles and ammunition) could be purchased from Foster & Co., Tailors and Outfitters on the High Street, at a price fixed at £3 7s 6d by the local magistrates. Other traders also took advantage of the volunteers’ willingness to lavish expense on their new pursuit, Charles Powell & Co., for example, (who operated five doors down from Bracher) releasing “The University Rifle Corps Bouquet” in January 1860: “an entirely new and exquisite perfume”.
As well as prints of individual riflemen, a number of group portraits of the University Corps and its constituent college squads come down to us. The News of the World article, for example, was illustrated by an engraving by C. W. Sheeres after a photograph by Bracher. Other photographs show the Christ Church Squad on parade in Tom Quad in 1863. Several prints can also be found of the encampment on Wimbledon Common for the Rifle Review of 1863, when a shooting match was held between Oxford and Cambridge (Cambridge again got the upper hand).
Among these group portraits one in particular stands out: a photograph not of the University riflemen, but of much younger boys.
The boys were members of an offshoot of the Oxford City branch of the Volunteer Corps: the Oxford City Rifle Cadet Corps (there was also a County branch of the Corps). The first steps towards founding the Cadet Corps took place in February 1861. Organized through local schools, it was hoped it would give its young members the physical advantage of being drilled and prove a stepping stone to the adult organization.
The first company of the Cadet Corps was founded at the Linden House School in Headington: a private school for boys from 9 to 17 years of age. Of the 70 pupils, 45 joined initially, to be put through their paces by a Sergeant Wright, who was employed by the headmaster specifically for the purpose. At the beginning of March, following a request from Joseph Plowman (1811-1867) (the first person to sell photogenic drawing paper in Oxford), the Duke of Marlborough gave the cadets permission to wear the same uniform as their elders, the cost of which was capped at 30 shillings.
The Oxford Cadet Corps turned out for the first time in public at 5.30 p.m. on 25 March 1861, when it paraded before an audience of several thousand people in Broad Street. The Linden squad, which had marched from Headington behind a drum and fife band, was joined by four others, who then dispersed to Gloucester Green, the Armoury Yard, County Hall and the County Gaol Yard to be drilled. This pattern continued in the months to come, when the squads increased to six in number and the frequency of parades to twice a week.
The photograph of the Cadet Corps shows about eighty boys, many of whom are little older than 10 or 11. The date it was taken is unclear. The boys are depicted in uniform but without weapons, even though in May 1861 they too were issued with firearms by the Secretary of State for War: carbine rifles (probably 1847 Paget Cavalry Carbines). Who photographed the group is also uncertain. The Corps is arranged in front of the Broad Street shop of another of Bracher’s rivals: Thomas and George Shrimpton, who sold portraits and stereograms of Oxford, samples of which can be seen displayed in their window.
The history of the Oxford Cadet Corps after 1863 is obscure, although in February 1872 the Secretary of State approved the formation of a new squad at Magdalen College School, which is still in existence today. The adult squads meanwhile, from city, county and university, were eventually incorporated within the regular army, becoming part of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry on its formation in 1881. However, the fascinating photographic history of the Volunteer Movement does not stop there.
The photograph above, which was taken on Christ Church Meadow during the 1890s, shows the “Cycle Section” or “Cyclist Detachment” of the 1st Oxon (University) Volunteer Battalion of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. Formed in 1889, the Cycle Squad was organized under John Cook Wilson (1849-1915), Wykeham Professor of Logic – the man standing out front. From the evidence of the photograph the detachment appears to have used an assortment of different bicycles, some of which may have been the purpose-built “Premier Military Safety Cycles”. All are equipped with clips to allow rifles to be hung from the crossbars.
The phenomenon of “military cycling” was by no means peculiar to Oxford. Nevertheless, Wilson wrote the first book on the subject, A Manual of Cyclist Drill for the Use of The Cyclist Section of the Oxford University Rifle Volunteer Corps (Oxford and London, 1889). In the book he described how cyclists could imitate the standard infantry formations, whether by “wheeling in fours” in the saddle, or forming parade lines 30 yards long. Unfortunately his recommendations proved controversial. Attacks on his ideas were launched by the Saturday Review and Cyclist, for example, in response to which he issued a second pamphlet, Military Cycling or Amenities of Controversy.
Surprisingly perhaps, it was not the efficacy of military cycling per se that was questioned by Wilson’s critics, merely the ridiculousness of his drills. These, it was felt, were in danger of making a laughing stock of the “Cyclist Infantry Force” and of undermining confidence in the volunteers as a whole, who were still believed to have strategic value: a conclusion that would soon to be proved correct when they were called up for active service for the first time, albeit on foreign soil rather than the home front, during the successful campaign that was the Second Boer War.
Jackson’s Oxford Journal
Volunteer Force (Great Britain) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volunteer_Force_(Great_Britain))
Cite this article:
Giles Hudson, “Shots of Shots: Photographs of the Oxford Volunteer Rifle Corps”, Matters Photographical ([https://mattersphotographical.wordpress.com], 1 Dec 2012)