The Royal Toxophilite Society
part 1 of 5
SIR ASHTON LEVER, the founder of the R.T.S., was in many ways a remarkable man. His father, Sir Darcy Lever, knight, of Alkrington, near Manchester, the representative of an old Lancashire family, died when he was twelve years old; Sir Ashton Lever was educated at a private school, and duly went to Oxford, being entered as a gentleman commoner at Corpus, where he soon became famous for his hard riding, as well as for the skill with which he trained his horses.
After he left college he devoted himself to forming a collection of live birds, and accumulated an aviary of about four thousand, sparing no trouble in procuring them. He is said to have frequently ridden from London to Alkrington with cages full of birds which he held at arm's length while he rode at full gallop, stopping to change hands when he got tired. The zeal with which he collected birds did not, however, prevent him from keeping and hunting a pack of beagles, and being generally a thorough all-round sportsman. He appears to have kind a wonderful gift of training animals, and is said to have had five or six hunters so well under command that they would fetch and carry, open and shut doors, and also do other tricks at his orders, carrying him however so well to hounds that he was generally in the first flight. His pointers were likewise so well trained that he frequently had fifteen in one field all pointing or backing at the same time.
About 1760, being at Margate, he heard of a large collection of shells which had arrived at Dunkirk; he at once hired a boat, sailed over to France, and bought the whole cargo, consisting of many hogsheads, which he brought home and proceeded to arrange, giving away and dispersing his aviary. Fossils and stuffed animals next took his fancy, till eventually he formed a large museum, which became so famous that people crowded to Alkrington to see it, and as he entertained all those who did so, he had to make a rule excluding all people who came on foot. It is stated that on one occasion a gentleman who on this account was refused admission, determined not to be done, procured a cow, rode back or, it, and was admitted in triumph!
Finally, he was persuaded to bring his collection to London and exhibited it at Leicester House. The speculation, however, did not pay, and he obtained leave to dispose of it in 1785 by means of a lottery consisting of 36,000 tickets at a guinea each, the collection being eventually dispersed. Sir Ashton Lever was taken ill while sitting as a magistrate at Manchester on January 23, 1788, and died a few hours afterwards.
Attached to the museum in some capacity was a Mr. Waring, who from too close an application to business and constant writing contracted some sort of disorder in his chest which the doctors could not cure. Probably all he required was healthy exercise; at some former period of his life he had studied the art of bow-making under the elder Kelsal, of Manchester, whose family had been bowyers for several centuries, and he resolved to try archery, which had at that period almost entirely died out. In a short time he found shooting did him 80 much good that he persevered, and with such good results that he was completely cured. Sir Ashton Lever, who in all probability was himself feeling the want of the outdoor exercise to which he had formerly been accustomed, seeing the good effect archery had had on Mr. Waring, also took it up, and together with his friends and the few remaining Finsbury Archers formed in 1781 the Toxophilite Society, who met and shot in the grounds of Leicester House, which stood in Leicester Square, close to where the Empire Theatre now is.
This was the origin of the revival of archery at the end of the last century, and as from the first the Toxophilite Society took the lead, and was practically the parent of all the archery societies subsequently started, so down to the present day it has continued to be the leading society and main supporter of the York Round, the real backbone of the sport.
At first the members were few, and the 'targets' were shot at Canonbury House, Islington, Highbury Barn, and Vauxhall, probably in consequence of the Leicester House grounds, which were fairly extensive, being large enough for practice but too small for a target-day. In 1784, the Leicester House grounds being no longer available, owing to the approaching disposal of the museum, a step was taken which has hitherto led to an error in accounts of the R.T.S. It has been assumed, from the intimate relations of the society with the Honourable Artillery Company, and from the fact of the targets being held in their ground, that the Toxophilite Society was descended form the Archers' division of the H.A.C This is not the case, for there was no Archers division of the H.A.C. at all till the Toxophilite Society itself formed it.
On May 26, 1784, the following letter was read at the Court of Assistants of the Honourable Artillery Company:---
The Toxophilite Society, composed of the following gentlemen present their compliments to Sir Watkin Lewes and the rest of the Honourable Artillery Company and request leave to shoot in the Artillery ground: The Right Hon. the Earl of Effingham, Right Hon. Daines Barrington, Right Hon. George Pitt, General Oglethorpe, Sir Ashton Lever Richard Haworth, Charles Wright, Henry Fielden, Philip Constable, Thomas Lowten, John Firman, Thomas Waring, John Allen, Philip Constable, jun., Rev. John Watts, Henry Blundell, J. K. Sherwin, Charles Sherwin, Thomas Hooker, Charles G. Wolff, James Sharples, James Heseltine, John Beard, Dr. H. Smith.
A Committee was appointed, on July 2, to confer with the Toxophilite Society, the result being that a special general court was called on July 14, at which it was reported that, at a conference held that morning with the Earl of Effingham and seven other gentlemen, these had agreed to subscribe to the rules and orders on being admitted members, and to form an Archers division with the same privileges as the other divisions. The report was unanimously agreed to, and on July 28 eight members of the Toxophilite Society were admitted, most of the others soon following, the Earl of Effingham being the first captain of the division. The Archers division continued for twenty years attached to the H.A.C., and from time to time new members were admitted, but they were apparently always also members of the Toxophilite Society. The Archers division does not appear to have paraded very often with the H.A.C., but they did so when the Company marched round the marks in Finsbury Fields, on one occasion an archer being ordered to shoot over an obstruction in order to assert a right ; and the name of one of the marks, F.G. 1679, was altered to that of The Earl of Effingham.' On the general day of thanksgiving, April 23, 1789, for the King's recovery, the Archers' division also marched with the Company to St. Paul's. Probably the step of forming this division was taken more for the sake of securing a practice-ground than with the idea of doing any martial work; but the targets were shot on the Artillery ground till 1791.
In 1787 H.R.H. the Prince of Wales accepted the office of patron, and occasionally shot with the society, and in 1788, on the death of Sir Ashton Lever, the Earl of Aylesford was elected president, hut only held the office a short time, being succeeded by the Duke of Norfolk. In 1789 the Duke of Leeds became president, and Lady Jane James accepted the office of lady patroness, and gave an honorary badge, which was shot for on a day called the Lady Patroness's Target Day. There seem at this time to have been several medals, &c., which have since disappeared, as there are drawings of various hedges said to be connected with the Toxophilite Society in a book belonging to Mr. Madocks, of which there is now no other trace.
The number of members had been gradually increasing till in 1791 it had reached 168, and the society was strong enough to have a ground of its own. Accordingly, they rented one from the Duke of Bedford, and, after having it levelled, built a pavilion on it. This ground was situated on the east side of Gower Street, part of Torrington Square being now built upon it; and here, as well as in rooms which they rented of Mr. Waring's son, the bowmaker, they gave various entertainments, the dinners, however, taking place at the Fremasons' and London Taverns. The target days were also held on their own ground, and prizes amounting to a considerable sum were shot for at them, the system of scoring by money value of the hits, which is explained in Chapter XXIII., being in vogue. The society, however, does not seem to have benefited by its acquisition of the new ground, as in 1793 the number of members had fallen to 128 . It was then found necessary to have a 'whip' of two guineas, and two years later a sum of 200l. was 'borrowed' from twenty of the members; but as it was never repaid, perhaps that is scarcely the right word to use, In 1797 there were only fifty-nine members, on each of whom an extra call of three guineas was made. Next year the subscription was raised to five guineas, an extra payment of 4l. 9s. each also being required to meet the expenses, the society, in common with many others, suffering from the depression which prevailed at that period.
In 1801 Mrs. Crespigny was asked to accept the office of lady patroness, to which she assented in a letter dated May I. Mrs. Crespigny, who presented at various times many prizes and took great interest in the society, was the wife of Claude Champion Crespigny, Esq., who was subsequently created a baronet, and was a celebrity in her day. Both she and her husband were rich and entertained largely, and she was well known as an authoress and lover of music. Mrs. Crespigny seems to have taken a great deal of pains to make her parties attractive, and archery fetes were given by her at Champion Lodge, at which 'games,' which were really matches between individuals, were shot by members of the Toxophilite Society and also by ladies, fines, according to Hansard, being levied on the losers and devoted to charity. A slight increase of members took place between 1801 and 1805; but in this year the Gower Street ground was required for building purposes, and there are no further records till 1810, though there undoubtedly was shooting during, at any rate, part of this period, as one of the triennial medals won by Mr. Crunden and now in the Crunden Cup was given for 1807-8-9, and another for 1810-11-12.
After the society lost the Gower Street ground it is probable that they shot at Highbury, though the fact is not mentioned till 1811. The records that exist from 1810 to 1821 are very imperfect, and it does not seem as if the affairs of the society were particularly well managed during this period, as in 1815 and 1816 entries are made from which it appears that it was not known who had the medals belonging to the society, or who really were members of it, as in the latter year it was resolved ' That those gentlemen whose subscriptions are in arrear he requested to inform the secretary whether they consider themselves members of the society, and intend to pay their arrears.' In 1817 it was moved that all except the Duke of Bedford and fourteen other gentlemen (who are named) be considered as having virtually or actually resigned; and as there appear in the list of members few names as joining between 1801 and 1821, the society must have become, if the list is accurate, very small.
In 1820 the society again found themselves without a ground, Highbury Barn being shut up, and negotiations were entered into with Mr. Lord who agreed to allow the targets to be shot on his cricket ground on payment of three guineas a day. The next year it was resolved that the secretary should draw up an address to his Majesty to request that he would continue to favour the society as he had hitherto done as Prince of Wales, and to this a favourable reply was received.